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

 

 

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–       & 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.