2019 has started with me working in pieces. A flash piece here, a submission there, a proofread right here, and bits of stories in between. At the moment, I’m working on an epistolary piece for a themed submission. Epistolary pieces are usually told through letters. I decided to take a different approach and tell a story through an ongoing thread on a fictional Reddit forum devoted to nightmares. The title may change, but right now, it’s “r/uawake.”
Writing it has been a challenge, mostly because with the setting of a forum and for the plot itself, time stamps are important. As such, I have to write time stamps for each post, which has made my eyes cross more than once. Balancing it out, though, are the names of the users. I’ve had fun coming up with punny usernames. My current favorite is Constant Craven (if you take it and/or it already exists, then, insert disclaimer about how all characters in this story are from the author’s imagination).
I’m also in the final stages of preparing Without Condition for publication on February 12 (mark your calendars). I received my ebook and paperback proofs from Doug, and just finished reading through my paperback to make any final corrections. I’m also sending it out to reviewers. If you’re interested in providing an honest review in exchange for a free ARC, let me know in the comments; or feel free to contact me at sonorataylor (at) gmail (dot) com. Please include a link to your site or your social media pages (Goodreads, Instagram, etc.) where you’ll post the review.
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.
Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems with a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, features 30 different authors (including yours truly). I spoke with fellow contributor Steven R. Southard, and you can see our conversation below. Read on for what inspires Steven, what it’s like to write both horror and science fiction, and more.
Bio: Having spent time near Baltimore, it’s possible that author Steven R. Southard has somehow absorbed a measure of the still-lingering aura of Edgar Allan Poe. During the night’s darkest hours, by the light of a single candle, Steve pens tales of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and alternate history. His stories appear in more than ten anthologies and one series. The bravest and most curious among you may venture to his website at stevenrsouthard.com, where you may discover Steve waiting, lurking, and well hidden behind his codename: Poseidon’s Scribe.
How did you come up with the name “Poseidon’s Scribe”?
My name is Steven R. Southard. Poseidon’s Scribe is just my job. Since so many people ask, I’ve written a FAQ post about the job. In case you’re wondering, Poseidon is generally happy with my work and the sea god only needs one scribe, so you need not apply
How long have you been writing?
Two answers—thirty years and fifteen years. Thirty years ago, I figured I could jot down a best-selling novel in no time, with no study. I then wasted fifteen years and ended up with an unpublishable manuscript. Fifteen years ago, I got serious about my writing, shifted to short stories and began actually submitting them. And getting published!
What are some of the things you’ve learned as an author?
I learned that I write because I have to, because I’m driven to, because some inner urge compels me. Early on, I thought I was writing to be famous, well-read, and rich, but I was wrong about that.
I’ve also learned which aspects of writing come easily to me and which ones I struggle with.
I’ve learned writing is easy, getting published is hard, and making a decent living from writing is next to impossible.
I’ve learned that books about writing are full of stern advice, but if the advice feels wrong for you, follow your instincts.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?
Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Study the craft a bit, but write a lot. As you write, don’t be afraid to experiment, to dabble, to reach deep, to explore, and to play at writing.
Seek the help that helps you most. For me, that’s a critique group. For you, it might be books about writing, writing classes, writing conferences, who knows what?
I see you write both horror and science fiction. What drew you to each? Do you feel more inspired by one genre versus the other? What similarities have you found between writing both? What key differences have you found between them when writing both?
True, I’ve written both. SF because I like it, but horror only if an anthology wants it and my muse is interested. I write far more SF, and its various offshoots like alternate history and especially steampunk. As a former engineer, I’m attracted to stories featuring technology. Think of SF and horror as two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. SF is about solving problems through technology or science. Horror is about making readers feel fear. Some stories, of course, are both.
What non-literary things inspire you?
I find inspiration everywhere. I’ve written stories based on a Mythbuster episode, caring for an aging relative, historical technologies and legends, a Thanksgiving dinner discussion, and other improbable sources. We live in a world ideally suited to inspire writers; perhaps that’s its purpose.
What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, and why? If you can’t pick one, what are a few of your favorites and why?
So many, so many … I love the tight and complex rhyming schemes of the poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” I love the precise and scientific nature of his prose in “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Tell us more about “The Unparalleled Attempt to Rescue One Hans Pfaall,” your story for “Quoth the Raven.” What made you choose “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” as the story to reimagine? What contemporary inspirations did you draw from to write the story?
I found a book of Poe’s stories and poems at my parents-in-law’s house, and the book contained the Hans Pfaall tale. It’s Poe at his most whimsical, as if he’d somehow teamed up with Dr. Seuss. It’s one of his lesser known works because it leaves too many loose ends and differs from his later writing.
At a time when hot air balloons were new, Poe captivated readers with a story of a journey to the Moon by balloon. Knowing that some readers might actually believe it, Poe kept the story light-hearted and farcical in tone (the balloon’s gas-bag is made from newspapers!). He intended to continue the story in subsequent installments and never did.
The story begged for a sequel that ties up the loose ends, so I wrote one.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?
I’m writing the second in a planned series of alternate history stories about Brother Eilmer of Malmesbury Abbey. He’s a medieval Benedictine monk who creates technological inventions far in advance of his time. My first such story was “Instability,” which appeared in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings, and was based on an actual recorded event.
Every story is different, and every time I start a story, the process is a little different than it was before. As I write, though, I find that certain truths keep cropping up again and again. One I’ve been reflecting on lately is how you should almost never go with your first idea.
I’m not talking about the whole idea. Usually this first idea introduces characters, locations, a basic conflict, and once you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), a rough outline from beginning to end. It’s this first outline that, in my experience, should almost never be kept by the time you’re finished — especially the ending.
There’s the simple reason that stories evolve as they’re written. I often find that I have ideas for what my characters are like, and then they surprise me as I write them. They tell me more about themselves and how their stories will end. More often than not, I’ll be led in the right direction. Trust yourself as an author to know when the story is spiraling and when the story is falling into place. You’ll see it as a reader, just of your own work as opposed to others’ books.
Despite what movies like Stranger Than Fiction imply, though, writing isn’t all magic where the characters come to life and tell you everything you need to know. At the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re exerting control over your narrative. And I highly suggest using this control to steer yourself away from your first idea as you start to see new ideas popping up along the way.
I dwell on this because, more often than not, our first idea is based on something we’ve read before. It’s not necessarily something that’s clichéd (though it very well might be), and sometimes, something we’ve read before can work in a new narrative we’re crafting. But something we’ve read before is very likely something that someone else has read before too. There’s comfort in familiarity, but there’s more reward in being shocked. If you surprise yourself as you write, then chances are, your readers will be surprised too.
As an author, I find great satisfaction when I give a brief synopsis of a story, and someone guesses something entirely different from how it turns out. I get even more satisfaction when they guess my first idea — one that has since been changed. It tells me that they’ll likely experience the same journey I had while writing it, one that I hope is as satisfying for them as it was for me.
I would give examples from my work … but that would spoil the ending.
Another universal truth I’ve found with each story is having to contend with sloppy writing on the first draft. It gets a little better each time, but there are still times I’ll start a draft and end up with sentence fragments, clichéd metaphors, and crappy endings. Never finish with your first idea or your first draft!
A lot of readers for Please Give thought it would end differently — not the same as my first idea, but the same as my second idea and, ultimately, the idea I didn’t go with. See if the same happens to you: the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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 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.
My fortune cookie last night had some good advice for life in general, but also for writers in the midst of their drafts. Drafts are often stubborn and take a while to really get going, which can be discouraging for many of us who are trying to write them. However, the words below are a good motivator to keep going:
It’s advice I’m certainly doing my best to remember as I continue my second book. I’m at almost 70,000 words and maybe 2/3 done. I’m excited and nervous all at once, and there are days I’m poking at my draft like someone poking at a bush and ducking in fear as a snake rustles out. But it’s getting written, and it will end — and hopefully, it will end well.
I love finding fortunes that help with writing. I found this one and this one last year, and still carry them with me in my purse or my pocket every day.
I also keep calendar postings like this one and this one on my cork board at work as well as folded up in my writing notebook. It’s like having a portable vision board. At the very least, it’s nice to have quiet reminders by my side wherever I go.