When It Hits You

I’ve been struggling to write lately, chiefly because I’m in the middle of several projects and don’t know where to take any of them. Or at least, I didn’t know, but now I do. I can rework one novel I was writing into a slightly different monster–more dark fantasy and horror, less historical–and all of a sudden it feels like I have a new project with limitless possibilities.

That’s a great feeling, isn’t it? When that inspiration hits you and all of a sudden everything makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but at least it feels right. It feels like you’ve been trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and all of a sudden that peg changed shape and now it fits just right.

I hope to have more of those moments.

My wife, who is my go-to editor (she has edited professionally), just finished the novel I’m going to try and find a home for. Here’s hoping within a year I’ve got a publishing deal worked up. And look, an email alert telling me she’s made edits to a short story. Back to work, I suppose.

The Joy of Horror

I definitely consider myself a genre writer. I’m not too keen on literary fiction; it most certainly has its place, and there is some fantastic literary fiction out there that well-deserves its accolades. But as both a reader and a writer, I would much rather be taken out of a realistic setting and put into something fantastical and truly imaginary.

So, I write and read genre fiction. My favorite genre is probably horror, both as a creator and a consumer. I enjoy the visceral thrills of horror, to be sure: the external conflict against an unrelenting force bent on destruction and the desperate need for survival can make, in able hands, for compelling reading (and watching; I love horror films just as much as I love horror fiction). I enjoy even more, however, the character development and introspection that’s inherent, and maybe even unique to, the horror genre.

Horror, as a genre label, has numerous definitions. Some akin horror to pornography, in that it offers a sensual and emotional experience that is superficial and fleeting, and serves little intrinsic purpose with little value. It is this definition of horror that has, before the current horror film renaissance we’ve slowly been experiencing ever since the release of 28 Weeks Later…, so often commanded discussion of the genre. Horror movies were excuses to watch attractive yet obnoxious people have sex and then die, and horror fiction was trash consumed by goth kids all in a race to be edgier than their fellow nihilists. Lately the way we talk about horror has grown more nuanced. It’s now accepted that the horror genre uses the base human emotion of fear to explore classical human experiences and literary themes, most often dealing with trauma.

What I admire the most about the horror genre is that it forces the reader or viewer into a state of discomfort before engaging them with subtext. Why is this discomfort necessary? To build empathy with the characters, for one. It’s hard to not think about existential dread and the fragility of life when such ideals are being played out right in front of you. Another reason why this discomfort is necessary is that squeezes the audience out of their comfort zone, which makes them more willing to engage with weighty topics and ideas.

I love many other genres, and will be talking about all of them. But it’s horror that I find the most engaging, exciting, and ultimately meaningful. It’s no exaggeration that after finishing The Shining I felt more alive than I ever had up until that moment.

Music to Write To

Right now, I’m listening to Apple’s Smashing Pumpkins Essentials playlist. It starts off with “1979,” one of the most chill and heartfelt songs I’ve ever heard. The soft echo of the instrumentals and Billy Corgan’s whispering vocals bring me back to a trip I took to Chicago in the summer of 2009. I had taken a taxi cab to meet a friend at a hotel bar. She was someone I knew from the library world, and was a mentor and sympathetic ear to me. I was looking forward to having an enlightening conversation with her over a few drinks.

The cool night air poured into the taxi cab window as dusk settled across the city. The noise of big city traffic and the twinkle of metropolitan lights contrasted with the relative quiet to which I was accustomed back home. It was a magical evening, but not in the romantic or adventurous sense; there was something in the air which I could not explain, not an excitement but, oddly enough, a peace. I felt a sense of belonging despite being so far from home, and was listening to “1979” on my iPod (or maybe my phone, I can’t remember exactly). Then again, maybe I wasn’t listening to it. Maybe I was thinking about the music video, which was set in big city traffic, or this song was just on my mind (the band is from Chicago, after all).

Either way, all of these memories come from a simple song. This is why I love listening to music while I write. Songs really do take you back to a place in time, good or bad. I’m currently taking the Masterclass with Neil Gaiman (which I highly recommend) and he speaks of a writer’s “compost heap:” a collection of memories, conversations, experiences, and all kinds of things that, over time, condense down and fertilize your fiction writing. Most of what’s on my compost heap is music.

Any song from Korn’s Follow the Leader takes me back to college. Korn had been very popular when I was in high school, but now that I had disposable income from a part-time job, I could afford the popular music I couldn’t back then. I listened to that album endlessly, rediscovering some songs and discovering many for the first time. I went to a very conservative college, so I didn’t have to jump over many hurdles to be a rebel/outcast/whatever you want to call the weird kid; wearing black and listening to Korn helped cement that image. I kind of liked it, truth to be told. Granted, I was a good student and stayed out of trouble, but being outspoken and strange definitely made me feel like an interesting character.

“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails takes me back to the night I downloaded it on Napster (please tell me you remember Napster). I knew it was a popular song and wanted to give it a listen. I downloaded it, listened to it, and was instantly terrified. It felt forbidden, taboo even. I knew my parents would disapprove. I immediately deleted it. I didn’t want to be caught dead with it. Now, it’s one of my favorites.

Listening to hair metal takes me back to my childhood, when my mother and my aunt would blast Poison, Motley Crue, and Warrant on road trips to the beach. Old school R&B and hip-hop takes me back to my marching band days, when we played some of the great classics as part of our shows and parades. We played an especially rousing rendition of “Thriller” with a killer bass line pumped out by an extremely talented bass saxophonist. “Calling You” by Blue October brings me back to my wedding day, when I walked down the aisle with my brand-new wife to begin our life together.

Sometimes it can be hard to write to music. These memories tend to interfere with the creative process. That’s why I try to match the music with what I’m writing. Horror has a soundtrack of industrial and black metal. If I’m writing a western, then it’s outlaw country and contemporary blue grass. Fantasy and high adventure get a background of arena rock, power metal, and rousing orchestral arrangements. That way, the linked memories and emotions boost my writing instead of interfere with it.

Of course, sometimes what interferes the most is simply deciding on the right playlist or album for that day’s writing. Much like a driver who refuses to back out of the driveway until they have the perfect driving song, I tend to not bother putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as is often the case) until I’ve got just the right song spinning.

Maybe that explains why I’m not getting much writing done these past few days. I just like music too much.