Sunday, October 26, 2014

Filling in the dark room: perception in horror

When I graduated from college four years ago, I started working in Washington DC. Some of you know where, but since they instilled a healthy love of discretion in me, I won't name them here. But like most government facilities, the building was steeped in history. In the time I worked there, I heard all the stories, the WWII-era legends, the rumors of tragic artifacts supposedly still on-site somewhere. And of course, I heard the ghost stories.

Our facility was a cavernous compound, made up of two buildings. One was sterile, functional, built to hold our various offices and nothing more. The second was older, more ornate; when this particular institution was first built, it was both a residence and a central hub. Now it housed a few departments, but otherwise was used mostly for events. The easiest way to go from one building to the other was to walk through the gardens outside, but the two were also connected through the basement.

The basement under the newer building held the chauffeurs' breakroom, and a hard-to-find ping-pong table, but was otherwise a quiet, unused maze of hallways with dozens of doors that led to nowhere. The basement under the older building was always darker, chillier. It had, at one time, been the home of some staffers, and you could find the closet-sized dorms if you went in deep enough

This is where all the stories were set, of course.

As a staffer, I went down to the basement a handful of times. The first few times, the older staffers served as tour guides. But after a while, a few of us had the confidence to start taking tours of our own. Without a natural leader, there was a bit of hesitance when it came to who should walk down those dark hallways first. And more often than not, it ended up being me.

Being a horror writer doesn't mean the usual tropes won't scare you. The stairways-to-nowhere and the rusty bathtubs always gave me the shivers. But much like Mad-Eye Moody, I'm all about constant vigilance. I've always had an overdeveloped sense of whether I have company or not - and I was always sure, on those basement tours, that I didn't.

The only time I was less-than-sure, I was in that older building, but I was two floors up from the basement, in the kitchen and in broad daylight. I was standing beside two of my friends, listening to instructions, when I felt the friend next to me, S, take a step back toward the cutting boards, covered in veggies for our event. I heard the rustling of the plastic bag covering the tomatoes, I heard someone moving around - everything in my spatial awareness was telling me that S was behind me, preparing the vegetables.

Then I glanced to the side, and S was where she had been the entire time: right next to me.

If you asked me now, my best guess is that the rustling came from a mouse trying to get at the veggies - though I suppose you can guess for yourself. But if it was a rat, what about the other sounds? Did I really feel S take a step back before the rustling started, and did I really hear footsteps? Or did my brain pencil those details in based on what I assumed was happening?

While working on my last project, I texted a brilliant neuroscientist friend for help with a scene, as you do when you are a writer and have amazingly patient friends who don't mind out-of-context questions. She explained the concept of 'filling in': that there is a blind spot on our retinas without photoreceptors where the optic nerve meets the eye, and the brain fills in the missing information based on context clues.

We can't perceive everything at every second, but most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about those gaps. We have ways to compensate. Writing horror means trusting that, and leaving space for it. Fear is personal and specific from person to person. And if someone hears a sound behind them in a dark room, chances are their mind will fill in the thing they want least to be there.

And if your reader can't rely on your main character's perception - or their own - that puts them on unsteady ground. And if they're reading horror, that's exactly where they want to be.

Here's hoping your Halloween isn't too creepy. (Or here's hoping it is, if that's what you're into!)

Friday, July 11, 2014

A love letter to disappointments

Hey, y'all - long time no post! I'm about to rush off, but I have a post up on Operation Awesome today that may be useful to some of you. Check out "A love letter to disappointments" here.

I hope everyone is doing fantastic. Chat soon!

(paraglides out the window and disappears)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Support Strange Chemistry Blog Hop

Publishing is weird. 

As writers, we all know this, of course. Maybe some of us go in dreaming about the quick six-to-seven-figure sale and movie deal and accolades, but I think many of us dream about quieter things than literary stardom. Our PM announcements, our cover reveals, even that little inbox *ding* when you're querying or on submission. But then you get those sober reminders that the industry can shift beneath your feet at any time.

Last Friday, Angry Robot broke the news that they would be discontinuing their YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, effective immediately. This is
devastating for a number of reasons, of course - imprints like Strange Chem made room for stories you might not otherwise hear, and as #WeNeedDiverseBooks has illustrated, having that space is vitally important. By all accounts it sounds like they had a top-notch staff over there, and I'm sure they will continue to do amazing work elsewhere.

The position the authors find themselves in is much more precarious, though. Their books, the books they worked so hard on, are now orphaned. Debut authors who thought their books would be out in a matter of months, or even weeks, are now back on submission. These people are all fabulously talented and hardworking and I have absolutely no doubt that they will find a home for their books. But I also know it must be very hard to feel optimistic when you've had the rug pulled out from under you.

In the meantime, Strange Chemistry's titles are still available. Having read and adored Gwenda Bond's Roanoke story, BLACKWOOD, I decided to start my reading binge with her book THE WOKEN GODS. Because seriously, how awesome does this sound?

Five years ago, the gods of ancient mythology awoke around the world.

This morning, Kyra Locke is late for school.

Seventeen-year-old Kyra lives in a transformed Washington, D.C., home to the embassies of divine pantheons and the mysterious Society of the Sun. But when rebellious Kyra encounters two trickster gods on her way back from school, one offering a threat and the other a warning, it turns out her life isn't what it seems. She escapes with the aid of Osborne "Oz" Spencer, an intriguing Society field operative, only to discover that her scholar father has disappeared with a dangerous relic. The Society needs it, and they don't care that she knows nothing about her father's secrets.

Now Kyra must depend on her wits and the suspect help of scary gods, her estranged oracle mother, and, of course, Oz--whose first allegiance is to the Society. She has no choice if she's going to recover the missing relic and save her father. And if she doesn't? Well, that may just mean the end of the world as she knows it.

A full list of Strange Chemistry's titles and authors are available here. When you have a moment, look it over. Pay particular attention to those debut authors and follow their books to wherever the publishing whirlwind takes them next. And be sure to read the rest of the amazing Kaye's Support Strange Chem Blog Hop to read more about you can help these fabulous people out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's Up Wednesday - Monster Stories

Wow, Blogosphere - it's been a long time!

Sort of. I'm still around, lurking in the shadows. But between new home, new job, and as much writing as I can squeeze around the two, I don't have a whole lot of coherency left to spare!

I can't tell you about all the writing stuff. But here's a tidbit...

My current WIP has led a bit of a tortured life. It's denser and darker and twistier than anything I've ever written - the kind of thing that requires a lot of concentration - and yet every time I got seriously rolling with it, something would interrupt. Usually notes on a different project, but sometimes real life things, too, such as the move to a job I was working at last year.

It's a YA gothic horror novel, a genre I love but had never written before. More often than not I mix my creepy into fantasy, paranormal, or mystery stories, so entering the realm of straight-up horror was quite the exciting new world. And it's a monster story.

There's so much that I love about monster stories, but I think my favorite thing is that they're so personal to the author. I've read monster stories about grief and loss, and the pain of marginalization, even the scope of humanity's kindness and cruelty. Monster stories can be devastating and empowering, horrifying and comforting all at once. I had a vague idea from the start what my monsters were about. This was a story about guilt and memory, the way the things in your head can take shape and come to life - for better or for worse.

At least, I'm pretty sure I came up with that first. I think it was life that started imitating art in this case, and not the other way around. But this time last year, the things in my head were taking shape.

I already knew my anxiety had gotten worse since I graduated college and started work - I became an obsessive quadruple-checker, I had dreams I was at my job, and when I woke up I'd feel like I hadn't slept at all - but it was manageable then, at my first job, and probably not too different than the stress that most of my friends felt. Starting my new job last year was different. I knew from the start it was more than I could handle, and that in normal jobs people didn't go to work every morning terrified of what might be waiting for them there. But I felt stuck, and I felt like I hadn't earned the right to bail out yet, so I stayed for a year.

I wasn't doing well. I think I hid that better from some people than others. I think I hid that extremely well from myself, because as far as I knew, I had an illness that just wouldn't go away. I went through the days exhausted, but when I finally crawled into bed, my own pounding heartbeat would keep me awake. When I think back to last year and all the things I usually look forward to - holidays, family gatherings and so on - I remember feeling too tired and nauseous and dizzy to enjoy anything much. It thankfully didn't manage to ruin the moment I'd dreamed about for three years, but I was even home sick the day that Sara offered me representation, and I remember opening several of her subsequent e-mails in various doctors' offices.

(And there were quite a few of those. And a handful of misdiagnoses that came with them. It wasn't until I was meeting with one of those doctors and let out a particularly dark laugh at the "Do you have a stressful job?" question that the words 'anxiety' and 'depression' were spoken aloud - and even then I didn't think it was right, at first. It was.)

The change was slow, but it happened. I let go of the idea that I was supposed to have some high-powered, Type A day job alongside my writing. I built up the resources and made a change. The 'monster' isn't gone, but it's curled up at the back of my head. It stirred every now and then over the past couple weeks, but it's keeping quiet today. With any luck, it'll be quiet tomorrow, too.

And now, without a few of those interruptions, I can work on that gothic horror WIP. The subject matter is as dark and dense as it ever was, but the process is anything but. It comes from that knowledge, that feeling of being swallowed whole - but it also comes from the feeling of finally finding your way out.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


DC was never going to be permanent.

I could say the same thing about every place I've lived for the past decade or so. When my family moved to Florida, I knew I wouldn't stay. I grew up with brilliantly-colored autumns and winters that never ended, I wasn't built for that constant heat. And Tokyo had an end date built in. I didn't have time to get comfortable, even though part of me did anyway.

And when I came back to Boston for college, I knew two things: that this was my home without a doubt, but that once those four years were over, I wouldn't necessarily get to stay.

My relationships with places have always been as fraught and complicated as my relationships with people, and for this city, it started as a business transaction. It didn't matter that we were incompatible from the start. It had a job for me, my first real job, so there I was. I didn't think it'd be a problem, leaving this place. I had far fewer attachments here than in any city I've ever lived in. I'd be out the door before it could sting.

But attachments show up whether I like it or not - they always do. The things I hated about this place softened into one big affectionate eye roll. Then I found things to like, then I found things to love: the food, the bus routes, the monuments all lit up at night. I got into the habit of turning off all the lights and pulling back the blinds every night before bed to look out at the National Mall, and I grudgingly had to admit that this place could be beautiful when it wanted to be.

I love it here. I made more amazing friends than I could have hoped for. But I'm still a tourist in the world of politics, and the kind of life I'm looking for as a writer isn't here in DC. So at the end of next month, I am coming home to Boston. And while you can never really say what's going to happen next, it'll be the first time in a long time that I won't be carrying escape routes in the back of my head.

It's exciting, and terrifying, and I'll miss this place more than I can stand. Maybe I'd hoped, at the beginning, to avoid these mixed feelings. But I'm a writer. I should have known better than that. :)

Wish me luck!!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

State of the Becky

Heyyyy, all! I hope everyone is doing well, and I hope the USians among you are staying safe amid this swath of summer storms.

Sorry it has been so quiet around here lately! I am still around, lurking and reading all your posts, but I have not had much to post lately. It seems I have finally reached the point in my publishing journey where it's better if I just keep my mouth shut about the specifics until I have something concrete to say - which is not a natural impulse for me, having blogged so heavily about my querying process, but I'm getting used to it! So all I'll say is: all is well, my soul remains uncrushed by this business, and perhaps someday in the future I will be running all over the blogosphere screaming news from the rooftops.

In the meantime, I have hammered out my writing schedule for the foreseeable future, and I am really excited about it. There was a significant period of time last year where I had a lot of half-formed ideas but wasn't truly excited about any of them, but now I'm really happy with my line-up and I can't wait to get to work. And, of course, this allows for the prospect of a new idea coming in and sweeping me off my feet, which is always fun.

Here's what I've got on tap, and the order in which I'll tackle them:


Project #1: Revisionland! Once again. =P I would have thought that revising a single manuscript so many times would be a tad bit disheartening, but it's actually really fun. There's something really fascinating about working on something you know inside and out -just when you think you're done renovating, you find a whole new floor of the house you haven't even touched yet. Working on this one has really been a crash course in how to be a better writer. I'm just waiting on some notes, and then off I go again.

Project #2: Drafting overhaul. I generally don't do this, but Project #2 is a special case - the drafting process got pretty broken up amidst all my trips to Revisionland, and though I had 60k under my belt in the first draft, I realized I was going into Act Three without any of my usual momentum. And since this is probably one of the most heavily structured stories I've done, I need that momentum!

So once those Project #1 revisions are done, I'm going back to the beginning with Project #2. I won't be starting from scratch, but I can change the things I need to change, and keep the rest consistent. And that'll free me up to plow full speed ahead into the as-yet-unwritten denouement!

Project #3: Drafting! FINALLY. Project #3 has gone through two or three false starts since I came up with the idea a couple years ago, and it's finally ready to go. And I couldn't be happier. It'll take me back in a more surreal, fantastical direction (Project #2 is straight gothic horror), it takes place in one of my favorite cities in the world, and if I do it right, it will give people nightmares. So let's hope I do it right.


So that's what I'm up to, loves. What are you working on this summer?

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Special Preview for Leigh Ann Kopans' ONE - in Comic Form!

Hey all! As I'm sure many of you know, the fabulous Ms. Leigh Ann Kopans is coming out with her debut novel, ONE, TOMORROW! As a proud (and thoroughly psyched) member of #TeamONE, today I will be posting the final graphic novel-style preview of ONE. For more information and to see more of the comic, see the link list at the end of the post!

Find a full list with links to the other installments of this series on the author’s blog:

Or follow the author on Twitter @LeighAnnKopans for daily updates!

About ONE (a novel by Leigh Ann Kopans:)

Release date: June 11, 2013

When having two powers makes you a Super and having none makes you a Normal, having only one makes you a sad half-superpowered freak.

It makes you a One.

Sixteen-year-old Merrin Grey would love to be able to fly – too bad all she can do is hover.

If she could just land an internship at the Biotech Hub, she might finally figure out how to fix herself. She busts her butt in AP Chem and salivates over the Hub’s research on the manifestation of superpowers, all in hopes of boosting her chances.

Then she meets Elias VanDyne, another One, and all her carefully crafted plans fly out the window.

Literally. When the two of them touch, their Ones combine to make them fly, and when they’re not soaring over the Nebraska cornfields, they’re busy falling for each other.

Merrin's mad chemistry skills land her a spot on the Hub's internship short list, but as she gets closer to the life she always wanted, she discovers that the Hub’s purpose is more sinister than it has always seemed. Now it’s up to her to decide if it's more important to fly solo, or to save everything - and everyone - she loves.

Add ONE to your Goodreads and learn more about the author here: