Brain Babies: Speak up!

I want to talk about something. I mean, that’s why I write these. So, to set the tone, I’d like to quote the following bit of wisdom:

It only takes one voice, at the right pitch, to start an avalanche.” – Dianna Hardy

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard that the Game of Thrones series just ended. Now, I didn’t watch the ending. I’m still on Season 5. I know, I know. But, come on. I have kids. I can’t just watch that sort of thing with them in the room, and there are so many other amazing things I need to watch after they’re asleep. I’ll get to it.

Point is, though, that a lot of people are pissed about how it ended. And, that’s fine. They have every right to be upset. Fans get excited. It’s normal.

What’s not normal, and not okay, is this movement to have the show redone to fit their preconceived notions of how it should have been.

Now, I love readers. I truly do. I am one. And, as a writer, I’m nothing without my readers. But, you guys… come on. It’s art. It’s supposed to cause a reaction. You’re supposed to feel things. That’s the whole point! If a book, or movie, or TV show doesn’t end the way you want it to, well… too fucking bad! You want a different ending, you go ahead and write one. You want the story to go the way you think it should, then you need to write the story.

Don’t try to tell Mr. Martin what to write. Don’t tell me what to write. Neither of us is going to listen. In fact, we’ll probably write the thing you’re complaining about, because were contrary like that. At least I am. I’m betting George is too.

And, this is directed at the writers here (whom are also readers, I assume; I can’t imagine being one and not the other)… don’t try to write for anyone else. Don’t try to please everyone. You can’t. Some readers are going to hate your work. Some hate mine for sure. I’m okay with that. Some readers are going to love your work. That’s the best feeling right there. Some are going to think you’re just okay. That’s fine too.

When you try to appeal to all the readers, you’ll most likely appeal to none. Your writing will be washed out, pale, and unappealing. You want to piss people off! You want them incensed. You want them to motherfucking feel something.

That’s why we’re here. To shake shit up. To make noise. To make waves.

Go use your voice. Start an avalanche. If someone tells you that you should be doing it differently, you can say, “Thank you for your opinion.” And, then walk away, because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.

Go art hard. Bleed on the page. Make some noise. Send the rocks barreling down on the readers’ heads. Hurt them. Kill them (This is hyperbole: don’t actually kill your readers. You need them.). Fuck their shit up. The good ones, the ones who matter, will thank you for it.

 

Thanks for listening.

Ken MacGregor

WIHM: An Interview With Jessica McHugh

HorrorTree Interview with Jessica McHugh

Nosy Person: Ken MacGregor

I first encountered Jessica’s work in an anthology we were both in. It was called VIGNETTES FROM THE END OF THE WORLD (Apokrupha 2014; edited by the extremely selective Jacob Haddon). It was a touching and moving SF story that had a lot of feels in just a few paragraphs. Since then, I’ve read a few of her books (she has a bunch!) and enjoyed them all. Jess has a broad range, tackling middle-grade, young adult, and (some very sexy) horror. She’s a writer with guts, a unique voice, who is unapologetically herself, both in her fiction and in real life. I’ve only met her once, at a con, but I’ll never forget how her boisterous personality filled the room. She’s one of a kind, and I wish her runaway success in her writing career; few people deserve it as much as she does. All right. Let’s get on with the interview.

 

Hey, Jess. First of all, thanks for being willing to do this…again. Last time I interviewed you, I worked from a template of questions. This time, I’m making it up as I go, so it may get weird. I’ll start off simple. Do you have a favorite character, or moment, or scene, from one of your stories? A bit of dialogue that cracks you up on a reread? You know. That stuff.

Thanks so much for hosting me on Horror Tree, Ken! It’s always nice to get into the nitty gritty of writing with one of my favorite inky cohorts.

As for your question, I absolutely love Perry Samson from “The Green Kangaroos.” Despite Perry being a pretty sleazy fella with lots of unappealing issues, writing/embodying him was so much fun. His observations and conversations with other characters in the barn-house chapters still crack me up, especially his interactions with Benito. Oh, and in case readers weren’t aware, the name “Benito” is a play on my maiden name, “Bonito,” because this is the most personal novel I’ve ever written. When people ask which book in the McHughniverse they should start with, I usually say “The Green Kangaroos.”

 

You have, what? Four jobs? I know I would love to support myself writing someday (that’s still a ways off, for sure—Yay, day job!), and I imagine you would too. Do you have a plan of attack? A projected date for autonomous author status? What still needs to happen to get there?

I was working as a production associate in a GMP biotech firm in Frederick when I dropped everything to try my hand at writing full-time. It went pretty well for about two years–actually paid bills with story sales and royalties–but as time went on, it became clear that it didn’t make enough financial sense to continue on. That’s when I started collecting my beloved part-time jobs. It’s actually been a wonderful experience working as a creative writing and science instructor, a tour guide, and an escape room gamemaster because I’ve discovered skills and sources of inspirado I wasn’t aware of before. I now feel like so much more than an author, which is why I have no current aspirations to return to full-time writing. In the beginning I thought all the writing time in the world would be worth the financial struggle. Well, I’m here to tell ya, friendos: it’s super duper not. I’ve found I’m much happier working a handful of jobs that don’t eat up all my writing time but also take the financial pressure off my creativity.

 

You’re outspoken about, well, everything. (I respect the hell out of that, by the way.) On social media, you boldly proclaim your position on politics, sexuality, body image, and whatever else is important to you. Has this ever negatively impacted you? Have you had blowback from fans? Friends? Family?

I’m certain there are family members who’d prefer I didn’t speak so frankly about these issues, but no one’s ever confronted me about it. If I’ve lost friends or fans, I haven’t noticed. And I’m not sure I’d kick up much of a fuss if I had. The fact is it’s taken me over 30 years to find the confidence and power to be myself, unapologetically and joyfully, and I refuse to let anyone derail what I hope will be a continuous evolution of myself and my work.

 

When you were a stripper, you got naked for money. Is writing really that much different? Other than the first one pays a fuck of a lot better, I mean.

Ha! You’re right, stripping pays a LOT better. But you have a point about the professional similarities, especially when it comes to bearing it all. It takes a long time to get there though. When I was dancing nude, I emulated the other dancers until I found that confidence to be myself, just as I did when I started writing. I copied a lot of my favorite authors’ styles in the beginning until I felt comfortable and courageous enough to strip down and expose the stories secreted inside. By the end of my stripping career and now in my writing career, there’s little need to copy or cover up. I might still be slathered in makeup and glitter, but I’m also strong enough to climb and spin and slide down the pole, and fearless enough to bend right over and risk my tampon string glowing in the blacklight.

😉 Of course I’m kidding.

I use a Diva Cup.

 

 

I know you sometimes write for themed anthologies, and that you also come up with wildly original material. Do have a preference for what you like to work on? Is it helpful for you to have a prompt? Do you split your time equally between writing for yourself and others? (I’m not good at asking just one question at a time. Sorry.)

Themed anthologies are definitely my toast and jam these days, mostly because I feel like I can conceive of and write a story faster if I have that constant inspirado screaming in my ear. Whether it’s a theme, a word or phrase, or a piece of art, I always find a prompt helpful. I do enjoy developing stories and characters from scratch, but I haven’t been doing that much lately. I’ve been trying to cut back on writing short stories to focus on novels–a task at which I consistently fail, as I went from 1 story due by March to 5 stories due by June in just the last few weeks. However, I am very close to finishing my first novel in over 3 years…though it’s felt like much longer. I’ve talked a lot about how hard it’s been for me to rewrite and revise “Hares in the Hedgerow,” as it was originally written during a time of stress and grief for me, but this long-awaited sequel to one of my bestselling books, “Rabbits in the Garden,” will be out later this year from Post Mortem Press. Once that’s out in the world, I feel like I’ll be able to breathe enough to really tackle “A Motherfucking Heist Novel.”

 

A lot of writers complain about how awful the business is, and what a struggle being a writer is. There’s a perception of writing as being painful, a struggle. Personally, I don’t see it that way. If it was horrible, I’d stop. I’m curious about your take on this. (To make up for the last multiple-question question, I made this one a statement.)

I agree that writing is kinda pointless if you’re not enjoying it. Even if it’s just a hobby, you should be getting something out of it besides frustration. That said, I think it’s extremely hard work, and a lot of new writers come to the table thinking it’s going to be a breeze. Even if you’re enjoying something you’re writing, or if it comes easy, there’s still the business side, which requires a lot of promo and hustle that introverted folks simply aren’t comfortable with. And jesusfuck, we haven’t even gotten into the rejection side. It’s tough to set aside your ego and accept that you might not be as good as you think. I’ve been a published author for almost 11 years and I believe I still have a lot of growing to do. I try to learn from every rejection and bad review (though sometimes you have to take the latter with a grain of salt), and I strive for every story I write to be better than the last. It doesn’t get easier. If anything, it gets more difficult to write an entertaining and poignant piece of fiction and stand out in a crowd of authors you admire. And what if you don’t stand out? What if there’s no financial reward or critical praise? You need to have that personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, or it gets a little rough to maintain the creative flow.

 

What are some of the challenges of being a woman in the writing field? Particularly in horror? Do you believe we’re anywhere close to breaking out of the pointlessly misogynistic attitudes?

I don’t encounter many misogynistic attitudes in the writing community anymore, but that’s probably because I’ve either blocked those good ol’ boys or they simply slither under my radar like the slimy smegsharts they are. I’m actually shocked I haven’t had more vitriolic encounters with these types of dudes, but that might be because they know the strength of my presence and the sheer magnitude of inky cohorts who’d rally behind me as I’ve rallied behind others. For me, dudes who say women can’t write horror or bizarro or get peeved at the notion of publications dedicated to female-identifying authors and LGBTQIA authors aren’t worth discussing longer than it takes to turn a page. They have nothing to offer artistically or professionally. In the words of Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next.”

 

Pimp your shit here. Tell us about what just came out. What’s about to come out. What books should people be buying from you to get a feel for your style? Personally, I haven’t read anything from you I haven’t liked. And, let me tell you, that’s not something I can say for too many writers.

Thank you, Ken! My recent short stories releases are in anthologies chock-full of some of the best writers working today. My story “Ghosts of Hyperia” appears in Adrenaline Press’s Lee Murray-edited subterranean horror anthology, and “Amity in Bloom” explores a unique brothel in late 1800s NYC in Nightscapes Press’s “Ashes and Entropy” anthology. My work also  appeared in Perpetual Motion Machine’s “Lost Films” anthology and will soon cook up some trouble in their forthcoming pizza horror anthology. I’ve also had some icky flash pieces published by Forbidden Futures recently.

As mentioned before, “Hares in the Hedgerow” will be out in 2019, and though you don’t absolutely have to read “Rabbits in the Garden” to understand it, I highly recommend picking it up. If for no other reason than the beautifully horrific illustrations by Philip R. Rogers.

And speaking of horrific, there are good reasons I include an apology in inscriptions to readers who’ve purchased print copies of my Raw Dog Screaming Press novel, “Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven.” A rewrite and rerelease of a novel I started writing at 19, “Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven” is perfect for people who like a heavy grimdark revenge story.

Thank you so much for having me, Ken & Horror Tree. And thank you for continuing to support women in horror all year round.

 

Thanks for your time, Jess. Hope to run into you again someday. You’re one of the cool ones. -Ken MacGregor

Brain Babies: Writing Through The Pain

I want to talk about this, but even thinking about talking about it is hard. It’s been a while since I wrote anything for the Brain Babies column on HorrorTree. Some of that is because I’m busy, some of it is laziness, some an utter lack of ideas for topics. But the main reason I’ve been quiet is that my life was torn apart on June 9 of this year.

My wife Liz died suddenly.

She had high blood pressure, and was taking medicine for it, for a long time. She’d been suffering headaches, off and on, for as long as I’ve known her (21 years). But, nobody had any idea this was coming. In her sleep (thankfully), her brain hemorrhaged, and she died.

She was 43.

The death certificate said the time elapsed from “the event” to “actual death” was seconds to minutes. So, she likely didn’t suffer. Small comfort there.

Her family and mine, and many good friends have stepped up to help take care of me and my kids, for which I am profoundly grateful. Another comfort.

She left me a substantial sum in life insurance, and Social Security is paying survivor’s benefits for my kids. So, we’re not in trouble financially anymore. Comfort number three.

But, she was more than just my spouse. Liz was my best friend. She was my sounding board for ideas. My audience for new jokes. My barometer for what’s too fucked-up for mainstream readers (if she hated it, only a few publishers were gonna touch it). She was my touchstone. My go-to for comfort, solace, laughs, snuggling, sex (she really, really liked sex. I miss that a lot).

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the different stages of grieving. I’ve hit ‘em all. But, the two overriding emotions, the two defining characteristics of who I am now, are anger and pain. They are my constant companions.

Sure, I can joke (usually gallows humor, but that’s not new for me). I can laugh, and play, and have fun. I go to work, five, sometimes six days a week. I function. People tell me I’m doing well. They’re impressed. But, they don’t know. They have no idea how fucked-up I am. Always.

I am writing again. And, just like before, sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s pulling teeth. But, here’s the thing: when you lose your partner, when your life has been shattered by something so catastrophic, it affects you in every way. My grief bleeds into my fiction. I see death everywhere. This is actually a plus for a guy who writes mainly horror, I guess.

I edit, too, for a small press in Washington State. It’s uncanny how many horror stories feature a dead spouse (or partner) as a pivotal plot point. Every time I read one, it triggers me.

I don’t want to be a tragic figure. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable when I walk in the room (“Oh jeez. There’s the guy who lost his wife. What do I say to him?”). I don’t want pity.

I do want people to cut me some slack, which they mostly do. I might miss deadlines. Don’t hate me for it. I just can’t seem to get motivated to work on stuff right now. Seems so unimportant. Once your spouse dies on you, pretty much everything else in life fades into who cares?

Except my kids. My kids are still paramount above all else. I mean, of course. Also, we’re all we have left, me and them.

I’m not sure I’m going to submit this to Stu. I’m not sure I want this out in the world. It’s not even so much about writing through grief as it is about just coping with it. But, maybe that’s enough. Maybe someone out there reading this is going through something similar. Maybe seeing that you’re not the only one feeling this, not the only one suffering a thing that cannot be abided, will help.

I’m trying to keep it together, and most days I do a passable job. But, it’s a thin veneer between me and despair. I have help. I hope the rest of you do, too.

So, there you go. My rambling, semi-coherent rant about grief with a nod to how it affects my writing. Thanks for listening. I don’t know if any of you will get anything out of it, but it helped me a little to write it. It helps to articulate my pain. A little. Comfort number four.

 

Brain Babies: You do You

I’ve been submitting (and occasionally selling) fiction for more than six years now, and I’ve learned some stuff. One of the most important was to be myself.
I read a lot, across several genres, and ‘literary’ fiction; I even read nonfiction now and again, but usually it’s about writing, or it’s really, really funny. Or cool.
Some of the stuff I read is terrible. Once I know beyond a doubt (usually only takes a few pages, but for a novel, I’ll go as far as fifty to make sure) that I’m not enjoying it, I put it down and read something else. I don’t have time to read bad writing (unless I’m being paid to edit something; then, it’s a job, and I’ll see it through no matter how painful).
Some of it is magical. Some writers are so good at what they do, you can’t help but smile at their sentences. You get a warm, tickly feeling from their prose. I love it when I find that. Makes reading a genuine pleasure.
Now, here’s the thing: I want to be that good. I want readers to freak out because they love my words. I mean, who here doesn’t? But, I’m not those writers whom I adore. I’m me. And, some people are going to like what I write (hopefully some already do. Doesn’t matter, though. I’ll keep screaming into the void regardless). Some people are probably going to hate me. That’s fine, too. I write a lot of nasty stuff. I don’t expect it to be universally appealing.
In the past, I have come away from reading something amazing, and metaphorically smashed my head against the wall, because I’m convinced I’m never going to be that good at this. I’ll never write that well. Ever.
And, you know what? That’s okay. I’m not going to try to be one of my heroes. I’m not going to try to emulate any other w, iter, no matter how much I love them. Because, that wouldn’t be me.
I’d like to win awards. I’d like to sell thousands (nay! Millions!) of books. Of course I would. And, someday, maybe I will. Maybe not. I can’t really control the vagaries of public opinion or what’s popular at any given time.
You know what I can control, though? I can control what I write. I can try to make each story better than the last. I can fall in love with my characters, and enjoy putting them through hell. I can tell stories I want to read, and hope at least a few other people find them entertaining.
If you’re new at this writing thing, here’s the trick: you, and you alone, have your voice. I can’t explain how to fine-tune this thing. I can’t tell you what it even is, really. But, it’s yours. No one else has your voice. You own that shit. You do you. That’s the only thing you can control, and the one thing that matters most.
Sure, learn from other writers. Learn from books about writing. Learn from blog posts about writing (like this one [winky emoji]). Learn by listening to people talk, watching people move around, and paying attention to everything around you. But, be you. Don’t be anyone else.
And me? I’m gonna over here, in the big, comfy, ugly-ass green recliner, being me.
Thanks for listening.

Brain Babies: Thoughts from a Mid-list Writer

I use the term “mid-list” with a certain amount of pride, but also a healthy dose of humility, I think. I have been selling stories for six years now, sometimes at professional rates, mostly not. I’ve been asked to write for specific calls, which is flattering as hell. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to make the deadlines for most of those, which makes me feel like an ass.

I’ve edited a novel and three anthologies of other people’s stuff. I’m reading slush for a small press.

I have a small, but loyal, fan base.

I’ve got some chops.

However, I’m far from well-known. In some horror circles, my name might be recognized, but more likely I’d get a “who? Never heard of him.”

And, I’m okay with that. I really am. It’s cool. I mean, sure, I’d love to be well-known. I’d love to make it, to have my books explode and have readers gushing about me. I’d love to be able to quit my day job (I wouldn’t though, because I like my day job, and I’ve got damn good bennies, but having the option would be cool as hell).

There are writers who are doing it for a living, and I admire the hell out them. Some are wildly successful, and I think that’s awesome! I applaud them. I’m excited for them. Yay!

Which brings me to the point of this post. In the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about, not just writing, storytelling, and publishing, but also about how to conduct myself.

Things I will not do, and would strongly encourage you not to do as well are:

  1. Don’t be an asshole. You would think this is obvious, right? Apparently, it’s not. Shrug.
  2. Don’t shout “BUY MY BOOK” in my face every five minutes. Fucksake, buddy. Calm down. I get it: you’re excited. That’s cool. I get pumped when something new comes out, too, but tone it down, okay? The more you hit me over the head with how badly you want me to buy your shit, the more I don’t want to. Think about that for a minute, okay? Yeah. Cut it out.
  3. On a related note, don’t pimp your shit when people ask for reading recommendations. This is tacky as hell. It’s like the unsolicited dick pic of writer behavior. No one wants to see that; keep it in your pants. But, go ahead and recommend your writer friends’ stuff, if you like it. Don’t do it just because they’re your friends, because books you recommend reflect on you. If you pimp shitty books, no one will trust you, and won’t want to read your stuff.
  4. Don’t get on social media drunk. Just don’t. It won’t end well. I trust I don’t have to explain this one to anyone.
  5. Support your fellow writers. If someone you know has a new book, share that shit. Celebrate their successes (I know I’m repeating myself, but this bears it) with them. Get their work in front of readers. The more books sold in general, the better for all of us. It’s not a competition. My success doesn’t mean you lose. There’s no downside. Do this, and do it a lot.
  6. Be yourself. Seriously. You’re interesting. You are a fascinating motherfucker. No one else is you. People want to know who you are beyond your stories. You don’t need to hide behind some public persona, and (unless you’re hiding from a stalker), you should not. I see a few horror writers especially who create this whole dark, scary persona, who try to come across as Evil Incarnate. Yeah. Lighten up, Francis.
  7. Keep at it. Even when you’re tired, or depressed, or frustrated, you need to hit the keys (or grab the pen, or talk into your voice-recorder thing). I’m not saying you have to write every damn day, but you do have to write. We’re writers. That’s what we do. It’s cool to take breaks. I do that. I go for days without writing sometimes. When I do that, I usually read a lot, or sometimes edit, or both. But, I always get back to writing. Because, ultimately, that’s where the fun is. Making shit up. I fucking love that.
  8. Always strive to be better. Read authors whose words sing. Study books on writing (there are some damn good ones out there). Up your game. Read poetry (I personally don’t care for poetry, but it’s a good exercise in controlling language, using the fewest amount of words possible, and it’s good for you). Read bad stuff, too, so you know how not to do it (I highly recommend reading slush: you’ll read a lot of terrible fiction, but once in a while, you’ll find something brilliant, too).
  9. Listen to feedback. Unless it’s from a reader who says something vague like, “this sucks,” or “you’re awesome, dude!” This is not constructive. Real feedback, especially from editors (frequently found in rejection letters) can improve your writing immensely. Pay attention. Use it. If they took the time to say something, it means you’re on the right track.
  10. Enjoy yourself. I mean that. If you’re not having a good time writing, if it’s torturous to get the words out, maybe you should stop. If I’m having fun writing something, I’m fairly confident a reader will have fun reading it. If it’s a chore, well, you see where I’m going with this.

All right. That’s all I got for now. Not sure if any of this helps, or if any of you needed my unsolicited advice, but I had to get it off my chest. So, I feel better anyway. Thanks for listening.

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