Should I Attend PPWC? A Q&A With the Voices in My Head

This piece, which I wrote in my capacity as 2015 Conference Director, is appearing today on the Pikes Peak Writers blog. Only I spelled my name correctly.

I don’t know if I should attend the conference. I’m not a “real” writer.
If you write, or if you want to write, you are welcome at our conference. You don’t need to show ink-stained fingers at the door to prove your worthiness. If you have the desire to write or learn more about writing, you’ll be welcome at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

But I’m shy/introverted/antisocial and nobody will want to talk to me.
Then let me teach you the four magic words: What do you write? Ask anyone that and they’ll happily talk your ear off. And if they aren’t socially stunted, they will in turn ask, “And what do you write?” Instant conversation starter!

Aren’t these things often cliqueish?
People do tend to like to talk to people they already know. But everyone on the conference planning committee, and every single volunteer, is encouraged to reach out and be especially welcoming to the new faces in the crowd. Friendships, critique groups and love affairs have all started between people who were strangers before they met at our conference. (Okay, possibly not love affairs. But it could happen.)

Where should I sit during the meals if I don’t know anybody?
Pick a table, any table. For lunches and dinners, every table is hosted by a faculty member. There are signs on every table indicating who is sitting there and what they write or represent. So you could sit at a table with someone knowledgeable about your genre, or you could strike out in a new direction. You might sit with an author you’re a fan of, or an agent or editor you’re interested in querying at some point (a great way to break the ice). And remember the four magic words!

I can’t possibly talk about my writing. I’ll probably vomit on my shoes if a Big Author or Agent asks me what I write. Help!
Relax, Grasshopper. That story you’re writing? It’s your story. Own it. Be proud of it. Remember that people ask because they’re interested, not to trick you out of your inheritance or learn your secret family recipe for barbecue sauce. Also, the people asking the questions are human beings, not deities. They’ve got pets, children, achy feet, cranky coworkers and a mysterious rattle under the hood of their car, just like the rest of us. So erase any pedestals you’ve erected for them in your mind, and you’ll be just fine.

I’m not a beginning writer. Is there going to be anything there for me?
Tons. When we put together the workshop schedule, we try to balance between beginner, intermediate and advanced writers, as well as balancing the craft and the business aspects with the writing life. And we’ve never met a writer yet, no matter how experienced, who didn’t think there was some aspect of their writing they could improve upon. Sometimes just doing the writing exercises in a workshop will spark ideas you can apply to your work in progress, whether it’s your very first manuscript or your seventh published novel. And don’t forget, this is a wonderful time to network with other writers, as well as industry professionals.

Will you be talking about my specific genre?
We do have some genre-specific workshops, plus we take the attitude that good writing is good writing, no matter the genre. We find that elements of different genres, such as romance, horror, suspense and mystery, cross a variety of genres.

Where do you stand on indy vs. self vs. traditional publishing?
One thing we’re never going to do is tell you the exact path you have to travel. We support all paths to publication, because we want the stories to be told. We want to help writers put out their best work. To that end, we try to provide a balance of insight into as many types of publishing as we can. This year we’re focusing on Choose Your Writing Adventure because we want to celebrate all the choices available to writers today, as well as bring back the fun of the most wildly diverse occupation there is—writing.

For more information about the 2015 Pikes Peak Writers Conference: Choose Your Writing Adventure, please visit our website.

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How Horrible, Part 2

One does not gulp down Ray Bradbury like the literary equivalent of a spit-flavored electrolyte beverage on a hot day.

From the Dust Returned. Beautiful imagery, lyrical writing. Some of the autumnal descriptions made me envious of the ability to so perfectly capture a fleeting feeling. It was a book to savor, with a hot cup of tea on a crisp fall day. It is horror in its most beautiful, whimsical form, something a child could read, or your granny, without fear of getting a nightmare as a result.

WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG for a very important message. Stephen King’s latest, Mr. Mercedes, jumped off the library’s Rapid Read shelf and into my waiting arms. Since I had to read it and return it in just seven days, my reading list took a detour. Incidentally, really liked it. If you don’t like Stephen King because of the supernatural elements–try this one on for size, because there weren’t any. Just the random madness of our fellow human beings to scare yourself with.

Onto Something Wicked This Way Comes, another Bradbury. Once again, the writing is beautiful and lyrical.

But I do have a beef. I know that Bradbury was a product of his time, but he’s almost Hemingway in his treatment of women. They are mothers and teachers, in need of protection. They provide soft smiles, warm hugs and always cry on cue when some misfortune befalls their menfolk. It’s as if Bradbury couldn’t conceive of teenage girls having the same wanderlust or need for adventure that the teenage boys had. (Who am I kidding? There are no teenage girls in this book, active or passive.)

I refuse to believe that Bradbury was surrounded his entire life by dull, soft, weepy women.

What surprised me was to see the reference to Pinhead at the circus. Today, most people think of the Hellraiser movie or Clive Barker’s books when they hear that name. But Bradbury used it before Barker, and I believe the usage goes even further back in time, referring to a specific kind of birth defect that often ended up as a sideshow freak.

Next came Alone With the Horrors, a collection of Ramsey Campbell’s short stories.

Finally, we got into some work that I would call scary. But what really echoes through these stories is the keen ache of loneliness, the disconnected and distanced feeling of being alone in the world. Most of the victims in these stories could have survived if they’d only had a friend, a lover, a sibling, someone to lend an ear or a shoulder and occasionally draw them out into the real world instead of letting them inhabit the inside of their own skulls until it drove them beyond reason. As a mood piece, this collection is stellar. But you’ll walk away feeling sad and lonely, not frightened.

One of the stories could have served as a precursor to Barker’s Hellbound Heart, although I’m kicking myself for not writing down the title.

Ever onward through the list!

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Three Scary Women

Me. Talk to me before that first cup of tea in the morning. Very scary.

DeAnna. Writes a cool blog. Knows more about writing than anyone else I know. Her Goodreads list is always intriguing and makes me want to read most of what she’s read.

Shannon. Also writes a cool blog. She actually writes the scariest stuff I’ve ever read.

The three of us decided to make our way through a couple of lists of horror novels. The first, which I previously mentioned, is Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books. The second, which DeAnna found, is called The Definitive 30 Scariest Books Ever Written.

We’ll just see about that, won’t we. Because so far, some of the horror novels are not particularly scary. Which begs the question, what is the point of a horror novel if not to scare you?

The other two have listed the books off the list that they’ve already read, so I thought I’d do the same.

From the 100, I’ve already read The Exorcist, The Year’s Best Fantasy Book One, The Silence of the Lambs, 20th Century Ghosts, seven Stephen King novels, probably all three Dean Koontz novels, The Drive-In, Rosemary’s Baby, three by Lovecraft, Swan Song, The Wolf’s Hour, Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Frankenstien, four by Dan Simmons, The Bridge, Dracula, and six books by Peter Straub.

36 out of 100.

On the scary list, I have read Rebecca, The Exorcist, Dracula, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Pet Sematary, Coraline, Slaughterhouse Five, The Silence of the Lambs and Frankenstein.

10 out of 30.

Running right around 30% for both lists.

Can’t wait to make my way through the lists, see what I think, see what the other two think. Because they’re scarysmart, in every sense of the word.

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How Horrible (and I love it)

I love a challenge.

Someone on FB referenced Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books. Since I’m a big fan of horror, I thought I’d better get to work and make my way through the list. It’s mid-September and I’ve been thinking about Halloween for a month now. Nights are getting cooler and longer. The wind is less flirty and more whispery.

The task is easier said than done, my friends. Easier said than done.

The list is alphabetical, so I dove right into the Clive Barker. I remember reading his books long ago, when I first discovered modern horror. (Thank you, Stephen King, for Salem’s Lot.)  I remember being genuinely frightened by some of his short stories. But the first book on the list, Books of Blood volumes 1-3, is not available at the library.

Hey, I’m ambitious, not rich. I want to read all 100, not buy all 100.

I moved right on to The Hellbound Heart. (Yes, yes, the basis for all the Hellraiser movies.) While the writing is beautiful and evocative, and the concept is fairly frightening, I hit a snag. If the earth had opened up and swallowed all of the characters, I would not have cared. For me, the book lacked a key element–I couldn’t relate to any of the characters. I didn’t like them. There wasn’t a single one I thought, “Ooh, I’d like to sit down and have a cuppa with that one,” or “I bet it would be fun to eavesdrop on that one’s cell phone calls on the bus.” Nope.

The Damnation Game suffered a similar lack. I don’t think I reached 50 pages before I put it down and thought about how I’d avoid all of the characters, given a chance.

Next on the list: a book of short stories by Laird Barron, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories. I’d love to give it a go. Library doesn’t have it, and remember: I’m thrifty.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Oh, I read this one all right. My cousin Janet left it lying about so I picked it up and read it when I was much too young for such things. . Scared the bejesus out of me. That one had me checking under the bed before I could go to sleep at night.

I’m about to segue into some Ray Bradbury, so the reading should get vastly more enjoyable. I may have to make a trip to the used bookstore to look for the Barron. And yes, I could buy electronic copies and read them on my tablet, but remember the thrifty/cheap comments earlier? I wasn’t kidding.

On a related note, the scariest short story I’ve ever read is an untitled story by Shannon Lawrence, one of my critique group members. It was a rough draft, and it still had the perfect balance of horror with some mundane but disgusting details. Thanks to Shannon, I will never, EVER use a porta potty again.

Would you read your way through a list like this? And what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

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Thrilling or Annoying?

So I’ve noticed what I think is a disturbing trend, mostly in thrillers.

The book begins with several short chapters. Each chapter has a different main character or storyline going on.

For readers: How long are you willing to twist in the wind, dangling from disparate threads, before the author needs to start tying them together? Not the wrap up of the big plot, of course, but how long can you hop from Jerry the pretzel maker in Brooklyn to Shawntelle the hair stylist in Athens, Georgia, before you get some clue how they link together? Especially when you throw in a shoemaker in Venezuela and an ex-cop in Topeka?

Does the formula work for you, or does it feel overdone? Do you think writers are getting more and more outlandish, putting more and more impossible distance between their characters before bringing them together?

For writers: Do you use this plot device? How many plot lines are too many? Is this how the story evolved in your head? If not, what’s the reasoning behind keeping the reader confused for so long? Are you exercising your “clever” muscle? Is this a rut you’ve been caught in, and you don’t know how to get out?

Obviously, good writing is good writing, and if it catches my attention and keeps me reading, then you’re welcome to use any plot device you like. But when I’m 50 pages in and the plot device stands out more than the plot itself, I think there’s a problem.

It could be my problem. Learning more about writing has ruined some reading for me. While I’m always reading for the pure enjoyment of reading, I’m also reading for craft. I’m less forgiving of small errors. A strict and frightening dichotomy has divided my brain–half is enjoying the ride, and the other half is meticulously taking apart the structure of the entire piece, from sentences to the main character’s character arc.

Or is this just how modern thrillers are written and I should sit down and shut up? Like sausage, I should enjoy the end product without looking too closely at how it’s made?

 

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Phil–the Gateway Plant

It started with Phil. He’s a Philodendron that some dear friends gave me years ago.

I’m houseplant challenged, you see. I once killed a cactus, although in my defense, I dropped something on it.

Houseplants and me–not a match made in heaven.

But Phil is different. Phil is hardy. Phil is about seven miles long and can drag himself to the sink and turn on the taps if he gets thirsty. No matter how much neglect or abuse Phil gets, he thrives.

And it’s time for Phil to go. Not all of Phil. I’d like to keep a more reasonable sized portion of him. But what we have now would look more at home in the rain forest exhibit of a natural history museum. Like a baby elephant, he’s gotten too big.

So today we moved Phil, because he needs desperately to be repotted, and because I want to put a bookcase in the corner he has been occupying. The spot that used to hold the bookcase will hold the new armoire/liquor cabinet. Which I haven’t finished upcycling from the television armoire it was in a former life. (Hm. Same people who gave us Phil gave us the armoire. And an overstuffed chair with ottoman. And a bed frame. I see a pattern forming here.)

What happens when you move a gigantic houseplant for the first time in ten years?

You find dead leaves, dust, abandoned spider webs and bales of cat hair. After gently disentangling Phil from the curtain rod he lovingly embraced, you find a lot of dust on top of your curtains, and in the cute wooden rings that connect the curtain to the curtain rod. Stop. Dust the top of the curtains. Dust the wooden rings. Realize you have to wipe down the door frame under the curtains. Realize how dirty that side of the sliding glass door is that is rarely opened and normally covered by the curtain.

When you come down off the stepstool that allowed you to clean the curtain rod and all attached parts, don’t forget that you moved the dining room table over about a foot to accommodate all this activity. The closer you come to impaling yourself on a dining room chair, the harder you’ll consider whether your life insurance is paid up, and whether it’s a large enough policy. And if you come off the stepstool the wrong way, you could be in for an unpleasant goosing.

Then there are the phantom spots on the wall. They could be coffee, gravy, red wine, or possibly very old mustard. Small flecks on the wall that need to be wiped off. Which leads to wiping down the whole wall. Which leads to the discovery that you’re a pretty slovenly housekeeper, and maybe you should wipe down your walls more often than once a decade.

When you’re wiping out suburban spider town, you start to wonder. Spiders are supposed to eat flies, right? So why the heck do we always have so many fruit flies with a veritable metropolis of spider webs around the dining room ceiling? Are the spiders on strike? Have they unionized, and they’re waiting for higher wages and better health care benefits? They should be sending me thank you cards, not leaving their abandoned slum webs for me to clean up. Of course, they could be protesting the cat hair that floats up, attaches itself to the web and makes foot traffic impossible for the arachnid set.

Today, I was going to move a bookcase. Thanks to Phil, I’ll be washing walls, ceilings and windows. I’m pretty sure at some point, while I’m teetering on the stepstool, arms pinwheeling to keep my balance, I’ll look over at the light fixture over the dining room table and realize it also needs disassembling and cleaning.

Phil, how could you do this to me?

If anyone wants a large Philodendron, please let me know.

 

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What book group is reading (Oct. 2014-Aug. 2015)

Always a pleasure to spend an evening with the ladies of my book group, enjoying a potluck and picking out what books to read for the next year.

 

Oct. 13, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Nov. 10, The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Dec. 8:  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Jan. 12: Abandon by Blake Crouch
Feb. 9: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
March 9:  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
April 13:  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
May 11:  The Meadow by James Galvin
June 8: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
July 13: The Translation of the Bones by Kay Francesca
Aug. 10:  The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams
Sept. 14: The Choosing and potluck

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