On Becoming a Writer and Learning To Be Vulnerable: Guest post by Carol Weis  

Carol Weis is the author of the memoir, STUMBLING HOME: Life Before and After That Last Drink, published by Heliotrope Books in NYC. She also wrote the Simon & Schuster picture book, When the Cows Got Loose, and the poetry chapbook, DIVORCE PAPERS. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, AARP, Independent, Salon, ESPN, Guideposts, Cosmo, and numerous other venues and has been read as commentary on NPR.

Unlike many of my writing peers, I never dreamed of being a writer. I mean, I barely made it through college. As a former actor, professional cook and baker, I seemed to have a penchant for creative pursuits, but becoming a writer was never one I considered. Then I got sober. And found I had so much I needed to say. Words in the form of primitive poetry started making their way onto whatever scrap of paper was available. And upon mastering the art of revision, I soon had enough decent poems to submit for a chapbook. 

After unearthing some of my childhood trauma in therapy, I started writing children’s books to appease that ever-present three-year-old still squirming inside of me, the one who was abandoned by a mom sick with tuberculosis for a painfully long time. Her constant need for attention dominated my life and called the shots for many years. 

Writing kid’s books seemed to assuage some of her long-ignored angst. 

At least for awhile.

But when I realized there was always an addicted character showing up in my middle grade and young adult manuscripts, I sensed I needed to shift gears and write about myself. In an achingly honest way. At first, it came in the form of  journaling, and since my daughter had reached her teen years and our fights were more frequent and ferocious, I suggested she journal with me, which turned into a mother/daughter memoir project that still seeks a publisher. And thanks to my daughter’s incessant prodding, after years of telling my wild stories at family reunions and other gatherings, I started a memoir of my own, having no idea where it would take me. So frantic to get down all the memories as they rushed in, I finished the first draft in four months, something I would never advise anyone to do. 

I wrote mostly from my bed, which at the time I called my office. The vulnerability I felt from the words and scenes that poured forth made me want to hide forever beneath the covers. During that time, my body broke out in a vicious rash, with my legs, arms, and back erupting in what I surmised was the rage I felt from the writing. Exposing things I had buried for years. Things I’d even hidden from myself. It got to the point, I only wanted to take walks at night, so I wouldn’t run into any of my neighbors or friends who knew about my book project. I hadn’t felt that kind of vulnerability since I was a kid, or since I first got sober. 

I was writing the same way the memoirists that I loved to read wrote. In a way that made me connect with what they were saying, that took me to the pit of my darkest self. In a way that helped me let go of some of the shame I carried for so many years. In a way that made me feel a lot less alone. And as I wrote for those painful four months, and revised those equally painful four years, I hoped my words would do the same for others. Because making ourselves vulnerable on the page does just that.  

And after all, isn’t that the reason we write? 

“[B]e surprised by the process,” an interview with Jessica McHugh

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, a 2x Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet, and an internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries, and her Elgin Award-nominated blackout poetry collection, A Complex Accident of Life. For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.

Here, she answers a few questions about her art, and how she got involved with blackout poetry.

Q: How is the experience of reading/absorbing blackout poetry different than that of traditionally written poetry?

A: I think the main difference is the amount of time you spend reading the piece, especially if the “blackout” portion is more complex and/or takes on the personality of the poem, which is what I try to do with my work. If the source material is apparent, I might spend even more time reading and re-reading, because the blackout poem sometimes honors and uplifts the original piece, whether it was intentional or not. And while I prefer to include a typed version of the poem with my pieces, not everyone does that, and if the blackout art doesn’t create a legible path for the eye, the poem might be more difficult to read/interpret and require a little more work to enjoy.

Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty similar experience. I’ve written poetry and monologues using blackout poetry techniques without actually creating a blackout piece, and I don’t think most readers would know I used a nontraditional method if I didn’t mention it. It’s an incredibly fun and versatile art form.

Q: With your unique work, you have carved out a niche in the horror writing community. How has the support of that community bolstered both your books/work and your sense of self as an artist?

A: It’s been an interesting journey, for sure. Since my first novel publication in 2008, I’ve had ups and down with my career and seen several iterations of the horror community. I’ve seen folks band together, I’ve seen them devour each other, I’ve seen people lose relevance due to an unwillingness to change with the times, and I’ve seen people going through darkness flourish with the support of their peers and come out better and brighter on the other side.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have found lifelong friends in this community and support throughout the phases of my career. Despite experimenting with playwrighting, my young adult series, and other mediums, I remained focused on horror novels and short stories and thought I’d stay on that trajectory. I never would’ve guessed that after 14 years and 25 published books, I’d be a 2x Bram Stoker Award nominee for my poetry, but I also never expected to fall in love with blackout art so quickly after I started playing around with it in early 2019. Nor did I expect such an outpouring of support from the community. While I will continue to write in whatever genre and format strike my fancy, the way blackout poetry rekindled my artistic passion after a long period of doubt, and how my horror friendos lifted me out of my gloom and doom to embrace my new artistic endeavors, makes me think blackout poetry will be a massive part of my life forever

Q: Can you tell us more about your Little Women blackout poetry? How it compares to or differs from your work in Strange Nests and A Complex Accident of Life?

A: Absolutely! My 3rd as-yet-untitled blackout poetry collection, inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is definitely my most ambitious project so far. It will have 155 poems to coincide with the novel’s 155th anniversary in 2023, which is triple the number of poems in both A Complex Accident of Life and Strange Nests. That wasn’t my original intention, but I’ve come to realize that “original intentions” don’t matter much when it comes to these collections. A Complex Accident of Life only became a collection because Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha saw me posting Frankenstein blackout poetry and reached out about compiling the pieces. Strange Nests wasn’t planned either; it was more of a coping mechanism after my brother passed away in January 2021 and transformed into something so much more. So I’ve rolled with the punches and allowed myself to be surprised by the process. Deciding to make a lot more poems from Little Women has opened up the narrative in a huge way and allowed me to explore weirder paths, giving the collection more of a cosmic horror feel while remaining a fierce tale of sisterhood, selfhood, and feminine rage. While an official release date has not been set yet, it will probably be available from Apokrupha around April 2023. 

Q: Finally, is there a text you have your eye on for a future project? Are you willing to share what that is?

A: For collections, I’ll likely keep using classics written by women for as long as possible, and while I’d have to verify these are in the public domain, I’d love to play with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and pretty much any Agatha Christie. Outside of that theme, I’m also eager to make some creepy holiday pieces from A Christmas Carol. But really, I’m open to giving anything and everything a shot. I’ve found beautiful poetry in the most unlikely places, and I never get tired of discovering the hidden treasures within. 

To commission your own blackout poem, contact Jessica here.

Writing Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: Guest Post from Allison Hong Merrill

The blog took a spring break, but is back with Allison Hong Merrill, author of the bestselling and award-winning memoir Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops. Here, Allison tells us about the process of rebuilding and restructuring her memoir after receiving beta reader feedback, and shares some of her best writing tips. Thank you, Allison!

When reading a book, I like to see the hook, setting, character, and conflicts of the story set up within the first few pages. So I make sure to offer my reader the same gift.

Originally, my memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, was written in a nonlinear structure. But several of my beta readers suggested that I revamp the entire manuscript and change the narrative into a chronological timeline, so I did. It was a huge undertaking. The manuscript went through twelve full revisions. On average, each pass took two weeks. And when I say, “I revamped the entire manuscript,” I mean I even changed the title. It went from Grafted Mandarin to Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops because the new structure is in ninety-nine short sections. But even after this major overhaul and subsequent edits, the first ten pages remained unchanged from the first draft to the published book. It’s because the inciting incident, setting, main characters, and conflicts of the story are established within those pages.

When writing a book, I like to do the following:

1. Imagine my book adapted into a film, then I write scenes and dialogue as if describing them from the movie.

2. Do book research and save images on pinterest.com to create a mood board for reference. For a visual person like myself, this method works really well.

3. I make myself a different writing-related promise and a reward every week. This is not a goal; it’s a promise. A goal is for reference, a promise is to be kept. Some examples of my promises are: write an hour every day, revise a chapter, create social media content. If I keep my promise that week, I reward myself. My top three rewards are: watch a movie, buy a cute notebook, sleep in on Sunday morning. If, for any reason, I fail to keep my promise, then I give myself a second chance in the following week to restore my integrity and try again. Sometimes it’s necessary to promise myself to practice the art of self-care. I’ll take a week off from writing to recharge my creative energy. I work with another writer as accountability sisters. We check in every Saturday morning to support each other and to celebrate our victories, big and small.

4. I’m a memoirist. To dive deeper into my memory, I keep a tin box of NIVEA crème on my desk. Its distinctive scent takes me back to my childhood years and, from there, I get to explore the past and find inspirations for my writing projects. Smell triggers memory. If you’re writing about your past, please consider keeping something (lotion, soap, shampoo, perfume, scented candle, essential oil, etc.) on your desk with a scent that reminds you of the olden days.

5. Because I’m a visual person, instead of setting a timer on my phone, I flip over a sixty-minute hourglass on my desk to help me stay focused on one-uninterrupted-hour of writing.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Happy writing!

“A Bargain at Twice the Price” (AUDIO)

Read on The Story Discovery Podcast by Onyx Publications

If you had known Beth would leave two months after the closing date, you never would have bought the shoebox starter home on Oak View Drive in a sleepy commuter town with one shitty pizza joint and two convenience stores and nothing to do on weeknights but hang out at the rat-hole townie bar drinking too much bottom-shelf whiskey.

If you had known Beth would find you so utterly lacking as a man and a human and a partner, that she would look at you with such disappointment that shame would rush down to the soles of your feet and back up to the roots of your red hair, you never would have proposed on that trip to the Keys with the ring you bought with your third-to-last paycheck from the cable company that would soon lay you off due to “unforeseeable market shifts.” You were a customer service agent. Now you’re a chump, and according to Beth, an alcoholic.

If you had known all that and more, you wouldn’t be sitting shirtless and hungover on your tiny front porch in pajama pants, drinking your fourth cup of black coffee, watching Tim across the street water his half-dead lawn for the third day in a row. You wouldn’t be hoping for someone to walk down the sidewalk with a dog or two, maybe a fugly baby, just to have something interesting to look at.

But you didn’t know, so here you are, tits out, and Tim just waved so you raise your coffee cup in an oddly formal salute and get ready for the nothingness of the day to settle into your bones like a damp chill.

Click the podcast link for more, or go to Etched Onyx Magazine to read the text!

Juggling WIPs

The view from my office window.

This is not trying to be instructional. This is more or less a rambling cry for help.

How do you decide what to work on and when, if you have lots of writing projects started? Especially if demands in your life are all grabbing at your legs like toddlers? (Some of you likely have actual toddlers grabbing at your legs.) I have to get a lesson plan ready for Intro to CW class at 4 today and proofread a typeset novel for my other job. But I’m distracted by thoughts of the last two stories I need to finish for my speculative fiction collection, and the poem that’s almost done but not quite, and the essay about writing I started yesterday that today I’m thinking might be garbage (and if it is, how much time I spent on it).

I also saw a sub call yesterday for ghost stories (Can I write one by the end of May?) and a horror poetry collection that doesn’t accept simsubs (Where do I have that one poem out? Must remember to check my sub list). There are several titles I’m trying to read before StokerCon, too, so, of course, add reading to the to-do list.

How do you focus? How do you organize your projects? Do you have an order of importance, and if so, is that by deadline or by interest? I’m excited about everything, and I love having a lot going on, but instead of doing any of it, I’m staring out the window.

“Makeover” (AUDIO)

Read on the Blood & Jazz Podcast by Last Girls Club

“What are we doing with this one?” asked Janine, Bernard’s uncertified surgical assistant.

The Sculpting Clinic was world known, at least in certain, whispering circles. Clients were mostly women, but men came in too—not that the clinic’s services came cheap for any body. Patients submitted willing flesh and blank checks to Bernard, The Body Sculptor, agreeing to a carte blanche plastic surgery makeover. Perfectly legal, at least in this country. Bernard was an artist, after all. If people wanted basic nips and tucks, they could stay in the U.S. and pull over at any suburban L.A. stripmall.

Janine circled that afternoon’s client, the woman’s naked, unconscious form laid out on the operating table like a spring picnic. Janine was more than an assistant, really—she was an apprentice. At least that’s how she thought of herself, here to learn from the master. Ever faithful, she’d followed him from state to state and then country to country, outrunning laws and lawsuits and license revocations until they’d found this blessed safe harbor where they could work in peace and impunity.

But with freedom to practice came a certain boredom for Bernard. Janine heard it lately in his sighs and caught him, often, staring out his office window at the back alley’s brick wall.

She saw it again now. “Doctor?” she said. She only called him Bernard in her head.

He spoke without looking at her, his eyes assessing the corpse-like figure on the steel table. “I’m sick of breast augmentations and removals. Ass injections. Facial rearrangements.”

“You’re evolving,” said Janine, liking the way the word wrapped around her tongue.

Silence.

Then, “I’m evolving,” he repeated. And again. “I’m evolving.”

And just like that it was back—the fevered, glorious look of an artist inspired by a blank canvas and his own simmering genius. The look that gave Janine’s life direction and purpose so long ago. She felt a throb low in her sea-green scrubs. But she told herself it was mostly professional admiration she felt for him, the awe of a rapt student. Mostly. She swallowed and gave her capped head a little shake. Focus, she told herself, on the art. The process. She pressed play on the stereo in the corner; barely perceptible acid jazz seeped into the room.

Then Bernard grabbed the purple surgical marker Janine held out to him like a baton. He drew in a frenzy, long slashes across the woman’s chest, dotted lines on her thighs, squares on her sagging stomach. Something like a spiral on her neck. Then he stood back and looked to Janine, waiting.

She hesitated. The heart rate monitor beeped once, twice, three times.

“Wow,” she said finally, because that’s what she always said, and why rock the boat now? The woman would stand out in a crowd. That’s what all Bernard’s clients wanted, anyway—not to fade into the background. “So… Avant-garde,” she continued. “Almost… Cubism? Expressionism?” She bit her lip. Her turn to wait.

Silence.

But it was the right thing.

Bernard grinned and pulled up his face mask. Janine let out the breath she’d held trapped in her chest and got ready to suction.

“We don’t create feminist horror; it imposes itself upon us,” an interview with Lindsay Merbaum

Lindsay Merbaum is a queer feminist author, workshop leader, high priestess of home mixology, editor, and more. Her debut novel, The Gold Persimmon, is available now.

Q: Feminist Horror is not new, but it does seem to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Can you tell us a little about the genre and its unique opportunities, and why people are celebrating it right now?

A: Feminist horror is borne from the experience of femmes and/or the female-bodied. Often our first encounter with real-life horror involves subtle interactions with imposed gender norms, or not-so-subtle acts of violence such as bullying, assault, and rape. In this sense, we don’t create feminist horror, it imposes itself upon us. In a time of renewed fascism, where the right to abortion access is disappearing before our eyes, where rates of domestic violence have soared during the pandemic, as the Earth continues to heat up, causing death and destruction, there is a renewed interest in finding ourselves in the stories that employ speculative and horror elements to address real-life occurrences. Fiction often expresses the unspeakable and, in this case, feminist horror explores the monstrous nature of misogyny in all its forms. 

Q: Your novel The Gold Persimmon has just debuted, to rave reviews, and is unlike any other work out there. Helen Phillips said “The Gold Persimmon is a place where grief, sex, and mystery mingle,” and the novel has been called “dark,” “experimental,” “queer,” “feminist,” “horror,” “eerie,” “atmospheric,” and more. How did you conceptualize this? Did you consider its classification as the story developed, or did you leave all of that to sort itself out later? 

A: I spent many years writing and re-writing The Gold Persimmon, but the only classification I applied to it was fiction. Of course I knew it was a queer book, but I didn’t realize others would see it as experimental, or even feminist horror, until it started to reach a wider audience outside of my editors and former agent. I think I wrote it the only way I could, in the only way that made sense to me. It turns out what I wrote is shocking to some, and deeply unsettling not only in content, but form as well. Readers find the shift from Part I to Part II to be jarring. They find themselves lost at times. To me, this contributes to its effect as a work of horror. I also believe that every reader’s experience of the text is valuable and interesting, regardless of whether or not they pick up on the connection between the two narratives the book contains. 

Q: In addition to being an author, you are also a mixologist and a workshop leader. How do these different parts of your life fit together?

A: I like to say I have two passions in life: books and booze. Mixology provides an outlet for bringing the two together, as I continue building a library of booktails: cocktails and mocktails inspired by books of all kinds. This work actually involves so many more passions, however, like photography, sculpture, and playing with food. I’ve got white chocolate skulls and marzipan teeth lying around, not to mention all the pounds of sugar I’ve dyed and scattered about. What I read is now largely dictated by what drinks I want to make, or by the authors who commission me to booktail-ize their work. As a result, I’ve gotten the chance to expand the scope of my reading and delve into genres I’d never explored deeply, like romance and sci-fi. It is an expensive project, though, both in terms of time and materials.

[To find out more about Lindsay’s booktails, including personalized potions, Ostara cards, recipe packages, and book + recipe bundles, go to her website.]

Q: What are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it (or them)? 

A: I’m slowly building a proposal for a book of booktails. My next novel is also currently out with beta readers. It’s about a magical midwestern queer bar, a locus for the riotous convergence of witches and goddesses. Though I pull from several mythologies, Sumerian myth looms largest, with the goddess Inanna taking center stage. Fun fact: the earliest recorded poetry was composed by Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess of Inanna. Born around 2300 B.C.E., Enheduanna was the high priestess of the most important temple in Ur, a city in the south of Sumer that embodied the culture of the time. She lived eleven hundred years before Homer–around five hundred before Abraham–and wrote her poetry about three hundred years after the cuneiform vocabulary had just developed to a point where poetic phrase was even possible

My next-next novel was inspired by Sami ancestor worship and the belief in an afterlife that is right under our feet, our steps mirrored toe-for-toe by those who came before. It’s the story of a lesbian marriage and it’s kind of like a combination of Outlander and Being John Malkovich.

Emissaries

Published on 50-Word Stories

Photo from Cornell’s feederwatch.org.

They first came during Covid, the only bright spot of lockdown, one brown head, one red, building their nest in a faded holiday wreath. Every morning I said hello and made small talk, maybe to remind myself I still knew how, and the house finches cocked their heads and listened.

Meeting Nancy (AUDIO)

“Meeting Nancy” is a true ghost story, read by Antony Frost on the Terrify Me! podcast. Episode 8, March 2022.

Years ago–2012 or 2013–my then-fiancé and I went to a ghost hunt at the Dunkirk Lighthouse, a historical lighthouse that is still in use in Dunkirk, NY. It dates back to 1827, and has seen its share of death–not only those who died in it and near it on land, but unfortunates who died in the waters of Lake Erie in shipwrecks just off our shores. It’s a popular ghost-hunting location, and this particular event was also a fundraiser for the upkeep of the lighthouse itself…

(For the rest of the story, follow the link above to the Terrify Me! podcast, Episode 8.)

Should you create an author website? Yes.

I’ll keep this one short.

Recently, I stopped waffling about whether or not I should create a website and did it. Or, rather, I paid someone else to do it, because I’m from that in-between generation that didn’t grow up with computers but now we’re forced to use them for everything and to be honest, we’re still a little disoriented. (I had a word processor in high school that was, for then, top of the line.)

I dragged my feet about it because I thought, well, I don’t have a book. I’ll make one if I get my collection published. In the meantime, I racked up publications one by one, here and there, in smaller journals and online magazines, anthologies and even on podcasts (two of those forthcoming!). I realized I had plenty to put on a website, BUT, even if I didn’t, it still would have been worth making one. Create a website for the writing life you want, not for the writing life you have? Something like that?

If you create a website, you are basically making yourself “findable” via internet search. You are giving people a way to contact you. You are creating a professional presence, so that WHEN you get published (gotta believe, right?), you already have that piece in place. When you get stories or poems picked up by journals, small or large, you can actually fill in the “website” box on the bio form. And if you’re a blogger (whether it’s shouting into the void or talking to a few people or to many), it gives you a handy place to keep posts.

One of my favorite things about having a website, though, is a thing just for me. I love having one place where all of my publications and little accolades get to live. It’s like a digital creative resume. An online scrapbook. It’s nice to see all of my work together–like the last, oh, decade and a half of writing and revising and submitting has amounted to more than nothing.

If you don’t have money to spend on a website right now, create one for free on WordPress or a similar platform. You can upgrade it later and update it as you go.

(Also, it’s worth noting that there have been very few days with zero website visitors.)

If nothing else, I bet your mom/partner/best friend/dog/cat will think your website is cool.

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