March 1, 2022
Nightmare House Falls Short
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA.
I was excited to see a Douglas Clegg title included in our class reading. Years ago, I’d read Goat Dance, The Halloween Man, and Isis, a creepy novelette I especially love. When I saw that Isis was a prequel to the Harrow series, I was intrigued to dig into Nightmare House (1999, 2017), the first installment.
I admire Clegg as a gay writer (I considered him an early role model) and appreciate his accomplishments. He won the 1999 Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award for his collection The Nightmare Chronicles. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Clegg#Writing_career. Clegg is great at characterization, dialogue, and action. And in Nightmare House, his gothic/romantic voice fits the book. But for someone so skilled at developing and sustaining mood and atmosphere, Nightmare House proved to be a disappointment for me.
In the first scene of the prologue, Esteban (yet unnamed) shares in first person a memory of his loving grandfather, who built Harrow house. The remembrance is so warm, I was puzzled by the penultimate paragraph, which came out of the blue and fell flat:
Some believed that a great treasure was buried within its walls; that screams came from Harrow more than once; that a madman built it for his own tomb; that no one willingly remained overnight in the house; that a child could still be heard keening from within on damp October nights.(Clegg, 6–7)
Likewise for the second scene, about his naming. And the third, of his coming of age and being disowned. The paragraph at the bottom of page 9—“I felt I should be pursuing my dreams and ambitions. I went to live in New York, and my life as an adult began.”—provides no examples, like many other passages. If the opening pages should set the tone off the book, the prologue failed.
Chapter 1, section 1 failed to draw me in. Section 2 provided such a brief history of Ethan’s early life that I didn’t connect or care. In section 3, the writing is understandable enough but comes off as under-seasoned summary that barely scratches the surface of the statements it makes: “…my grandfather… collected ancient things and did not much of anything for the rest of his entire life” (15). This says so little to characterize the man.
In section 6, Clegg takes almost no opportunity to show or describe such a magnificent old house, for example: “…in the grand kitchen that seemed made to serve banquets” (21). That’s it. No more. The same for Wentworth: “Wentworth was a round woman whose eyes never seemed to close as she spoke of missing the old man and of the days when he was his usual self” (21).
Chapter 2, section 1: “I… am writing this as a warning to you…” (39). But I felt no sense of foreboding before or after this. Nothing had happened so far to instill a drop of dread. “And then, something happened, and the land where the house would be built acquired a sense of being unclean” (42). Something happened. Such vagueness neither inspires nor moves me. “Harrow… taught him much. Harrow changed him” (44). What? How? This is more bland, indefinite summary unsupported by examples.
In section 2 the POV changes to third, narrated by Ethan, with much filtering (felt, seemed, knew, imagined, heard) (45). But it never comes off as omniscient. It’s close, limited third with filtering.
Section 10 (62–64), Ethan encounters the apparition of a girl on the stairs and whiteness. While odd, it wasn’t frightening to me. In chapter 3, section 2, the strange phenomena continue, but Ethan has little emotional response except the urge to scream at the end. Maggie admits in section 7 that Harrow is haunted: “‘Everyone in the village knows it’” (74). Yet the statement tastes flat as week-old soda pop.
Chapter 4, section 2 – “Pocket Tells a Story Between Puffs of a Cigar.” Here, Clegg switches gears and has Officer Pocket tell a story in first person, revealing his philosophy and sagacity through comment. Pocket’s character (narrator) voice is individualized but becomes tedious despite the third-person/Ethan interludes in sections 3, 5, and 7. In chapter 7, Ethan reverts to first person “to tell you more about myself” (159). We’re back to third person in chapter 8. The change in POV lends variety, but I was never sure why Clegg was doing so.
Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what? Chapter 9, section 1, Pocket and Ethan shout at each other. This behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical. Maggie calls on the phone for help in section 3, where Ethan says, “The Devil is in this house.” Again, so what? Lake of detail, lack of example, lack of characterization make such statements ineffective. The characters have become puppets enacting a crude script.
By chapter 10, the book disintegrates into a quagmire of more nonsense—Isis Claviger and relics and a séance and Mathilde, who killed people. The brief investment in the story and characters I had gained by the middle I now lost altogether. Ethan says of the basement: “‘It’s a complete world beneath the house’” (198). But since so little of it is shown, it’s not believable or interesting. Pocket and Ethan find the symbol of the “Chymera Magick” (200), the mark of the spiritualists. I laughed. If you’re going to toss tropes in willy nilly, they should make some sense.
Ethan reverts to first-person narration in chapter 11, where he passes through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. Then he forgets Maggie due to a drug mist in the air. Huh? Finally, Ethan encounters Mathilde, who is—gasp!—his mother (210). Mother possesses him, and he kills Pocket.
Epilogue: “…the house itself… has a will, endowed by the magic my grandfather practiced…” (234). Justin Gravesend wasn’t well-characterized as either a wicked or occult man. The mentioned visits from Crowley and Borden? (235) Unconvincing, which is one word that describes the whole book.
Although I’m disappointed in this one, Clegg has other terrific books. Bad Karma (originally published under the pen name Andrew Harper) is a favorite thriller I heartily recommend.
Clegg, Douglas. Nightmare House. Alkemara Press, 2017.Comments to this post
February 9, 2022
Creating Special-Purpose Paragraph Tags in Scrivener and Word
Ever wanted to flag certain paragraphs or elements in a manuscript for yourself or others?
Here’s a video on how to create special purpose paragraph tags in Scrivener 3 that you can manipulate in manuscripts exported to Microsoft Word.
Video, audio, and text copyright 2022 Lee Allen Howard. All rights reserved.Comments to this post
February 3, 2022
Third Person Subjective Omniscient POV in Hell House
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term, I’m expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, especially omniscient. So, as long as my assignments include books written in omniscient, I’ll blog about it here.
Richard Matheson’s 1971 novel, Hell House, is a nasty little haunted house story. It’s a harrowing, action-filled tale stuffed with debauchery and sex about “the Mt. Everest of haunted houses” (Matheson Hell House 17).
Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Hell House is written in third person omniscient. Unlike Jackson’s book, which is limited third omniscient, focusing on protagonist Eleanor Vance, Matheson encompasses all the characters with third person omniscient.
The subjective omniscient narrator
The primary difference between omniscient and other POVs (first or close/intimate third) has to do with the narrator.
Every story has a narrator, but with first and close third, the narrator is one of the characters in the story. With omniscient, the “narrator is not a character within the story but is positioned as an all-knowing… external narrative voice that provides a ‘god-like’ or ‘birds eye view’ perspective of the events within the story” (Cabal How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV, emphasis mine).
An objective omniscient narrator reports only what characters do but never what they think or feel. A subjective omniscient narrator can report both what characters think and feel, as well as what they do. Matheson’s omniscient narrator is subjective; we get the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.
Reading to discover POV
How an author handles POV isn’t always readily apparent. Sometimes, you must read a few chapters to fully discover the approach and techniques the author is using.
In the opening scene of Hell House, Matheson’s first line could belong to several POVs: “It had been raining hard since five o’clock that morning” (9). The second sentence provides the first real POV clue: “Brontean weather, Dr. Barrett thought” (9). In omniscient, character thoughts are usually presented indirectly, with a tag. (“Filtering” is acceptable in omniscient and actually necessary from an external viewpoint.) But we can’t be certain of the POV until we read further.
By the end of the first page, Matheson reveals another hint: “[Barrett] was a tall, slightly overweight man in his middle fifties, his thinning blond hair unchanged in color…” (9). We know the author is writing in third person. However, this outsider’s description of the doctor indicates that the narrator is telling the story from an external perspective.
Another clue on page 12 tells us, “Barrett looked appalled.” A close-third character/internal narrator would not describe himself in these ways. After a few scenes, the writing confirms that Barrett’s actions, thoughts, and feelings are reported externally.
As we read through the chapter dated December 20, 1970, we find Florence Tanner introduced in third person (20). Edith Barrett is introduced next with third person that seems closer than the previous two characters’ POVs. Fischer follows with another third person POV (23). By now, we’re able to determine that Matheson’s use of POV is subjective third person omniscient, which he applies to multiple characters.
Techniques belonging to omniscient POV
Omniscient is confirmed on page 27 with a description of multiple character action: “All of them gazed at the hill-ringed valley lying ahead…” (emphasis mine). This is direct reporting from an external narrator. On 29: “The cold was numbing, a clammy chill that seemed to dew itself around their bones (emphasis mine).”
In the December 21 chapter, the scene headed “2:21 p.m.,” the internal thoughts of Fischer (43) and Barrett show up in the same scene (44). At this scene’s end, Edith reads a list of psychic phenomena observed in the house, and the narrator expresses her thoughts (46). Here, we have the POVs of three characters shared in the same scene. This can only be done with subjective omniscient.
“Head-hopping,” as it’s called in literary circles, continues in many scenes (81). (And, contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with head-hopping—if it’s done right.) Matheson pulls it off skillfully. He even enters three heads in the same short paragraph: “Barrett… had not been aware… Florence sat stricken… Edith felt a rush of pity for her” (228).
Florence tells Fischer “the secret of Hell House”: “Controlled, multiple haunting” (174). Perhaps this is why Matheson used controlled third person omniscient POV to tell this ghostly tale…
I’ll be looking for more contemporary novels to study omniscient POV. I’ve included a short list at the end of this post.
A word on Matheson’s portrayal of Spiritualism
Not many know this, but I studied Spiritualism intensively for five years, achieving the equivalent of a masters-level education through completing a year’s study with the Morris Pratt Institute, the educational branch of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. I also attended a two-year ministerial program at Fellowships of the Spirit in Lily Dale, New York, what many consider to be the Spiritualist capital of the Western world. I practiced mediumship for several years. (Here’s a video I made about developing clairvoyance.)
As I read Hell House, I was impressed with Matheson’s knowledge of parapsychology and Spiritualism. His mention and portrayal of mental and physical mediumship; the use of a cabinet (an enclosed space to keep light out and energy in); Florence’s devotion, beliefs, and practices; and Fischer’s description of his boyhood abilities all rang true to my studies.
Other practices Matheson accurately mentioned include: psychometry with Daniel Belasco’s ring (130), Florence’s funeral prayer (129), her mention of guides and spirit doctors (131–132), the renowned physical mediums Daniel Dunglas Home and Eusapia Palladino (136), physical phenomena such as ectoplasmic masking (162ff), the difference between mental and physical mediums, and, sadly, Florence’s channeling of Red Cloud (64ff).
Matheson’s research on Spiritualism and the afterlife in Hell House was probably a carryover from his 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, which I recommend for a Spiritualist portrayal of “life on the other side.”
Cabal, Alex. “How to Write in Third Person Omniscient PoV.” Scribophile, Scribophile, 9 Nov. 2021, https://www.scribophile.com/academy/using-third-person-omniscient-pov.
Matheson, Richard. Hell House. Tor, 1999.
Contemporary books written in omniscient:
Omniscient POV isn’t just for the Victorian age. Here are some recent popular books written in omniscient:
- Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
- Beartown, Fredrik Backman
- A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
- Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
- Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
Comments to this post
January 27, 2022
Limited Third Omniscient POV in The Haunting of Hill House
This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This particular RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA. This term at Seton Hill University, I’m concentrating on expanding my knowledge and practice of POV, which I’ve studied for years and will continue to study until I master as many POVs as I can.
So much could be said about Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, a classic haunted house story. But in this post I’ll concentrate on Jackson’s use of point of view (POV).
What is omniscient POV?
Jordan Rosenfeld, in her excellent writing-craft book, Writing the Intimate Character, says:
In omniscient you can move from a highly external and distant perspective in one paragraph to a close, internal perspective in the next, so long as the switch makes sense to the story and isn’t too jarring for readers. … Omniscient allows you to move between internal and external viewpoints as needed, hop into the heads of multiple characters in a single scene, and offer information above, beyond, and outside the scope of the protagonist’s direct experience through an “all-knowing” narrator.(Rosenfeld 113)
In The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, Alice LaPlante states that omniscient can employ any or all of the following narratorial abilities. You may implement them completely or limit them in whatever ways you, as writer, decide:
- Present dialogue (direct and indirect) of all characters
- Share every character’s thoughts and feelings
- Report all events and action (knows all)
- Describe everything—what characters can and cannot observe or sense
- Exposit everything—past, present, future (all-knowing)
- Comment on anything
Jackson does most of these things in Hill House.
Jackson’s use of POV in Hill House
The book begins with a philosophical statement concerning “absolute reality” (Jackson and Miller 1). Background information follows about Dr. John Montague and his attempts to find individuals having some sort of psychic sensitivity to stay with him at Hill House, where he hopes to experience and study any supernatural manifestations that might happen there. The whole first scene is relayed in omniscient POV.
The next scenes introduce Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson omnisciently.
The scene beginning with “3” in chapter 1 contains very few POV clues. It consists entirely of dialogue between Eleanor, her sister, and her sister’s husband, who argue about whether Eleanor may take the car to drive to Hill House. However, in the final line, the brother-in-law says something, and the narrator states that he was “struck by a sudden idea” (8). This indicates that the hovering omniscience has encapsulated his head.
In the following scene, that hovering omniscience—which is like a globe of consciousness that can expand to include many characters, places, and times (as in the opening scene), or shrink to concentrate on the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a single character—engulfs and primarily accompanies protagonist Eleanor Vance.
Jackson provides no intimate scenes from any of the other characters’ viewpoints. Therefore, I would describe Jackson’s book as falling under the category of limited third omniscient: the story is told from an omniscient viewpoint in third person, and when intimate with one character, it is limited to her viewpoint.
Proximal shared POV
When other characters enter the contracted globe of consciousness surrounding Eleanor by becoming proximal to her, their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions may also be also shared. For example:
- When Eleanor and Theodora are huddled together in Eleanor’s room, “Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake” (96, emphasis mine).
- After a heated quarrel: “Silent, angry, hurt, they left Hill House side by side, walking together, each sorry for the other. … neither Eleanor nor Theodora reflected for a minute that it was imprudent for them to walk far from Hill House after dark” (127, emphasis mine).
Key uses of omniscient
A fine example of broad omniscience occurs at the end of chapter 3. Narratorial description skips from Mrs. Dudley at home in bed, Mrs. Sanderson 300 miles away, Theodora’s friend at home, the doctor’s wife, Eleanor’s sister, and an owl in the trees over Hill House! (67)
The final scene of the book mentions Mrs. Sanderson’s relief, Theodora’s friend’s delight, Luke’s escape to Paris, and Dr. Montague’s retirement. This final paragraph closes with a repeat of the first about the house from a broad omniscient scope.
Considering that the house takes on the status of an antagonistic character, omniscient works well. It enables the narrator to make many statements about the house such as: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within” (182).
The expanded globe of consciousness can include philosophy, history, exposition about characters, the hills, and the house itself when no character is there to report his or her perceptions. The ideas, comments, and perceptions belong instead to the lofty narrator.
Omniscient is fitting for a psychological horror story about a house that may itself possess consciousness. Because the house is all-knowing, like omniscient POV, it’s able to invade and subsume the mind of the tragic Eleanor Vance.
LaPlante, Alice. The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Jackson, Shirley, and Laura Miller. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Books, 2006.
Rosenfeld, Jordan. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View. Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.
January 12, 2022
I’m Going Back to School to Get “F”ed
I just spent the past five days at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to get “F”ed. Or to start getting “F”ed. Let me explain…
Back in 2006, I completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing. Death Perception (my fourth novel) was my thesis. SHU since upgraded the program to an Master of Fine Arts (a terminal degree), so I applied again last fall and was accepted. So I’m going back for the F.
The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something I want to do more of in the coming years. I’d also like to teach at the university level when I retire from technical writing.
The program consists of three week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June, graduating the following January. I’ll be working on another novel, tentatively titled Elder-Feral. My faculty mentor is Scott A. Johnson, author of Shy Grove: A Ghost Story and Cane River: A Ghost Story.
Wish me luck!
- Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA Program
- Death Perception, a supernatural thriller
Comments to this post
May 24, 2021
On Writing Ideas Bigger Than You Can Handle Now
What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over a decade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
The importance of having a writing process
First, as a writer, you must have a process. Yes, your process may be different from mine, it will develop and change over time, and you may abandon its belaboring if you become practiced enough to internalize it (see Lee Allen Howard’s Eight-Step Writing Improvement Process at Wordsmithereens.net). But, unless you have a defined process, you cannot identify failure points.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
Until then, delete nothing from your hard drive.
Michelle Renee Lane started writing stories at the age of twelve and won a short story contest in elementary school. She really started exploring different kinds of writing in her mid-teens—poetry, fan fiction, short stories, and even a bit of erotica, “which,” she says, “I’m sure I would be embarrassed to read at this point.”
Lane now writes under the speculative umbrella, so her stories usually mix genres—horror, fantasy, often with a romantic/erotic element as well. “But,” she admits, “most of my stories don’t end with a happily-ever-after, unless you really dig monsters.” We do.
Michelle, what have you published so far, and where?
My first publication was actually in an academic journal. I presented a paper comparing the AIDS epidemic to vampirism for a colloquium at Shippensburg University many moons ago.
But my first short story, “The Hag Stone,” appeared in the anthology Dark Holidays (Dark Skull Publications). Earlier this year, my short story, “Crossroads,” appeared in Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos (Scary Dairy Press). And my debut novel, Invisible Chains is available July 22 from Haverhill Housing Publishing LLC. I have a few other short stories coming out later this year, and next year as well.
What am I trying to say with this book? That’s a great question. And honestly, for long time I didn’t know what I was writing about. I didn’t have any lofty goals or an agenda in mind. I wanted to write a vampire novel set in antebellum New Orleans told in the voices of several characters.
However, Invisible Chains evolved into a first-person narrative told by Jacqueline, a young Creole slave. In her quest for freedom, she encounters real monsters while dealing with the everyday horrors of slavery.
Jacqueline’s voice became the strongest voice in the story and I soon realized it was her story to tell. As I wrote her story, I realized she was experiencing many things that women of color are still experiencing today: racism, sexism, and violence against women. While history tells us that much has changed since Jacqueline’s time, there are several things happening in the novel that connect with the current state of our society that I hope will resonate with readers.
I also tried to create a vampire who was truly a monster. Despite his good looks and charm, I didn’t want to maintain the current trend of casting vampires as romantic leads. Personally, I love a good vampire romance. The bloodier, the better. But I often wonder how dangerous it is to keep creating male characters that normalize stalking and the threat of violence (sexual or otherwise) against female characters. While I enjoy reading about sexy vampires “wooing” their potential mates, I’m also aware that vampires are undead creatures who prey on the living. And, if you want your happily ever after with a vampire, your love interest must literally murder you.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
My tuition to attend Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program. Not only did the program reignite my love of writing fiction, but the experiences and connections I made with mentors and fellow students gave me the confidence to really think of myself as a writer. I gained knowledge of the industry, an invaluable education in genre fiction, and friendships that have led to important introductions to the people who have decided to take me seriously as a writer and publish my work. SHU changed my life.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 80s as a racially mixed kid meant that I heard racist epithets and jokes on a regular basis. I didn’t enjoy hearing this disgusting use of language, but it was common and, unless someone was targeting me, I tried to ignore it. Which seems odd now that I think back to how I coped with racism as a kid. People said a lot of hurtful things around me when they thought I wasn’t listening. Sometimes, I felt invisible. And other times, people said things directly to me that were more painful than any injury I’d experienced.
When I was fourteen, I was dating a boy I had known since first grade. We weren’t a couple in public. He cared about me, but it was a secret. I didn’t think much about that until I called his house one evening and his dad said, “Mark, your nigger is on the phone.” I remember the physical effect those words had on me. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I couldn’t swallow. My skin felt hot and feverish. I was stunned into silence. When the boy I cared about grabbed the phone from his dad, he told me that he would be right over and hung up the phone. About an hour later, he showed up at my house with visible signs that he had had a fight with his dad. He apologized to me, and my tears made him want to cry. Seven words changed both of our lives that day. And even though our young romance didn’t last, we both learned that regardless of whom you choose to love, love is worth fighting for.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Ha! I’m almost afraid to answer this question. Carlos Velasquez is based on a real person. When I was fifteen and very impressionable, I had a pen pal that was ten years older than me and more obsessed with vampires than I was at the time. He dressed like Barnabas Collins, fantasized about becoming a vampire, wrote extremely inappropriate love letters to me with erotic fiction that featured our vampire alter egos, and he even sent me a vial of his blood. I met him in person three times. The second time, he tried to convince me to spend the weekend with him in New York when I was sixteen. Can you say sexual predator?
Perhaps unwisely, I maintained contact with him until I was about twenty-five. So, it was a long and strange friendship. He never hurt me though or tried to do anything inappropriate beyond the fantasies he shared with me in his letters. As you can imagine, he made a lasting impression.
What does literary success look like to you? Do you think you’ve attained it?
I suppose success is something my favorite writers have achieved—publishing multiple books and stories, establishing a writing career that pays the bills, gaining a following of readers who look forward to their next book. Writers I admire who immediately come to mind as successful are Toni Morrison, Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Joe R. Lansdale, Anne Rice, Octavia Butler, and Joe Hill. With these folks who inspire me in mind, no I haven’t attained it, but I’m going to keep writing in the hopes that I do.
Have you read anything that really made you think differently about fiction?
Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991) had a major impact on how I thought about my own writing and the kinds of stories I could tell as a woman of color. I wanted to write about vampires, but as far as I knew, women of color weren’t writing about them.
I had read a lot of vampire fiction, seen a lot of vampire movies and TV shows, but there weren’t many black characters in these stories. Aside from the Blaxploitation film Blacula (1972) and Akasha and Enkil, the original vampires in Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned (1988), I wasn’t seeing a lot of black vampires. To be honest, I didn’t really think of Akasha and Enkil as black even though they were Egyptian, because their skin had turned to the color and texture of marble. Gomez is not only a woman of color, but she wrote a vampire novel about a black bisexual female vampire that challenged many aspects of the traditional vampire myth. Gomez’s book gave me the green light to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. So, a few months ago when Jewelle Gomez agreed to read Invisible Chains and had some very positive things to say about the book, I was beside myself with joy. I think I actually squealed when I read her feedback.
What was your hardest scene to write?
There were a lot of scenes that were hard to write, because they deal with some very difficult subjects. But, oddly enough, one of the hardest scenes to write is when Jacqueline takes back her power and stands up to the vampire. I don’t want to give too much away, because I hate spoilers. While I was writing that scene, I felt like I was Jacqueline summoning the strength she needed to protect herself and establish herself as a formidable and powerful woman. I had to dig deep and exorcise some of my own demons to write that scene. It took me three months to finish it, and I had a lot of encouragement from my mentor, Lucy A. Snyder, and my critique partners, Patricia Lillie and Amber Bliss. They gave me the support I needed to make that scene happen.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Very much so. I am extremely fortunate to have such a supportive family who believes in me and encourages me to keep following my dreams.
How often do you write?
Not as often I should. I’ve been struggling to make writing a top priority for quite some time, but I know that must change if I’m going to take myself seriously enough to keep cranking out fiction. I work full-time and I’m a single parent, so there are plenty of days when I don’t write a single word. But I’ve come to realize that writing is one of the few things that makes me happy and, unless I’m doing it every day, I’m not happy.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
At the moment, finding the time and motivation to write every day. I get hung up on all the other things happening in my life and I neglect the thing that matters most to me.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
Finding story ideas. My brain is constantly coming up with plotlines and snippets of dialog for characters I’m writing about or who want to be written about. I live in a fantasy world inside my head much of the time, so coming up with stories is easy. Making the time to write them, not so much.
Do you read much and, if so, who are your favorite authors?
I mentioned some of the writers I admire earlier, like Charlaine Harris, Toni Morrison, and Jim Butcher. I try to read often, but lately I’ve been listening to audiobooks because I can do other things while I listen. In the past three years, I’ve listened to every novel in the Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost, and her Night Price series.
I dove into the Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. I enjoyed listening to Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box, Horns, The Fireman, NOS4A2 and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, so I’m well-acquainted with Inscapes.
Some of my guiltier pleasures include the 50 Shades series, which is great to listen to on long drives because the books are very entertaining and can make you feel much better about yourself as a writer. I have some biographies lined up to read later this summer to research some new characters while plotting the sequel to Invisible Chains.
You can connect with Michelle Renee Lane at Girl Meets Monster blog: https://michellerlane.com/.
Her Amazon author page is https://www.amazon.com/Michelle-Renee-Lane/e/B07Q7XSJR5Comments to this post
July 29, 2013
Watch My Going LIVE TV Interview
I attended Seton Hill University’s In Your Write Mind writing conference June 28-30, 2013. It was the third time I presented, this year on “Self-editing for Publication,” which was well-attended.
Matt Dowling of FCTV’s Going LIVE, a variety show focusing on arts and entertainment, was there to interview many of the authors. Here, I share the spotlight with the fabulous Sally Bosco, author of The Werecat Chronicles.
After watching this, I’ve decided I need to work on my posture…
Here are some photos from the show:
And a couple more from the book signing on Friday evening. I sold all my copies of Death Perception!
It was a fun weekend mingling with other writers and meeting my fans. I appreciate all of you!
Comments to this post
June 26, 2013
Coming Soon: HYSTERIA by Stephanie M. Wytovich
Asylums once used to confine those deemed mentally unfit to linger, forgotten behind trees or urban development, beautiful yet desolate in their decay. Within them festers something far more unnerving than unlit corners or unexplained noises: the case files left to moulder out of sight, out of conscience.
Stephanie M. Wytovich forces your hands upon these crumbling, warped binders and exposes your mind to every taboo misfortune experienced by the outcast, exiled, misbegotten monsters and victims who have walked among us. The poetry contained in Hysteria performs internal body modification on its readers in an unrelenting fashion, employing broad-spectrum brutality treatment that spans the physical to the societal, as noted in Stoker Award winner Michael A. Arnzen’s incisive introduction.
Introduction by Michael A. Arnzen
Cover art by Steven Archer.
Collection of horror poetry coming in paperback from Raw Dog Screaming Press this summer
Comments to this post
June 24, 2013
Coming Soon: GREENSHIFT by Heidi Ruby Miller
GREENSHIFT is a tale set within the world of AMBASADORA.
Mari’s rare eye color makes her a pariah within Upper Caste society, which is why she prefers plants to people… except David, the former Armadan captain who shuttles scientists around on a refurbished pleasure cruiser.
But someone else is interested in Mari and her distinctive look—an obsessed psychopath who tortures and murders women for pleasure.
When the killer chooses Mari as his next victim, the soldier inside David comes alive, but it is Mari who must fight for her own life and prove she isn’t as fragile as the flowers she nurtures.
Cover Art by Bradley Sharp
Foreword by Dana Marton
Space Opera/Science Fiction Romance paperback coming from Dog Star Books in August 2013
Comments to this post