I’m currently on my third reread of the Harry Potter series. I came to the series late, my first readthrough being in 2014; and while I’m not a superfan, I love the series. It’s a great story across seven books, with wonderful characters and world-building. I also admire anyone who can write that much and have it all come together and make sense.
With the third reread, and thus the story well-settled into my memory, I’m starting to notice more little things in terms of style. And one thing I’ve noticed is that, around the time the series truly exploded — from what I recall, after Goblet of Fire was released — the tightness of the editing waned.
This struck me during Order of the Phoenix, which I’m almost done with. Now, it’s a good story, like all the rest. Its length isn’t a huge deterrent to me, though Harry doesn’t even arrive at Hogwarts until almost 200 pages in. It’s more the stylistic choices. A popular style choice in the book is to end every other sentence with ellipses. Almost everything Harry does or thinks trails off, especially after the halfway mark. It was okay the first 50 times, but after, oh, the fifth paragraph in a row with three sentences ending in ellipses, it starts to get irritating.
I won’t use this post to air all my style grievances with Order of the Phoenix (though seriously, the all caps yelling could also stand to take a chill pill). But as I noticed this sudden hard left turn from Book 4 to Book 5 — one that coincided with what I remember as the rise in the series’ popularity — I wondered if the series’ increased popularity, and J.K. Rowling’s subsequent increased clout, had the negative effect of the publisher taking a step back in terms of editing. Rowling’s books were immensely popular, and now that her work was proven — and rightfully so — perhaps there was less insistence to change or edit her work too much. But as I’m seeing in Order of the Phoenix, that isn’t always for the best.
I can’t say for sure that was the case for Books 5-7 in the Harry Potter series, since I wasn’t in the publisher’s office when the book was finished (though my Potter-loving friend said in response to my tweets about this, “No good editor would have let 400 fucking pages of idling in the damn woods stand. Also, the epigraph.”). But I can site a similar example that was in fact a documented case of a creator receiving little to no editorial interference: George Lucas and The Phantom Menace.
According to a book I just read and loved, Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery; George Lucas had earned the right (and money) to tell the studios that he wanted complete creative control over the return to the Star Wars universe. However, this led to a movie that many fans consider the worst in the series — it’s slow, the acting is wooden, it misses the forest for the trees in terms of lore, and the dialogue is god-awful. To the latter point, Lucas even admitted he wasn’t good at writing dialogue. And yet, he didn’t want assistance with dialogue — and the studios allowed him that freedom because of his clout.
I saw The Phantom Menace when I was 13. Even then, I knew what I was seeing was bad. George Lucas is a creative genius who has devised a modern legend that will live beyond any of us. That doesn’t mean he didn’t need an editor.
Everyone needs an editor, and yet almost no one wants to admit it. Editors are for amateurs, some think; or are deployed by anxious big-wigs who don’t trust their creators or anyone’s vision that’s different from theirs.
Yes, there may be publishers who overstep and edit to their expectations as opposed to the writer’s voice. But just because that happens, that doesn’t mean an author outgrows the need to be edited. It just means they need a better editor — one that respects them as a writer and wants to encourage their growth.
I know both the temptation to go at my work alone, and the sting of being told what parts of my creation need to be fixed. When I get my memo and edits back from Evelyn Duffy, I use them to learn and remember them as I write my next piece — and I’ll admit, I occasionally think, “Ha! I remembered to do [blank] this time! I’m doing one better!” I submit my work to her and wait to see if she notices and remarks on any improvement. I don’t kid myself into thinking a piece won’t need to be edited, but I feel a special sense of glee with the piece that only needs a few copy edits.
Still, those pieces are few and far in between — and lucky for me, I’ve found an editor who doesn’t let improvement on my part diminish any editing on her part. Evelyn even remarked that one of my short stories she recently edited “made me step up my editing game.” This is good for both author and editor, but in my mind, it’s especially good for the author because it challenges the author to keep growing and improving with each piece.
Even if one doesn’t have an editor like Evelyn (and I pity those who don’t, because she’s amazing), it’s still important to remember that, no matter where you are in terms of writing experience, popularity, or clout, you should always be edited and you should always consider the input of others. And if you’re an editor or publisher, you should always maintain that role over your authors’ work, even if they’re established and popular. It results in better outcomes for everyone involved.
I’m all for giving creators more freedom, especially when they’ve proven themselves. But there’s also such a thing as giving a creator too much freedom because they’re so popular. Everyone needs an editor. Everyone needs advice. Everyone needs oversight.
To bring this point home, I present a tale of two creators, as shared anecdotally by friend and fellow beer writer Will Gordon. On one hand, we have David Foster Wallace:
I used to have the cube next to David Foster Wallace’s copyeditor and I was in awe, assumed it was the most intense job ever, but nah, my buddy Mike just disappeared with Infinite Jest for 4 months and didn’t touch shit b/c he wasn’t allowed to
I won’t add much of my two cents, since I haven’t read Infinite Jest; but from what I’ve seen online, the general consensus seems to be that, at best, it’s an ordeal to finish.
On the other hand, we have David Sedaris:
Of course! My other lit star-f’er story is that I believe David Sedaris did everything that was suggested, even though he has a very distinct voice. He didn’t know or much care about nuts and bolts stuff but he respected it mattered so he just let us (not me) go for it.
I first met author Steve Stred last year, when we followed each other after liking each other’s replies on a friend’s Twitter thread. He offered me an advance copy of of his early 2019 short story collection, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, in exchange for an honest review. I was immediately struck by how visceral his storytelling was, and how much it scared me. I don’t scare easily in print form, so when I read a story that truly creeped me out, I knew I’d read something special.
I felt the same way when I read an advance copy of The Stranger, Stred’s upcoming release (out June 1, but available for pre-order now). I asked Stred if he’d like to have a virtual chat with me about his writing, and he was kind enough to do so. Read on for why forests are a draw for dark tales, what separates Canadian horror from American horror, and thoughts on triggers and sensitivity in the genre.
Sonora: When did you first start writing? Tell us about your early work versus your more recent pieces. Have there been any major changes? What’s stayed the same?
Steve: I started out writing some short fiction and poetry in high school — so about 20 years ago. Back then it was more of a passing thing. I loved it but I had no real direction and it was more about me following a desire to write.
Fast forward and in 2010 I really got the bug and started to develop my first novel Invisible. I had the basic premise and the ending really locked in place but through a series of events it kept getting delayed and delayed. I kept working on it and really finished it up in 2016.
At that time I found a passion to write and release stuff. So I worked on my first short story “For Balder Walks,” then developed a few more — “The Fence,” “Time Out Noose” and “Edge of the Woods.” Then as life progressed I wrote “Jim and Mr. Tross.” I got to the point where I submitted and contacted different folks and got some great advice.
Now the biggest change, I think at least when I look back is the ability to edit myself, but also have the story flow easily. Working with David Sodergren so much has helped me beyond anything, really. He is ruthless with line/copy editing, so I figure if I can give him less work on his end, I’m being more efficient and a more effective writer.
Sonora: Do you gravitate more towards long or short fiction? Do you know when you sit down to write how long a piece will be?
Steve: It’s an interesting question — because I’ve come to a cross roads with my work. I think it’s more of an enlightenment, truthfully. I’ve had one long read (Invisible) and my second comes out June 1st (The Stranger). I have one more novel planned this year (Piece of Me) which is completely written but I need to go through it one more time, then send off to Sodergren and fix what he finds wrong. But going forward everything will be novella length or collections. It’s just how my writing mind works. I can’t describe it other than thinking about writing a novella makes me happy, whereas trying to force a full length does not.
Sonora: You also wrote a collection of poetry, having been inspired by Erin Al-Mehairi’s Breathe. Breathe. Tell us about that. What was it like writing poetry versus prose?
Steve: Yes! God, I was a pretentious snob before reading that, haha! Erin has been so helpful and always supportive and I really, really like to support those who support me. In this case though, I believe she sent me a copy as a birthday gift! When I read it I was blown away. She just has this gift of absolutely decimating your mind with the way her words jump off the page. I would read a poem and I felt like I’d read a novel. The imagery she created was incredible.
I don’t think I can ever match what she did, not by a long shot, but it kicked me in the butt and made me step back and look at my previous history with writing poetry as well as the joy and impact it’d had on my life. So I gave it a shot!
It was a weird process to go back to writing poetry. I don’t think I have a very large vocabulary so I really had to push myself to not sound like a 75 year old, white male rapper who used the same word to rhyme over and over again, haha! I also worked hard to tell a story without telling a story but implying a story and it was tough. Erin’s collection is a must read.
I wrote Dim the Sun with the goal to also help raise some funds for my buddy Rob Derman, who is an amateur athlete. Right now, while writing this, I’m not sure what his future holds as the sport of Skeleton in Canada is going through a shakeup, with the closing of one of the training tracks.
Sonora: Your latest release, The Stranger, is a summer vacation tale with several haunting twists. Tell us what went into writing it.
Steve: Well, surprise twist — I like to write stories set in the woods! I think a big part of my constant theme with Mother Nature, more specifically the woods, is from where I grew up and how much time I spent in the forest and in the mountains. I love the mountains, but I’m also scared to death of them. Too many things lurk that you can’t see. When I go there, I’m in their home. They have the advantage and that scares me.
I wrote it after being inspired on a camping trip and spotted a unique looking smudge mark or burn mark on the cement bin around the camp fire. Coupled with the sights from far above on some plane flights and I just let my imagination go where it wanted!
Sonora: A major theme in The Stranger is the monstrosity of racism. What was it like writing this story? How was it inspired by the current political climate? How was it inspired by your own experiences?
Steve: Oh lord, haha! You write something and then you don’t want to talk about it! For those unaware, I grew up in Canada, in a very small town in BC, which is the farthest west province in our country. My father was from northern BC, my mother from the town I grew up in. There’s a generational thing that casual racism seems to occur and I found that it would pop up time and time again. I don’t believe some of my relatives are straight forward racists but these little comments you’d hear at family gatherings, whether in jokes or whatever just kept getting too me. Even when I was young. In the afterword I mention how I overheard a joke that was very poor and crude and repeated in front of my mom. She was livid.
I just felt I needed to write this book but also early on, by having a Native American creation type tale involved, which I don’t think is a spoiler at all to say that, I needed to tell a bit of the other side of it. The privileged aspect I guess. I really struggled with writing it. I also typically don’t swear a lot in my writing. I did in The Girl Who Hid in the Trees and it just felt odd haha! So I worked really hard to show disdain for a specific group of people but not go the Tarantino route of expletive after expletive.
Our political climate is usually very different from the US stuff, but funnily enough, we had a guy come onboard to run for Premiere of our province who follows a very similar path as the current sitting President down south. Unfortunately he won our election so now we kind of have to hold our breath and wait and see the damage he wants to bring in.
Sonora: In writing about racism as a white, straight, cis-man, you talk about the how and why of what you wanted to accomplish in both the foreword and afterword. This isn’t something I see a lot from other authors, and it was nice to see in your piece. Do you think more authors, especially authors from privileged demographics, should talk about this when they write similar stories?
Steve: I had to write the foreword and afterword. I wanted it there as a warning for readers. In the afterword I did say that with the story coming from me (from my perspective at least) people may just take it with a grain of salt. I hope they don’t, but they might. I myself have no triggers, but that’s me. I usually write dark horror and I didn’t want to surprise anyone who snagged this and who maybe loved Wagon Buddy or YURI and then started reading and had to stop because they weren’t expecting the subject matter. So I wanted to write the foreword to let folks know that there was some difficult themes ahead. I have a whole environmental/human footprint narrative in the story as well, but at the end of the day if someone writes me a 1 star review and says “this guy sucks he wanted me to think about how much garbage I create or I need to recycle,” I’ll smile, because I don’t think you’ll see that. But the racism/bigotry stuff is a tough, tough area and I wanted to make sure I was upfront with it and to make sure people wouldn’t go into the story oblivious to what was about to happen.
The afterword I also felt I needed to do. I just wanted to lay things out there so people knew how I felt and it may sound a bit cowardly, but I wanted to protect myself and let people know I’m no Malcolm (main character in The Stranger). I mention it in the afterword but Kealan Patrick Burke gave me some great advice and I took it to heart. I knew this was a story I needed to write but I knew it was a story that I might have to defend myself about writing a bit and that’s fine, but I wanted to make sure people knew my intentions were genuine and my hope for what readers took from it was purposeful.
As for others doing it — I think it would be fantastic to see it when the subject matter suggests we should. If it’s a creature feature that’s just gore and death, well, I think we know it was written with some fun behind the scenes!
As I side note — I wish more authors would write an afterword. I absolutely love reading about where they got the inspiration for the story. Even if it’s something as mundane as ‘I was playing with my son in his sandbox’ (which was where I got the inspiration for one of my upcoming 2020 releases FYI), I want to read about it!
Sonora: You also hired a sensitivity reader for The Stranger. I’ve seen a lot of arguments for and against sensitivity readers from many different voices. Have you worked with a sensitivity reader before? Do you think hiring sensitivity readers should be common practice?
Steve: Oh man, the sensitive reader thing shows just how out of touch with a lot of things I am! I honestly didn’t know that was a thing, haha! I had written most of the story and messaged KPB. He mentioned I should get a sensitive reader and make sure what I had written was in line and not offside. So I put out a call on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had two people contact me and I was just not sure. I received a message from J.H. Moncrieff who’s been super helpful as well with my writing and she said that I’d need a sensitive reader and that typically they can be very tough. Then I was contacted by Cassandra [Chaput] and we hit it off. I told her upfront — if I’ve done things wrong, tell me. Please don’t be worried about my feelings and if I’ve done it poorly I’d scrap a bunch of it and start again. And she was fantastic. She gave great feedback and really made all of the negatives she’d found as positives and constructive. Couldn’t have asked for a better beta-reader, let alone a sensitive reader. So my first experience was a good one!
As for others using it — I think it’d be an ideal practice if the story needed it. As an example (purely made up here) but if a story had a significant story line involving sexual assault, I’d think it’d be prudent to maybe find a sensitive reader who works in the care side of that world to help make sure things are written correctly but also in a manner that doesn’t detract from the story.
Sonora: Some readers and writers argue that sensitivity readers (and, related, trigger warnings) are especially unnecessary for horror, as the idea of horror is to disturb you. What is your response to those individuals? And, as someone who wrote a horror story (and in my opinion, a damn good one) and hired a sensitivity reader, what would you share about that experience in terms of how it affected your writing?
Steve: Thank you! That’s a tough question. I think trigger warnings are a good thing, but I personally don’t need them. I hope that doesn’t sound insensitive! Everyone reads things differently and everyone comes from very different backgrounds and what may affect one person may not another. For me, I think if the story contained a lot of animal abuse/deaths and/or infant/toddler abuse/deaths, I’d want to know going in. If it was a specific part of the story and was a key aspect, I’d be fine with it, even though I’d cringe a bunch, but if anything is written specifically for gratuitous reasons or shock value, I’m not on board. I also understand the argument — horror is written to horrify us, to make us pull up our feet and turn on the lights. There’s a difference between being scared and being personally affected and I think that’s a big differentiator for me.
Sonora: The Stranger features scary things happening to a vacationing family at the hands of a vengeful wood spirit. Your last release, The Girl Who Hid in the Trees, also features violent monsters in the woods. What draws you to the forest as a setting for horror?
Steve: As I mentioned earlier, the thing that’s always drawn me into the woods has been the idea that I’m in its territory, its world. Where I grew up the forest came pretty close up to the back of our house. We cleared it out a number of years ago, but having a forest to play in and a mountain as a back drop was always really amazing but also scared me too no end. We had Grizzly bears, brown bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and a variety of random animals that would trek through the back of our place. We had chickens and fruit trees so there was always something that drew them down from higher up in the mountain.
In the middle of the forest in our back yard was a massive slab of a rock, so that was always our base of operations, our meeting point.
My grandparents lived just down the street from us and my grandpa used to have a trap line and when he was younger he used to go on horseback up the mountains with some of the native population to go hunting. So the mountains and the forest have always been a place I grew up in but also a place that creeped me the hell out!
Additionally I’ve always loved movies set in the woods with creepy characters. I mean two of my favourite movies ever are Predator and Harry and the Henderson’s. While both are at different ends of the spectrum — both are based on creatures in the woods. So it’s always been a big draw for me.
Sonora: What is the creepiest forest you’ve ever visited?
Steve: Easily, the forest behind our house. I’ve never travelled to any of the exotic forests around the world like J.H. Moncrieff has and she’s got some fantastic blog posts regarding her travels, but the forest behind our house where I grew up was both the single greatest place where my imagination went wild, but also the scariest place I visited. The second creepiest would be the stretch of forest between the end of our road through past the garbage dump.
That forest has inspired so many of my stories — “Edge of the Woods,” “The Call,” “Eaten,” and even “The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.” One of my 2020 releases is also inspired by the forest behind our house as well. The number of times we would play in the woods and we’d pretend to be chased by a giant beast of whatever, I mean those moments directly impacted me and it comes out in my writing. Hell, Invisible is 50% a beast chasing a man as he drives on a winding road through a forest!
Sonora: Do you notice any differences between Canadian horror and American horror? Canadian and American audiences?
Steve: I actually do notice one specific difference, but it just may be me looking for it! I find American horror always has a defined place where the story happens. It’ll be “Boston,” or “New York” or a small town somewhere, whereas I find most of the horror writers I read who are Canadian seem to be a bit more elusive as to the exact location things play out. I personally never try to have an exact place. I do it for two reasons — I want it to be more relatable for the individual reading it — they can picture a place near them easier if I don’t specifically say the location, but also so I don’t have to worry about screwing up a specific detail hahaha! I won’t have someone saying “WAIT A MINUTE — THAT STREET DOESN’T EXIST!” Ideally you read that all caps section in Jim Gaffigan’s voice!
Sonora: What inspires your work?
Steve: The people who believe in me. The horror community is a fantastic community. It’s amazing and I’m so blessed to have met so many folks who want to help and support and promote. My family has been so amazing. And of course, my son. I write stories and release them, so that one day (I hope at least) he’ll see our book shelf with my books and be inspired himself.
I had a blog post before where I said I’ll probably never be a best seller and that’s fine. I still stand by that statement, but my sentiment was more about the fact that I’m not writing with the sole purpose of seeing a shiny gold star by my release on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong, that would be amazing — but not getting one isn’t going to stop me from writing and releasing the stories I want to tell.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Steve: Is there really someone on this planet who doesn’t know who my favourite author is? Haha!
For those who have somehow missed it — my favourite author is Andrew Pyper. He’s written some truly stunning works, he’s Canadian and he’s been so amazing whenever I’ve messaged him. I’m currently celebrating all things Pyper with PYPER-MAY-NIA and using the hashtag #pypermaynia
I’m also a massive Stephen King fan. Huge Joe Hill, Ania Ahlborn and J.H. Moncrieff fan. As for my other must read authors: David Sodergren, Justin M. Woodward, Andrew Cull, Joseph Sale, Joe Zito, Mason McDonald, Jonathan Janz and Hunter Shea would really round that list out. There’s just so many amazing authors right now!
As for some of my favourite books, well Andrew Pyper really dominates that haha! The Homecoming, The Wildfire Season, The Only Child, The Demonologist, The Damned, and The Lost Girls all are stunning. I’m currently reading The Trade Mission and still have a few more of his on the TBR. Loved Tamer Animals from Woodward, Now Comes the Darkness from Zito, The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot from Sodergren, Bones and Remains from Cull, The Art of Racing in the Rain from Garth Stein, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave by Moncrieff, Brother and The Devil Crept In by Ahlborn. So much goodness.
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Steve: Good lord what a question. If you’ve followed along with me at all, you’ll have come across me discussing this. I like to get everything prepped and prepared well in advance.
So currently on the go;
Ritual — Novella, release date Oct 2019. Stage — 60% through final read through, then off to Sodergren for edits.
Piece of Me — Novel, release date Dec 2019. Stage — I need to read through one more time completely, then off to Sodergren. This tale is set in the same world as my short stories “For Balder Walks” and “Poppa?”
Untitled — Novella, release date Feb-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and tweak the ending, then off for edits.
The One That Knows No Fear — Novella, release date June-ish 2020. Stage — need to read through one more time and adjust a few spots. Then off for edits.
456 Blatchford Drive — Novella/Possible Anthology. Release date Oct 2020. Stage — I need to get my butt in gear and contact a few more folks and see what I can do to get this off the ground or if I’m doing it alone.
Then I’m also prepping a short story collection for 2020/2021 release tentatively still titled The Night Crawls In and a poetry collection hopefully for 2020/2021 release as well.
I am always on the go and always blocking out when and where things will fall, so some of 2020 may change depending on a few things!
Steve Stred is an up-and-coming Dark, Bleak Horror author.
Steve is the author of the novel Invisible, the novellas Wagon Buddy, Yuri and Jane: the 816 Chronicles and two collections of short stories; Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery and Left Hand Path: 13 More Tales of Black Magick, the dark poetry collection Dim the Sun and his most recent release was the coming-of-age, urban legend tale The Girl Who Hid in the Trees.
On June 1st, 2019 his second full length novel, The Stranger will be welcomed to the world.
Steve is also a voracious reader, reviewing everything he reads and submitting the majority of his reviews to be featured on Kendall Reviews.
Steve Stred is based in Edmonton, AB, Canada and lives with his wife, his son and their dog OJ.
My first novel, Please Give, follows a woman named Beth who second-guesses almost everything she does, both at work and at home. Even the most innocuous sentence is subject to debriefing in Beth’s mind, and she constantly worries she’s said the wrong thing to her roommate, her friends, her boyfriend, and especially her higher-ups.
When Evelyn, my editor, sent the manuscript back to me, she praised the way I’d written a character suffering from anxiety and depression. She wrote, “Unusual in contemporary fiction, Beth’s anxiety is an innate character trait, one that helps and hurts her, and one that isn’t magically ‘fixed’ by finding love or a new job prospect. It occurs to me that it’s possible you didn’t set out to write a character with anxiety and depression — that that’s just who Beth is, and you wrote her as you saw her.”
Evelyn was 99% right — I didn’t set out to write a character with anxiety. However, I wrote Beth as I saw her because in my mind, the way Beth acted every day — the second guessing, the panic, the apologies, and the agony that came with it all — was normal.
I have always been a nervous person. When I was four or five years old, I accidentally ripped my mom’s pink beer coozie. My father and brother joked that I’d get in trouble. It was nothing malicious and nothing that would’ve upset an average child. I, however, broke down in tears. I panicked that I would be in trouble and that I’d hurt my mother’s feelings, having destroyed something she loved. I sobbed and told my mom that I was sorry that I’d ripped her coozie.
Reactions like this were normal to me, and panic became normalized in my mind. Being worried was normal and okay. It was okay to break down and cry at my desk when I got a D on my math test in 6th grade. It was okay to convince myself in 8th grade that a girl who heard me say something mean about her was going to shoot me on the last day of school. The girl never threatened me, never did anything except be rightfully upset at what I said (because it was mean), but hey, it was going to happen, and I was so convinced that when my dad told me he couldn’t wait for me to see our new house in North Carolina, I thought to myself, Too bad I won’t get to see it.
When it didn’t happen, I was relieved. I could set it aside beneath my regular worries about grades and friends and my weight. I’d gotten through it so easily that it was nothing at all when, in 11th grade, I overheard a senior boy who didn’t like me say that on the last day of school, he’d punch me in the mouth. In my mind, the last day of school meant he would shoot me. After exams, I walked outside, steeling myself for yet another imagined death. Nothing happened. I shrugged it off and saw Finding Nemo with my friends, as we’d planned. Everything was normal.
When I was in high school, anti-depressants were spoken of for just that: depression. If someone had anxiety, it was in the form of mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, or being institutionalized. It wasn’t crying over grades or imagining ways one would die, and it certainly wasn’t someone like me who could worry and still do things. I could still graduate with honors, still get into graduate school on a scholarship, still work jobs and receive praise for my swiftness and attention to detail.
People loved how thorough I was. People still do. My eagle eye, honed by reading code and emails three or four times before pressing Send with a racing pulse, is a point of pride. My memory and organization skills, honed by thinking the same worried thoughts and remembering the same terrible mistakes over and over into a never-ending spiral, have been called iron-clad. A gigabyte of memory — viruses and all.
I’m smart. I like to read. I’m organized and I work fast. I can hyper-focus on things like writing and produce, produce, produce. These are things I do whether or not I’m worrying, but they’ve been perfected by my worried state of being. Why would I do anything to temper that perfection?
As I spent more time on social media, I noticed more people talking about anxiety. It was usually stories of people who couldn’t speak, people who couldn’t get out of bed because they were so scared, people who’d had breakdowns and gone to the hospital. I wasn’t this person. I wasn’t suicidal, I wasn’t trembling or unable to function. I worked, I loved, I socialized. My worries were just what people experience every day. Everyone panics when they get an email, any email, from their coworkers. Everyone reads things over and over and nearly breaks out in sweat whenever they do their daily tasks.
Slowly, the conversation on anxiety turned to things I was familiar with. Circular thinking. Thinking about past transgressions and panicking about them years later. Consistent worry.
This coincided with my return to writing, and the deep dive that was writing Please Give. I often wrote 2000 or 3000 words a day — usually after work — and spent a lot of that time worrying what potential readers would think of it. I figured that was normal, as was the constant imagining of how its reception would spiral out of my control, and the headaches and stomachaches that came with it. Writers are always a little nervous, right?
This was especially the case as I waited for Evelyn’s edits. She was the first full reader, and had heard me talk about it for months before I sent her the manuscript. I was so fixated on what she thought that I had a dream that she sent me a drill sergeant to tell me everything I needed to fix, along with a manuscript covered in red ink. When I got my edits, mostly on clarifying Beth’s character and intentions, I panicked as I wondered how I’d do this while still making a salvageable book. I’d think about how to do this constantly. I still remember thinking about this as I got ready for work, and how I started to cry as I put on my shoes.
All part of the writing process, I thought. Comes with the territory.
In November 2017, my husband got sick. Falling in love with him has been the best thing to happen to me, and it also gave me new ways to panic. I was convinced that having something so good in my life meant that it would be taken away. I especially thought this in winter, when icy sidewalks led to me constantly thinking he’d slip and fall and crack his head (this was a popular circular thought the winter before we got married).
Now, something bad had actually happened. However, I went into gear to help — driving to appointments, being there for comfort, telling friends and family.
When my mother came up to visit and help, we had some alone time at my husband’s and my apartment. I told her how I’d started to think about how I worry so much and that I might need help. She suggested I talk to my doctor about medicine.
I’d heard about medicine before, especially online. I’d also started to hear direct recommendations from friends, who mentioned antidepressants casually to me — as if I were already on them, or already thinking about them. I saw my worry as a natural state. They saw treatment of my worry as a natural response.
But I wasn’t there yet. I had other things to do — and besides, my anxiousness wasn’t enough to be called anxiety. People would think I was just trying to get attention, that I was being selfish or dramatic. I just needed to relax. The worry would subside.
When my husband got better, my panic had time to manifest. Follow-ups with the doctor nearly shut me down. I’d feel the blanket of tired anxiety, a lack of panic but a sense of dejected worry that things are bad and you just have to plow through them. The appointment would go well, we’d be happy, and then at the next check-in, it’d start all over again.
One week in May 2018, I couldn’t stop thinking about a moment during my husband’s treatment when he’d been hurt. I remembered every sense — the feel, the sound, the panic — and I’d start to breathe heavily. I had a tendency to do this in the same spot at the same time every day on my walk to work. By the fifth time, I’d had enough. I was still too scared to call my doctor, so I sent an email: I’ve been a worrier all my life, I’d been stuck in a panic spiral all week, and I wanted to discuss going on medication.
My doctor prescribed 10 mg of Lexapro to start. I still remember how relieved I felt when she gave me the prescription right away. I thought I’d have to go to the edge to prove how much I needed it. I felt so comforted when I picked it up from CVS.
I noticed its value immediately. The first thing I noticed was that I would walk on the Metro platform and not imagine falling (or being accidentally pushed) onto the tracks. I could also cross the highway near our apartment without imagining I’d trip, twist my ankle, and fall right as an oncoming car appeared.
But a part of me wondered: how would this affect my writing? My nervous drive was drive, after all, and it got things done. I’d also heard all the concern about medication dulling creativity, creating minds that couldn’t dive into the places where artists went and emerged with something great.
What would I emerge with?
I wrote the bulk of Without Condition before I was medicated. Experience helped me take a calmer approach to this one than Please Give (though my latent, persistent worries still lingered, of course). I didn’t start to see the effects of treatment on my writing until I did my first full read-through. I read it and didn’t worry over sentences or passages. I thought to myself, “Evelyn can tell me if this needs fixing.” And when I sent it to Evelyn, I didn’t write down a million edits based on what I thought she’d have to say about it. I worked on other stories — including one that became my first acceptance, “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.'”
When I got the manuscript back, I had some things to fix, as I always do. The biggest edit, and one of my favorites to date, was to “add another body or two to Cara’s count.” I didn’t panic when I read her suggestions for structure, even when it meant having to write another chapter and reorder a few existing ones. I saw it as a to-do list that I knew I could manage. I knew this because medication helped that knowledge stay on the surface above my panic, worries, and fears that had led my thinking for so long.
I managed it. I edited it, I sent it to reviewers, and I published it in February. To date, it’s my most popular and best-received book yet.
Getting help for my anxiety has been one of the best things to happen to my creativity. I still worry, of course. I’ll always feel a little nervous when I press “Publish,” or when I see a review of my work has gone online, or that someone is reading it. But it doesn’t keep me from producing new work the way my anxiety did when it went unchecked. I was so anxiously obsessed with Please Give that I could barely write when it was out for edits. I spent more time that summer writing pages of notes on how to fix it, and even writing continuations of the story (which, looking back, was essentially rewriting the book) that I only wrote maybe two full stories. This past summer, while Without Condition was out for edits, I wrote almost twenty.
I feel less like I’m juggling ideas or meeting imaginary deadlines. I’m able to set aside work and tell myself that it’ll get done when it’s ready. I’m able to approach editing as a to-do list and not a do-or-die list. I’m able to share my work with a normal amount of panic, one that comes with putting your thoughts and your work out into the world — a sense of worry that’s actually normal.
I still hear artists of all kinds say they fear medication will dull their creativity. Going on medication is a personal decision. However, I would encourage creatives to really think about whether their panic or their sadness is helping their art, or if it’s just another lie that their illness wants to tell them. Ask if it’s really part of the process. Ask if that funny Internet comic talking about writer’s panic is really so funny when you’re feeling so sad and so worried that you erase, rewrite, delete, erase, rewrite, delete one passage so many times that you get a headache and you don’t go to bed (true Please Give story). Is any art worth that — especially when art can still be produced with medical help?
There’s an excellent episode of the Netflix sitcom, One Day at a Time, where Penelope wants to go off her antidepressants. She quits, then spirals into a depression so dark that she doesn’t leave bed, cancels her dates, skips work, and eventually records herself sharing suicidal thoughts. She talks to her landlord and friend, Schneider, about how she feels like she shouldn’t need antidepressants to function every day. Schneider points to his glasses and says, “I need these for the rest of my life.” He takes them off, then says pointedly, “Want me to drive?”
This was such an elegant way to describe both mental illness and treatment that may last a lifetime. I may be on Lexapro for the rest of my life. I’m okay with this, because I remember what my life was like without it. I have memories of panic going back as far as when I could first form memories. I have no desire to drive, read, work, love, or write without these 10 mg glasses that I put on every morning at 8 a.m.
In her memo for Without Condition, Evelyn wrote, “It was especially exciting to read this novel because I can see how much you absorbed and internalized from the process of writing your first novel and were able to put into action here. As enjoyable and rewarding a read as Please Give was, there’s lots of growth here in the pacing, characters, and dialogue. You should be really proud of how far you’ve come in a short time.”
A lot of that growth has come from experience, as well as working with such a great editor. I also know, though, that part of that growth between the first novel and the second came from taking care of myself. Rather than dull my creativity, that care helped it to flourish. And for that, I’m very proud.
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.