Super excited to announce that Ashley Hope Pérez and I will be teaching a workshop at The Highlights Foundation from June 14-17, 2018. CONNECTING SOURCE TO STORY: MINING THE WORLD FOR YOUR FICTION is all about moving from inspiration to narrative and using the world around you to deepen and complicate your existing fiction. There are so many places where the world can give writers a helping hand in developing richer, more compelling stories. Ashley and I (along with special guests Edith Campbell, Marilisa Jiménez, and editor Andrew Karre) are going to celebrate creativity with four days of prompts, tips, exercises, comradeship, and exploration. Ashley’s been calling it a 4-day “inspiration party”. Won’t you join us?
And, If you’ve never been to the Highlights Foundation, I suggest you check it out. It is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, inspiring, creative places I have ever had the good fortune to write. Nestled in the mountains of Pennsylvania, each writer stays in their own cabin on the rural campus, surrounded by 1300 acres of forest. There’s a creek, and trails (and even a dog you can borrow to walk with you!) and fantastic meals and snacks every day. Super supportive staff — everyone there is invested in your success. I’m convinced you can get a creative high just walking into the lodge and smelling the piney air.
Pleased to announce that my story “Absolute Pony” has just been published in Time Travel Tales, an anthology of short fiction edited by Zach Chapman and including tales by Sean Williams, Tony Pi, Robert Silverberg, and my fellow Writers of the Future winner, Brian Trent.
The volume features dinosaurs, temporal clones, intergalactic celebrity chefs, and of course ponies. Well, sort of ponies. You’ll have to read and see for yourself.
I was so interested to learn that your most recent book, The Devil and Winnie Flynn, is about the Jersey Devil. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and all the kids who visited New Jersey beaches over the summer always returned with stories about the Jersey Devil. In my mind, it’s like a cross between Bloody Mary and Bigfoot. What’s your Jersey Devil like and why did you choose to write about it now?
My Jersey Devil was based on anything and everything I could find online, which mainly came down to various shadowy winged creatures of varying degrees of fearsomeness. One description I read suggest3d that the devil was a sort of winged dinosaur, which–I mean, if you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you know that’s no good, but it still didn’t inspire much fear, in my opinion. My brother and I were committed to writing a mystery, and since the genre itself was so new to us, we decided the best way to connect to our story was to write about something we *did* know, AKA: New Jersey. Once we focused on Jersey as a location, we sort of backed into the Devil, since it’s one of the most pervasive myths of the state. But since the legend itself was so goofy it informed the tack we took with our mystery–it’s the story of Winnie Flynn, a horror movie fan but real-life skeptical who’s swept up with a reality tv “ghost-hunting” investigation that is, by nature, extremely campy. And it’s only when (spoiler alert) she begins to discover that some of the spirits she encounters may not be rigged for the camera, that the story turns into something a little darker, more sinister.
Another curious aspect of Winnie Flynn is that it’s told in the form of letters from Winnie to her best friend. Why did you choose the epistolary format? Does it enhance the suspense factor? Or is it a way to make the book more accessible and down-to-earth in the face of supernatural events?
I wish I had a clear, thought-out answer as to why the story is told as a running letter! In general I tend to write lots of different genres and age levels and *lots* of different voices: from squeaky-clean aspirational tween to young chapter books, to racy romantic YA “bitch lit.” It’s only in the past 5 years or so that I’ve made a mini-brand of writing dark, edgier young adult fiction. But even with that niche, I’m always coming at the work in a new way, waiting to see how my characters are going to talk to me. In this case, Winnie was clearly talking directly TO someone. Her voice simply sprung, fully-formed, that way. But she was a blast to write, which is why I’m always encouraging my students to take risks and try different voices and points of view. You never know who’s going to emerge on the page!
Let’s talk process: How do you know when you’ve found an idea or concept for a scary novel, that it’s something you want to explore? Do you know right away what age group the concept is suitable for or do you have to work with it a while before deciding?
Well, as I say above, because my writing is so diverse, my process evolves a lot, too. not to mention now that I’m the mother of two small children, I often have to sacrifice the preciousness of a very deliberate process for the sake of just getting words down when I can!
I will say that normally, once a concept grabs me, the general age level is fairly clear–AMITY, for instance, which was a retelling of The Amityville Horror in the form of a Stephen King/Shirley Jackson mashup–was always going to be older YA. Same with WINNIE. Whereas with my chapter book, LOUISE TRAPEZE, I fiddled with voice and age level quite a bit (five very distinct drafts!) because I was so new to the chapter book genre. I had to write that whole story and then step back and determine what age range it was trying to be, and then I had to revise (and revise and revise!) accordingly.
I know from the workshop that you’re a fan of scary movies as well as scary stories. What’s the best horror movie or novel you’ve read recently? Or that you’re looking forward to in the near future?
You’re settling down for a midnight movie marathon. What’s the perfect snack?
Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Cheap rose wine. Red Vines. (NEVER Twizzlers.)
What are you working on next?
I’m all over the place! My younger daughter is 7 months old and I promised I would try to take it easy her first year. That has sort of worked. I have the third book in the LOUISE TRAPEZE series releasing in September, and in my “spare” time I’ve been alternating between a picture book, a new chapter book series, and–you guessed it–a YA thriller. Not horror, but dark and twisty. So we’ll see where it all goes.
Micol Ostow is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, half student, half writer, half chocolate, half peanut butter. When she is under deadline, she is often half asleep. She believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts except in the case of Chubby Hubby ice cream. She lives in New York City where she reads, runs, and drinks way too much coffee.
Your debut novel Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is hyper-realistic contemporary YA fiction. But when we met last year you were working on something much darker for your next book. What’s the status of that project?
It’s driving me crazy! Haha. Yay honesty! I’ve actually turned it into an adult book (the protagonist is 29 now, my age) and am nearly done with the first half but keep going back and making changes, obsessing, et cetera. I might take a break and start a new YA project as a palate cleanser—I am thinking more of a love story this time, and maybe supernatural in some way—but definitely hope to finish it this year.
What personally scares you more—real-life things (serial killers, earthquakes, car accidents) or supernatural things (ghosts, monsters, zombies)?
Real-life things, unless Stephen King is somehow involved, in which case, literally any damn thing (cars, washing machines…).
Process time: Where and how do you work? Home office/kitchen table/on the train? Is writing novels different than writing for magazines?
I have a little desk in the corner of my living room that I work at—sort of an open home office, if you will—that faces my backyard. I’m pretty bad at keeping my writing schedule regular, or hitting a certain word count every day, but I know a lot of people swear by that. Although when a joke or a character idea or whatever comes to me when I’m outside the house (which happens often) I’ll jot it down in my iPhone. My Notes look crazy.
Magazine pieces are generally a lot more structured/formulaic than novels are, at least in the drafting phase. The arc is pretty clear, there needs to be a clear “takeaway,” and there’s a tight word limit so it’s hard to play around. Every word counts. It’s almost more like tweeting than it is like writing-writing. Whereas with novels, you can really go nuts and write long and then tighten it afterwards.
What do you wish you were reading but aren’t (because it doesn’t exist)?
So many things: Fran Leibowitz’s memoir, a YA novel by Junot Diaz, Mary Roach’s nonfiction take on the world of women’s magazines, fiction about this or this, an adult novel with a premise/spirit that’s similar to a Joss Whedon show…
Right now, who is the person/celebrity/fictional character you would most like to subject to a horror movie fate?
James Franco. He’s too chill. I don’t trust it.
Anna Breslaw is a New York-based freelance writer and author who mostly writes funny things, or things about women, or both at once. Previously, she was a staff writer at Cosmo and a sex & relationships editor at Cosmopolitan.com. She’s also been a contributing writer for Jezebel and Glamour.com. Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is her first book. You should follow her on Twitter.
Ekfa-wha? It sounds like a skin condition, but stick with me for a moment. Ekphrasis is literary commentary on a piece of visual art. In this case, it refers to a short story that I wrote influenced by a sculpture.
A while back, I participated in Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s 2014 “Art & Words Show” held in Fort Worth, Texas. It was sort of a writer-artist exchange program. I submitted a flash fiction story and and an artist produced visual art inspired by the story–in this case, two paintings based upon my piece “Keith Crust’s Lucky Number.” In exchange, I selected a piece of visual art that appealed to me and wrote a story inspired by that art.
I chose–and I mean chose. When Bonnie released the artist selections to us writers, I was there on the second so I could get my first choice–I chose Pam Stern’s sculpture Tuscan Women. It was just so haunting I was sure I would have something to say about it. Pam’s work combines portrait busts of women with architecture. I know, right? So compelling.
It took me a while to work out the story I wanted to tell about the women holding a Tuscan village on their heads, and about the much darker forces implied by the heavy black sketching at the base of the sculpture. Finally, I discovered that it was an origin story that I had to tell.
When Kaiden’s mom was on the second floor, a sudden silence fell upon the first floor that seemed unnatural to him. Yamiyo was fully booked—overbooked, even—for the first time since they took ownership. Every room had at least two people, if not four or five, jammed in to accommodate everyone in the film crew. There was no other ryokan, inn, or hotel in Kuroshi for them to stay.
And yet here, in the middle of the day, the whole place seemed lifeless.
Like those months and months it stood empty while they renovated it. The main floor was built almost 150 years ago, back in the Meiji period. Three years ago, Ojisan started adding on in an attempt to compete with hotels. Yamiyo’s booking rate had been declining for almost a decade and spending money on it was maybe not Ojisan’s best idea.
His parents made the mistake of finishing the renovations instead of selling the place and cutting their losses.
Blackness moved out of the edge of his eyes.
Kaiden straightened and turned down the hallway that led to the indoor hot springs and the only two guest rooms on the first floor. A creak from one of the doors drew him closer. The lights in the hallway shut off, plunging the whole floor in the faint hues of the fading evening sun. He froze as a dark blur shot out from the Gallery and into Yuu’s room.
What was going on? Why was someone running around?
How were they running so fast?
His eyes lingered on Yuu’s doorway—barely opened. He’d have to slide in on his side if he wanted to enter, so how did someone get in so quickly?
A stupid thought surfaced. The rumors that surrounded the ryokan’s past, the legend that gave the room its name. How Yuu died.
How his ghost might never have left.
No matter what anyone said, Kaiden was sure the place was not haunted. He’d lived there for almost a year and never saw a ghost. Sure, he’d heard the stories—they were the bait his family used to lure an international ghost hunting show there. If not for that episode, Kaiden doubted Baku Studios would’ve come, but that didn’t mean he believed in ghosts.
Some guests never experienced anything out of the norm, others heard murmurs from inside the walls, heartbeats below the floorboards, moans at midnight. Felt cold spots all around the ryokan. If you were unlucky, out of the corner of your eyes you might see Yuu’s ghost hanging from the ceiling, neck snapped from the noose around it.
At least, that was what people said.
—from When Darkness Comes
Kim Graff is a talented young writer who I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the future–especially if you enjoy horror. The manuscript of hers that I read at the Books with Bite workshop (It’s happening again this year. I can’t recommend it enough!) was a post-apocalyptic tale, so we concentrated on that for the interview, but as you can see from the excerpt above, she’s a versatile writer who will do whatever it takes to give you a chill.
What’s the appeal of the apocalypse?
A few of my favorite video games and books as a child had to do with the apocalypse in different ways. The Mist by Stephen King, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil were all favorites. I think that’s where my fascination began.
Other favorite movies or stories about life after the end of the world?
I grew up on horror. I’ve been watching it since I was five, so my scare-scale is pretty warped and not much gets to me. I deeply dislike the notion of something crawling under a person’s skin though, like what happens in Alien or those evil beetles in The Mummy franchise.
Also jellyfish. Jellyfish creep me out. After living in Australia for a bit, you either develop a healthy admiration and fear of jellyfish or you get stung. Plus, they are brainless lifeforms and that’s just weird.
Tips for writing scary for teens vs middle-grade vs adult?
This is actually a very timely question for me. I’m currently working on a YA horror and an MG horror. For adult and YA, in my opinion, anything goes. I don’t believe in censorship for YA in the least, and with horror in general I believe there needs to be a reason for any gore or fright. You can’t just have jump-scares or bloodshed for the shock value.
Overall, character development is vital. If readers don’t care about the characters, no one will care if something bad happens to them. I see this flaw in horror movies in particular.
But with MG, it’s different. There are more gatekeepers, and though I grew up on horror, I recognize MG-level readers might not all have the same tolerance for fright as I did at that age. It’s important to be engaging for MG-readers, since they need a quick read that has a pace that will keep them turning the pages. It’s still important to have worthwhile characters, but the fright factors and the villain (or whatever the Big Bad Thing is in the story) needs to be tailored to MG. There needs to be a valid justification for why you need to murder a character or have something spooky happen.
I’m still struggling with this concept of YA vs MG vs Adult. I think it might come down to this: YA and Adult can be scary. MG should be more on the spooky side.
The apocalypse has happened. You get to keep one piece of current technology to survive the bleak and brutal years to come. What do you choose?
Can my answer be an armor-covered, solar-powered RV?
If I have to go with something I already own, I would say my laptop with the magical ability to never die. So that I can still play around with my stories as I hide in a cabin somewhere away from all the hellishness of the apocalypse.
Kim Graff writes sinister and creepy children’s books in NYC. She works full-time in publishing, but also does occasional freelance editorial work at Wild Things Editing. Before settling in the big city, Kim called France, Australia, Montreal, and Kansas City home at one point or another. A life-long horror fan, Kim one day hopes to live in a haunted castle in Scotland with friendly ghosts and a whole lot of dogs.
Hi, Kim. I had a really transformative experience at Books with Bite, in terms of re-evaluating what I want to write and why. What was the workshop like for you?
There was nothing not to like about the workshop. The focus on horror themes, the setting in the woods of Pennsylvania, and the stellar workshop leaders made Books with Bite a great experience. But far and away the best thing about the workshop was the other writers—talented women who were generous with feedback and willing to open up and share their own experiences. Everyone was working at a professional level, which made me feel challenged and inspired. I would definitely recommend it.
What’s the appeal in writing about dark and scary things?
I like a particular kind of dark and scary. I’m interested in stories about the monster within. The horror of being the monster is scarier to me than being in the path of the monster.
My first book, Scratching for Something, was a collection of flash fiction that explored this theme. In each piece, a character undergoes a transformation, and their body takes on a physical manifestation of their psychological state. To give a few examples: a man turns into a tree but his human heart remains beating inside the trunk; a woman’s breasts become actual fruit that she has to eat to survive; a man finds he can remove his head and walked around with it tucked under his arm; a woman coughs up her soul and keeps it in a jar, watching it shrink to the size of a raisin. The transformations are monstrous and horrifying but also infused with an inwardness and self-discovery. I’m fascinated by what we make of the dark parts of ourselves.
You also have a novelette about grief that you wrote in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Yes, in Diurnal, Susan’s past experiences and premonitions of the future indicate that her dream of having a child will go horribly wrong, but she goes ahead anyway. When the boy she gives birth to dies, she raises her daughter as the son she lost. The second part of the story is from the point of view of Gabriel, Susan’s daughter. We see how Gabriel maintains her own sanity with a different kind of magical thinking. Gabriel believes she was the child sending dreams and premonitions to her mother before birth, and that her mother mistook them as coming from her brother. Gabriel believes she has found proof in her mother’s diaries that she was the child her mother was (literally) dreaming about.
Can you tell us about a time when you were really scared?
This is tough to answer because I can’t tell you about a time I was really scared in a few paragraphs. When really scary things happen, like being in NYC during the 9/11 attacks, or seeing someone get shot on 42nd street, or being in a subway car when someone is being stabbed, I have to write stories because the emotions these experiences provoke are so complex. It’s fear mixed with anger, sadness, hope—it often takes years and many thousands of words for me to sort it out.
What’s your favorite scary story?
I like noir films, psychological thrillers, and dystopian science fiction. Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, The Matrix, Enders Game are some of my favorites, but I also spend a lot of time with literary fiction that delves into what really scares me—death and oblivion. One of my favorite terrifying passages is from Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. He opens with this stunning first sentence: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The image of life as a fragile crack of light, or as a baby dangled over a dark void, is nightmarish because it feels so true and inescapable. We can’t do anything to escape the oblivion to come—that’s terrifying to me.
Kim White holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from Hunter College. She is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize at Hunter College, The Catalina Paez and Seumas MacManus Award, the Shuster Award for an outstanding Master’s degree thesis, a Bingham Writing Fellowship from Columbia University, and a Forbes Foundation Grant.
Last month, I traveled to the beautiful Highlights Foundation campus in the Poconos mountains of Pennsylvania to take the excellent Books with Bite Workshop: Writing Horror and Haunted Novels, led by Micol Ostow and Nova Ren Suma. While there, I had the first two chapters of my new YA novel critiqued, listened to ghost stories told around a crackling fire, and met some wonderful authors. I also met some bears, but we’ll save that for another post.
My fellow authors were so amazing that I thought you should get to know them too. First up is Jen Maschari, author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. In honor of the haunted theme of the workshop and the spooktacular month of October, we talk about the really important things: Halloween candy.
What is your favorite scary story?
I love Doll Bones by Holly Black. Not only does she capture childhood and the magic of story so wonderfully, but it’s pretty spooky, too! For a movie, I’ve always loved Goonies. It balances scary with adventure so well.
What really scared the pants off you when you were younger?
Pretty much anything creepy-crawly: spiders, centipedes, crickets (especially when they jump at you!) I’d have to say that these things still scare me to this day!
Why do people like to be scared?
I think people like being scared, especially in stories, because there’s a thrill in it—of being spooked or surprised. But also, you know that you’re experiencing being frightened in a safe way through the pages of a book. Novels and stories are great for that.
Your first book (Charlie Price) is fantasy but not dark fantasy (there are *balloons* on the cover.) What is urging you to go dark with the next book?
The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price does have some frightening moments. But I also like to think there’s a lot of hope in it as well: light to balance out the darkness. I think a lot of great middle grade explores dark or difficult topics, whether they are real life or fantastical.
Scary excerpt you can share from your current work?
I am actually pretty superstitious about my writing. It’s a little too early in the process for me to share online.
Favorite Halloween candy?
Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins (the peanut butter to chocolate ratio is just perfect!)
Jennifer Maschari lives in Ohio with her husband and her stinky (but noble) English bulldogs, Oliver and Hank.
The audio version of my story, “The Island of White Houses” is now available from Drabblecast. I’m really pleased with the recording. Narrator Norm Sherman makes the story feel darker and spookier than I usually think of it. His version is definitely ominous. Which is what’s great about podcasts: each telling of a story creates something new. I also love the artwork by artist Susan Reagel.
I spent a lot of time as a black-wearing mopey-shouldered teenager thinking how very strange I was. And then, you know, I grew up and got over myself. For the most part. Because it turns out everyone’s really weird. It’s part of being human.
Which is why when I came across this quote attributed to Frida Kahlo–while looking for cookie recipes, no less!–it went right to my heart. It made me remember, and I felt sad and comforted all at once.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought: There are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”