The Big Fat Why of Horror

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– why this writer veers towards the Dark Side

Had you asked me nine years ago, before I even had a sliver of reputation, Klout score or followers: what genre do you write? I had an answer ready for you without qualifications of any kind:

History (to paraphrase my son) is my jam, man. Since a dark and stormy night in Tampa in the summer of 2002, I’d been submerged in a historical novel set in Roman Britain and pre-Christian pagan Ireland that came, as all novels do, unbidden and all at once; a story of a hapless Roman tribune caught up in Imperial intrigue and Irish blood feuds, with a little help from the usual suspects; druids, kings, irascible Irish, a very real Roman Emperor and a hot-blooded Irish redhead with her own ideas, especially about that Roman tribune. At that time, I was reading everything I could get my hands on by Morgan Llewellyn, and I was quite inspired by her retelling of Irish legends, so inspired in fact, I thought that heretical, dangerous thought: I could do that …

But since 2002, and certainly since late 2008, I had been writing about all manner of things; feminism, motherhood, marriage, fashion, faith, paganism, madness and music. I wrote ex tempore, like a jazz improvisation, simply sitting down, starting Word and letting rip on whatever got my goat/boiled my blood/made me think on that particular day.

There I was, on yet another dark and stormy night, this one November 6th, 2009, when a short story snuck in on stealthy feet inspired by an early 90’s PR photo, and then a reader requested a follow-up. So I had to write that.

That – which became Chapter Two of Quantum Demonology, was the starting point for my initiation into horror. It wasn’t in any way premeditated, it just kinda happened. And if you know anything about my own literary proclivities, you might be aware my titans of literature are all to an extent writers of horror; my beloved Edgar Allan Poe as the diamond-encrusted platinum standard at the top, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Stephen King and Anne Rice, along with a DK institution named Dennis Jürgensen.

I settled myself in cozily among them knowing great company when I saw it, read none of them while writing QD, and kept on going. I felt immediately at home in that dark landscape of my own making, felt it was the best place to plant my predilections and thought ‘wtf, let’s see where this takes me.’

Here’s where: to places I never even knew existed, to ideas I was unaware I had, and most of all, to an unexpected and hugely liberating conclusion; there was darkness in this heart of mine, and in that darkness, some mighty flowers bloomed.

I very much believe – and might even say, if any one asks – that horror is far and away the most elastic literary genre of all, even if the word ‘genre’ rubs my fur in several wrong ways. Genre implies limitation, pigeonholing, marginalization, and surely novels and stories should have wider horizons and maybe wider audiences, too? Books like Lewis’ The Monk or Bram Stoker’s Dracula were never written to be categorized as ‘horror’ – that handy-dandy label came much later. They were written as literature. Full stop. Just as any other work of ‘literary’ (read: “proper”) fiction.

The End.

Yet horror – here defined fairly narrowly as fiction dealing with themes of the supernatural, the monstrous, the macabre or the monstrously strange – can be a scaffold for anything you care to throw in it. Themes of decay, depravity or degradation can be seamlessly melded into larger, existential themes such as allaying that primeval, human fear of death and dissolution. You can haul out tropes of other genres and blend them in, too: erotic fiction, for instance, has all sorts of potential for the horrific and/or the psychologically illuminating. If you don’t believe me, I offer you Exhibit A: Anne Rice. I don’t do vampires – precisely because I feel Anne Rice wrote the definitive modern version of those creatures of the night, and I can’t add anything original to that – yet I can certainly appreciate and applaud her matchless purple prose and her focus of the eroticism of vampires, something Bram Stoker suggested with the finest of Victorian pen strokes and Christopher Lee embodied perfectly in his own Hammer rendition of that famous Transylvanian Undead.

Writing horror has other nefarious – and salutary – effects on this writer: it has enabled me to face my demons – or a good many of them. Clad in fictional garb and folded in by brute force with other preoccupations and obsessions, my demons and I are finally on speaking terms, and more to the point, I know who and what they are. I know where they live, and I know how to conjure them. Whether it’s the Demon of Relationships (d-o-n’t fence me in!), the Demon of Inferiority (screw that one and do it anyway, because there will always, always be better writers and better people than you) or that Demon of Claustrophobia (I have, I was surprised to discover, an absolute terror of small, constricted spaces) I have yet to tackle in fiction (give it time!), they all look so much better in daylight and on the page. It’s monumentally cathartic for me, defangs them and takes away their power over me, if hopefully not their power to terrify a reader.

Which leads me to that other thing about horror: if you’re very lucky and pitch your prose throw just right, you get to scare the bejeezus out of people. In my case, that also means that if I can’t scare myself while writing, I can’t scare you, either. Careful reading of many horror books since QD’s publication has taught me one major thing about horror, and this, too was a massive surprise:

You don’t have to spell everything out. Know just enough to get yourself in trouble, and show just enough to ignite a reader’s imagination. Do it right, and they will do ALL the rest for you, roaring conflagrations included.

Scaring myself – whether by word or by deed – is a favorite occupation of mine. I’m one of those blithering idiots who thrive on intellectual adrenaline, whose idea of a great time involves letting go, in conversation or in writing something I have not one idea about, all of it is my equivalent of bungee jumping into an abyss. The terror is absolute. The rush is incredible when it works, and ya know … sometimes, it does. Or so I like to believe until an editor tells me otherwise.

My problem with ‘horror’ – or what the publishing world chooses to define as such – is precisely the pigeonholing, the narrow focus, the mentality of ‘it never sells’, and the all-pervasive underlying idea that horror is a sideline adolescent-minded phenomenon on the suspect fringes of ‘proper’ literature. Even Stephen King, the modern age’s Grand Old Man of Horror, has passed the baton to his son, Joe Hill, of whom I’ve read all of two books, but what I’ve read has been promising, although I wouldn’t call it all-out ‘horror’.

I read a great many things on any given day. History books, sociology, pop culture reference books, biographies and even literary fiction. Some of those have been borderline unreadable if not incoherent as novels, and apparently, I’m an imbecile, philistine dolt who is not at all in on the know or has any kind of literary street cred whatsoever if I can’t understand them. To the ghost of David Foster Wallace, that means you. James Joyce, you’re no exception, either.

But in the past two years, I’ve also had the distinct, sharp thrill of being introduced to writers I never even knew existed, writers who have taught me more than I thought possible, writers who have made me laugh and think new things, writers who have upended conventions and preconceptions, even my calcified own. All of them share one common theme.

They’re all (if not all exclusively) horror writers, likely for many of the same reasons with which I justify my own brand of madness. Like mine, their demons are gnawing away in the dark, waiting to be brought to light by right or by might. Their stories may differ and their focus may shift along other, weirder spectrums of unspeakable, but we all have That One Thing in common:

Darkness lies in our hearts. Be afraid! Which you are, right?

For a far better angle, I recommend the all-out schamazing Chuck Wendig’s blog, and this post in particular.

Illustration: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gut(ted) Instincts

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Gut(ted) Instincts

– When Eureka! Moments happen…

For the past two months, I’ve been wrestling. Wrestling the Fail Demon, wrestling the virtual page, and wrestling a Quantum Demonology prequel in Danish I had hopes to submit to publication in time for a New Year’s Eve deadline. To get the word out about me, to establish my questionable reputation, to maybe? start getting just a little buzz in just one small corner of the world. Just a little.

This evening, I had a eureka moment, the moment when I suddenly realized a vital fact:

It ain’t happening, baby.

After 12.000 words and not a little headache, after trying to translate pithy John Milton quotes and nailing a story arc to the page, nope… it’s not happening.

Seriously, folks, I really hoped it would. Hoped that maybe this one, maybe this time, maybe, baby. I really could pull this rabbit out of my hat and knock out 20.000 words of peerless prose.

Only to find that as my story progressed, my feelings of doom, dread and river-in-Egypt syndrome bloomed so very much faster than any time-lapse photography ever could.

The words were leaden. The cursor d-r-a-g-g-e-d across the page. I’m perfectly bilingual and verbally dextrous, so why the hell couldn’t I write in another language?

Then it hit me, that proverbial sandbag of insight right smack in my solar plexus.

Because I couldn’t feel it.

I’ll spare you the details of my unorthodox trans-Atlantic upbringing, but suffice it to say my first language was not Danish, for all I was born in Copenhagen and am a Danish citizen, but English. I mostly think in English (and some French and Italian), I certainly feel in English, and most importantly, I’ve received far more accolades (such as they are) writing in English than virtually anything I’ve achieved in Denmark. It helps not at all that my beloved (lethally smart) younger sister is an acknowledged journalist, author and blogger with the situation in reverse: born in the US, she’s far more truly Danish than I could ever be.

When we discussed our different projects a few days ago, she mentioned one of her own pet peeves about the English language: “There’s just too many… adjectives, too many descriptions, too much verbosity. I don’t need to have everything spelled out, and if you have to spell it out with adjectives, you’re not trying hard enough as a writer.” (She was referring to her elder sister’s novel.)

Ouch.

But back in the solitude of my own apartment, after the sting subsided, I realized that what she disliked was precisely what I loved best.

Verbosity. Adjectives. Describing the unknowable. And last but never least, feeling those words in your gut as you type them.

Whether it’s major mental constipation on my part (Denmark holds quite a few not-so-happy memories for me) or simple bloody-mindedness, I picked myself off the floor after that sandbag hit and made a decision.

Sometimes, your gut instinct knows what you can’t consciously acknowledge – in this case, when something feels wrong, it’s because it is, at least for me. So then, I thought.

Fuck it.

The prequel novella, titled “The Confessions of Apollyon”, is the story of the Devil (Dev, as he’s called in QD), what and who he is and how he came to be that guardian of nightmares and negatives. It begins on the very same night as Quantum Demonology and even in that same blues café a few hours before the QD protagonist walks through the door in search of mulled wine.

Some time ago, I became the proud owner of ten perfectly valid ISBN numbers and even registered an imprimatur under my own name. I’m also registered with the print-on-demand printer who printed the hardcover edition of Quantum Demonology.

So here’s what will happen: Over the next month or so, Dev’s story will be translated and rewritten for English-speaking audiences and formatted for publication. I’m registered with Amazon as an author. I know book bloggers who might be interested.

More to the point since that hit of the metaphorical sandbag, I’ve experienced an incredible sense of relief. Even my cats are finally able to share the room with me. I won’t have to stress around like a madwoman to meet that New Year’s Eve deadline, and can even devote some time to some of my other writing projects.

This does beg a question.

Would you – if you’ve read and enjoyed Quantum Demonology – like to know a little more about the one character in the story that a lot of readers relate to?

Tell me all about it in the comments!

Blood On The Floor

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  • Thoughts on the eve of a Red Letter Day

 

It was… a dark and stormy night, that Friday the 6th of November 2009, a night I was bored, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t sit still.

So I went through my browser history and located a link to a image I found a few days before that stuck in my mind, mostly for reasons I can’t possibly repeat, but I’ll tell you this:

It was some picture!

I still don’t know how long I simply stared at that picture when some diabolical voice whispered in my metaphorical ear:

What if?

Any writer can tell you – all stories, one way or another, begin not with Once Upon A Time, but with What If.

Lo and behold – an idea arrived! I had no idea what sort of idea, nor even where it came from, but in about two hours and typing as if taking ectoplasmic dictation, I had a short story about a woman in a café at midnight, a woman who had nothing at all and even less to lose.

Because I’m the sort of reckless, hapless person who does this sort of thing, I next posted it as an incidental short story on the virtual soapbox I had at the time – a blog about music, madness and feminism called MoltenMetalMama. I expected absolutely nothing. I did not even expect anyone to actually read it, for all I had 13 (!) blog followers at the time. Then again, you never know…

Yet the following morning, a comment landed in my inbox. One faithful reader had read it. Liked it. And even taken the time to comment my (lack of) storytelling abilities had blown him away! Right before he asked:

“So what happened next?”

What happened next was this: before November morphed into December, I found out I was writing a full-blown novel, wtf. No game plan, no idea how it would end or where the story would go, yet I completed over a fourth of it by the end of December.

And kept going. Going on the days the words flowed like champagne and bloomed like perfume, going on the days it seemed more like squeezing dried out toothpaste from an empty tube, and I had many of those, too.

Which is why Quantum Demonology is (also) dedicated to Portland OR resident and all-around fab fella Phil Hanson, because without him, I would never have had the courage to keep going, even as I fell through the rabbit hole of my own subconscious into very scary and very dark places I never even knew I had.

Four years later – a year ago today – I came out of the closet as what I totally thought was a dream come true: a soon-to-be-published writer, of a rather curious novel called Quantum Demonology.

This happened because of two things: One, after finishing the book nine months to the day later, I became a perfume blogger to satisfy my girlie itches and aesthetic inclinations, but mainly to become a better writer.

After a while, I ventured on to other perfume blogs and made connections and comments with other bloggers. One of them had a dream to become a publisher. She had read the original draft of QD (with more plotholes than even I could count) and thought it had the potential to become a book that would sell.

Would I like to publish it with her?

I couldn’t say no.

So on December 17th last year, and with a great deal of trepidation, the book was published by Nigel’s Flight of Austin TX to modest fanfare on the social media outlets of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere.

And then. Then came that cautionary tale of all debuting and vainglorious writers everywhere.

Nothing.

Well, I thought, give it time. These things take time.

Understand, this was and is in many multilayered ways a very personal book. It was a book that ended up costing me my marriage, a dearly beloved son I have no idea when I’ll see again, and virtually everything I had. It wasn’t just a book, it was in so many ways the story of a life that could very well have been my own if only things never happened the way they did.

Review copies were sent, press releases sent out. Contacts were (likely) bombarded with alternate, counter-culture versions of

‘So how do you love it?’

Three months later, I was informed about my first royalty check – also the only money I’ve ever made writing in my life.

And still nothing. No one was curious, no one wanted to find out something about the inspirations behind it (for all it’s very much a Goth(ic)/post-punk/metalhead story), no one was interested in the figuratively naked writer across the Atlantic, shivering in the social media blast of Being Utterly Exposed As A Potboiler Writer.

Do you know, that would be perfectly OK, if not for the occasional emails from my publisher feeding me pablum about future hopes and possibilities that usually kept me off my local high-rise bridge that day.

Stranger things have happened!

Just like my protagonist, I had/have nothing at all and even less to lose. Unlike my story, all those so-called “possibilities” were nothing more than pie in the sky.

So I stepped up my game and thought long and hard about what we could do to move the merchandise a bit higher up on the Amazon food chain. I came up with alternate ideas on how to market it, came to discover thanks to a New York PR maven (bless her!) I had a unique angle to market it with and wrote all my ideas down for my publisher’s delectation in a future Skype conversation.

Except – this was in May – my timing was lousy. My publisher told me in exquisitely hyper-polite language to fuck the hell off.

Well, I did.

She never wrote me back again.

Some time later, I was more than a little outraged to discover she was working on another book with another writer – this one, I gather, slightly less of a hard sell, maybe? Or was it since I wasn’t an overnight sensation I had been dropped like a hot potato to rot in that infernal pit of Hades reserved for failed loser writer wannabes?

Before I shoot myself in the foot even more than I already have, I’d like to say that I was gently raised to be polite, nice and grateful at all times. I was also raised to answer all letters, emails and private messages promptly.

In the six months since I’ve fucked off, I’ve sent her five emails and two letters requesting to terminate my contract, so I can have my pathetic little nightmare back more or less intact.

No response.

On the two social media outlets I have left for her, I sent her a PM/DM today, asking nothing more than she contact me at her earliest opportunity today, in the hopes of at least hearing from a human being again, but really <evil snicker> hoping this blog post wouldn’t be necessary.

No response.

Here’s the thing: this woman, who I once regarded as a dear friend, spent quite a bit of money to get my book published, money I never asked her to spend on my behalf no less and money I certainly don’t have. For that and quite a few other things beside, I’ll always be grateful, just as I’ll always be grateful to know what I learned in the helter-skelter two months it took from ‘start revising’ to ‘publish’.

I can understand the shame of a miscalculation, the chagrin of a failed marketing approach, the embarrassment of not being able to deliver a nicely tied up dream on a silver-screened platter, or the lies fed to an isolated, dissociated misanthrope misfit to keep that dream alive.

Shit happens.

Most of it, I can even forgive. I’m human, too.

What sticks in my metaphorical craw, however, is not being deemed worthy of the honesty I told her in our very first Skype conversation was my one and only demand. And a disturbing and very unsettling feeling of being violated in some indefinable way, since that dream was not really hers to sell, but mine.

According to the terms of our contract, it will expire on December 17th this year for non-payment of royalties accrued in the past six months. Not that I expect any, you understand. Still, it burns me no end if this is how it ends.

This is not, so far as I know, how any professional publisher does business.

I will likely never see a dime off Quantum Demonology ever again, unless (as I also hope), I either prepare a new edition or another publisher bites, one with a better work ethic and hopefully infinitely better communication skills.

Meanwhile, most US literary agents won’t touch me or my manuscript with a ten-foot pole so long as I’m still under contract.

Meanwhile, the blood on the metaphorical floor is all and only my own.

Sic transit gloriam scriptori.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t. Buy. This. Book

Cover design by Rosy England Fisher

Cover design by Rosy England Fisher, The Oculus Studio, Portland, OR

Once upon a time nearly five years ago, a rather lonely and severely dissociated middle-aged woman wrote a short story inspired by a photo (never mind the photo) that somehow turned into a Faustian tale of a woman who did NOT sell her soul to the Devil in exchange for a dream – to become a full-blown, professional writer. The story ended when she took the Devil’s bait, and that, thought this writer, would be the end of it.

Until a reader (one of her four regular readers on her defunct blog, Moltenmetalmama, asked that fatal, terrible question:

So what happened next?

What happened next? That reader – one of the three to whom the book is dedicated – egged her, which is to say, me, on to write out the entire story of … what happened next, and so, the book that eventually became Quantum Demonology was born.

And before I knew it, all sorts of things happened in quick succession. I became a perfume blogger and then a perfume writer, gained a following for my words, and even created a perfume project with indie perfumer Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids around the book’s  torrid story of good, evil, the Devil and a writer.

Along the way, the potholed, first-draft version of the book was revised, edited and revised again. I knew I had something, knew it meant something, knew, as all artists do (if they’re lucky) This Could Be A Thing.

But the problem with pathological self doubt and having to do everything on your own is precisely… that you have to do everything on your own. It just so happens that one of my own creative quirks is the need to be kicked. In other words, I need a swift, hard kick to my derriere before I swallow all self-doubt and insecurity and get stuff out there. 

I had a story. A good one, so I thought at the time. I needed fame and glory and a gazillion dollars a publisher, and for that, I needed an agent, and to get an agent, I needed to write that most dreaded item in the history of literature: The Query Letter.

<Insert pathological self doubt panic attack>

Then, a miracle happened. I just know it did. I was contacted by a long-time virtual friend and fellow blogger and asked:

How would you like to publish Quantum Demonology?

What? No query letter? No agent? With a friend? Are you KIDDING?

So almost a year ago, I signed a fairly standard publishing contract and signed into an insane deadline. Apart from my photo session, I have absolutely no recall of the month of November last year. I was too busy revising and polishing off my story to a high and glossy sheen, which was to say… for the first chunk of ten chapters, I spent two days in bed with the covers over my head moaning spicy alternate phrases for “I suck! I can’t!”

Yet we could, and we didn’t.

Quantum Demonology was published as an e-book for Amazon Kindle on December 6th, and in a beautiful hardcover edition on Amazon on December 17th.

My publisher and I had all sorts of ideas on how to market it, where to market it and who to send it to. So far as I know, being half a world away, it was sent to quite a few people for review.

Quite a few lovely people on Facebook, who knew me as a perfume writer, bought or downloaded it, read it and a few (five) reviewed it on Amazon. I can’t tell you whether it was out of a sense of friendship (since I couldn’t afford to bribe anyone) or obligation that made them give it a five-star rating, but it could also possibly be they thought the book was just that good…

Then, on February 12th this year, I received my first ever Kirkus review. And wow, was I ever surprised that it was a good one! The reviewer didn’t hate it!

I think I floated for about two whole days. Well, apart from the fact that the protagonist of QD did NOT sell her soul, but as my sister, a published writer herself said when I brought it up, we have absolutely no control over how our stories are received.

But even with all those free review copies she sent out, no one wanted to so much as talk to me. No interview requests, nothing.

Not one.

Over the course of this past spring, the ambience between my publisher and myself became increasingly… strange. I was told of things that supposedly happened. I began to cook up alternate marketing ideas and wrote them down. I even guerilla-bombed a favorite band of mine and handed out book postcards after a gig, because it was all the drummer’s fault anyway.

He did say he was flattered…

In May, I sent off an email to my publisher to ask for a Skype session at the worst possible time, I gather. Because basically, she told me in excruciatingly polite language (the kind that slaps you across the face with a metaphorical glove), to eff the hell off.

Meanwhile, I also received the only money I’ve ever made from writing: a royalty check for $92 and change. (I blew it on a fountain pen I’ve wanted for years, so I could sign my own books in style) The book sold 22 copies in hardcover.

That was three months ago. My emails go unanswered. My Twitter DM was ignored. All I currently know is this: she’s preparing to publish book number two. Book no. one – which would be mine – is evidently not a priority any longer. I say ‘evidently’, because I have nothing at all to go on.

Having said that, a very, very dear friend gave the book a rave review – on one of the planet’s biggest perfume blogs.

This story – and the sequel underway in bits and pieces as I type – is my baby. I don’t have a gazillion projects to juggle bookwise because I don’t have the time, meaning the money. No one I know would ever demand a synopsis for screenplay development, because I don’t know anyone who does that.

My contract explicitly states that my publisher has the rights only to the edition published by her. In other words, a different cover and a few small changes would mean a new edition, which would mean… I could do this myself. So long as I also buy two new ISBNs, a bar code and a registration fee with the print-on-demand printers, and at this time, I can’t afford that.

Alas, I don’t own the rights to the beautiful cover designed by Rosy England Fisher, my publisher does. Which really kills me, since Rosy encapsulated everything I ever hoped that cover could be and a few more things I never dared to ask for.

There is surely a special section of Hell reserved for those unhappy souls who pounce on their email hoping against hope that some day, an answer will come. Or simply any kind of response at all.

For the longest time, I debated with myself on whether to go public with this. My publisher spent a lot of time and money to get Quantum Demonology out as a book, and for that alone, I can never repay her, nor for her enthusiasm as we battled Heaven and Hell last autumn.

But three months of silence is  more than long enough.

At this time, I don’t know what the future of Quantum Demonology will be, or even if it has a future. I’m so poor, not even Lulu is an option to self-publish.

But here’s what I can do.

Tell you this:

Don’t buy this book. 

Ritual Magick

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– How a writer builds a rabbit hole – and stays in it!

Ask anyone who knows one – artists of any stripe are a superstitious lot. They each have their own invocations, preparations and magickal formulae to set up their creative space and prepare, even if they never know what, precisely, they’re preparing for.

A writer friend of mine calls this ‘circling the wagons’. This is a code phrase for writers who will do anything, literally anything to avoid having to write. If the brilliant 2005 documentary ‘Dreams With Sharp Teeth’ is any indication, not even the highly prolific Harlan Ellison is exempt. Which gives me more courage than he’ll likely ever know.

Writers will… get away from their computers, start a load of laundry, plow through the dirty dishes, straighten up their desks, begin ill-advised home improvement projects, turn the WiFi back on and surf the Web. Whatever it takes to distract from the fact that The Hour Is Nigh and no excuses are valid any longer.

It is time to invoke and conjure. Which is a terrifying time and a truly scary place, because from that moment on, no writer is able to control much at all. (For writers, creative control = editing).

But first, the comforting magick of ritual to make sure that rabbit hole is as safe and secure as can be and thoroughly feathered.

For me, this means… Lighting the gold candle in the Feng Shui-ed prosperity area of my writing space. It’s surrounded by “gold” coins (leftover euros from a trip to Florence) in a red dish flanked by a green wine bottle containing a purple silk lotus.

Second, tea. Since I don’t usually drink coffee after 5 PM, that means tea. Sometimes it’s mint and sometimes it’s an exotic Korean variety a friend sent to me recently (chrysanthemum tea, anyone?) but mostly, it’s either green tea, lavender tea or good old-fashioned Earl Grey.

Third, music. I can’t even begin to stress how important this is. I have concocted an 11-hour playlist specifically for writing, because here’s another doozy – I am physically/psychologically/mentally incapable of writing to any music I don’t know well. If it’s not so familiar I know the lyrics by heart more or less, I’ll get distracted and before I know it… exit rabbithole. I’ll start thinking about the lyrics, the artist, the circumstances, the album, the reviews of said album and before long, I’ll plaster myself all over Wikipedia to look up something completely irrelevant. And so, the Muse leaves the building. And I’m eclectic – in no order of importance my playlist contains… the Ramones, the original Misfits, Fields of the Nephilim, the Cocteau Twins, the Cure, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Burzum, Darkthrone (I’m a massive Fenriz fan), Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Donald Fagen, Godsmack, Tool, Type O Negative, Pantera, AC/DC, Frank Zappa, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sheila Chandra, Kate Bush, Ondyne’s Demise, Nox Arcana, Joy Division and Danzig.

Fourth, although it maybe should have been first, is to ensure my two cats (the Edward Albee George & Martha of the feline world) are fed and watered. Woe betide me if I overlook this single step, since those pesky creatures will not allow me to do anything – except fall and break my neck on one of them – until I do.

Fifth, I either perfume my person and the room or else I burn incense. This makes sense given that I’m also a perfume writer. Eighteen spectacular perfumes were created to conjure up the Devil in a bottle, and trust me – they work!

So. The iPig is playing. The candle is lit. The room is perfumed with infernal permutations of labdanum and frankincense. The blinds are down and the cats are asleep.

Now, I can finally begin to begin to begin.

This is where the horror story starts!

Because the monsters and demons are waiting in the wings for their turn in the spotlight.

Writing Sexy – Sexy Writing

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–  on the perils of rolling with Cousin Id

Whenever I’m asked done of those ‘how did you’ questions about ‘writing sexy’ (which is never defined by the questioner, strangely enough), I often joke that if you can write about perfume or sex, you can write about anything.

This isn’t strictly true, but in an age that has a celebrated UK prize for Worst Sex Scene, I figured I might as well hedge my bets, especially in a book that has so darn many of them, each of them pivotal to the overall story arc, as I came to discover when I revised the book for publication.

The fact is, sex sells. As a favorite arch-villain says in a favorite TV series, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power. (Now you know!)

So one thing my publisher and I agreed upon straight off was to turn the amp up as high as the writer could bear. In this post-Fifty Shades age, the readers who might read my book are becoming more jaded, more blasé and demanding in their judgment of what constitutes a ‘sexy’ book.

Therein lies a treacherous peril. Because of that blasted, wretched, execrable piece of clit lit called ‘Fifty Shades’, its two sequels, and its countless imitators.

Let me start by stating this first: I have an immense respect for the cultural impact of precisely what E. L. James has done: She got women thinking – and talking – about what turns them on to such an extent it’s become a cultural touchstone. I’m far less happy that she has hugely misrepresented the inner workings of BDSM, and in so doing given vast numbers of people all sorts of wrong impressions on how such relationships actually work. And really livid her heroine is such a passive, naïve nincompoop of a cardboard, two-dimensional ‘character’.

Worst of all to my literary mind is the woman couldn’t write it without hauling out the most tired, overexposed clichés in the Oxford English Dictionary. It may be effective, but it sure ain’t pretty… and I only made it through Volume One before I wanted those hours of my life back.

So it follows that any comparisons to that particular collection of prose curls my toes in all the worst ways. That’s not what I set out to accomplish.

I have my own idols of erotic writing and certain standards I try to live up to. Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Colette, Apollinaire, Pauline Réage, certain passages of Huysmann’s À Rebours and À Bás, Baudelaire’s poetry… I could go on. All of these writers have inspired me to such an extent, they’ve become the gold standard for the kind of writing I felt I could send out into the world without blushing.

Yet in the reviews I’ve received and in the comments and emails that have followed in the wake of Quantum Demonology, that s-word keeps recurring. Sexy.

Thank you. I tried. And this is how.

To begin with, I’m not exactly a blushing virgin. A wide range of experiences has been much more of a bonus that I ever expected. (Thanks, guys!) Interpret that as you please.

Second – and I can’t emphasize this enough – the character of Dev as he’s portrayed in the published book is not based on anyone I know or have ever known. In the first draft, there were many references to a former (toxic) boyfriend I once knew, but you can bet your booties I took every single reference out when I revised it for publication.

Third, in complete opposition to Hemingway’s maxim of ‘writing drunk and editing sober’ and contrary to what you might think, every draft I ever wrote was written in a time of absolute celibacy. If it weren’t, I’d be far too busy to write… 😉

Celibacy does astonishing things to the creative imagination. As Anaïs Nin once noted in a similar context and I’ll paraphrase, when you’re starving on a desert island, you don’t dream of three McDs cheeseburgers, you dream of sixteen course haute cuisine extravaganzas with all the wines to match.

But the biggest caveat in writing ‘sexy’ is this one: it has to fit the storyline, suit the characters as they’re written and the overall arc. Because if it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong in the story to begin with.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, you might think. But how do you write about it?

Thanks to my training as a graphic artist, I’m very keyed into the visual. In other words, I have to see what I write as a movie (NOT that kind) and choreograph it in my head with lights, mood, ambience. I also have to remember that it’s far more erotic to imply and suggest than to spell everything out in graphic and boring detail. The trick is to set one tiny cog in motion in the reader’s mind and watch the domino effect from there. That way, I’m not spelling out s-e-x-y, the reader’s imagination is. Which is far more effective than anything I could write.

Next, I have to write it out as I ‘see’ it in my mind. Most of what put the ‘sexy’ in Quantum Demonology was rewritten and revised a minimum of eight to ten times before I sent it on. Some were just skipped altogether at the time and finally knocked out two hours before the deadline in exasperated desperation and a lot of despair. All of them written with a great deal of pencil chewing, cursing in several languages, teeth gnashing, figurative banging my head on my keyboard and sheer, utter agony – not because I’m a prude, but because it’s the hardest writing you can do, bar none. And if it didn’t work for me, it didn’t work at all.

Strangely enough, one of my readers of draft three mentioned ‘the very depths of depravity’, which surprised me no end. I thought I hadn’t been depraved enough, debauched enough, sawed through that branch of a sure thing hard enough to freefall.

In other words, I felt that somewhere, I wimped out. I feel a little less so now the book is out to judge or condemn, but I do know enough to realize that I could have been far more depraved, except it would have been far less successful as a book if I had.

I’ve received many compliments on that ‘sexy’ book. But the two biggest compliments of all came from two male friends of mine – one a most excellent acknowledged writer himself – when they both said my words had turned them on…

Which means I finally got something right!

How To Feed Your Villain

 

 

boris_vallejo_84burning

–       & something on how to conjure one

Without antagonists, what would stories be? For one, much less interesting to read. A good (or great) antagonist tends to stick in your mind a long time after the book is finished, because the antagonist(s) moves the story forward, keeps the reader on his or her toes and puts the protagonist(s) through sheer, utter Hell.

If that’s not a recipe for a good time, I don’t know what is.

But there’s a bit more to a villain than simply being the Bad Guy, especially if you’re conjuring him from scratch.

The thing is, it’s all too easy to write a villain. Simply write him bad….with few to no redeeming features and less motivation, and there you have it – fodder for countless Marvel superhero comics.

Except to this discerning reader, villains of that ilk are dead boring to read about, never mind to write.

Back when Lilith Queen of the Succubi popped up out of the ether and gate-crashed my story (It’s not as if I actually invited her along for the ride), I pulled out every single rabbit in the hat to make her as thoroughly evil as possible. But at the same time, I worried that maybe I, too, had fallen in the Marvel trap and made her too one-dimensional, too cartoonish to be entirely convincing. In fact, I felt so bad about it as time went on that I vowed to make Lilith the subject of a prequel (how did she get that way?) just to explicate her. But as I came to discover, Lilith as a character had a definite impact on the readers I had at the time. In other words, maybe I somehow managed to add a few extra shades and layers so she wasn’t all… Evil with a capital E, but more complex than that.

Meanwhile, I have a sequel to Quantum Demonology to write. Another villain to conjure. Only now, we’re dealing with what is technically a monster of a particular – and nasty – kind, so nasty in fact, that there really isn’t much in the way of occult literature on these creatures to go by, and that’s surprising. Or is it?

It’s almost as if my source material has clammed up by unstated agreement.

‘We won’t go there, not mention this creature, simply pretend he doesn’t exist.’

Why?

Could it be because an incubus – supposedly the epitome of all a woman could possibly desire – cuts far too close to those harrowing masculine nightmares of insufficiency?

In which case, I’m rather obligated to explore just what an incubus is… and does!

Are you curious?

Illustration: ‘Burning’ by Boris Vallejo. With thanks to Tiger Powers.