The Thrill of Chills

I grew up on Stephen King. I adored escaping to the world of boogeymen and monsters. Stephen King was the master of the shadow lands to me, supreme ruler over the world of suspense and fear that intrigued my innocent young brain. Nothing could eclipse those moments, alone on Saturday mornings when the rest of the family was still in bed, when I would sit in the kitchen, wrapped in layers of blankets with the heat of the tiny kitchen wood stove keeping me from freezing, my nose buried deep in a King book so thick that it took both of my young hands to hold it open. When my toast popped up, I would jump out of my skin, so lost in the words this man used to describe terrifying events and creatures that I would forget that I had put bread in the toaster only minutes before.

I loved the horror genre. It was fun to be scared by my imagination. I lived in a real world full of caring parents and a nurturing environment, so a blob of goo floating in a lake, eating teens through the slats of a raft was the ultimate in heart-pounding horror for me. An alien race using humans for fuel brought excited chills of fear. A nuclear plant spawning over-sized, blood-thirsty insects teetered on the edge of my Cold War-age mental reality, taking me to the brink of terror that it could actually happen.

I didn’t know then that the real horrors in life would turn out to be non-fiction. Boogeymen and monsters are real. They fill websites and news channels. The human capacity to inflict horror upon other humans far eclipses the extent of any writer’s imagination. A sentient car with a thirst for blood pales in comparison to the murderous, torturous headlines that tell what we are doing to each other in our own world, every moment of every day.

I prefer to hide from the darkness. I make the sun shine in my world. The entire back wall of my house is windows. The sun streams in from one side to the other, all day long, and the moon glows in at night. No curtains exist on that side of the house. I leave no tools against the light. I know that the shadow is there, but I choose to see what I want to see, rather than what threatens to engulf me in the morning news.

When the shadows menace, when the dark parts of human nature start to infringe on my carefully constructed reality, I have many resources at hand to stave off the threat.  Board games with my child, cooking a new recipe, Anne of Green Gables, good wine and chocolate often light my life. Drinks and karaoke with friends, websites full of cute kittens and brain science articles explaining how we create our own reality are my vanguard. There are myriad shields against the dark.

However, I have dark characters to write. I need to delve into a place where I know that the tentacles of the shadow lands will melt through my skin and sear down to  my heart,  wrapping around my guts with zombie-like mindlessness. I’ve been there before, to a place where I embraced the dark side of humanity as reality and let slip the light. I was lucky enough to only stop by. Too many people, like these characters I’m about to write, set up permanent residence in very dark places. Sometimes, I can feel the long fingers dragging at my soul, trying to pull me back.

I can write the characters like myself, the ones who, no matter how they got there, were able to get out. The ones who choose the darkness, the real-life monsters that dwell amongst us, are my challenge. These bad guys live in a world as stubbornly dark as mine is light, and they revel in it. I can’t pave the path into their world with chocolate and wine. I can’t hide behind board games and friends. I will wrap my blankets around me and curl up next to the fireplace, but I need to face the darkness, raw and naked, and take what comes flying up at me from the depths. I can already feel the tendrils reaching out to lure me down. I know I can let them sink in only so far before I must wrench myself free and force my way back to grasp the light again. The delicious thrill of digging into the murky darkness terrifies me, but not as much as the fear of not being able to find my way back. Hansel and Gretel left a trail of crumbs. I will be certain to pop a slice of bread in the toaster, set on dark.

The Title. Titles. Titling.

I wrote at least a thousand essays in the course of my high school career, not to mention college. To this day, I have frantic dreams about trying to submit long hand-written papers, where I’m desperately running around the school, looking for what I wrote and never finding it, becoming later and later for class as I search. Each one swells as thick as a textbook and I know I brought them all with me, but my locker is locked and I can’t remember the combination, and my class schedule is inside so I can’t even figure out which class I’m missing to explain it all to the teacher and then I’m jolted awake because in real life, my legs decide to try to make the jump down the stairs that I attempted in my dream.

My days overflowed with classes like Composition, Comparative Writing, Critical Writing and Becoming an Essayist. I took courses on Dickens, Hemingway, Melville and Joyce, courses for which the homework consisted of daily comparisons, contrasts and discussions of themes. Even my history classes required copious writing, as we discussed images of man through European and American history, Western Civilization and Ancient Greece.

Four solid years of straight non-fiction writing. My coming-of-age, formative years were built on a base of serious and critical writing, and then frosted with a large handful of pressure-blasted crucial college application essays. I compared, contrasted, discussed, argued, clarified, debated, disputed and postulated. I learned how to convey thoughts, ideas, opinions and facts in a clear, concise manner and how to present myself and my conclusions with authority and conviction.

What I didn’t learn was how to create a title.

All those essays and papers came with their own titles. “The Effects of Dante’s Inferno on Modern Culture,” “Colonialism vs. Imperialism in post-Revolutionary Europe,” “Thematic Comparison of  Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace.” The assignment was the title. Simple and easy, as we used to say, a “no-brainer.” Now, I did take a couple of creative writing classes as well in those four years, and I wrote for the school literary magazine – stereotypical maudlin teenage-angst-ridden poetry, mostly, with the occasional short story, and most of them came from a class assignment, where, yes – the title came from the assignment.

So, when I started my public writing career, posting a short vignette weekly, I had a challenge on my hands, or rather, in my head. I was horrible with titles. In fact, I didn’t even title my first few posts. It was only under duress of the publisher that I did it at all. To me, there was so much involved in each of my pieces that I froze trying to dilute one down to a few descriptive words. My mentor asked me, “What is it about? Let the title tell the reader what it’s about.” That didn’t help. I felt that each reader should get out of it whatever they wanted, and it was ridiculous for me to tell them what they should glean from my words. I wanted to call each one, “Another Enjoyable Piece that I Humbly Hope You Enjoy,” or something like that, so the readers would simply know how I wanted them to feel going into it. I longed for the old days, when titles had colons and semi-colons in them, followed by a longer description. I was so happy when I discovered, a la Wikipedia, that “Robinson Crusoe,” was originally titled “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates.” Daniel Defoe knew how to write a title.

Creating simple, intriguing titles is part of my journey as a writer. I hold tightly to the slight comfort that if I’m going to get any kind of block, title block is the best. As long as the words of the story flow, as long as my fingers  release the ideas from my brain onto the screen or paper without hestitation, I’m in good shape. I will continue to write enjoyable pieces that I hope other people will enjoy as well, and keep a small part of my brain on alert for phrases that neatly sum things up and deliver the point. It’s a process, right? Maybe that should be the title…

Graduating

It’s incredibly tempting to do my third-grader’s projects.

I have so many amazing ideas. She’s working on a book report for a Harry Houdini biography in the form of a board game right now, and I am way more excited about it than she is. I’m thinking about a tiny jail cell, a miniature Water Torture Cell and a darling little Sea Monster Escape model, each one small enough for the board, but big enough for the game pieces to fit into. I see a Disappearing Elephant and a game board shaped like handcuffs.

I could kick this project’s ass. I’d get not just a 4, the highest mark, but probably a 4+, something never before experienced in the third grade. It would hang on the wall in a place of honor. I’d be like Houdini himself, showing the people something they’ve never seen!

However… no matter how many fantastic ideas I have, I’ve been through third grade. No matter how exciting it is now, I’ve already done it, plus thirty years. As Glenn Close says in one of my favorite movies, Dangerous Liaisons, “One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.”

I wrote erotica weekly for two years. I’m good at it. I love it.  What I love most is writing about the situations and circumstances in which two people come together and connect, and leave each other happier and more fulfilled than they were when they met. I love the raw honesty that can happen when human beings let themselves be naked, not just with another person, but with themselves, with who they are and what they truly want.

Two years is an excellent amount of practice. I can see the progression in my writing when I go back to the beginning and read through my stories in chronological order. If you give me a situation with sexy potential, I can knock out a page or two that will push you right into the action and make you react, be it with a racing pulse, swelling body parts or perhaps revulsion. Whatever it is, I can make you feel.

But what I want to do is write the novels that have been forming in my head for years. Continuing to write only erotica is the same as doing my kiddo’s projects. I would be clearing my throat. I can probably get a string of 4’s on erotic short stories, but I’d just as likely get 2’s on plot, character development, story arc and every other aspect of writing that I haven’t spent years practicing.

My third grader flops around in agony and repeatedly heaves sighs that range from the depths of the Grand Canyon all the way down to Mariana Trench. She whines, mutters to herself, finds a thousand ways to procrastinate and pouts. The closer she gets to finding the answer she’s looking for, the darker she glowers at me, because somehow, it’s all my fault.

Though I hope to act more maturely, it’s time for me to teeter on the edge of understanding something new, too. It’s time to get uncomfortable. It’s time to be open to criticism, to get frustrated, to fail and to start over. It’s time for me to add what I do best to a larger project, rather than focusing on the one piece I already know so well.

It’s time to start writing.

Setting or, The Two Walls of Windows That are Pouring Sunshine Over Everything in the Room, Warming Me Inside and Out as I Sit Curled Up on the Couch Typing

When I write letters to my grandparents and great aunts who do not have computers, I describe where I’m sitting in the house, what I have around me, where the rest of my family is and what they’re doing while I write. When I’m instant messaging with out-of-town friends or family members that I don’t get to see often, I always ask them first where they are and what they’re doing. I want to know if they’re stretched out on an easy chair or sitting at their desks in home offices. I want to know if they’re having a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and if the kids are running around or already in bed. I want to know if they’re talking to me after a day of getting mentally beaten up or a day of small victories. I want to picture them in my head while we type away, sharing our thoughts and experiences. Knowing their setting takes our words from the page or the screen and turns them into a conversation.

When it’s time to write, I often move around my house. I love how my own setting affects my writing. This glorious room of sunshine where I’m sitting right now is the perfect place to write about anything uplifting, such as my passion for a great setting. I use my desk for serious subjects and my kitchen for fun and gossip. I hide from the world on a closet floor when I want an extra boost of secretive juice.  If I need the feel of interruptions, all I have to do is sit near my child and tell her I need a few quiet moments alone. For me, it’s a bit like method acting, I suppose. The more I feel it, the better I write it, or at the very least, the smoother it comes to me.

Creating the setting is how I take myself into a story. I want readers to know my characters through their interactions with their environments. When I’m putting a scene together, I cannot – or perhaps will not – do anything until I know where the characters are. I want to know why they’re where they are, how they’re moving, what they’re wearing, what happened directly before they got where they are and what they’re about to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing she might be about to make a cup of coffee. It might be that his entire relationship history has been overwhelming him since breakfast.  If her mind is a bewildered tornado, she might find herself on the floor in a heap because she missed the last stair. If he just found out that she loves him back, he might be stretched out on the sun-baked patio soaking in the heat all the way from the stones to his heart.

I want to be with my characters. I want to see them sweat in the summer and hear them cuss when they trip over the vacuum. I want to taste their coffee and smell the dinner they cooked. I want to feel the heat when they look into each other’s eyes for the first time. And if my characters are having a cocktail, then I’m having one with them. You can bet on that.

The Truth

“I made something you will probably like!”

I hear those happy words quite often from my little girl. They perfectly express the feeling I had the first time I offered up my writing to public scrutiny. I had been writing for years for myself. One day, I stumbled across a place online that wanted to post things like I had been writing. I was pleased to share, thinking that if these things had made me so happy, there was a good chance that they would make someone else happy, too.

And they did. I read comments, I received emails. People were reading, and they liked what I had made. So I made more. For two years, I wrote weekly, sharing freely, loving every moment. I loved sitting down in front of a blank screen, letting my mind wander until it hit upon an idea. I loved the scramble of words that flowed onto the page inside-out, backwards and inversed. I loved pulling the threads of my ideas, gently picking loose the knots and straightening the strands until I had exactly what I wanted to say on the page.

One day, I got an offer. Someone wanted a book of my little stories.

They sent me an editor.

My first editor, the one who had wanted to post things like I had been writing for myself, had been telling me for two years that she loved my writing and I barely needed to be edited.

The new editor informed me that I was a horrible writer and the only thing I had going for me was an interesting turn of phrase. She told me coldly that if she was going to help me, I needed to understand just how bad I was and how much work it was going to take for me to become even passable. She explained repeatedly that everything I had written was so close to worthless that she didn’t think it could be fixed. She called me multiple times a day for over a month to inform me that she’d read yet another bit of my rubbish and was even less inclined to think I had any talent as time passed.

Frantic to understand how I could have misunderstood so badly what I had been doing for so long, I went back and read each post over and over. The truth was harsh. She was right. I really was horrible. I was not a writer. I had no talent. I read and re-read all those words I had happily and joyfully put together over the years and realized that I had been an idiot to think I knew what I was doing. The people who had said they liked my posts probably didn’t know what good writing was. I felt sorry for them.

I turned down the book deal. The new editor called me several times to assure me that it was a good decision to quit, and to emphasize that she didn’t think there was an editor on earth who could get anything usable from the drivel I had spewed up.

I stopped writing. I was so bad at it that there wasn’t enough time left in my life to get better. I made pretty excuses to people and found a lot of reasons to prove I was right to quit.

It took over a year before a particularly strong and reasonable logical thought finally managed to shove its way up through the thick layers of explanations and justifications I had created in my brain.

I would not have been offered a book if I had no talent.

The day that logical thought grabbed hold of my brain, shoving my pretty excuses to the side to hold my inner eyelids wide, I opened my laptop and started reading my little stories again, pulling them out of their undeserved exile. They weren’t perfect. But I wasn’t talentless. I wasn’t. After a year of wallowing in a file folder on my desktop, my little stories spoke to me as fresh and happy as they had when I had first written them.

I read through them, all two years’ worth, welcoming them back – and welcoming back my writing self as well. Some of the stories are really good. Some of them have really good parts. Some of them need complete reworking. I think the same is true for me. I could have used a few words from the first editor to help me grow. I never, ever needed the second editor. Someplace in between, where constructive criticsm grows – that’s the place for me.

So, here I am. I may make something you will like. I may not. Whichever it is, I’m here. And I’m writing.