alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The Devil and Micol Ostow: An Interview

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Micol Ostow writes novels about haunted houses, urban legends, and serial killers. But she’s actually a very nice person!  I had the good fortune to learn from her at a writing workshop last fall. And the even better fortune to bring her here for an interview.

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?

I’m dying to read Grady Hendrix’s MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM. And while it’s not horror, I LOVE dark thrillers and just read Robin Wasserman’s GIRLS ON FIRE. I also just started the last in Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES trilogy, END OF WATCH.

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.

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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.

 

 

 


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Killer Washing Machines: An Interview with Anna Breslaw

 

I met Anna last fall at a workshop about writing horror fiction for teens. Anna & I had brilliant conversations under the Pennsylvania stars about ghosts, celebrities, serial killers and writing for women. Trust me when I say that Anna has a strange and sparkling mind. We caught up again this week with a few questions about writing and things that go bump in the night.

anna

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.

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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.

If you too would like to drink wine and meet writers like Anna–though I can’t guarantee the talk about serial killers–and you’re writing for children or teens, I suggest you check out amazing catalog of workshops offered by the Highlights Foundation.


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Ekphrasis

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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.

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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.

The result, “We Will Hold,” is now available to read online in Mythic Delirium 2.4


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Writing Scary: An Interview with Kim Graff

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Photo by raichovak via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

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?

The Road by Cormac McCarty and The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. And This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers—this is an absolute must read. I’m a big zombie fan which I think leads into a lot of my End of World fascination too.

What else scares you?

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  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.

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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.


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The Island of White Houses at Drabblecast

Cover image of Drabblecast Episode #349 by artist Susan Reagel

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.


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Calvino Prize

Very pleased to announce that my story, “The Night Farmers’ Museum” was chosen by judge Robert Coover as the runner-up for this year’s Italo Calvino prize, sponsored by the University of Louisville Creative Writing Program.

In keeping with the fabulist nature of the prize, I confess that I dreamed the title of this story earlier this year and then had to write the story to find out what it was about.

Thanks to all the judges and readers, and congratulations to 1st prize winner Micah Dean Hicks for his story, “Flight of the Crow Boys,” which I am very much looking forward to reading.


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90 Days of Writing Bliss

The Fountain of Love, by François Boucher [1748]

What my life is like now that I’ve discovered The 90-Day-Novel
(The Fountain of Love, François Boucher, 1748)

WARNING: This post contains little to no objectivity.

I am in love. With The 90-Day-Novel by Alan Watt.

Because The 90-Day-Novel loves me just the way I am.

After I came home from Clarion West in 2011, I have been hunched over my desk with a gimlet eye, struggling to improve my writing. I critique my peers, I read the pros, and I work hard to identify my weaknesses, correct or patch them, and produce good stories.

Structure and plot are repeat performers in the parade of Things I Do Wrong. I’m a woolly thinker, the sort of person who has to say something (two or three times, usually) in order to find out what I want to say. That makes crisp plot turns tough.

I’ve tried LOTS of writing books and instructive internet articles. I’ve read about The Snowflake MethodGMC, and 7-point Story Structure. I’ve checked out the examples from popular books and movies and noted how they match the analysis perfectly. It all makes sense. My head nods in understanding. Got it, I think. This time I won’t go down one of those weird rabbit holes my brain is always finding. I’m going to keep it simple, stick to the structure, and just do this.

Cute but dangerous

Cute but dangerous

But what seems so simple when I’m reading about it becomes so impossible, so ineffable, when I try to carry it out. I go back and forth from the examples to my story and don’t understand how I could possibly mess up something so obvious and clear. Am I really this stupid? I think.

I’m forced to conclude that I probably am. And then I don’t feel so good. Because I’m me and pigheaded, I keep writing anyways. Spend days hammering at things that made me feel sick and sinking.

A few weeks back, I started writing a new novel. I wasn’t prepared, but I needed to get started, so I jumped in without a plan. I had a genre, two characters, a setting, and a situation. I figured I would just pants my way through an 80,000 word zero draft and worry about it later. I told myself it was a learning experience–though what I would be learning was unclear.

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) mentioned The 90-Day-Novel to me because they liked the questions for pre-writing. I put in a request at the library, but I wasn’t too excited. By now I had learned that anything promising 5 Easy Steps or 7 Essential Rules—basically, anything with a number in the title—was bad news.

My precious

My precious

But it wasn’t. The 90-Day-Novel is the how-to book written Just For Me.

I was two weeks into my draft when I finally got my copy. I read the introduction and did the exercises. Just as, you know, an experiment. When I came out the other side, I had tons of new material. And a realization that I needed more of this. It was an incredibly hard decision to throw away the 10,000 words I had already written and start over. It put my schedule for finishing back by almost a month. And it was the best writing decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be working from a plan that works with the way my mind already works instead of against it. Here are some of my favorite themes from the process that I find most restorative:

  • Story isn’t logical.
  • Our idea of the story is not the whole story.
  • The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story.
  • It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it.
  • The story already lives fully and completely within us.

Honestly, working with the 90-Day process, I feel like I could write a novel about anything. Any topic, any structure, no matter how complex or challenging. I can’t wait to finish the current novel and get started finding out what Novel #3 is going to hold. Because with a process like this, it’s going to be good stuff!