I’m happy and proud to announce that I have two new stories included in the latest issue of The Sirens Call! Issue 42: The Bitter End features short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and artwork around the one fate we’ll all meet eventually: death.
I have two short stories included: “Death is a Hunter” and “Dead End.” “Dead End” is an extra special treat, as it’s the first chapter of my upcoming novel, Without Condition. The novel will be out on February 12, 2019.
Film is one of my favorite storytelling media. I minored in film studies, have written many papers on film (including an analysis of WALL-E based on postmodernism), and frequently go to the movies.
I was thus very excited when I saw that one of the contributors to Quoth the Raven was also a filmmaker. Susan McCauley, author of “The Cask,” has an extensive background in film. Read on for her thoughts on the overlap between film and literature, as well as what inspires her writing.
Bio: Susan received a B.A. in Radio-Television with a minor in Theater from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. in Text & Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College in London. Susan also studied acting at Playhouse West with Robert Carnegie and Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) in Los Angeles.
While living in Los Angeles, Susan wrote the story for and produced a short film, which won awards at the Houston International Film Festival and the Seabrook Film Festival. In London, her stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” was performed at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre; and, scenes from her play The Prisoner: Princess Elizabeth were performed at HMS Tower of London. After returning to the United States, she was a producer on the Emmy Award nominated Civil War short film Now & Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier. In 2016, she wrote and produced the award winning short film, “The Cask.” In addition to the publication of short stories, she is currently writing her fifth novel and has two feature film projects in development.
Sonora: You are a screenwriter, producer, and actress, as well as a writer. What overlaps do you see between filmmaking and writing? Do you find that one influences the other for you?
Susan: I don’t act much anymore, but I still enjoy doing it from time to time if the right part presents itself. I see myself first and foremost as a writer. I just happen to write fiction and write for film. I’m quite visual, which is probably why I started as a screenwriter and later moved into fiction. I see a lot of overlaps for screenwriting and fiction in terms of “show don’t tell,” using dialogue, and story structure. The major differences in film and fiction are the formatting, how much detail you can give, and the fact you can really dive into the head of a character in fiction, which you can’t do in screenwriting. For film, you can give clues to character emotions, but the main focus must be on sound, light, and movement. In screenwriting, you have to get images across succinctly in very vivid, condensed descriptions so the director and cinematographer can translate those to the screen. In fiction, you have more time to explore what things look like, feel like, and smell like with words. You can even share a characters thoughts in fiction, which you can’t in film, unless you’re using a voice over to capture what a character is thinking.
In terms of being a producer, I am working to produce things I’ve written or have co-written. I have to be passionate about the story I want to tell if I’m going to put all my energy into seeing a project produced.
Sonora: What are some lessons you’ve learned from filmmaking that can be applied to writing?
Susan: Film, in general, is a quicker paced medium than fiction. You have to keep the viewer’s attention or they’ll change the channel or turn the television off. In fiction, they can certainly close the book — but once a reader has bought it, chances are they’ll pick it up and keep reading at some point. They are also mentally prepared for a slower pace.
Of course film is a visual medium. I recently watched the horror film A Quiet Place. The opening shot of that film establishes so much of the world we’re entering in a few seconds: a broken, desolate, post-apocalyptic world. In fiction, it might take the author a paragraph or a page to describe it all. So it comes down to showing with words over showing with visuals.
I find that I’m a bit more sparse with description in my fiction than most fiction writers and, personally, I like the pace and think (hope) my readers will like it, too. My use of more condensed description in fiction probably comes directly from my background in screenwriting.
Other than strong plot, dialogue, and screenwriting techniques that focus on keeping the story visual and active, I can’t think of anything else I apply to fiction writing — at least not consciously. Filmmaking itself is a totally different animal than writing a book. Filmmaking is a monumental team effort. With a book you work with editors and the publisher, but people tend to do their work individually, and then regroup. With a movie, you can have five or ten or fifty or more people all working together at the same time to make the script come to life. Books are more personal in how they’re written and consumed; films are more of a group experience in their execution and consumption.
Sonora: Film and literature have an intimate relationship. What are your thoughts on film as a storytelling medium versus books? What’s been your experience creating both?
Susan: Obviously books and the written word are much older than film; but, historically, storytellers would act-out or dramatize some of their stories, and film is a modern extension of that. So they definitely go hand-in-hand. I think books and films impact the human brain differently. Books are slower; we can read and use our own imaginations to visualize what the author wants us to see and imagine how the characters feel. In film, we see what the director wants us to see and move at the pace the director (along with the editor) have set for us, which is usually much faster than sitting down to read a book. Modern film in the western world is typically fast paced with stimulating visuals and quick cuts. Most of us have probably heard doctors warn of too much screen-time because of the impact it’s having on our brains. I do think there is something to that. But I think there is a place for both books and screens. I enjoy watching television shows/films as much as anyone, but I know I can’t watch them right up until I go to sleep. My brain is too stimulated. So, at least an hour before bed, I turn off the TV and read. I definitely sleep better when I do that.
As for my experience creating both, I have to have a different mindset when I sit down to work on fiction versus when I sit down to write a screenplay. And when I switch into producer mode, that’s yet a different mindset: calls and emails with directors, other producers, attorneys, accountants, guilds and unions, etc. I’m definitely more at home writing, but there are aspects I like about producing. I haven’t directed theater or film in years, but I’m planning to get back into it in the next couple of years. As a film writer, I want to be able to control the full vision of some of my works by directing.
Sonora: People often say “The book is better” when a film adaptation comes out. Is there a movie you think is better than the book? What makes it better?
Susan: Not that I can think of. However, when a film or television show is done first and then a book comes out based on the show, I’m not usually a fan of those books. The few I’ve read of those don’t seem to have the depth or fluidity of original novels. I do think that The Lord of the Rings adaptations were extremely well-done. I like The Lord of the Rings adaptations because they were fairly true to the books, and the world-building and characters created by Tolkien in the books were beautifully captured on screen.
Sonora: Your short story for Quoth the Raven, “The Cask,” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” What made you choose this story to adapt?
Susan: I’d taught “The Cask of Amontillado” to English composition classes when I lived in Northern Virginia, and something about that story captured my imagination. I’d heard true stories of people being bricked into walls alive on history tours in England and Europe, and those always bothered me. The horror of imagining what those people thought and felt knowing they were never going to get out struck a chord of terror in my heart. I still have a visceral response in my chest when I think about it. I suppose the true stories I heard made Poe’s even more impactful for me. And, when I lived in London, a disgusting, rotten smell started coming out of the wall of my flat … Eventually the smell faded away. (I think a rat died and decomposed in my bedroom wall). But I thought of that, too, when I read “The Cask of Amontillado.” I was also bothered that I never knew why Montresor killed Fortunato in such a horrific way, and I wanted an opportunity to explore Montresor’s motivation. So, when I saw a call for adaptations of Poe stories, I knew I had to adapt “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Sonora: “The Cask” is also a short film, which you wrote and produced. Can you tell us more about it?
Susan: I was teaching an online course for Margie Lawson’s Writer’s Academy about adapting fiction for film and, as I was pulling together material for the course, I adapted my short story, “The Cask,” into a short screenplay to use as an example. When I finished the script, I thought, “This would make a good short film.” So, with my background in film, I started reaching out to some friends in L.A. to help me make it happen. At the time, nothing came out of Los Angeles, but I was led to some filmmakers in Houston, where I live, who really loved the script and wanted to help me make it. In hindsight, I wish I would have directed “The Cask” since Hollywood really wants to see more women directors and it’s something I’m getting more interested in — but at the time, I was solely focused on getting the script produced. Long story short, I was the executive producer on the project. There isn’t money in short films so it wasn’t something I could go and seek out investors for. So, about half of the budget was my money, and the rest came from an Indiegogo campaign. I wish we’d had a bit more money since a couple pages were cut from my script … but we did the best we could with what we had (which is typical of filmmaking — especially indie filmmaking).
For those who are interested, here is The Cask on YouTube. (It did win an award for best film adaptation and played at several festivals around the United States.)
Sonora: Which short story of Poe’s would you like to adapt next?
Susan: I haven’t even considered adapting another Poe story. So many of them have been adapted, and adapted well. But, if I were to do another, I would likely do “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Sonora: What is your favorite film adaptation of a Poe piece?
Susan: I honestly haven’t seen any others than my own! I probably should, but I purposely didn’t watch any when I was adapting “The Cask” because I didn’t want my work to be colored (or attributed) to someone else’s.
Sonora: How long have you been writing fiction? What drew you to horror?
Susan: Armed with my dad’s video camera, I started making movies for fun when I was eight years old … but I didn’t get into screenwriting until I was in my early 20s. I dabbled a bit with fiction in graduate school, but I didn’t fully swing my focus to it until about 8 years ago.
I blame my interest in horror and the supernatural on my parents. LOL. They took me on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World when I was three. That’s the first time I knew I had any interest in horror. I hid by my parents ankles on the ride, but then begged them to take me again. I think I write horror because it’s a fun and engaging way to experience things I wouldn’t want to experience or do in life. I think it’s fascinating to explore what makes people do certain things, and what makes us afraid. To an extent, I think reading and watching horror fulfills a basic need we have as humans to feel fear. For hundreds of thousands of years (or more), our ancestors had to hunt and fight to survive. They experienced adrenaline on a regular basis. We’re much safer in modern times. And because of that, I think we still have a primal need to feel that fear — even if it’s in the safety of our local coffee shop with a book, or in a cinema watching a film.
Sonora: What are some non-literary influences on your writing?
Susan: Life. There is always something from my life in what I write. It could be a story I heard, history, a place, a person, an animal. But there are always grains of truth from life in my work. I think that’s probably true for most writers.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Susan: As a child, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series. Laura Ingles Wilder’s accounts of life on the prairie also fascinated me. As an adult, some of my major influences have been William Shakespeare, Shirley Jackson, Johnathan Stroud, and Mary Downing Hahn. Some recent favorite books have been Took by Mary Downing Hanh and the Lockwood & Co. series by Johnathan Stroud.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite directors? What are some of your favorite films?
Susan: Guillermo del Toro does some beautiful work. And Steven Spielberg is, of course, an icon. His films are extremely commercial, but he’s a master at storytelling.
I’ll admit, I don’t make it to the theater nearly as much as I used to because I have a nine-year-old son, but I watch what I can on Netflix and Amazon. As for favorite films, I won’t even try to explain why … but these have been some of my favorites over the years: The Color Purple, Star Wars, Alien, Ghostbusters, The Others, Quills, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, and Silence of the Lambs.
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
Susan: I have a novel I recently “finished,” and is back in revision. It’s a young adult story called The Devil’s Tree, which is actually an expanded version of my short story of the same name on WattPad. It’s a ghost story about a teenager overcoming her life-situation and learning to accept herself.
I also have two feature films in development, for which I’m a writer and producer. One is a psychological horror, The Murdering Kind, which is being directed by my amazing, long-time friend, Academy Award winner Barney Burman. The other is The Lost Children of York, which is an adaptation of the play I wrote when I lived in London. The lovely and talented Edmund Kingsley is working with me on The Lost Children of York as a co-producer and lead actor.
Have you gotten your copy of Quoth the Raven yet? I just finished my own copy — after all, I share space with 29 (!) other authors and poets — and I really enjoyed the collection. I’m honored to appear alongside so many talented writers, including Tiffany Michelle Brown. Tiffany’s short story, “My Love, in Pieces” is a creepy and modern take on “Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe.
I asked Tiffany if I could interview her, and she agreed. Read on for what inspires her work, some of her favorite whiskeys, and how improv influences her writing.
Bio: Tiffany Michelle Brown is a native of Phoenix, Arizona, who ran away from the desert to live near sunny San Diego beaches. She earned degrees in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and her work has been featured by Electric Spec, Fabula Argentea, Pen and Kink Publishing, Transmundane Press, and Dark Alley Press. When she isn’t writing, Tiffany can be found on a yoga mat, sipping whisky, creating zany improv scenes, or reading a comic book — sometimes all at once.
Sonora: How long have you been writing?
Tiffany: Gosh, as long as I can remember. I was a super precocious kid who loved stories, so I started writing “novels” on lined notebook paper in grade school. I still have them, and they fall into two camps—mysteries a la the Encyclopedia Brown books—or melodramatic love stories. Like telenovela-level stuff. These early stories are some of my most precious possessions and a great reminder that writing is just … in my bones. Always has been.
Sonora: Someone starts a conversation with you while waiting in line for coffee. They discover you’re a writer, and ask you what you write. The person is next and about to be summoned by the barista. What do you tell them in as quick an answer as you can?
Tiffany: I’m a horror writer at heart, but I also like to dabble in erotica and paranormal romance.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Tiffany: I am eternally in awe of Neil Gaiman’s work (especially American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and I’ve read a ton of Stephen King. The Dark Tower series was like crack for me during college, and I’ve really loved Insomnia, The Shining, Joyland, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and his short story collections. I’m also a sucker for the stuff I consider the classics, including A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and basically everything by Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
Sonora: For “Quoth the Raven,” you chose to put a contemporary twist on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice.” What made you choose that particular Poe story? What was your favorite part about writing your updated take, “My Love, in Pieces”? Did you face any challenges while writing your story?
Tiffany: “Berenice” is a really visceral story. It’s straight up body horror. And this tale was so shocking that Poe self-censored the piece not long after its original publication to make it more palatable to the general public. I hate censorship, so I loved the idea of building a story around the truly creepy and disturbing elements of this story. I absolutely wanted to keep the startling conclusion of “Berenice” intact (the part that really got under my skin when I read it – no spoilers, in case you haven’t!), so I worked backward, trying to figure out a plausible way to move toward that phantasmagoric twist, while also writing a contemporary story set in present day. The hardest part for me was figuring out the protagonist’s voice, but as soon as that clicked into place, the whole piece was a joy to write.
Sonora: What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe story? Or, if you can’t choose one, what are a few of your favorites?
Tiffany: It’s a toss-up between “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” The voice of the narrator in “Tell-tale Heart” is so fantastic, and his paranoia-turned-madness is completely palpable. (I’m actually querying a dark erotica short based on “Tell-tale Heart” right now!) As far as “Cask” goes, what dark little heart doesn’t love a story about wine, a carnival, and truly horrific revenge?
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Tiffany: I’m definitely inspired by whatever books I’m reading (or listening to) at the moment. Listening to the audiobook of Paula Hawkins’ “Into the Water” influenced the voice of my protagonist in “My Love, In Pieces.” The main character in “My Love” speaks to his wife throughout the story as part of an internal monologue—just as one of Hawkins’ many characters does in “Into the Water”—and the effect is incredibly eerie.
I’m also inspired by news stories (I read an article about robots as babysitters a few weeks ago, and there’s totally a horror story there), strange occurrences that happen in my life (like when I wrote a story about the time a fuck-you-up knife fell out of the pocket of a seemingly straight-laced dude’s pocket at a book signing), or themed anthologies and calls for submissions (like Quoth the Raven!).
Sonora: You are a self-described yogi. Do you find that practicing yoga influences or affects your writing in any way?
Tiffany: I don’t think yoga necessarily influences my writing, but it does wonders for my mental health. Yoga helps me turn off my brain, focus on physicality, sweat out my worries, and remember to breathe. It’s also physically communal, unlike writing. I’m a total extravert, so I enjoy the energy that’s produced in a room full of folks slaying warrior, crow, and corpse poses.
Sonora: You also describe yourself as a whiskey enthusiast. What are some of your favorite whiskeys? Do you have a particular whiskey that you like to sip when writing?
Tiffany: I am obsessed with Japanese whisky, especially Yamazaki 12-Year! It’s incredibly smoky and smooth, and it makes one hell of an old fashioned. I also really like Highland Park, Aberlour, and Glenlivet.
Breaking out the good stuff is a publishing tradition for me. I will generally pour myself a finger or two, neat, in celebration. My friends and family know about this tradition and have helped me steadily build my collection over the years. If you’re ever invited over to my place, you will certainly drink well.
Sonora: You take improv classes. How do the classes influence your writing? Do you see any overlap between the lessons of improv and lessons that writers could apply to their work?
Improv is new for me, and it’s been a transformative experience! Personally, it’s helped me build confidence and consistently step outside my comfort zone. And yes, there are so many concepts in improv that I can apply to writing.
First and foremost, failing is part of the journey and should be celebrated with hearty rounds of applause! On the very first day of my Level 1 improv class at Finest City Improv, our instructor, Gary Ware, established that our classroom was a safe space for experimentation and, contrary to our natural inclinations, we should clap when things went sideways. With this mindset, “mistakes” quickly became “gifts,” things we could use to usher a narrative forward. Can you image if writers were more forgiving of themselves and gave themselves room to fail gracefully and just keep going? I’m really trying to apply that to my craft.
Secondly, successful improv is all about storytelling. Improv scenes can seem extremely bizarre or outlandish, but at their core, they’re about relationships, conflicts, and resolutions – just like the stories we authors put on paper. Without those elements, a scene (or a story) will fall flat.
Lastly, trust in your gut. Make decisions. Stick with them. Let the scenes (or stories) evolve and grow. Play. Do something silly. See if it works. Essentially, improv has given me a ton of freedom and has validated that whatever I’m thinking in a particular moment for a scene (or a story) is completely right.
Sonora: You’ve appeared in many anthologies, and also published your own standalone work. How long have you been publishing? What was your first acceptance? How do you decide between pieces you’ll submit and pieces to publish as standalones?
I finally mustered up the courage to start sending my work out for consideration in 2013, and I published my very first piece, “Invidia,” in Penduline Press’s Seven Deadly Sins issue that year. It’s inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” more specifically the sewing shut of a trespasser’s eyes when they’ve become envious or coveted that which isn’t theirs. I decided to tell the story from the perspective of the being tasked with the sewing, someone stuck in a very strange kind of limbo. It’s very strange, and I still love that piece.
I submit the majority of my work to publishers now, but when I was first starting out, I was frustrated by rejections and didn’t have a great idea of how to search for markets that complemented my writing style. But I was itching to get my work out there! So, I took matters into my own hands and learned how to publish my own work on Amazon. I self-published SPIN, a novelette about time travel via vinyl records, and Give It Back, a long-ish horror story about a funeral home and a theft that wakes the dead.
There are a few pieces I’ve been querying for a while that don’t fit neatly into a genre or an ideal word count, so those may be next for the self-publishing queue. I’ve also been toying with the idea of self-publishing a collection of horror stories, too. We shall see!
Sonora: Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to share with us?
Tiffany: I have two projects in the works right this second: a tale in the American Gothic tradition about infidelity, puritanism, and demons; and a paranormal romance novella about a vampire librarian working the night shift on a college campus who meets a cocky student he’s not sure whether he’d like to kiss or kill.
My upcoming publications include a drabble titled “All That Glitters” in Drabbledark II: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles, edited by Eric S. Fomley; a short story called “Unspoken Words” in Christmas Lites VIII, a charity anthology edited by Amy Huntley and benefiting the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and an audio reading of my paranormal comedic short, “Bad Vibrations,” on the Toasted Cake podcast.
This week, I began my readthrough of Without Condition. It’s my first time engaging with the text since I finished the first draft in June. It’s going well so far, with no glaring errors or passages where I think, “Jesus God, was I drunk when I wrote this?” or “Shut it down, I suck at writing, trying to be a writer is futile” (I prefer to think the latter on down days when I’m worrying about writing instead of actually writing).
I’m definitely seeing pieces that need to be fixed. I’m seeing other pieces I hope that Evelyn, my editor, will help me with. The most interesting pieces, though, are the fixes I need to make in every story I write — my favorite mistakes (OOO-oo!)
My favorite mistakes are the benign little errors that, while ones I or Evelyn catch when revising, are ones that always seem to come up in my first drafts. There are mistakes I’ve made that I make a conscious effort to not do again when I start my next story. But even with that effort, I still go back and see things I know have been noted as errors before. They’re almost comforting in an odd little way, especially since I’m familiar enough with them to see them as the mistakes they are and fix them.
One of my most common ones is to repeat a point in two or three different ways. I can almost see myself typing what came to me, typing another version, and then seeing which one stuck. Trouble was, I forgot to remove the ones that didn’t stick quite as well. It takes some time away to remember that I wrote something a few times over and need to pick the one that got it right (or if none got it right, to delete and try again).
The one that makes me laugh the most is my tendency to lapse into academic or formal writing, especially in narration. I’ll say a character cleansed instead of cleaned. A character who isn’t one for big words will say she humiliated someone instead of embarrassing them. Sometimes a formal word is nice, but usually, it glares up at me and seems so out of place, especially on a reread. I tend to get formal when I write, so it’s an easy mistake to make, and one that can be hard to remember to turn off for fiction writing. It does, however, give me a good chuckle when I’m reading and then stumble on a passage that could double as narration for a documentary.
I like being in a position to both laugh at my mistakes and to recognize them in ways where I don’t fear them. I am a perfectionist, and I tend to circle around revisions because I’m afraid of opening my drafts and being too overwhelmed with errors and rewrites. Seeing my mistakes as part of the process makes them less scary — and makes some of them true favorites of mine, like old friends saying hello. They’re friends that need to move on in final drafts, but it’s still a little comforting to see them.
I finished the first draft of my second book a little over two weeks ago. I’m making myself wait to do my readthrough from beginning to end. It’s been pretty hard. I haven’t felt huge urges to write, but I find myself daydreaming about the story and thinking about whether or not certain passages work. Normal, but I also want a month of a clean break, so I can return to it with the freshest eyes possible.
In the interim, I’ve been occupying myself with other projects. Proving that time is a flat circle, I’m revising the short story that I first wrote during my interim period between drafting and revising Please Give.
I received Wither back from my editor earlier this winter, but left it alone while I worked on Without Condition. I’ve been using the waiting period to go through the revisions a little at a time. The story originally started with a broken timeline, divided by stanzas of a poem and the occasional asterisk. The universal feedback I received, from my editor to my writers group, was that this was confusing as all hell. They liked the plot and saw the story’s potential, but no one knew what was happening or when.
This is why it’s so important to not only get feedback before you publish or submit, but a wide range of feedback. If everyone’s saying the same thing, then it’s a thing that needs to be fixed. So, I’m fixing it — and I’m really pleased with how the story is coming together now. It still amazes me how a story can change for the better with even the smallest of fixes, like a reordered paragraph.
In addition to revising Wither, I’ve been keeping the pump primed by casually writing a new story. I haven’t decided if it will be a short story or a novel, or even if I’ll continue working on it after I’ve sent Without Condition to my editor. It’s a story that crept up on me after a dream I had, one that asked for my attention in place of the short story prompts I’d set aside for this resting period (sorry, other stories — soon, I promise). I’ll see where it takes me. For now, it’s begun where my past two novels began to take shape: when my protagonist meets a man. The working title is Someone to Share My Nightmares.
I’ll be picking up Without Condition in two weeks. Until then, I’ll be waiting — and with a couple new projects under my belt, maybe it won’t be so hard after all.
Last year, I was a little less patient during my waiting period between drafting and revising Please Give. I developed the 5 Stages of Feelings about being done with one’s draft. This mostly still applies, even if I’m calmer about it.
I first mentioned Wither in May of 2017. I also mention We Really Shouldn’t for the first time. Both stories, along with two flash pieces, will be in my next short story collection, Wither and Other Stories.
I’ve been absent from the blog because I’ve been trying to finish the first draft of my second book. I wanted to check in, say hi, and let you all know that I’m SO CLOSE. I only have three bracket notes left to write out, and then I’ll be done, done, done! *does a dance*
It’s been a longer process than I anticipated, from conception to finish. Last summer, when Please Give was out for edits and I was wondering what to write next, it took me a long time to settle on the next book. I had a lot of ideas, many of which I began to write, but then got stuck. I wrote some short stories, and started one short story that slowly grew into a novella. Even the novella got stuck.
Then this idea hit. It hit me as a short story — and hit me right as I got Please Give back for revisions. I decided to write down some notes (something I’ve been classically averse to). My notes told me this wouldn’t be a short story. It would be a novel — and it would be my next one.
I finished Please Give, opened Word, and began to write — slowly. It came to me in flashes, in passages I often forced myself to write, which was a much different experience than Please Give. I had to make myself stop writing that one. This one, I had to constantly tell myself to keep going.
I am writing from the airport, about to head off on an anniversary trip to Montreal with my husband. I denoted this time in my writing agenda to not write — it’s a vacation and I should take a break. Still, with an hour to go before my flight boards, I decided to cheat a little and finish up the last couple paragraphs needed to finish a chapter in Book #2.
With my work this morning, I crossed the 80,000 word mark. While I still have more to write (and more to trim later on), this is the word count I see the final piece being close to. It made me smile to see 80,000 words and almost 300 pages in my master document. Back in December, I had maybe 30 pages and a lot of doubts on whether I’d be able to settle down and write this thing.
I’m somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 finished. I’m at the point where all remaining pieces are either in bracket notes, scratch notes, or outlined — no mysteries, no unresolved questions. nothing except pages I need to fill. It’s both exciting and scary. I’m a little nervous about the prospect of finishing, as I’m always nervous that my notes, thoughts, and outlines won’t turn out well once I actually write them. But overall, I’m excited. Another book — another finished book! And one that I’ve stayed excited about since thinking it up! It’s always a nice feeling.
I originally set a goal to finish a draft by today. Even in March, I suspected that wouldn’t happen. I set a new goal for the end of May, and I think I can reach that one. The finish line is getting close. This could actually happen.
I’ve been thinking about text messages in stories lately. My next book has texting, though I’m having to remember what it was like to write text messages in 2004. I also laughed really hard at two jokes in Barry, a new show on HBO that’s quickly becoming a new favorite; and both jokes involved texting.
Texting has become its own form of dialogue. I’ve seen it portrayed in various ways — and with various results — on film and in print. I find it fascinating to see how it’s depicted, and am also curious if we’ll ever see an agreed-upon format in the future.
Texts are written, and italics are usually used to denote writing. I do this myself. It’s easier to type and means less fiddling around with fonts (fonts that may not even remain in an ebook if someone changes their Kindle settings). I do this for handwritten notes, emails (especially since I just include the body of an email — I don’t like including email address, sender, subject line, time sent, etc., but that’s for another blog post), and text messages.
However, I found that using italics for text messages isn’t always so simple. Please Give uses text messages second only to spoken dialogue in terms of how the characters communicate. I love writing dialogue, but lines of quotes read very differently when they become lines of italicized text — especially lines of italicized text that need to indicate a back-and-forth without constantly writing, “She texted ____. He texted ____” (I find that tedious, and thankfully, it hasn’t appeared too much in the books I’ve read — not nearly as much as excessive “she said/he said” lately, which is also for another post).
My solution was to try and only do this for three or four lines if I needed to, or to put in the few (or sometimes several) minutes it often takes people to text back and to keep the responses short. One of the questions I had for my beta-readers was if it was clear who was speaking to whom and who was texting to whom. They all said yes, and I hope that other readers agree!
But writing the act of texting is a challenge, and while I’ve seen smooth integration of text messaging in books, I have yet to see a universal format. One book I read put the entire exchange into a centered block denoted by each sender’s initials. It read like a chat screen, and while it made the exchange very clear, it seemed a little odd placed in the middle of regular text in the book. The book I’m reading now denotes text messages in its own line, and in a fixed font that’s smaller, bold, and in a colder font. It’s also very clear, and while momentarily a distraction, it flowed more seamlessly than the block of chat-like text. It flowed like what text messages are: dialogue.
As a reader, what formats have you seen in books for text messages? Are there any you prefer?
As a writer, how do you incorporate text messages into your stories?
Whether a reader, a writer, or both, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
As a P.S., I wanted to talk a bit about texting in TV and in film. That’s something I’ve watched with great interest, from both my communications and film studies perspectives. Texting as dialogue onscreen seems to be evolving, even though there still isn’t an agreed-upon format. Most movies and TV shows seem to have moved away from characters reading text messages out loud, which is a blessing — it had the same lack of naturalness as the one-sided phone conversation where the person onscreen repeats whatever (we presume) the person on the other end said.
A popular form for a while now — and still in use sometimes — was to put the text messages on the screen, sometimes like typed-out subtitles and most often by text windows popping up on the side like Pop-Up Video. I found this awkward and weird, but something that couldn’t really be worked around — much like fixed font text messages in a book.
More shows and movies, though, seem comfortable just showing someone’s screen with the text message on it. This is easier to do with bigger phones and clearer, more colorful screens; and I prefer this method. Text messages aren’t spoken and they also aren’t word bubbles like dialogue in comics. If we can see the phone’s screen, we should. As I mentioned above, I recently saw this used to great effect on Barry, which in addition to just showing the iPhone screen with texts, incorporated some of iPhone’s text message features, like confetti falling over the screen when a celebratory text is sent (and the text message the confetti accompanied was a very dark thing to celebrate). I look forward to seeing how communicating text messaging in stories continues to change over the years — or given technology’s current pace, over the coming months.
This past week, I crossed the 50,000 word mark on my next book. Achievement unlocked — I have a NaNoWriMo!
I call this a NaNoWriMo because the goal of NaNoWriMo — aka National Novel Writing Month — is to write 50,000+ words, or a novel, in 30 days. I always get excited when I reach this point, even though in my experience, it’s one where I can see the finish line as opposed to having crossed it.
Truth be told, my excitement increases when it doesn’t feel like the finish line. I like crossing the 50,000 word mark and knowing I’ve still got more to write. I know I’m going to be doing a lot of trimming, so having too many words is my ideal when a first draft is done.
I have more to write, but at 50,000 words, I am at least halfway done — maybe more. I’m thinking that Without Condition will reach 90,000 or 100,000 words when I finish the draft, and rest somewhere around 80,000 words by the time it’s complete. Of course, I say that now and I’ll end up with 200,000 words by the time I finish the draft.
But for now, I have over 50,000 words in the manuscript; and I’m feeling pretty good. To the next 50,000 — and soon, the next draft!
(It’s weird writing a headline about myself in the third person, but not as weird as writing “A Q&A with Me”)
Last week, I posted a Q&A with my editor, Evelyn Duffy. In addition to answering my questions, she turned the virtual mic around and asked some questions of me. Read on to learn more about what it was like writing my first book, how I navigate through both the writing and publishing parts of the process, and how comic strips and sitcoms influence my literary work.
Evelyn: What is your writing process? How has it varied or stayed the same from your short stories to your novels?
Sonora: It’s a simple step, and yet some days, it’s the hardest one to take: I make myself write something every day. Even if it’s just a sentence, or a note, or a revision, I need to engage with a piece every day to keep the momentum going. I can’t count the number of times I put off actual writing because I thought I had nothing, and then when I made myself do it, I got something — something that often surprised me. The story needs to get out of my head in order to form fully, and I need to write it to get it out of my head.
I work better with set, numeric goals — a specific end date, a number to reach, etc. When writing a novel, I set a goal of 1000 words a day. When writing a short story, I aim for 500 to 1000 words. I often surpass these goals — at its peak, I was writing closer to 2000-3000 words a day for my novel, Please Give — but there are also plenty of days I fall short. This is okay. What’s more important to me than a word count is engagement with my work.
Evelyn: What is your revision process? Who do you share your work with pre-publication, and how do you decide? Can you tell us how you incorporate an editor, beta readers, friends and family, and/or your cover artist?
Sonora: Whether a novel or a short story, I always wait until I have a draft I’m mostly satisfied with before sharing it with others. I do this because I don’t want to give someone something to read that I still have a lot of issues with. I want to send it to others when I’ve reached the point where I can’t do more without hearing from someone else. I often say to people reading it that what the story needs now is another set of eyes. My stories usually reach this point after three or four passes on my own.
Beta readers usually give me general thoughts and some copy-edits. My editor is very thorough, with longer assessments on what is and isn’t working in the story, and what I need to draw out or revise. I highly recommend that self-published authors get both beta readers and an editor. You need that span of feedback to really make your story pop.
Evelyn: Please Give is your first novel, but not your first book. What are some of the differences you’ve found between writing a novel and a collection of short stories? Are there any that took you by surprise?
Sonora: The biggest difference was what each piece started as when I wrote the first words. Even when the story was vastly different, I knew Please Give would be a novel. However, I didn’t write the short stories in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales with the intention to publish them together. When I decided to publish them together, I was pleasantly surprised by how closely connected they turned out to be. Funny enough, that theme was connection: each of the protagonists in the four stories has a goal of making a connection with someone else, and each get different results.
Evelyn: I understand your knowledge of the nonprofit world of Washington D.C. influenced Please Give. Can you talk a little about that?
Sonora: I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for almost ten years. I interned for an animal welfare organization while I was in graduate school, and have worked for two foundations and an advocacy organization since entering the workforce full-time.
Some may think that working for a nonprofit means your 9-to-5 is saving puppies, or going to protests, or traveling the globe to help save the world. For some nonprofit workers, that’s the case; but for many of us, it’s going to the office, sitting in meetings, writing drafts, doing busy work, going to more meetings, fielding phone calls, and going to one or two more meetings before you leave for the day. If you think that sounds like any other office, you’re right.
In every nonprofit office I’ve worked in, though, staff have cared deeply about the organization’s mission. There’s also an overall sense of camaraderie — one that isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, of course, but one that I think is heightened by the nature of the field. This can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because you’re part of a team focused on a goal rooted in service, and everyone wants to work together to achieve that. But it can be bad if that common goal is used to try and justify things that wouldn’t be okay in any office, with the excuse that it’s the mission or the greater good that’s more important. This isn’t exclusive to nonprofit offices, but like camaraderie, I think this is heightened in a mission-based office. Why should we complain about things like pressure to work too hard, or frequently missed deadlines, or excessive micromanagement, or lack of promotions or benefits, when The Mission is there and we have so many more important things to think about? But you can care deeply about the greater good and still want better in your office, because it’s still an office and it’s still okay to ask for better in your work environment. I hope that anyone working or thinking of working in the nonprofit sector remembers this.
Evelyn: As I wrote to you when I edited your book, the protagonist of Please Give is refreshing and complex. Beth has a clear, distinct voice. She owns her unique hobbies and interests, and is sexually confident. She has no physical hang-ups and isn’t trying to define herself based on a relationship with a man. At the same time, she’s also one of the most anxious characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. What went into writing her? Is she the same character now, after multiple drafts and revisions, that she was when she started?
Sonora: When I started Please Give, I was thinking less about Beth and more about where she worked. Her observations on her job — ones that were much snarkier in the initial drafts — were more my own than hers. While I never intended Please Give to be a memoir, a story that was inspired by my own experiences was going to start with a blurred line of where my story ceased and Beth’s began. This line became more defined as I gave Beth her own world. As her story opened up to me, she did too; and I was better able to step back and write about her instead of me.
A lot of what you like about her are things I see in women, yet don’t see enough of in fictional women. For instance, 95% of the books I read have women say something about eating too much and getting fat, no matter their size or their self-esteem. I find myself thinking, can’t I just read one frickin’ book where a woman eats a burger and doesn’t say “Oh no, I’m going to get fat”? Same goes for Beth’s sexual confidence. I wasn’t interested in yet another story where a woman is either super awkward or weird about sex (sure it’s real, but it’s not the only reality of sexual women); sleeps around with the hope that maybe this guy will want to commit (because we can’t have a woman who dates to date — she must be looking for a husband or a long-term boyfriend, and the men must always be the ones who are reluctant to commit); or else sleeps around because she has emotional baggage that drives her libido, giving her a reason other than her own gratification. Beth has sex because she enjoys it, and it’s something she both likes and knows she’s good at. I want to read more about women like that.
At the same time, Beth is very anxious. She fears offending others and polarizing them; and also fears that she’s not actually deserving of the things she wants. This is most apparent in her office, but it seeps into how she interacts with her friends and her dates (outside of sex, at least). This combination of anxiety and confidence creates its own special brand of despair. Beth very much wants more, and wants this because she knows what she’s capable of — and yet, she still wonders if she can actually do what she wants to do. This leads to a battle in her head between what she thinks, what she thinks others think, and what she thinks she should think to make everyone happy.
It’s exhausting to go through these motions — and they’re motions I’m very familiar with. Even though Beth is her own character, I wrote her inner workings with a clear understanding of them because I go through similar thinking almost every day. It’s a train of thought that can make you feel very lonely. I tend to internalize these anxieties because I hold to the times I’ve opened up about them and been told to just get over it or that I was being ridiculous. While such anxieties aren’t fixed overnight, it helps when I hear from others that they know how it is, or feel that way too, or at the very least understand. This applies to books as well as people, characters as well as friends. I started writing Beth and her story so I could tell a good story. But I hope that by including something personal to me — something hard to share, but necessary — that I can do my own part to let others who go through this know that they’re not alone.
Evelyn: As the author, what is your favorite thing about Please Give? As a reader, do you think it would be different?
Sonora: One of the reasons I loved writing Please Give was because it made me happy to inhabit its world and spend time with its characters. I found several of the scenes hilarious, and would laugh to myself as I wrote them or said the dialogue out loud to myself. It seems odd to say that, given it’s about a woman anxiously navigating through her own head to get through her day-to-day. But I’ve found that my own rough day-to-day’s, ones that can be very rough when my anxious thoughts are getting the better of me, are improved when I find something funny about them. I can make them better with a joke, or a snarky observation, or talking to an understanding friend and making light of everything we’re going through. So while the book isn’t a laughfest from beginning to end, it’s also not a pit of despair. Many things happen in the world of the book, things that sometimes feel like nothing but downs after the ups; but all can perhaps still feel okay because of a good joke and some good people to share it all with. I felt that way while engaging with the book and its characters, and I hope that readers will feel the same.
Evelyn: “All the Pieces Coming Together” is a sexy, funny, dangerous short story, and one of the most unique I’ve read in 10 years of editing. How long did it take you to write? What gave you the idea? Who do you hope will read it, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Sonora: “All the Pieces Coming Together” was the first short story I wrote when I got back into writing in 2016. I’d nursed the idea for a year or so beforehand, focused mainly on one of the first lines: “It’s the perfect place to hide a body. The trouble is, there isn’t anybody to hide.” I found the idea of a wannabe serial killer finding a hiding spot so perfect that no one was around to kill to be darkly hilarious. I wrote down a few notes, including the line, his course of action, and the first part of the ending. Everything else fell into place as I wrote it. Once I started writing the story, it took me a little over a month to complete. I hope people with morbid senses of humor read it, or perhaps people who don’t think they’re into horror or dark comedy. It delves into themes of control and making things just so, something I think we’ve all gone through in less morbid ways (well, hopefully less morbid ways).
Evelyn: Both Please Give and The Crow’s Gift have gorgeous cover art. What can you tell us about your cover artist?
Sonora: Both of my books’ covers, the cover for “All the Pieces Coming Together,” and the illustrations in The Crow’s Gift were done by the immensely-talented Doug Puller. He is an illustrator and graphic designer, and I highly recommend him. You can see examples of his work on his website.
I am also collaborating with Doug on a graphic novel. It’s called Wretched Heroes, and will be released as a multi-volume series. We expect Volume 1: The Man in Rags to be released later this year. You can learn more about it on Facebook.
Evelyn: You’ve mentioned that you attend meetups and classes in the D.C. area related to writing and publishing. What about them did you find helped you? You’ve also learned a lot in a relatively short period of time about self-publishing and promoting your work online. What are your suggestions for someone who has a book finished and wants to self-publish but isn’t sure how to get started?
Sonora: I’ve been going to Write2Publish classes, which meet once a month at my local library. An assortment of writers attend the classes, and they are led by Robin Sullivan, whose husband, Michael J. Sullivan, is a popular fantasy author. She is his business manager. The classes are focused on the business end of writing — how to market your book, query-sending strategies, tips for which publishing avenue to pursue, and more. The classes have been extremely helpful in guiding my foray into self-publishing, while also giving me a primer of what to expect if I ever decide to pursue traditional publishing.
Much of what I’ve learned about self-publishing has come from a combination of writing blogs and these classes. When Robin shares her tips, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you are handling all of your own marketing. While I have an eye for marketing, I am a writer first and foremost; and everyone will tell you that the author’s job is to write. Thus, it sometimes feels like I’m always going to come up short meeting every recommendation people like Robin make to ensure self-publishing success — and subsequently come up short in getting my books into the hands of readers. However, one of the nice things about books is that they don’t get just one chance to be read. Think about your favorite author. You probably didn’t hear about their first book — you probably heard about them after their third or fourth. Books stick around, and can gain traction over time.
I think it’s important to remember, then, that while doing it all is helpful, so is doing some of it. Your self-publishing prospects aren’t D.O.A. if you don’t have a full website, social media presence, Google Analytics report, multiple reviews, and well-placed promotion on blogs and in newspapers all before launch day. Maybe aim for two of those things, and the two that come most naturally to you. I’ve had a Twitter presence for years, and while I still use it to talk about non-writing things like hockey and beer, I also use it to talk about my writing. I also started a writing blog where I talk about my projects as well as general writing thoughts. That blog eventually became my website. I’d like to do more to market my work, and when I have some more pieces to promote, perhaps I will. But for now, I have a website and a social media presence, which is a great first step to getting my work out there.
Evelyn: Generally speaking, you draw a lot from film and pop culture. You also read voraciously. Who or what are your greatest influences?
Sonora: I really enjoy both humorous and dark stories, such as Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs and essays. I read Running with Scissors in high school and loved every word. Burroughs has a knack for drawing you into such darkness and sadness but with a laugh and a wink throughout; and his sense of humor is incredibly biting. My favorite authors (with my favorite book by each in parentheses) include John Irving (A Widow for One Year), Anita Shreve (Fortune’s Rocks), Rainbow Rowell (Landline), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), and Thomas Hardy (Far From the Madding Crowd). I also read a lot of comic strips growing up, which were very influential on my writing and my humor — in no small part because of the way the dialogue flows. I spent many an afternoon reading Foxtrot and Calvin and Hobbes; and owned many Archie anthologies.
Sitcoms have also had a big influence on my writing. Growing up, my favorite shows were The Golden Girls, The Nanny,That ’70s Show, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m also a big fan of sitcoms without laugh tracks. The speed and naturalness at which the jokes come is just so good in the right hands. They’re an excellent primer on how to write good, convincing, and funny dialogue in stories. Some of my favorites include 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Master of None.
Most of my favorite stories are about generally everyday people going through generally everyday things; or else things out of the ordinary being shared as if they were an everyday occurrence, because to that person, it is their everyday. Even a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a point to emphasize the averageness of Joel and Mike (and now Jonah) in the face of their circumstances. These stories showed me people I’d know, telling jokes and going through things I could at least see myself going through, even if I didn’t actually go through them. Those are the stories I like writing the most.
I am also a horror fan, in case anyone was wondering how my love of Golden Girls and Archie resulted in a story like “All the Pieces Coming Together” (though Riverdale would lend itself well to that). I’ve been a Tim Burton fan since I was a kid, and of course read Stephen King. I am also a big fan of Neil Gaiman and the way he builds worlds and turns a phrase. He makes the darkest corners of the imagination beautiful, even when they’re deeply unsettling.
Evelyn: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started writing?
Sonora: I’ve read so many author interviews where they say the final version of their book was almost nothing like it was when they started. I read an interview or two like these as I was just getting started on Please Give, and thought, “Well, my story isn’t changing. It’s going to stay exactly the same, and I’m going to follow everything I outlined or noted exactly.”
What a joke. It changed drastically, and many times. I kept some things intact — Beth’s job, for instance; and Beth as the protagonist, and most of the main characters. But at one point, I had a speaking cast of thirty. I still remember a character about whom Beth said, “I don’t know why she was there. She had no reason to be.” One of those magic moments where your characters talk to you and you should listen. Beth was also running an advice blog in an early draft, which will make you laugh very hard when you learn more about Beth and how she feels about sharing her opinions.
But Please Give changed a lot — it even changed titles — and changed even more when I got it back from being edited. It changed despite my naive, stubborn self thinking my novel would be the first rough draft that stayed the same into final form beyond copy clean-up. It’s that stubbornness that makes me wish I’d known how much a story can change sooner. While I want to go into my stories with some sense of what will happen, I also don’t want to go in so sure of how it will go that I’ll get stuck and write myself into a corner. I came around on what did and didn’t need to change in Please Give, but there were pieces I definitely hung onto longer than necessary so I could follow a notion I had of what the story was before I even wrote it. It’s better to write and see where it goes — and if you see it going somewhere else, follow it. More often than not, you’ll be lead in the right direction.
Evelyn: I know you have several other irons in the fire. Would you like to tell us about some of your upcoming books and short story collections?
Sonora: While Please Give was out for edits, I wrote several short stories. I’m publishing five of them in a new collection, tentatively titled Wither and Other Tales. Many of them are on the darker side, like the stories in The Crow’s Gift. It’s currently being edited and revised, and I plan to release it in September.
I’m also hard at work on my next novel. Right now, it’s called Without Condition. It follows a woman named Cara, who tempers her mounting fears and frustrations in less-than-savory ways; and her mother Delores, who’s proud of the way she handles herself. It explores the idea of unconditional love, but in a dark and twisted way. It also explores how Cara reconciles with who she really is — a piece she hides from everyone but her mother, because her mother loves her no matter what — and how that reconciliation affects Cara when she meets and falls for a man named Jackson. It’s dark, bemused, and tender — my favorite kind of story.