Hero Meets Nemesis

I am the hero, in case anyone was wondering. My nemesis? The dreaded November 16th during National Novel Writing Month. I am gearing up to face this roguish fiend down. This is my 4th year participating in NaNoWriMo, and I’ve learned that this slump in the middle of the month is a trend for me, as it probably is for many others as well.

Up until this month, I’ve been dabbling with my most recently finished project, Holding, a YA fantasy about two boys, their forbidden magic, and the vampires that want to eat it. I finished the 2nd draft and am preparing to bind it for 3rd draft revisions, an idea I got from Maggie Stiefvater. After NaNoWriMo, I doubt I will have the desire to produce any new words ever, so I will be going through a physical book of my WIP, looking for pacing problems, character consistency, and tightening my theme. As stressed as I get about revisions and making sure every single letter is balanced within the universe, I also enjoy revisions because it’s like solving a problem…a very prolonged problem.

NanoWriMo is a little different for me. I could revise my old work for the rest of my life and probably be mostly content, but creating new, raw words is like squeezing juice from apricot pits for me. Especially creating raw, new words at the speed NaNoWriMo requires. BUT it gets my ideas out of my head and onto the page. And this is exactly why I do it.

Each year that I undertake this task, I dread confronting my old nemesis, the mid-month NaNoWriMo slump. For this year’s novel, I am returning to a long-time work in progress, Wrathmoor, a gothic romance (Annie Neugebauer has a great post on the gothic genre here) about a young lady posing as a housemaid to escape the tragedy of her past. The decaying old house, far from her old life, harbors ghosts that moan at night and an eccentric, brutal lord. I’m writing the novel in a tone appropriate to the time period, or attempting to, anyway. And because I depend so heavily on accuracy and research as I write, my usually slow progress with new novels is even slower with this one. You can see why this project might be a difficult one for NaNoWriMo, I assume?

So, how do I plan to combat my nemesis this year?

Music

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I will be listening to soundtracks (aren’t they pretty?) made by my illustrious best friend.  They probably won’t leave my CD player throughout this month. Also, this song and this entire score.

Art

wrathmoor
Img src: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56238066@N08/8110149754/

My Pinterest page for the novel has taken on new life through October in preparing for this month. I will be revisiting it anytime I feel uninspired. I’ve taken to referring to the above-image as a temporary cover for this project because I am utterly in love with it.

Books that feed me.

Revisiting the greats, like my inspirations for the novel and some of my favorite books: The Great Gatsby. The Fountainhead. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights. Also, I’ll be reading time-relevant works, old and new to catch a feel for the voice I want, like Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker for something new and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill for something older. I also couldn’t resist starting Confessions of an English Opium Eater. 

Writing

As King famously declares in On Writing, the muse doesn’t always just wait around, leaning temptingly against an ivy covered pillar. You have to schedule a standing appointment with that flighty twit. Ergo, at one point–well, many points throughout this month–I will have to just sit down and get the story out. It will be messy and that’s okay. This month is not about producing a perfect final draft.

That, my friends, is how I plan to prepare for this throw down with my nemesis.

Are you participating in National Novel Writing Month this year? How far are you already? How do you keep the words coming when you stall out? (And why are you reading blogs when you should be writing?)

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6 Reads of Unexpected Horror

My sisters and I used to have an ongoing competition to see who could scare the other two the most by jumping out at them. I never begrudged them whenever they would win, because it meant that I had been scared. That game was how I got my original horror kicks.

Nowadays, I’m a little less spastic (not really, I keep the legacy alive with my husband and daughters) and far more cultured about my love of horror. I love horror in art, horror movies, and of course reading horror. While movies spoon feed it all to you, seeing and reading it involve a little more on the part of the viewer/reader. Art requires you to create a story in your head, consciously or subconsciously, that makes it horror to you. You fill in the blanks the artist left behind. Whereas when reading it, you’re given the story and you make up the rest with the images dancing in your brain. It depends so heavily on the writer’s skill, their understanding of fear and fearlessness in employing that understanding.

Below, you will find a little reading list of horror in surprising places. Because what better time is there to scare yourself as we approach Halloween? None, I say.

Horror in Middle Grade (MG) Fiction

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The Nest

It’s not that I think it isn’t possible for a children’s book to be scary. I started my avid reading career in Goosebumps, okay? But I became physically uncomfortable when reading this book, squirming throughout most of it. On the surface the premise might seem innocuous: A boy worries about his sick newborn brother and develops a complicated relationship with the wasps building the nest outside his bedroom window; I assure you, the novel is anything but. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Extremely original and skin-crawlingly creepy.

Horror in Young Adult (YA) Fiction

My Best Friend’s Exorcism 

Yes, it’s shelved as horror.  But I have read plenty of horror novels I enjoyed but that didn’t scare me. You know what I mean? It’s hard to do.

In this post last Halloween, I recommended this book as quirky horror. And it was. But I have to be honest, there were a couple scenes in this 80s-centered novel that terrified me more than any Stephen King scenes.

Horror in YA fantasy

The Raven Boys

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or have read my most recent post, you know I’m obsessed with this series. On the real though? My body broke out in chills while reading The Raven Boys, and I had to stand up away from the book to pace while my husband politely listened to my hysterical string of curses. The horror was intense, and it’s not even marketed as horror! This author does atmosphere so well, so when she wants to scare the shit out of you, she’s pretty damn successful. Also, it doesn’t stop with this book. It’s strung throughout the series.

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Uprooted

A note about horror in YA and MG: I would never recommend these books to anyone looking for “lite horror”. When I say unexpected horror, that’s exactly what I mean. These novels scared me, and I didn’t expect it. When reading this novel, I experienced utter physical discomfort and psychological…interruption.

Do not let that cover fool you. This novel was stunning, but it has an inky darkness made all the blacker beside the life and love it struggles to consume.

 

Horror in Poetry

Satan Says 

There were some lines, shit, entire poems in this collection that grabbed me by the throat and still haven’t let go (I reread the first poem in this collection for this blog, and it was even scarier because I unlocked a little more of its meaning). I’ve also talked about Sharon Olds here. Poetry is a perfect way to inject your Halloween with atmosphere. This article on Lit Reactor has more fantastic suggestions.

Horror in the Classics

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Dracula

Now I knew going in that this novel is horror. I guess I just wasn’t expecting…well, horror. I feel like Hollywood has desensitized me with jump scares and Frankenstein creations of mismanaged lore and urban legend. But Dracula reminded me vampires can be scary, that they actually ARE monsters. Which makes sense, since Dracula is the OG of the vampire myhthos–as original as we’re getting in this post anyway, and most everything after are watered down reinterpretations.

Parts of this novel lured a visceral reaction from me. The narrative structure definitely makes it a work of psychological horror, which always sticks fast with me (House of Leaves, Bird Box, A Head Full of Ghosts).  The narrators’ heads, as they face down the monster, are our landscape and it’s just as rich as the physical landscape.

Have you read any of these novels, and were you at all surprised by the horror? Feel free to leave additional suggestions for books or poems that gave you unexpected chills.

I hope everyone has a safe, horror-filled Halloween, and at least one evening curled up with a blanket and a scary read in hand.

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The Raven Cycle: A Fangirl’s Love Letter

“Gansey looked up to them, and she saw in his face that he loved this place. His bald expression held something new: not the raw delight of finding the ley line or the sly pleasure of teasing Blue. She recognized the strange happiness that came from loving something without knowing why you did, the strange happiness that was sometimes so big that it felt like sadness. It was the way she felt when she looked at the stars.” –From The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

There have been books that have utterly shook me, searing themselves into my soul, and I didn’t shrink from the screaming heat of the branding iron. Harry Potter was the first–really the only–series I fangirled over. I read the first book sometime in my early teens. I shared a room with my two sisters, my bed a solitary twin that laid perpendicular to their bunk beds, so I think I was in eighth grade. I can remember the exact moment, laying back on my bunched up blankets and pillows, holding The Sorcerer’s Stone, that I fell in.  

My love for that series was swift and lasting. As each book came out, it became ingrained even deeper in my thoughts, who I was becoming. I have not read a series until now that has transfixed me so completely. The plots over all seven books are certainly intricate. But more than that, it was this orphaned outcast I loved so much, and his aggregate of emotions upon entering a world it seemed had been designed just for him (and designed just to destroy him!) for how much it feels like home.

After that, there were other, standalone novels that moved me to that same degree. The Catcher in the Rye, because well, Holden Caulfield is my spirit animal. Jane Eyre and later Villette for their lonely, harrowing, emotional, full protagonists. Years and years after Harry Potter, The Fountainhead nearly killed me. Again, it was a solitary outcast of sorts, Howard Roark, and his electric relationships to the other alive characters that took my breath away. The year my daughters were born, during my maternity leave, Carry On reminded me of my deep love for Harry Potter. And then there was Uprooted, because Jesus Christ, how can a novel have that much magic, and horror, and emotion, and love? But still, no series that caught me up quite like The Boy Who Lived and his story.

Now, I have come face to face with what will most certainly be a life long adversary, for I will forever have to fight for headspace with this series even now that I have breathed its final breath.  The Raven Cycle starts with The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. A psychic’s daughter sees a spirit on the corpse road, which means he will be dead within the next year. That non-psychic Blue Sargent can see him means he is either her true love or she is the one who kills him. Considering her family of psychic women have all predicted she would kill her true love with a kiss since forever, she isn’t precisely excited by either scenario. Especially when she meets the boy of the mysterious spirit to see he is a very much alive and very much the bastard that she has come to think of the private school Aglionby boys. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah are on a quest to find and wake the sleeping Welsh king Owen Glendower, and Blue is willing to overlook Gansey’s faults (and the constant whisper of her hand in his impending death) to join them.

trb drawing

Art by Maggie Stiefvater

The series is so much more than this starting point, this single moment in a universe of moments, each as powerful and vibrant as all the others. But I did not expect what came next, which made the novel–and the following three –all the more mind-blowing.

The Raven Cycle has, not only, “it all” but so much of “it all” that I feel very near to combustion when I think about it. Three-dimensional-walk-out-of-your-dreams characters, palpable tensions, tragedies, the crisscrossing strings tying events, places, and characters together, and an atmosphere so terrifyingly alive, I could feel it breathing against my ear.

I read the entire saga in June, and in August, started listening to the audiobooks, because I was dying to hear Will Patton voicing Kavinsky, a character from the second (and my favorite) book in the saga, The Dream Thieves. I was not disappointed with his performance.

kavinsky ronan

Art by Cassandra Jean at cassandrajp.tumbler.com***

Listening to the books so soon after reading them allowed me to appreciate all the concentric circles, the resonating themes, the sheer magnitude and power of this idea. 

One article claims the series is “a meticulously crafted cycle that rewards rereading in heaps” (don’t read these essays until you’ve read the series). And when I reread it less than two months later–listened to it–I enjoyed it even more the second time around for this reason, the intricacy, and magic, and infinity of it all.

“There were many versions of Gansey, but this one had been rare since the introduction of Adam’s taming presence. It was also Ronan’s favorite. It was the opposite of Gansey’s most public face, which was pure control enclosed in a paper-thin wrapper of academia. But this version of Gansey was Gansey the boy. This was the Gansey who bought the Camaro, the Gansey who asked Ronan to teach him to fight, the Gansey who contained every wild spark so that it wouldn’t show up in other versions…Ronan didn’t really care. All that mattered was that something had struck the match, and Gansey was burning.”  –From The Dream Thieves

I am so in love with these books, these characters, I have an ache in my chest when I am looking around listlessly, trying to remember what it was that had my heart so high in the sky–and then remembering: The Raven Cycle. And how it’s over. But lo, it is not. Maggie Stiefvater is working on a new trilogy for Ronan, my favorite character in the series (hint: ALL the characters are my favorite). You have time to read these damn books before the era of the new trilogy dawns. Please read or listen to the audiobooks and come back and tell me what you think. I will never tire of singing this series’s praises.

I will be going to see Maggie for her All The Crooked Saints signing in October. I wish I could smash all these words into a concise, heart-felt utterance of the crush I have on her brain and my devotion to and adoration of this world she’s created. Instead, I’ll probably just stand in front of her smiling like I’ve been body-snatched and forget my own name. Alas, this will have to suffice.

***Don’t look up fanart because spoilers! Listen to this song the author wrote instead–it conveys the tone of the series so beautifully

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Night Swimming

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais

On a whim, I decide to go swimming. At 9 pm. Actually, it wasn’t really decision on a whim. I wanted something to keep my mind off a cigarette. The burn I have in my lungs right now is familiar, though an altogether different torture than sitting outside late into the night, reading or writing hundreds of thousands of words, all the while smoking like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, asking myself ‘who are you?’

So now, I’m out here on my back in this pool, facing my fear of large bodies of water at night, vulnerable to whatever imaginary leviathin waits beneath me. There is almost no separation between me, floating, weightless as I’ve ever been, and the sky with its modest smattering of stars, only the border of the palm trees winked at by the light colliding against the restless waves in the pool. I row myself like a boat, like a canoe if we’re being honest, because I’m programmed to wish myself long and lean. And all I can hear are the sounds of my arms breaking the water with a muffled splash and my breathing in stereo, like the opening of an indie film. I could reinvent myself out here tonight, I think, while simultaneously trying to merge with the vast nothing above me.

Stop. I decided to go swimming on a whim. No. That was it–to keep my mind off a cigarette. Now about that…

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The Importance of Not Having A Plan

Going on a writing retreat without a plan as to what to write let’s you take in the beach, rather than wracking your brain for something that will be relevant to your readers. Write what’s natural to you, they say. Unfortunately, what’s natural for me is doubt and self-consciousness.

Instead, I open my hands in the sand and dig until dry, loose grains give way to the hard-packed aggregate sleeping beneath, still covered in the blanket of last night’s high tide. I dig with my nails, breaking it up, feel each piece in my hand, an individual and collective weight. Nothing else feels quite like this–a handful of damp sand. I let it go at some point, either before walking out to the water or once I get there. Going anywhere without a plan does not mean without purpose; aimless and unmotivated, the journey begs for your enjoyment, your presence. You can feel the salt cauterizing your lungs. You jump and laugh in the waves without remembering you’re 31 goddamn years old. After, you lay on the beach, sore from fighting against the ocean, only somewhat displeased by the sand granules imprinting your cheeks and sticky salt expanding your follicles. You sit on the emptied beach at night with your best friend beside you and stare toward the sound of the waves, seeing ghosts at the break.

You lay in a strange bed with only a screen, which may or may not be locked, between you and the outside (your friend was drunk when she attempted to lock it). You listen to the sound of the waves lapping, like listening for your newborn’s sleeping breath. You have a full-blown night terror about a Dementor stepping out of that Conjuring wardrobe in your room, throwing your heart against your rib cage, and jerking you back to consciousness on the other side of the bed.

Maybe it was the overindulgence of nicotine or alcohol, or the cappuccino from the self-aware Italian restaurant just steps from your temporary residence. Either way, you’ve dreamed. You’re alive.

Going on a writing retreat without a plan cracks you open–a bone saw to your waiting sternum that bursts apart with a sudden break in the pressure. It lets you see, think, and feel again. It lets you breathe with new, raw lungs, washed by the salt. It lets you carry home that sand still under your nails and shows you that you don’t have to let all of your doubt and negativity go. You only have to outsmart it by writing in spite of it.

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