Reading Feeds the Writer

I finished reading an amazing book. It was one of those reads, the sort that embeds in your psyche and leaves you changed. The narrative techniques employed were startling, surreal, and just exactly what I needed to read.

You see, I was stuck.

Editing, that is. I had a story that was true to itself, but flat. It didn’t resonate the way it should. This story touched only the word-receptors in my brain, but gave nothing to the mythology-receptors in my psyche or the truth-receptors in my soul. In short: it didn’t move me.  The story deserved better. My readers deserved better. But what to do? The answer, as always, is to pause. Read someone else’s work. Partake of the fruits of a writer I admire. I never know what I’ll read that will help me lift a lifeless story, but I have faith that I will find what I need. And I did! Shirley Jackson’s HANGSAMAN.

You can read my review on Google+. Here’s an excerpt:

HANGSAMAN is a bizarre, nightmare trance. I came up from reading it feeling deeply affected, infected. The prose warped my mind. I found myself thinking like the narrator reporting Natalie’s musings; it was disturbing. HANGSAMAN is not a book for anyone on the brink of a mental breakdown. It is a dangerous beast. It will swallow you whole. It is frightfully unique, and one of the most masterful novels I’ve experienced.

HANGSAMAN gave me the answer to my problem with my story. I needed to change my narrative voice! I’m attempting (bumbling) to use a few of the techniques I identified in HANGSAMAN. This approach, to identifying and then practicing with different techniques, is the most valuable writing lesson I absorbed out of all of my writing seminars, workshops, and classes. I owe thanks to the Writers Studio in NYC for that – it has changed my writing for the better. The trick, of course, is to practice until I find my own way of employing the technique; my goal is not to be a pastiche of other writers. This is one of the more advanced narrative personas I’ve ever tried to employ. I’ve spent nine years honing my craft, and you know what? I’ve grown! I can aspire to (bumble at!) using Jackson’s techniques. The writer I was in 2005 couldn’t even have attempted this, and probably couldn’t have identified the technique, although surely I would have felt the tingle of rightness in HANGSAMAN. Reading feeds me as a writer, and practicing my craft allows me to feed you, my readers. My lifeless story is being revived. I look forward to sharing it with you later this year.

Now, though, I have a big announcement about a different story!


MIXED MEDIA, my surreal short story, goes live on JULY 17th!! It will be free to read as a PDF from my blog – always! If you want the convenience of Kindle Whispernet delivery, it’ll cost you .99 cents. Please support me by reading, sharing and reviewing!

DIY Book Covers, Fiction Template #17

A Surreal Short Story, with a Cover You Helped Design!

The Blurb

Mario Santa Maria is an artist who has lost his dreams – literally. Insomnia, unemployment, and a failing relationship are his lot. Things are going badly, and then things get strange. On a visit to the Vos Modern Art Museum, Mario discovers he has the ability to intercept the communication between art and a viewer. MIXED MEDIA is a surreal tale of masterpieces, Delphic sugar cubes, and the promise of new perspectives.

What’s hidden by what we see?

Schedule of Launch Events

JULY 17: Launch day!!! I guest post on Mari Biella’s blog to announce the official release.
JULY 17: Brighter than a Technicolor Dream, a post on my blog about the influence of O’Keefe, Rothko, and Ashley.

JULY 24Groovy Escher, a post about the influence of M.C. Escher, a surreal painter after my own heart!

JULY 31: Wisdom Tooth in the Belly of a Worm, a post describing why I chose to include THE SCREAM, by Edvard Munch.

AUG 7: We Always Want to See What is Hidden, a post examining the HUGE impact René Magritte’s work had on MIXED MEDIA.

AUG 14: A Sort of Sex/Wine Triumph, a post about the Melendez painting (with those feminine figs!)

AUG 21: Want to see how sausage is made? This is a post about revision. I show you how the first paragraph changed throughout my editing process.

AUG 28: Author Reading, a video of me reading the opening scenes of MIXED MEDIA.




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Towards a More Beautiful Life

I’m heads-down on my revision. It is going well, and I am having fun again with my writing. There are several factors that contribute to the positive flow I’m experiencing. I believe  they are all things that can apply equally well to any endeavor – including the all-important endeavor of living a good life.

Witness Joy

In no particular order:

 Witness Joy

Earlier this week, I got to sit in on a Geology for non-Geologists class.  I’ll kick a rock down the road when I walk, but I don’t crouch down to check it out. The presenter at this class was a crouch-down-and-check-out-that-rock type of guy. He is passionate about geology. He is funny, knowledgeable, and a good presenter, but what shone brighter than all of those was his joy. It is a wonderful experience to witness someone talk about the things they love. It gives me hope that there is something warm at the core of what seems to be an inconsiderate and cruel existence. It makes me want to do things that matter to me. Witnessing joy enlivens my soul.

Give Back

At the beginning of the year, I decided I would write a GoodReads review for every book I finish in 2012. The reasoning was that not only would this help me be a better writer by learning from others, but it would also be a way to give back to the reading community.  In July, I was struggling with my WIP and falling behind in my book reviews. When I counted up the number of books I needed to review, I was stressed. Epictetus says, “Everything has two handles, one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not.” I was grabbing my book review backlog by the wrong handle. I was looking at it as just another task, and not viewing it through the lens of my intentions. I am not just writing reviews: I am giving back to a community that I have belonged to for almost three decades. Sharing feels good. The simple fact is that feeling good is more beneficial to getting into a creative flow than feeling bad, so why not choose to frame situations in a way that make me feel good?

Fill Your Belly with KINDness

I am the Kind Bar evangelist! I love the sesame chocolate bar. I love the nutty crunch of the seeds enrobed in rich chocolate. It is a bit o’ rectangular heaven. It’s also healthy. I don’t live on Kind bars (mmm, to be so lucky!), but I do eat five small meals throughout the day, and include generous helpings of fresh veggies, seasonal fruit, yogurt – and yes, Kind bars. I have found that eating smaller meals more frequently has an amazing effect on my mood, concentration, and creativity. The sugar highs and subsequent crashes are bad memories. The late afternoon downslide of my mood due to hunger is a thing of the past. When I eat matters as much as what I eat. By sustaining my body thoughtfully, I can take on a lot more and still smile.

Be Intense

My time is fractured by demands that come in from all directions. Over the course of July, I realized that I was spending just as much time trying to switch between different tasks than I was spending actually doing the tasks. None of the tasks were things I was willing to drop, so I had to find a better way to manage my time. I tried blocking out sections of time within the day dedicated to different tasks, but the stress of working under constant mini-deadlines was stalling my productivity. What finally worked for me was to batch up similar tasks and pick a day in the future that would be dedicated to working through those tasks. The feeling of constantly struggling to keep up was replaced with a sense of control over how – and when – I get things done. I work, write, blog, love, laugh, read, and practice friendship in intense, single-minded bursts. When I go all in, the results are better than when I’m frazzled and fragmented. I hope this is a lesson I don’t forget.

Embrace Pandora

I was a write-in-silence kind of girl until I got stuck trying to figure out this WIP. All of my writer friends report great experiences writing while listening to music, and I bought some tracks from Amazon to play in the cloud (neat stuff). Those tracks came out of my book budget, so I can’t do that very often and still read. I ended up revisiting Pandora, the internet radio. I am not new to Pandora; I’ve listened to it for things like repainting my sunroom or scrubbing the house, but I’d never tried it while writing. It turns out that music does help me write. It pulls me through those dread blank pages, carrying me on the inspirations of other artists.

I’m working on learning to live a beautiful life. If I were one to believe in signs (and I am!), I’d believe I was on the right track. What else could seeing three shooting stars in one week mean?

May all your portents be good!



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Posthumous Voyeurism

I’ve read someone else’s diary.

I read it from beginning to end. I underlined sentences I liked, put stars next to thoughts that I could relate to, and exclamations next to anything shocking. In some cases, I even went so far as to write comments or questions, for example “Are you sure, Syl?” I didn’t skim any of the embarrassing or deeply personal entries; in fact, I heavily annotated those sections, leaving my ink stains on her privacy.

I read a woman’s diary without her permission. I read it all, cover to cover. I sucked in every word, drawing them in through my eyes and giving them renewed immediacy in my mind.

I did all this in full knowledge that she would not want an audience to her heart break, her self-doubt, her catalog of times she’s violently puked (including location and reason for the sickness). I felt a giddy rush of justification when she revealed that she, too, was guilty of was reading someone else’s diary. When she confessed to “feel[ing] my life linked to her, somehow. I love her,” I put two stars, a blue underline, and a red box around the those sentences. To read the most private thoughts of another woman, to experience life and interpret the world through her words, is as intimate as friendship, but without any of the niceties, obligations, or safety of white lies. When she “richochet[s] between certainties and doubt” there is no spoonful of sugar, no winking and nudging, no sudden rain shower to break the mood. This is dangerous. It is a violation and a trespass.

The words we share with one another go a long way towards shaping reality. We build relationships with our words, we build nations with our words,  we determine the future survival of our species with our words. These aren’t little plastic swords for bandying about in practice. These are the real, fucking sharp-as-hell deal, and they can kill. When you steal into someone else’s diary, be prepared! It’s not like a novel or a movie; with those, you can simply look away and remind yourself that “this isn’t real.” A diary is the distilled reality of an emotional landscape frozen in time. Like most things that are distilled, diaries are quite strong. They can make you feel woozy with omniscience, but they can send you spiraling into sickness.

I read Sylvia Plath’s diary. I read it from cover to cover. I read it around 2008, devouring her days with my breakfast for nearly three months. Her perceptions seeped into me through her words. Beautiful and terrible, Sylvia’s words are lyrics fit for a Siren. They are pure and undiluted, lacking any redirection or editing for public consumption. They are a little like vodka, a little like strychnine, and a lot like magic.

Original ouija board

Original ouija board (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvia drank coffee with a lot of milk, had a station wagon that broke down, dreaded going to work, suffered violent cases of writer’s block, loved working in the garden, picked her boogers, and  played with the Ouija board. The illusion of Writer, In the Abstract is blasted away by her journal. The illusion of separation between her perceptions and my own was likewise obliterated. My trespassing intimacy was harmful to me. I crept into my own depression, my emotions at odd with the Spring all around me. When I closed the final pages, I put my annotated copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath away with the same reverence one would pay to a nuclear warhead or a gun without a safety and a light trigger. I keep the book in sight, just to the right of my writing desk, as a reminder of the power of words. Every so often, I pick it up and re-read a few of her entries at random. More often than not, the experience is disquieting.

I have come to think of her diary as a very extended, quite diffuse, but utterly terrifying piece of horror.

I wonder: should journals survive their creator? Do you journal? And if so, do you write with the self-conscious intent of allowing future generations to paw through your pages?

Sylvia, I love you. I fear for the you crystallized in those pages, and I’m sorry we met under these circumstances. I apologize for intruding where only your soul should have tread.


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An Exercise for the Reader

I love fiction, but I really love speculative fiction. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy: the best of any of these poses complex questions about the nature of humanity, what it means to be alive, and who (and how) we want to be, both as a species and as individuals. The otherworldliness of speculative fiction encounters makes it possible to delve into topics normally too uncomfortable or shameful to broach. You need look no further than Caprica, Dollhouse, or Star Trek to experience the deft interweaving of difficult moral and ethical questions into the fabric of science fiction. I was introduced to this pseudo-magical ability of sci-fi to address topical issues by  Arthur C. Clark and Issac Asmimov; much later, Elizabeth Hand showed me the same can be done with dark fantasy. I am thankful to those authors, to the public library, and to my Mom who, although not specfic fan herself, never batted an eye at her strange, strange little girl.

Decades and media delivery formats later, and the strange little reader has become a writer. My debut novel is strictly horror, but my work in progress is a horror/sci-fi hybrid. It’s just about the coolest thing my brain has ever thought, and I’m already working hard to get it written so I can share it with all of your brains. Just make sure you pay your power bill before you read it, because it’s scaring the bleep out of me to write it and, if I do my job right, that scary is gonna make its way to you. You’ll want the lights on – yes, even you!

Fiction can ask serious, humanity-sized questions. It can also ask more mundane, choose-your-own-adventure type of questions. In Stolen Climates, there’s a mix of both, but for this post, I’m going to pose one of the latter. Here’s the situation:

You and your spouse are moving away from the strain of urban life because your spouse has been unstable, and possibly close to accidentally harming herself or your kid. Your remote, not-quite idyllic destination is Breaker, Texas. There are some houses for sale, but all of them have obvious, unlivable defects. Then your realtor shows you one that isn’t as flawed; in fact, it seems just about perfect, if a little odd, what with all the extra shutters on the windows. Still, you’re in a bit of a rush to get the family settled because the office has called. There is a Class-A cluster that you, as manager, need to handle. You’ll have to leave your wife and kid, but you’d like to get them set up in the house first. Your realtor has one more surprise: a condition imposed by the seller. You need to read and notarize that you received the following message:

Potential Buyer –

The house is as good as it seems. The walls are straight, the floor well plumed, the windows sealed against the winter winds and screened against the summer sunlight. The house won’t be your problem.

At first, you will probably love it the way my wife and I did. We were outdoor enthusiasts: hiking, biking, camping. We spent weeks carving trails out of the woods, but the trails we found never seemed to be the ones we made. That was part of the problem. The rest of it, the real crux, are the woods themselves. I’d explain, but it would be a waste of time because you’re either from Breaker or you’re not. Someone in the first category already knows. Someone from the second: buyer beware.


The Lowells

Your assignment is to answer this question: Would you buy the house?

If you choose NO, go to page 73.

If you choose YES, go with whatever gods you have.

Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor. Stolen Climates / 02.2012


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In the orchard, a petrified tree – Stolen Climates Sample

The stone tree was leafless, its whited branches twisted by winds long since stilled. Conscious of the woman’s stare and the rows of gnarled trees surrounding them, Genny led Linnae around the back of the car. Together they accompanied Malcolm to the petrified tree.

“I want to go home,” Linnae said.

“There’s nothing to be scared of. See?” Malcolm said. To show her, he touched the tip of the branch closest to him.

Linnae made a frightened noise. It was the same vulnerable noise she made when a bee landed on her their first night away from home. Genny had been unable to move, certain that if she did, the bee would sting Linnae. The insect traversed the back of Linnae’s hand before performing a terrifying ballet on the tender skin between her thumb and forefinger. Then the bee took flight, and Genny had hugged her daughter. She remained full of relief even when she felt the sharp jab of the bee’s stinger and the burning rush of venom. The back of her neck was still itchy and swollen.

“Let’s go,” Genny said. “Laney’s scared. It doesn’t do any good to force her to look at things that scare her.”

“We can’t let her grow up terrified of trees,” Malcolm said.

“You want picture?” the woman with the fan asked. She was standing very close to the Mercers, but none of them had noticed her approach. “Photo?”

Genny shook her head but Malcolm said, “Yes. I think that would be just the thing. Come here, Laney, while Mommy gets the camera.”

“I don’t want a picture,” Genny said.

“Please, just go get the camera.”

Genny took a deep breath, and then tried to pry herself free from Linnae’s clasp. Genny looked at Malcolm. Not without difficulty, he picked up their daughter, her paper crown shifting atop her head.

“I’m scared,” Linnae said.

Malcolm straightened her Burger King crown as he spoke calming words. Genny listened to the low cadence of Malcolm’s consolation, pretending his comfort was meant for her. Behind them, the woman flicked her fan. She waved it around in the dense heat, sighing and shuffling her feet. Genny turned, ready to snap, but the woman was looking past her, watching Malcolm carry Linnae close enough that she could touch the tree.

“Don’t!” Genny said, but her warning was too late.

Linnae pressed her palm to the stone bark. For a moment, everything was as it had been. Then she screamed.

All the orchard’s blighted, gray leaves shook as if there were a breeze. Branches swayed, but there was nothing except the woman fanning herself. Genny dashed forward and swiped her daughter’s hand away from the petrified tree.

“Stop scaring her!” Genny said, blinking at the shrewish sound of her own fear.

Malcolm cradled Linnae, rocking her as he asked, “What happened?”

“It hurt,” Linnae said.

She threw both of her arms around her father’s neck and buried her face in the front of his shirt. Over the top of her bowed and still crowned head, Malcolm and Genny looked at one another. The smell of something going rancid wafted around them and a low hum skimmed and skittered through the preternatural quiet.

“You were right,” Malcolm said. “Let’s skip the picture.” He stepped around Genny to carry Linnae to the car.

Genny moved a little closer to the stone tree. A shuddering darkness not unlike the liquid dark of the road’s heat mirages seeped from the bleached bark. Genny pressed her forefinger into its shadow, but pulled back without touching the tree. The stench was worse now, thick with the gluttonous smell of a carnivore still drenched in the blood of a kill. As Genny backed away, her footsteps left reddish marks in the soil as if the whitestone dust were only a bandage beneath which suppurated a weeping and bloody wound.

With a flick of her wrist, the woman snapped closed the fan and asked, “No photo?”



“I don’t think so,” Genny said.

“Two for one dollar.”

“No, thanks.”

“Ah, then they are a gift.”

The woman went over to the stand and put two peaches in a small brown bag. Then she folded the top of the bag over on itself and thrust the neat parcel at Genny. Inside, the two peaches rolled and bumped together like living things.

“Will you give me a hand over here?” Malcolm called.

Genny took the bag and said, “Thanks. I’m sure they’ll be … peachy.”

She went over to where Malcolm was trying to get Linnae to let go of him long enough to put her back in the car seat. The girl alternated between hiding her face against her father and staring at the petrified tree. Genny touched Linnae’s arm.

“Don’t worry, Laney-loo. We’re leaving now. But you need to be in your seat.”

Linnae wriggled into her seat and sat looking out at the petrified tree as Malcolm strapped her in. When he was finished, she crossed her arms over her chest, a corpse pose. Malcolm closed the door firmly, but without slamming it.

“My blood pressure is singing,” he said, the skin under his left eye twitching.

“Do you want me to drive?” Genny asked.

“No, I’m okay.”

“If you’re sure,” Genny said.

Malcolm opened the passenger door and gestured her inside. When Genny was seated, Malcolm walked around to the driver’s side. He passed close to the woman at her fruit stand. She was chanting, a repetitive sound that mimicked the rise and fall of the hum that started when Linnae touched the tree. Malcolm could make out only the end of the chant. “La Zalia,” she said, but it was nothing that he understood.

“Good day,” Malcolm said.

,” she replied, and then resumed her chant.

Malcolm got in the car and cranked the key in the ignition too hard and too long. In the backseat, Linnae kicked her feet against the back of Genny’s chair. It was a normal thing devoid of its normal annoyance.

Can you hear it, Mommy?”

Malcolm put the car in gear, and backed them away from the trees.

“Mommy, hear it?” Linnae repeated.

“That’s the car,” Genny said. “Just the engine.”

“No! The tree. It’s singing,” Linnae said.

Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor.  Stolen Climates – online starting 02.2012!


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