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.