We’ve all felt it before, the anticipation as we watch numerous characters in a movie fall victim to an offscreen monster. Wondering what exactly this monster looks like and how horrible it will be. It’s a play on our fear of the unknown, which most of you already know because you are excellent writers. Which, before we go on, you should go check our latest issue instead of reading this garbage.
The ability to create tension with the unknown, when done correctly is a wonderful tool that leaves the audience somewhat satisfied. I say somewhat because we’re not naturally happy with living with the unknowable. We build giant metal rockets and hurl them into the darkness of space in search of answers, or we build giant metal submarines to dive deep into the ocean to find out what exactly lurks in the murky depths. Hint: ITS CTHULU, DON’T WAKE HIM UP.
The magic of mystery is just that; it is a mystery. When you talk to most about a movie where the monster is revealed in the last scenes, their excitement drops a little and sometimes you’ll hear them say that they were a little disappointed. Usually this happens when they discuss the monster in The Thing or IT. There’s just something about the storyteller playing with our imaginations that makes it better than any reality ever could.
J. Abrams has been a believer in this forever. I must talk about him for a moment because I should introduce the concept of a mystery box. He has this idea that if you create a mystery box within a story, it will drive the audience to follow along in hopes to find an answer. He then goes on to explain that once the mystery box is opened, then the magic is destroyed. So, what we’re supposed to do as writers, is preserve the mystery box if possible. And this, folks, this must be one of the hardest thing that anyone has ever tried to do.
I’ve already talked about Stephen King’s The Mist and this is what he does in that story. But I have never come across someone that was able to keep the mystery box intact throughout the entirety of the story. And I don’t mean there are answers and reveals at the end. Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation does something completely unexpected with this idea and it works.
Just to give a brief overview of how he starts it out I’ll summarize the opening. If you don’t want it ruined (which it clearly won’t ruin anything) please just wander off somewhere else. The story has four characters including the main character. The entire thing is told in first person and there are no names, only titles that define their jobs. On top of that, the location takes place in Area X which is surrounded by an unknown boundary that is talked about never mentioned.
Everything that is delivered to the audience is wrapped in a thousand questions that Vandermeer doesn’t ever promise to answer. And though the characters discover things, it only brings up more questions and the mystery box becomes stronger. There were times when my imagination ran rampant during a scene where there was something that the main character had to deal with.
What I really enjoyed about this book was that the answers were never fully given. They were delivered just enough for me to fill in the rest with my imagination. There’s even a scene that reminds me of a twisted version of Dante’s Paradiso, which makes me always happy.
But if you’re struggling to keep that tension with a mystery box; Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is a perfect lesson on what to do. From beginning to end.
Wait a gosh darned minute here! You may be shouting. This isn’t an exercise blog and you need to get your garbage out of my face! But I beg you, my sweet summer children, to hear me out and just follow along. This does have to do with writing. Because, though I never thought it would be possible, I have found a correlation between the two through my own experience.
I’m not going to spend time giving you numbers or talking about workouts. That’s not what this is for. Nor am I going to tell you that once you finally start exercising, you’ll be bursting with energy and nothing will stop you. You know what stops me? Peanut butter patties and sleep. Two of the worst things in this world. But if you ever want to talk exercise, please, feel free to contact me on the numerous forms of social media. I’m not an expert (at anything but sleeping and Skyrim) but I will sure as hell talk with you about it.
All of us are guilty of sitting in front of a screen and staring at the keyboard wishing all the words would just come out in a torrent so that project would finally stop ruining you every waking minute that you’re not working on it. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I have an entire folder of half-finished ideas that are like warm glasses of water; a waste to throw away, but unappealing to try again.
My perspective changed a few years back that has improved my writing. One of my closest friends invited me to the gym on campus and I figured What the hell? It’s free and I’ve got nothing going on. It was a nightmare. The pain, the sweat, and delayed muscle soreness. Two weeks into the process I was ready to set myself on fire. But I continued and soon, over a long span of time, I started seeing progress. It was small and no one else seemed to notice, but I began to physically change.
We moved the weights up gradually. Though we’d stand there in the gym and watch these behemoths of people lift a vast amount of weight or run for what seemed for fucking oh my god ever, we knew that we weren’t ready for that kind of stress. Instead, we continued at our low weight and tracked our snail-paced progress. We learned that slow and steady was the safest way to be.
And then one day, when discussing this slow pace with someone who was pretending to care about exercise because I was waving my arms too much, it hit me that this was just the same with writing. Oh yeah, I’ve read all the guides and advice and they do keep me going or give me a boost of energy, there’s nothing that’s going to speed up the process. It’s going to be painful, long, and unrewarding. Like in the gym, I found there were days when I’d finished writing a single page and though it was hard work, I knew half of it was garbage.
But you continue to strive forward to the end.
And then you make it to the end and that’s when you can breathe for a moment.
Because then the worst part happens; revising.
Without spending time in the gym, I would have never recognized this. Most have developed this perspective. It wasn’t until I found something outside of writing to show me what I needed to do about writing.
It sounds like I don’t enjoy either exercise or writing. That’s true. Sometimes I loathe both equally. But you know what? We do it because we need to. Not because we want to. When we realize that, then we can set about processing and determining our own fate.
Anybody who knows me personally knows I love podcasts. I subscribe to several, listen to them weekly, and I try to interact with the creators on Twitter as much as possible just to let them know I’m listening to their work. Kind of like how it’s a good idea to contact writers to let them know you’re reading their work.
There are several different kinds of podcasts, but I’m pretty partial to the storytelling pods that focus on the stranger aspects of life. Or true crime. I absolutely love True Crime Garage). Anything that tells a story in a cohesive (or moderately cohesive) manner and is interesting to me I’ll try out at least once. Some pods can be short and some are long and some are just a few episodes. You can find one for any mood you’re in that day.
Podcasts make learning and research interesting for me. I spend a lot of time doing research for various topics when I’m writing because what I know is very limited and I like to learn about and write about new things. Broaden my horizons. Get to know other historical events. It’s really fun. Podcasts introduce me to cryptids, historical events, legends, cold cases, murders, and neat people. I can sit and listen to one while I’m at work or while I’m at home piddling on Sims or cooking. I listen to podcasts with my loved ones when we travel. My sister falls asleep listening to them just about every night.
Podcasts can also be somewhat comforting. When you listen to certain ones long enough their voices become familiar and can also be used as a grounding tool for anxiety and depression. I found podcasts about a year ago when I started to want to know more about Mothman (I luv Mothman) and found Astonishing Legends. It was through Scott and Forrest I learned about my new favorite obsession, the Count of St. Germain. He’s become a pretty big part of my writing for the last year, as well as my research and book purchasing and conversations….
Anyway, it was through podcasts I realized how hard it was to tell stories as well as write them. It’s one thing to actually write the timeline and do the research and then write out the story, and it’s another one entirely when you’ve done all that already and now you’re in front of a microphone and you’re trying not to trip over your words and holy shit, I’ll have to edit at least five minutes of that ramble later, etc. It made me realize that when I write, I need to make sure the voice I use is consistent. Good podcasts have consistent voices. Good books have consistent voices. Good pods and books have well vetted research. Good pods and books work hard to promote themselves and connect with their audience. Good pods and books are full of love and compassion and endearment for the actual project. When it’s obvious that you love and enjoy what you do, your audience will love and enjoy the work.
And you can’t stop just because you’re tired or you’ve got writers block. If you’re putting out work once a week (like most pods do) then you’ve got to really make yourself sit down and work for it, even when you’re not feeling it. There are people dependent on what you do and make. There are people who use your work to calm themselves down or sleep or research or make conversation. There are people who use your work to connect to another human being, even if it’s just your words or your voice. And the same goes for writing and publishing. You can’t stop just because you’re not into it or it’s too hard.
So, if you’re already into podcasts, hopefully you read this and you feel what I’m saying. If you’re not into podcasts and want to be, I’m always down to talk about which ones I listen to. If you’re not into podcasts and don’t wish to be, that’s alright too. But I definitely recommend them as a means of research, at least.
Oh, and if you find I’m missing for various amounts of time it’s because I actually reached out to Astonishing Legends as a huge fan and asked to join the ARC and now I research for AL as a volunteer and I love it. It gives me the opportunity to research so many interesting topics and the guys are great and my fellow researchers are awesome and it’s just a great community. So, I highly recommend reaching out to your favorite podcasters, because they appreciate it.
I brood on things that wouldn’t matter much for the sane and normal. This conclusion is momentous because it’s been a long road of self-denial, binge eating, and rapid cat petting. But now, I’ve accepted that sometimes I get worked up over things that the Universe doesn’t care about. Note the capital U because I have an ongoing relationship with said entity. Right now, we’re not talking much. Most of the time I glare into the void while it pretends I don’t exist. I’m still waiting for something to stare back.
Out of all the things that I think about, one of the most subjects that I keep revisiting is writing. Of course, it is! You shout from the other side of the internet. Get on with it and stop feeding your ego. But this time, I’m talking about how when we think about certain tropes and ideas, we as an audience become judgmental assholes because something has changed to our beloved zombies/vampires/cats/Patrick Johnson. We have some arguments to justify this rigid behavior and it is enough that we can sit back and chortle (who fucking chortles?) and sit back with a glass of cognac.
Can you clarify? You may be asking. Who are you and why are you talking to me on the street? Those are very good questions and I can answer them all. But first, you’ve got to buy me a bunch of drinks and put away your cell phone, the police need not be involved. I want to open ideas and try to get people thinking about diverse ways to approach things. I want to see the new form in The Ginger Collect. Which, by the way, you should be reading our newest issue and not this.
I’m going to refer to two examples and the public’s reactions to said subjects; the Twilight series and Warm Bodies. I said put away your phone, I promise you’re going to like this, especially when we’re six bottles in of some independent beer that you swear is the best. And of course, I’ll agree. But inside I’ll compare the taste to the bottom of my cat’s foot. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW. For the rest of you, I know that some might immediately hiss and pull away from your screens because reading the word Twilight physically hurts. If (twilight) this (twilight) is (twilight) the (twilight) case (twilight), prepare (twilight) yourselves (twilight). You see what I did there? I just Gertrude Steined that word. Now it doesn’t hurt as much. (twilight) (twilight) (twilight). Maybe.
I’m probably going to writer hell.
We’ll talk about the Twilight series first and the archetypes of the vampire. Keep the swooning down to a minimum when I mention that statuesque Edward Cullen. If I can control myself when talking about that guy, I expect you to do the same.
When we think of vampire (pre-Twilight or PT) some think of Dracula or sweet sweet Louie from Interview with the Vampire. Usually, these lovely creatures of the night used money and seduction to survive in a world that wasn’t made for them. They were mysterious and sexually ambiguous in nature. You could stake them in the heart or just push them out into the sun and they’d get a little crispy. Note: Gingers have the same reactions. Source: I am a ginger.
Did they look like psychos? Is that what they looked like? They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are. -From Dusk till Dawn
As Twilight rose in popularity, there were three reactions that I came across daily. 1.) Love and adoration for Stephanie Meyer and the series. 2.) Hate and disdain because A.) It was poorly written or B.) My vampires don’t glitter. And lastly, reaction 3.) I don’t read.
I’m going to address number two, statement b first because I feel it is the most telling problem when coming to the whole deal of writing and how we sometimes ruin our chances before they even start. If you were going to address number two, why couldn’t you have made it one? You are asking. And my answer is simple: I’m a free soul and I like to complicate things. And something about control or some garbage that a therapist would say.
Why was there this adverse reaction to glittering vampires? Where is it written that vampires, when exposed to sunlight, must explode violently? When combining vampires and glitter it has sent a group of enthusiasts (vampthusians?) into an uproar. Before Twilight, there wasn’t much deviation from this archetype and everyone went along their merry way. Stephanie Meyer brought out a new idea, presented it slowly into her world and stayed consistent through the novel.
This is where you, the reader and writer can learn something. We in both roles, have responsibilities when it comes to world creation. Writers must create a world that the reader can trust, meaning that there will be a set of rules presented within the book that the author promises to follow. Readers are then, expected to accept such rules and expect actions within the parameters set by the author. Only when the reader can accept the ruleset, can they sit back and discuss the variations with their colleagues or, if you’re me, with yourself in the shower while Frank watches on (he’s a cat).
What I’m saying in this jumble of words is that Meyer’s Twilight looks at vampires differently. It creates a new set of rules that she is supposed to follow within her own world. That’s her idea of vampires. And though there will be people that will disagree with me, it isn’t wrong that her vampires glitter so handsomely in the sunlight. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to start a novel where Vampires are only Kentuckians that drink moonshine and feud between one another over squirrel rights.
The new rule we should all accept: there are no rules.
In Warm Bodies we see the beloved zombie transformed into something that no one thought of until then. I want to make it very clear that I have a slight obsession for the rotten rambling things. Right now, if I were to discover a zombie, I would make it my pet and name it Patrick Johnson. Because you know, the more of me the better. (Hence the three children.)
When I first watched Warm Bodies, I had the instinct to scream blasphemy and hurl my trust Zombie Survival Guide at the television and proceed to write a very angry letter. I did none of those things. Maybe a few years back I would have, but now I’m a more mellow (lazy) and just an all-around good (horrible) guy. The kind of guy that you’d want to hang (no) around with (don’t ever show up at my house).
That was the movie that made me realize that we all need to accept these innovative ideas. Allow the archetypes to transform and be reevaluated. The rules of that world are different than any other world. Our world is really the only one that is set in stone, and if you’re living in the same world as I, you know it can be kind of a downer.
So, when you sit down to write, embrace a new idea. It will be worth your time and effort. You’ll find that there are more avenues and ideas that are just waiting to be discovered. Like what if a zombie became a lawyer? How many speech therapy classes would he have to take? Could he overcome the disdain of his peers and win the case? Would he eat the other lawyer’s brains? Bring it all in. Open those weird questions and wander into those dark shadows. If we find anything when we discover our own hatch in the jungle, then we’ll be better for it.
But the writing, you’re shouting, it’s poorly written you red headed bastard! That’s a nice argument and an unfair insult. It’s a broad and safe because according to anyone, anything can be poorly written. I could, like anyone else, go through Twilight with a red pen and make suggestions. I could spend hours extrapolating how the word statuesque seems to always float around Edward Cullen (swooning). Instead, I would like to point something out: there are a lot of poorly written things out there. Hell, look at this post. If it were a person, it wouldn’t be someone you liked.
We’re in a world where the average reading level is lower than one would think. When I read Twilight I didn’t think about how poorly written it was. I’ll tell you write now, I’m really jealous of how she dealt with the passage of time. Instead of saying “A few months went by” she had a page with the month written on it. I had to flip through those pages to get back to the story. She made the reader feel time shifting. That’s a fancy tool. I hate her for it. I wished I would have thought as something as neat as that.
She succeeded in doing something that many authors before her could not: She had people reading. When I first wrote this for Court Street, she had sold 120 million copies by April 2012. 120 Million people had read her book.
And that’s our aim, isn’t it? We need people reading. Twilight was the first book some of my students ever picked up and they were proud to finish it. And you, as writers, should aim to have those new innovative ideas and keep throwing them out there. Don’t fear rejection; I’m on rejection 198 right now and I keep trying. Because we should have a world full of readers and writers.
Our aim, as a people should be to eradicate response three: I don’t read.
Original post published in 2008 by Court Street Literary Review.
Music has always been a huge inspiration for most of my writing. Growing up, I kept a little blue mp3 full of music that either reminded me of what I was currently writing or planning to write. It always amazed me that one song could produce inspiration for more than a couple pieces of writing.
I’m not going to pull that “I wasn’t like other girls” crap because I was weird. Not cutesy, manic pixie dream girl weird, I was just flat out weird and I enjoyed it. The music I often found inspiration in was weird as well. One of the very first songs I ever wrote to was Queens of the Stone Age’s “Mosquito Song.” The atmosphere and cadence gave me the kind of chills I wanted my writing to evoke. One of my favorite albums for atmosphere was Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place. I have a vinyl of it because it gave me more inspiration than most albums. These things become special.
Honestly, once you find music you enjoy writing to, it becomes almost sacred. There are certain artists I can listen to and feel the need to write within one song, one of which is Daughter. The dark, desperate sounds of some of their earlier work lent an urgent sense of desire in my writing that I didn’t quite understand at such a young age. Music does that, though. It shows you new perspectives you haven’t considered yet and maybe can’t due to age and demographic constraints, as was my case.
Right now, I listen to a plethora of songs depending on what I’m working on. My most recent project stemmed from Queen’s of the Stone Age’s “Un-Reborn Again” and, unfortunately, Brand New’s “Could Never Be Heaven.” (I was a massive Brand New fan, and normally this post would be littered with Brand New references, but I just can’t deal with Jesse Lacey.) I listen to a lot of Ghost when reading submissions and building issues. I was on a huge Mastodon kick during Issue Three. I keep playlists on my Spotify of what I need at that moment, from punky grunge like The Toadies to ethereal like Grimes.
If you’re ever interested in seeing what I’m listening to you can find me on Spotify: laurenehamm.
Now I’ve been mired in academia most of my short and horrible life. So, when I talk about writing I picture myself sitting in a room with a fancy smoking jacket surrounded by the classics. The pauses that I take are either when I take a puff from my pipe or making the stuffy I’m classically trained in the classiest of classics sound. Which, if you didn’t know, is the simple sound of ‘mah hah, indeed’.
This isn’t an article to discuss what is Literary and what does I guess other. Instead, I just want to talk about a story that I’ve read recently that goes along the lines of The Ginger Collect and our aesthetic. Which by the way, if you haven’t checked out issue four yet, why the hell are you reading this garbage from the trashman Stan? Click on some links and read some real work with real solid talent. Solid isn’t the right word. They’d used to use that word when they’d talk about my weight. “Nah, he’s not fat he’s just so solid.” What the fuck does that even mean? Let’s rephrase and say that I want you to go over and look at some strange and weird work that’ll take you on a trip.
Most of my literary discussions start right after the third bottle of the trusty Stella Artois (this beer isn’t costly but when I say it, it sounds fancy. Just tingles right on the tongue. Go ahead and say it. I’ll wait) and there’s not much going on with Netflix or the video game scene at that moment. I always lean back in my computer chair and start talking to Frank about how I just absolutely enjoy a good short story. Frank, acclimated to the sound of my voice, will respond with a few meows and then fall asleep in my lap. Frank is my cat. I drunk talk writing to my sleeping cat. It’s okay. I’m fine. Don’t touch me.
But recently I just finished The Skeleton Crew by an author named Stephen King. You may have heard of him. He’s a pretty big deal in certain circles. This collection came out in 1985 and some of you may be wondering why it took so long for me to read it. Well, first off, I wasn’t born until 1983 so that means that I was roughly two years old when this collection was published unto the masses. Secondly, after coming of age, I was told by numerous academics to avoid the King altogether because he wasn’t literary (mah ha, indeed!) so I did what they told me because surely, they know what they’re talking about.
Boy was I wrong.
One of the short stories that I found touching and fitting for my kind of taste was titled Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. In this story, there isn’t a lot of weird supernatural stuff being thrown right at you at the first and it’s just a simple story that slowly, just like Mrs. Todd’s shortcuts takes you down a rabbit hole. Slowly, the supernatural side keeps appearing until at the end it’s all there and done. But it was one of those stories that made me feel good for the main character. Mostly, King is pigeonholed as this crazy guy that writes fucked up things and sells it to fucked up people. And though there are some things that I’ve read by him that are TOTALLY FUCKED up, I don’t think they’re for fucked up people.
They’re for people like you and I. That like to talk a walk somewhere else for a while. We read because we want to be pushed and prodded. We want our reality to be questioned. And that’s why I read things like Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut or the entirety of short story collection. I want to be able to read more things like that out there. Hell, I want to write things like that. And the one thing that I believed in all my years in higher education that I learned when dealing with writing, I do believe that reading is the main tool for being a better writer.
This one was different in all those aspects. The main character is in the first-person perspective, but the real main character would be that of Homer Buckland, an aged groundskeeper for the late Mrs. Todd and her remarried husband. It seems to be something like one of those cut and dry murder stories where the groundsman is about to let the audience in on a small secret that will damn the husband, but it doesn’t fly that way.
Instead, we listen to Homer tell us numerous interactions with Mrs. Todd with the first being only a few harmless things until, that is, he gets into her car and she takes him on a ‘shortcut’ to some other place. During that first excursion and ride, we’re introduced to the other side of the story and gives us enough to keep going. And I was afraid to read on to find something horrible had happened to the woman, but it never says, and the mystery is kept intact until the very end.
The ending is carefully constructed just like the rest of the short. If you want a feel good but still strange story, then check this one out. Hell, give yourself a shot at something like this too my brothers and sisters. See what you come up with.
Also, I’m always struggling with ideas of my own because you know, struggling writer with no muse blah blah blah. Sometimes I come across ideas that I think would work wonders but I never can start. Most of the time I just lurk on reddit’s writing prompts page and copy some down in the GOING TO FAIL AT DOING THIS column in my current journal. So I figured I’d share one that I like but I know I could do nothing with. I’ll leave you with it and then start another conversation with my cats. Until then, stay weird.
Writing Prompt: You just blinked while looking in the mirror and your reflection freaks out.
Periodically we’ll be releasing small pieces pertaining to what we’re reading, why we like it, why we consider it writing fodder, and sometimes what we’re listening to. This will be the dedicated page for these posts.
Meet the Editors:
Lauren E. Hamm
Editor – Poetry and Flash Fiction
Lauren received her Bachelors of the Arts in English Literature from Morehead State University. She currently works at the University of Kentucky in William T. Young Library. She enjoys cats, silence, and total isolation from the rest of humanity when she can get it.
Patrick S. Johnson
Editor – Short Story and Essay
Patrick Johnson received his Bachelors of Arts in English from Morehead State University and a Masters of Fine Arts from Spalding University. He currently spends most of his time making students miserable while posing as an English Instructor at Morehead State University. He hates mostly everything that exists and tries his best not to interact with anything that might make him ‘feel’.