Tuesday, October 25, 2016

To Speak or Not To Speak

Looking ahead to Halloween, a holiday I love by the way, we're writing about fear on the Blood-Red Pencil all this month.
This is a time we think about all the things that used to scare us on All-Hallows Eve - ghosts and goblins and witches and now zombies – as well as other things that grab us by the throat and hold us immobile. Jason wrote about his fear of being able to get back to writing after the birth of his child in a two-part series that began with Fear Beyond Words. An apt title for a topic to which those of us who juggled kids and words can relate. Will we ever have time to write again?

However, that is not what I want to write about in this post today.

A Facebook friend recently advised me to be cautious about what I post on social media that could be controversial, such as political issues, as it may not help my career to get in the middle of contentious debates. Not that I want to get in the middle of an ongoing rant, but I do like to speak my mind, and perhaps no longer hold back when there is something racist or sexist, or just plain rude and obnoxious or ill-informed posted on Facebook.

On Twitter, I just ignore the junk.

My friend offered that counsel in the nicest, most well-meaning way, but I don’t agree that we should hold back just because we run the risk of angering people to the point of losing followers and money. I thought a lot about that after I read a post by Erin Hensley Schultz on her blog, It’s Fine. She titled the essay So Which Is It? and it challenges us as writers to think about whether we want to be quiet about social issues. Her post starts:
I’m scared to post this. I’m afraid of alienating people I love, people I interact with on a daily basis, people whose friendships I value. I wouldn’t say this if it hadn’t been weighing heavy, like a 50 pound weight on my tongue every time I open my mouth to say something and stop before it comes out because I don’t want to stir the pot. I don’t want anyone to be mad at me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But I can’t, in good conscience, do that anymore.
She goes on to say, that she is putting her fears aside and writing about racism. She says she has no right to complain about racism, but she has a duty to complain about racism.

Interesting point. Do we all have a duty to complain about social injustices?

I think we do, and I basically said that in my response to my Facebook friend. I believe writers owe it to the public to be a voice of reason and truth, and if that means taking a risk, so be it. It used to be that we only took a risk by putting our thoughts about issues into our books and letting them belong to one of our characters. We can still do that, if it fits that character, but we can also be a voice in cyberspace to counter whatever awful things start filling the Internet.

We can do it with thoughtfulness, respect, and civility.

So I will continue to post things on Facebook and Twitter that challenge people to think about the important social issues. I am a writer and an activist, and the two can happily live together. I won’t rant. I won’t call names – although it is hard to resist The Trumpster – and I will respect the opinions of other people.

Just in case you might be thinking that it is fine for  Erin and I to band together in our own little activist group of two writers, HERE is a list of 600 others who last May risked alienation by signing a declaration of why they oppose Trump as a presidential candidate. The most telling clause being:
Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response;
(The post about the 600 writers was written by Andrew Altschul and Mark Slouka at The Literary Hub.)

I do hope you will take a moment when you are finished here and go over to read the entire post by Erin. It is worth the read and unlike the rants that so often clutter social media. And do leave a comment here to let us know your stand on speaking out or not. Do you agree with my Facebook friend?
Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent mystery, Doubletake, was named the 2015 Best Mystery by the Texas Association of Authors. She has a number of other books published, including the critically-acclaimed Season Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Scariest Story - #FridayReads - The Rope Swing

We are pleased to welcome Candace Kearns Read to the Blood-Red Pencil team.

Image by dryhead, via Flickr
Like everyone, I have plenty of fears. At the top of the list are snakes, evil spirits, falling off cliffs, and… being honest. So, when I set out to write a memoir several years ago, I found it difficult to create a final product that was any good. Sure, I could draft chapters, but instead of conveying the intensity I wanted, many passages were stiff, clinical, awkward.

I tried and tried, but I couldn’t quite relax on the page, and it showed. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was hiding my truth. I was afraid. Speaking – and writing - our truth is scary. We fear ridicule, judgment, the pure vulnerability of exposure.

My memoir tells the story of my attempts to save my aging Hippie mother from drug addiction, and the journey I took towards saving myself instead. It felt risky to write this book, and risky to publish it. I was afraid that those who knew my mother and loved her would look down on me for not ultimately saving her, and that they would judge me as harsh and unfeeling for walking away. On the other hand, I was also afraid that people who didn’t know my mother would think me a fool for throwing so much of my life away as her caregiver.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. In order to make the book successful, I had to tell the truth about those mistakes. I had to come clean about my flaws. But coming clean was for brave people, not writer-wimps like me. I wasn’t ready.

So I fictionalized the book. Even though I’ve never been a fiction writer, and had no idea how to write a novel, I messed around with it for nearly a year. I changed the names, added embellishments here and there, and experimented with telling the story in present tense rather than past. This freed me up to be more honest, since it wasn’t really me I was writing about anymore.

But then I found a publisher who wanted to publish it, and once that happened, I was struck with a whole new panic. They were going to publish my true story… as a novel? No matter how many names I’d changed, scenes I’d recreated a little more dramatically, or time periods I’d truncated, this was not a novel. There was nothing about the story that wasn’t essentially true. The basic DNA of it wasn’t imagined – it was remembered. The essential structure - the story of those three years at the end of my mother’s life, intertwined with six years of my childhood, remained.

I had to decide what would be worse: to tell my truth as fiction, and thus be perceived as hiding (and rightly so), or to put it out there as my truth, and risk being thought of as self-indulgent, shameful, incompetent, or worse. It was my ego versus my soul.

Ultimately it was about integrity. I had to be honest. I had to publish it as a memoir. I had to revert it back to the real names, the real timelines, the real scenes. When I proposed the idea to the publisher, they were thrilled. “It’s much more effective as a memoir,” she said. Of course it is, I thought to myself, because it is a memoir.

But that wasn’t the end of the fear. When the publisher set a date for release of the book, I wasn’t just afraid, I was petrified. What if my writer friends and the publishers were all wrong, and it wasn't any good? Not only had I written a book, it was about me, and I was being honest about that. I'd be ruined forever as a writer and a person. What if people didn’t read it? What if they did and hated it? My dream of becoming an author would be dead. Finished. Kaput.

Luckily, none of that happened. Instead, when I crawled out from under the tortoise shell of fear and shame, I was greeted with an amazingly positive reception. Contrary to my fears, readers have found the book compelling. It seems that because I did write my truth as honestly as I could, people are responding.

What I’ve learned is this: At the point of no return, when you are writing a book, and later, when your book is being published, you have to shut the door on your ego. You have to trust that the world is a (mostly) loving and supportive place. And you have to build a solid enough community of reader-friends who will tell you when the book is ready for publication, and when it is not.

The scariest story of them all is your own – when you’re trying to write it. But Mary Karr and Andre Dubois III and Cheryl Strayed all say the same thing, and having experienced it, I now agree: You have to strip away your protective defenses, smash your urges to sugar coat the truth, and turn yourself inside out in order to make the writing work. You have to expose your truth, even when it makes you look bad – no, especially when it makes you look bad, because in the end, that courage, that honesty, especially in memoir, is what will make it shine.

Candace Kearns Read is the author of the memoir The Rope Swing (Eagle Wings Press, Sep 2016). She is a screenwriter who has also been a Hollywood script reader for actors and directors, including the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Michelle Pfeiffer. Her screenplays have been optioned by producers and developed with Fox, Disney, HBO, and Lifetime. She teaches creative writing for Antioch University and the Young Writers Program at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She’s the author of the screenwriting handbook Shaping True Story into Screenplay, and co-author of the memoir Bogie’s Bike. Her essays have appeared in fullgrownpeople.com, The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Stages of Fear

Image by amboo who?, via Flickr
I wrote my first book without fear because I had no expectations. I didn’t really think I’d finish writing a whole book, let alone sell it.

When Warner Books bought it, the fear began.

First, I was afraid my editor would forget me before I’d written a second. That proved an unnecessary worry: By the time I finished Angel, she still remembered me; however, Warner had stopped publishing Regencies.

So the next fear was that I’d never find another editor/publisher who liked my work. I did, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here. So let’s move on to the next stage. After several books, my editors no longer expected to receive an entire manuscript. They began to give me contracts on the basis of a synopsis of 7 pages or so. At that point, the quivering question becomes what on earth made me think I could turn this bare idea, which seemed so promising at the time, into an entire novel. And how can I turn these names into real, engaging people?

I’ve never had much trouble with characters. Plots are another matter. The perennial fear, usually striking about 1/3 into the book, was (and is) failing to coming up with enough twists to make the word count.

It’s sad to reduce a novel to a word count, but publishers generally expect a certain length, so we mid-listers generally try to comply. Otherwise there’s always the dread possibility of having to pad or worse to cut, not for artistic reasons, simply to reduce the size.

Familiarity breeds if not contempt then at least the feeling that one will probably manage to complete the project adequately.

My next moment of terror came when the two publishers I was working for both decided to stop publishing Regencies (one in the middle of a three-book contract). Though I was quite happy to turn my hand to something else for a change, I had no idea whether I could write a competent mystery that someone would pay good money for. By then I was earning my living by writing, so it was quite frightening to find myself in that situation.

Twenty-three years later, I can say with some confidence that, yes, I can write mysteries. Now my fears stem from being in the opposite position from at the beginning of my career.

Then I had to write a whole manuscript not knowing if it would sell. Now, since The Bloody Tower or thereabouts, I’ve been getting contracts without even a proposed title—Daisy Dalrymple Mystery #16, Cornish Mystery #3. I start without even the shadow of an idea in my head. What if inspiration fails to burgeon?


Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is now available to pre-order. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Words, Our Babies, Our Fears

Some years ago, I attended a writing seminar where the keynote speaker stated that our words are not our babies. After long and thoughtful consideration, I beg to differ. Our words may, indeed, be our babies in a number of ways.

We nurture them in our hearts, sometimes for nine months, sometimes longer. Giving birth—getting them down on paper or a hard drive—can be an easy delivery or a painful process. Words, scenes, and chapters may roll from our minds through our fingers with little effort, figments of our imaginations’ creative processes, or emerge from difficult experiences of family, friends, or selves. Pent-up emotions may surface unbidden, sending hot tears cascading down our cheeks as we relive painful, perhaps suppressed events and transfer them to our protagonist or another character. Bottom line: our words often come from deep within, and their birth in written form may remain attached by a literary umbilical cord that refuses to be cut.

What’s the result of this ongoing connection with our words? Our characters insert themselves in our emotional lives. Especially when a story reveals one or more painful experiences we endured, we may be vulnerable to criticism of our work on a much deeper level than when a tale doesn’t have such a personal link.

Negative feedback hurts in any case, but it’s easier to accept if our story has an external basis. It’s the criticisms that pick at our thinly scabbed wounds that have the ability to inflict devastating pain. Ironically, these may be our best works; however, they engender extreme fear because we feel exposed. Harsh words about our story become a personal attack because rapes, abuses, bullying, abandonment, etc., shape our lives and our interactions with others. We can control our characters—what they say, how they get their comeuppances, what they are allowed to do within the framework of our stories. We can provide help for antagonists’ victims, help we ourselves may have longed for but never received. We cannot, however, control the words of readers, editors, critics, or reviewers. This is terrifying.

Rising above such fear demands detachment and determination, neither of which comes easily. Yet our willingness to put our experiences out there in a fictional setting may help others who struggle with similar situations. Does this relieve our pain? For some perhaps—we all react differently. However, negative criticism of such personally inspired works opens old wounds. Fear can overwhelm us, perhaps even squelching a story that begs to be shared.

Many stories do not engender fright; but when they do, should a writer risk pain and fear for the sake of the story? For the sake of readers? Would you do it?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

So You're Afraid Your Muse Has Abandoned You. Me too.

Writing novels can be a scary thing. Different elements affect our production, and that can turn into writer’s block. (Blog: How to Jumpstart Your Imagination) There have been days in the past when I didn’t feel like writing, or maybe I was sick and wanted to watch a movie or read a book. Other days, when I’d written to a certain point in the story and didn’t know where to go, I’d take a short break. But I'd always get back to my story and finish it. I've done that eleven times for eleven books.

That all changed this summer when I had knee replacement surgery.
I know major surgery, and knee replacement is major, can change the chemistry of our bodies, but in my case it also changed how my mind worked. Everything revolved around my knee. Period. Not only have I been apathetic about writing, I’ve felt the same way about food, about getting dressed, and when I finally could drive, about going to the grocery store.

In the past, I’ve always managed to get back on track after some interruption, but to date I still haven’t been able to saddle up my horse and jump on. I admit, a contentious election has been a major distraction, physical therapy, or what I call physical torture, has also put me off, and now I’m afraid I’ll never find my groove again. Never be able to regain the concentration to finish a book. That’s a scary thought for a writer.

In finding my way back, I first returned to a book in progress for which I’d already written forty thousand words. Reading it from the beginning, I realized it wasn’t believable. I’ve written some implausible story lines before―see Goddess of the Moon―but even I felt this one was off the rails. So I went back to the fourth book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series that I'd left unfinished at twenty-five thousand words. And that’s where I am now.

My critique partner and I took the summer off. The timing was perfect. She was in edits, and I was in pain. This past weekend we traded pages for the first time since June. She had already read the pages when I first wrote them, but I had gone over them, rewrote some parts, and felt pretty good about how the story was unfolding. She thought so too. I’m now on to the next fifty pages, which will catch me up to where I was when I stopped.

For the first time, I feel a slight sense of optimism. I like my story. I haven’t had the urge to play Spider Solitaire or complete a Sudoku puzzle. I did both when I came to a block in my writing, but it was always a short block and the distraction allowed me to get away from the story for a while and refresh. This summer, I became an expert gamer, and my apathy about writing didn’t bother me, which confirmed my apathy.

I’m back on my story and might even be past my sabbatical. I hope so.

Wish me luck.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Few of My Favorite Chills

With shortened days, colder nights, falling leaves, and the approach of Halloween, it is time to crank up the horror genre. It just isn't October without a few good scares. I prefer psychological terror over grotesque or gore because it is what happens before the "Boo" that makes the "gotcha" delicious, but here are a few of my favorite classic horror reads:

1) Everything by Edgar Allen Poe. From the Tell-Tale Heart to the Cask of Amontillado, his stories have stuck with me over the decades. I still listen for the thump of a heart under the floorboards.

2) Stephen King, pick a title: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cell. They’re all chill-icious. His books have caused me several sleepless nights and a few near heart attacks.

3) The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was a fantastical, terrifying ghost story about a group of people drawn to Hill House for a psychological experiment that goes awry when it seems the house has possessed one of them. It spawned several film versions.

4) In Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, a woman gives birth to the devil’s child. The devil truly made them do it. It made a compelling film as well.

5) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, in which the mad scientist cobbles together a man, was one of the first stories about medical tinkering and has spawned countless retellings in books and film.

6) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and only his portrait ages. He lives a life of excess until his true nature via the portrait is revealed.

7) The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a tale of two creepy children and the governess and gardener who haunt them. This story has been remade many times. It kept me guessing until the end. Even then I questioned the truth. It is also sits on the gothic shelf.

8) Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice introduced us to the vampire as protagonist and took us inside the night life of the vampire. It isn’t easy being undead.

9) The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, introduced us to the split-personality, a doctor whose alter ego was a madman, and another cautionary tale about medical tinkering.

10) Dracula by Bram Stoker, the original vampire bestseller, introducing us to the vampire as antagonist, Vlad the Impaler. It followed several points of view including Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, and Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. There have been many subsequent offshoots and retellings.

Other horror writers that receive honorable mention include: V. C. Andrews, Clive Barker, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Block, Nathanial Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Jack Ketchum, Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon, H.P. Lovecraft, Graham Masterson, Richard Matheson, Robert McCammon, John Saul, and Peter Straub.

My thanks goes out to the horror writers who keep me afraid of the dark. Keep the chills coming.

Who are your favorite horror writers? Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments. I'm always looking for new authors to read.

Continue reading about thrills and chills:

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Fear Beyond Words (The Conclusion)

Okay, so, maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a good daddy and an author.

See, fear has a lot of power. It can be blinding, crippling, even fatal. People become completely paralyzed at the sight of a tiny spider. Grown adults are reduced to tears at the sound of thunder. People who taken their own lives because of voices whispering to them in the darkness. As someone who writes thrillers and horror, I am fascinated by the lengths people will go to avoid what frightens them. The human mind’s ability to be manipulated is something I love to take advantage of in my writing.

But, obviously, I am not immune.

I once considered myself, for the most part, fearless. I don’t really have a phobia. I despise needles, but as long as I don’t see them, I can avoid throwing nurses out of hospital windows. Sometimes I feel like I am suffocating if in too tight of a space. Perhaps I am mildly claustrophobic, but come on, either you have it or you don’t, right? I’ve jumped out of planes, handled venomous reptiles, hiked where most people wouldn’t go, fought competitively, and more. So, if I can do all of these things, why can’t I convince myself that I can be both a writer and a father?

It took a couple of weeks to really pull myself together. When I did, it was because I realized my mistake was hiding in this post’s opening statement. My fatal error was the word AND. I was driving myself to the brink of madness trying to be two different things and fearing I could not be good at either. Why did it have to be AND?

Fear can shut us down, but it is meant to push us forward, teach us to adapt and overcome. Why fear the spider when we can simply step on it? By breaking fear down and understanding its impact, we can learn how to face it. I had to eliminate my AND. I don’t need to be a dad and an author. I needed to combine the two goals, tackle them together. Finally, I was able to spend time with my daughter and get words onto paper. Maybe it wasn’t the five-thousand words I was used to getting out in an afternoon. But even fifty is better than zero. Maybe during another nap, I bust out a few hundred. At the end of the week, I celebrate any progress. I began involving my daughter in my writing. They say to read your work aloud, so, if she was in my arms and I couldn’t write, I read to her. (If she smiles, I assume I got the death scene right. She is my kid after all.) I looked at all my projects and prioritized them. I developed a new writing plan. Now, I feel like I am back to my old, hyper-motivated self and I have a beautiful, little muse to keep me company as I chase this crazy dream.
Tayla LeeAnn Henry
Born 8-11-2016, 4:43am

For those of you who are new to this writing adventure, I agree.  It is terrifying and that fear will never fade completely. Just when you think you have it beat, life will change and you will begin to doubt yourself. You will wonder if it is all worth it. You will want to let that fear get the best of you and never write another word.  

Just write.

When things get tough, do them a different way. That fear is telling you the game is changing and it is time to adapt. If you are not constantly evolving, reinventing yourself as a writer, you are doing something wrong. We can’t control everything in life. We want to, but we can’t. What we can do is celebrate each little moment, every word written, and enjoy the journey. We can teach our children that, if you truly want something, nothing will stop you from having it. When you see that book on the store shelf with your name embossed on the cover, you will know that whoever buys it is not purchasing a bunch of words. They are taking home your fear, passion, failures, persistence, and putting a chunk of your life onto their bookshelf where you will be immortalized.

I hope you enjoy our posts at The Blood Red Pencil over the next few weeks. More importantly, I hope we can help you understand your own fears. If you are a writer, know that you are not alone. We are all on this journey together. Don’t let the terrifying moments stop you from going on one of the most amazing adventures of your life.

Jason P. Henry is lost in a world of serial killers, psychopaths, and other unsavory folks. Ask him what he is thinking, but only at your own risk. More often than not he is plotting a murder, considering the next victim, or twisting seemingly innocent things into dark and demented ideas. A Suspense, Thriller and Horror writer with a dark, twisted sense of humor, Jason strives to make people squirm, cringe, and laugh. He loves to offer a smile, but is quick to leave you wondering what lies behind it. Jason P. Henry is best summed up by the great philosopher Eminem “I'm friends with the monsters beside of my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.” Learn more about Jason at JasonPHenry.com


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