Category Archives: writing advice

Confessions of a Writer, Part 2

To celebrate next year’s release of my first science fiction novel, The Curiosity Killers, I will be posting my responses to the Confessions of a Writer Tag survey (http://nicoletteelie.com/2015/10/02/the-confessions-of-a-writertag), with a few responses to each of the twenty questions parsed out over October and November interspersed with other news and events.

  1. What was your first piece that you can remember writing? What was it about?

The first concrete piece I remember writing that I think would qualify as a real piece of fiction was a short story I wrote in high school called “The Conspiracy to Catch Dierdre Long.” It was a romantic comedy about two teachers set up by their students. I also remember writing a horror romance in early college—the title now escapes me—about a rock star who quits performing to lead a quite life out of the spotlight but is then found out by a stalker.

  1. What’s the best part about writing?

The best part about writing is shutting out the real world for a bit and envisioning my scene. I try to engage all five senses and truly feel as if I’m my point-of-view character, then just allow the scene to play out, seeing how it would unfold both adhering to my outline and perhaps deviating from it, and experiencing moments for their greatest emotional and thematic impact. I like being able to slow moments down and speed them up and experiment with them until I’m happy with how they look and feel in my mind’s eye as I get that first draft down on paper. Revision is somewhat painful and tedious, though necessary of course, and pre-writing activities (outlining, character creation, getting the essential elements decided) is also sometimes tedious. The idea generation stage doesn’t bother me, as I tend to have strange concepts occur to me at odd times, which I then just file away in a notepad document on my phone to comb through later when it’s time for the next project. But it’s that golden time of the actual hands on the keyboard, first draft where everything just flows out and gets filtered through my brain that is the most creative, zen-like time of my day. I can imagine and create and first draft for several hours at a time and feel like barely a second has passed. That is when I truly feel like my best self, like I’m engaged in what I was always meant to do.

  1. What’s the worst part about writing?

Even worse than revision is proofreading copy prior to going to press. By that point, I’ve read and re-read the material so much that I’m blind to the tiniest of errors. I usually read aloud, very slowly, or enlist a second reader to help so that I can actually catch any final typos that even my editor missed.

  1. What’s the name of your favorite character and why?

In everything I write, I tend to get a favorite character and enjoy working on their scenes quite a bit. In my Red Eye series, it’s Sam Brody, a damaged, snarky guy who’s flippant to a fault. With Sam, I tried to design a character around the premise “What if the ‘breakout character,’ the audience favorite, the comic relief, the ‘Fonzie,’ if you will, was the protagonist?” The thing about a comic relief character is that you don’t necessarily want them foregrounded all the time, as their attitude can often be their downfall. It definitely is with Sam, which is why he’s kind of an almost anti-hero in a way, suffering from a need to entertain himself and others even when the fate of the world is at stake. In my upcoming science fiction novel The Curiosity Killers, I’m quite fond of Eddy Vere, the “mad scientist” character, as well as Rupert Cob, the playboy adventurer. Both are complex creatures, but Vere is more damaged and full of gravitas, while Cob is more a mixture of two types of hero: comedic and tragic.

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Confessions of a Writer, Part 1

To celebrate next year’s release of my first science fiction novel, The Curiosity Killers, I will be posting my responses to the Confessions of a Writer Tag survey (http://nicoletteelie.com/2015/10/02/the-confessions-of-a-writertag), with a few responses to each of the twenty questions parsed out over October and November interspersed with other news and events.

When did you first start writing? Was being a writer something you always aspired to be?

 I first began writing in early elementary school, spending my summers on short stories that, in retrospect, were obviously terrible. By high school, I had better figured out that character and plot were vital to storytelling. I used to want to be an actor, actually, until I figured out that writers are actually actors, directors, art directors, cinematographers, and producers of their own movies in a way. Writing a book, therefore, is more creatively fulfilling than just doing one of those jobs.

What genre do you write?

I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and have lately been trying some romance, YA, and mystery, though just in the planning stages so far. I don’t want to be constrained to a specific genre but want to tell the best stories I can that continue to challenge me. With my short fiction, I tend to be more offbeat and try things out that I might not do in a full-length novel, making my short pieces much more surreal as a result.

Can you tell us a little about your current work in progress? When did you start working on this project?

I have two main works-in-progress going right now: finalizing things with my forthcoming novel The Curiosity Killers, to be released in 2016 from Dog Star Books, and The Skittering, the next work in my Red Eye series (the first two volumes of which were released by Alliteration Ink in 2014). The Curiosity Killers began life as a short story back in 2011. I fleshed out the idea into a full novel and used it as my MFA thesis at Seton Hill University from 2013 to 2015. It’s my first science fiction novel—I’ve written a lot of short SF before but never anything this long or this ambitious—and it required lots of historical research due to its time travel plot. I began The Skittering in late 2014 but haven’t been able to prioritize it until the first draft of The Curiosity Killers was done. My Red Eye series as a whole has been a long time in the works—the first book was originally a NaNoWriMo project several years before its eventual release. After The Skittering, I have at least one more book planned in the series.

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New Kindle exclusive horror short story, just 99 cents!

New release day today! “Method Writing” is a short story exclusively on Amazon for Kindle. Only 99 cents, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers!

Method actors inhabit their characters. Method writers do, too. John goes to elaborate lengths to study the habits, physiology, and needs of a vampire. From the mundane to the emotional, he wants to lend a sense of realism to his horror writing that goes beyond the pale. But is the undead life all it’s cracked up to be? Can he last a month inside this experiment?

This story is dark fantasy/horror, with a surreal edge to it. Perfect for folks who like their horror a little more on the psychological, experimental side, and makes a great Halloween read. At 17 pages and 3,325 words, it makes a great quick read late at night right before you go to sleep. I’m sure it’ll give you interesting dreams.

I’m also using this story as a springboard for a workshop I’m designing on the very concept of “Method writing,” or writing as performance, and how to use acting techniques to enliven your fiction writing. That’s not to say you should use my protagonist’s process in your own work…

…or should you?

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What I’m working on

I owe this blog some posts about my time this spring at both the Pennsylvania Literary Festival and the In Your Write Mind book signing, but while I sort through all the amazingness that was those events, I thought I’d stall with an update on my works in progress.

What am I working on?
– Three different horror short stories
– Two science fiction short stories
– A fantasy flash fiction story
– A new edition of my short story chapbook Grinning Cracks with new cover art, as well as an abridged audiobook edition
– Three different urban fantasy novels and one novella (two of which are set in The Red Eye universe)
– Four different YA novels of various subgenres
– Two different science fiction novels, one of which is my MFA thesis, The Curiosity Killers
– A literary fiction novel
– A non-fiction writing craft book on drabble writing
– A non-fiction writing craft book on speed writing
– An academic non-fiction book on gender and media

This might explain my recent bout of insomnia, actually. I have too many ideas swirling in the brain, and when I’m trying to rest it all keeps me up. In addition to all these things, I keep a file on my phone for new ideas, those nagging bits of story that you can’t write right now but you have to document lest they’re lost. Yeah, that file is ridiculous, but it has actually gotten me through some idea droughts in the past. I heartily recommend that every writer with a smart phone keep such a notepad file and mine it when you’re feeling stuck.

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What’s up with needing characters to be likable?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about novelists—particularly female authors—feeling the need to make characters “likable,” and that perhaps one difference between literary and popular or genre fiction is that in the former, readers don’t necessarily expect to like/relate to/want to hang out with a character, whereas in the latter readers react badly if they don’t find a character (particularly a protagonist) likable. Furthermore, for a female author of a female main character, the pressure to create a likable protagonist seems greater.

So what’s wrong with women writing unlikable, complicated fictional people? And why as readers must we be so bent on this intangible, positive quality? I would point to a great many wonderful characters who aren’t so likable but who have achieved a hallowed status in fiction, both classic and contemporary: Holden Caulfield, Don Draper, Sherlock Holmes, Severus Snape, Walter White, every character in Gone Girl, every character in The Great Gatsby…and a great many figures of tragedy in Shakespeare are, at their heart, ridiculously unlikable. In fact, tragic flaws stem from personality failings, many of which are significant enough to make a reader or viewer seriously question the character’s worth. Furthermore, some characters we associate with “breakout” status—the Fonzies, the Michael Kelsos, et al—may elicit comic relief and fan adoration, but think about whether those characters would actually work front and center. Half the reason we love Daryl and Michonne on The Walking Dead is how sparingly and effectively they’re used. Would we really want to see them as the sole protagonist? Main character status for someone flawed, funny, and dangerous is bound to suddenly show their flaws more fully, which will then render them less likable. If Samantha were the lead in Sex and the City, she would be seen in a very negative light by viewers looking to castigate her freewheeling attitude. As one of an ensemble, however, she is funny and permitted her perceived flaws, so long as she doesn’t sully the slightly more sympathetic Carrie too much.

If we commit the literary sin of putting a complicated person front and center in a piece of genre fiction, we are asking audiences to read for character as well as plot, and this is where the discomfort happens. The supposition is that readers of genre fiction read for the story—the plot, the worldbuilding—but that only readers of literary fiction read for character, to explore the nuances of the human condition in all its real, raw agony. But why must it be all or nothing, one or the other? What’s wrong with writing about a social misfit but injecting that character into a piece of genre fiction? If readers are comfortable with a speculative fiction setting, for example, they’re already able to suspend enough disbelief to buy vampires, space exploration, or alternate histories. Why is it then a leap to also wade through an unreliable narrator, a series of extreme personal failings, or other forms of imperfection? Is this supposed preference for relatable characters a new phenomenon? Culturally, we’re eating up stories about zombie apocalypses, dystopian societies, wars between monster-beings, and worlds being brought to their ends by technology and invasion. We seem comfortable with exploring complete destruction of the very world we inhabit. And yet it is apparently too much to bear to explore that landscape alongside an alcoholic, a narcissist, a whiner, a jerk, a cheater, liar, bigot, criminal, or sociopath.

Really?

To me, characters who are perfect or only barely flawed are unrealistic. And because I write speculative fiction, where reality is absent in the elements that drive the story, I feel I must retain a shred of reality in those things unrelated to the fantastical components. Thus, in an urban fantasy novel where telekinesis and witchcraft exist, I create characters who have realistic day jobs, failed relationships, and quirks and failings that flesh them out and make them seem real. I might also add things that make them partially or wholly appealing, but I don’t expect audiences to focus on one or the other of those attributes but instead to take them as a whole. Just like with real life individuals, I suppose I assume some members of the audience will find that person appealing and some won’t, but it won’t necessarily hinder their collective ability to go along for the storytelling ride. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Jesse Pinkman, for example, but I rooted for him to stay alive at the end of Breaking Bad. I would loathe Sherlock Holmes as a real person, but I want him to solve every case. Wanting a fictional character to succeed in overcoming adversity does not mean we advocate their behavior, identity, or the approach they take in solving their problems. It means we are engaged in the storytelling give-and-take between author and reader and allowing ourselves an experience. To be unwilling to participate in that process if we don’t think we’d want to meet the character outside the pages of the book or the confines of the screen or stage is to limit our worldview to only the ideas that confirm our present state of mind. I would argue that fiction is better than that—it doesn’t always give us what we want, but sometimes it gives us what we need.

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Thought experiment

Recently while doing a rather repetitive task, my mind began to wander and I thought of how uninteresting the story of the hour spent doing this activity would be. My imagination began running away with itself, and I began to wonder the following.

What if you spent an entire year specifically eschewing anything boring? In fact, what if you took that a step further and were determined to only doing things that–when told later–would make for truly the most exciting stories? When you then look back on your life in that one year, how different from your present life would it be twelve months later?

I feel on one hand like this would be a very dangerous experiment, of course, but it would make for a truly fascinating short-term memoir. It also perhaps smacks of the “I want it now” mentality of the times we live in. We expect excitement or at least an alleviation from boredom every minute of every day, and that’s neither realistic nor practical. Still, I have to admit liking a culture where waiting in line is no longer interminable, so long as you have a fully-charged cell phone, and where many of the most time- and labor-consuming clerical tasks are automated or simpler.

More broadly, I’m usually quite fascinated with books about people taking on challenges like this, whether it be committing to optimism or walking across a continent or making all of Julia Child’s recipes or what have you. The common ground with all such writing and doing is twofold. First, it’s the actual act of wanting to do something strange and different, to shake up your life and use it as some sort of example for others of how you, too, can be crazy in a confined, usually safe, way. And two, it’s the further act of then memorializing the experience as a memoir. Not of your life, not an organic work looking back on a specific time, but a constructed one, wherein you seek to document that which you also create. As a memoir subgenre, it’s kind of fascinating, and if also used as an act of activism (as with something like Super Size Me, for example) it can also say larger and broader things about society and culture and be an agent of change.

Am I brave enough to ever take something like this on? I don’t know. Perhaps with a safe experiment like that pursued for a shorter amount of time, I could embark on my constructed memoir idea with essays covering weeks instead of months. A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step.

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Women in Horror Month

February is Women in Horror Month. Even though I don’t only write horror, it is one of the genres I read widely and write frequently. I always consider myself a “speculative fiction generalist,” but to many folks that primarily means science fiction. Horror was the first genre I was widely published in, however, and horror novels were the first pieces of adult contemporary fiction I read without a school assignment involved.

As part of WIHM, Mocha Memoirs Press has released a collection of women in horror, entitled The Grotesquerie, edited by Eden Royce. My short story “Dharma” appears in this anthology, alongside pieces by Michele Garber, Chantal Boudreau, M. Von Schussler, Kris Freestone, Marianne Halbert, Nicole DeGennaro, Rie Sheridan Rose, Lisamarie Lamb, M.J. Pack, Marcia Colette, Nicky Peabody, Caryn Studham Sartorus, Violet Tempest, Jessica Housand-Weaver, Selah Janel, Evelyn Deshane, Kierce Sevren, Carrie Martin, Lilliana Rose, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, and Vivian Caethe. I’m honored to be a part of this collection, which is available in both paperback and ebook.

There are more women writing horror than you think, but in this post-Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer world we think more of paranormal romance or quasi-literary horror, or they’ve been mostly writing for the YA market. But I think there’s a need for more women writing adult horror, and doing so in particular ways that perhaps speak to either a feminist mindset or at least a mindset that acknowledges that gender itself can be fodder for some reason interesting discussions of identity and terror. Some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read are by women.

My own horror mostly involves themes of transmogrification. Not shape-shifting usually, not often a voluntary or magical transformation, but the sheer body horror of physical nature altered in terrifying, painful, and often permanent ways. While certainly male horror authors deal with similar subjects, I see this theme less frequently in their work, and when I do there isn’t quite as much focus on the sensations associated with such changes. Is this because women are uniquely suited to writing about this concept, due to a deeper connection to the body? Obviously everyone’s body goes through transformations over time due to normal things like puberty and aging, but only women’s bodies also go through monthly changes and the potential change of pregnancy. Women’s bodies, too, are judged more harshly in the broader cultural landscape for undergoing changes, as our bodies are co-opted as being more an object than an identity or functional container/conveyer owned by individual women. Do we own ourselves, or do governments and photographs and media outlets own us? Are we the sum of how we choose to present ourselves to the world or are we merely things? The idea of no longer being in control of our physicality is terrifying, and it’s something that I think is a uniquely female experience.

As the month goes on, I’ll be discussing a few female horror authors’ work and talking more about The Grotesquerie collection.

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