Originally published on the New England Horror Writers website, Feb. 25, 2017
February is Women in Horror Month, which means…absolutely nothing if you are a female horror writer who is anything like me. During the month of February, I write. I also write on Christmas, my birthday, on the day when I had applied for a new job and found out I didn’t get it, and I write on the day, a year and a half later, when I had applied for the same job and I found out I got it. I write when the writing’s good and I write when the writing sucks (Jodi Picoult’s quote: “You can always edit a bad page…you can’t edit a blank page,” is printed in purple chalk on a blackboard atop my desk); I write when I want to write and I write when I really rather wouldn’t.
But what if someday, the time comes when I go to pick the gel off the tip of a new Bic Cristal 1.6 mm blue pen, lean in to smell that new-notebook scent, and realize that I haven’t the foggiest idea what to put on the damn page? What if I just stare and stare until the lines blur together and the clock leers at me from the wall and no matter how hard I try and coax my brain into transcribing a message to my fingers, nothing comes???
Well, I’m here, the February 2017 version of ‘Woman in Horror,’ Christa Carmen, to tell the future, potentially-plagued-by-the-dreaded-‘W-B’-phrase, Christa Carmen, how to escape from that blank-paper Hell. It won’t be an exact science, but it will at least be a blueprint to refer to should the Four Horses of the Apocalypse show up to drag each and every embryonic storyline from my head before I’ve had a chance to deliver and properly nurture them.
Step one: read! This is a nice and easy one. Read books that recently debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and read the classics. Read outside the genre of horror and read hardcore horror books within it. Read something of which the dust jacket blurb calls to you like an old friend, a friend you can envision being curled up by the fire with, your beagle next to you on the couch and a monstrous cup of tea in front of you on the coffee table, and read something that prior to picking up, you would have never imagined yourself reading in a thousand years.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be coming up with short story, novella, and novel ideas over the past year faster than I can write them…but with the addition of both the Audible (Amazon’s audiobook division) and Overdrive (e-and audiobook distributor for American libraries) apps to my mobile device, I’ve been averaging two books a week in that same amount of time.
Starting with the recommended reading list at the end of Stephen King’s On Writing and moving on to devour everything from Michael McDowell’s Cold Moon Over Babylon and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl; from Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, I have always been a voracious reader in conjunction with being a writer.
My mother knows I like to try out different brands and sizes of notebooks like some people try new IPAs at their local watering hole, and so she recently presented me with an ‘ideas’ notebook (the cover inscription of which declares: Remember, ideas become things). The white ruled pages are intermittently interrupted by inspirational quotes written in large font and centered against fun, mustard-yellow backdrops (perhaps an interruption another writer might find disruptive enough to elicit a serious case of writer’s block!), and one of these quotations was from MovieMaker Magazine’s January 22, 2004 interview with Jim Jarmusch. It reads as follows:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."
If that is not good advice for how to beat writer’s block, then I don’t know what is! Jarmusch’s quote immediately had me contemplating A&E’s drama series (this description is per its Wikipedia page – I would have called this baby a straight horror show, but hey, what do I know, I’m just a lil ol’ Woman in Horror;), Bates Motel. Robert Block wrote Psycho in 1959, and unlike Norman’s companions in slasher film serial killing, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, all of who have had film installments which did justice to their respective backstories, the original mama’s boy was a bit of a tabula rasa in terms of his genesis.
Creativity kudos goes to Anthony Cipriano, who wrote Bates Motel’s first script, as well as to Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, who joined seven months later as executive producers and head writers. Ironically, Cuse cited the drama series Twin Peaks as a key inspiration for Bates Motel, actually stating, “We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks...If you wanted to get that confession, the answer is yes. I loved that show. They only did 30 episodes. Kerry [Ehrin] and I thought we'd do the 70 that are missing.” The cycle of reinvention and reinterpretation continues!
Step two: attend conferences! StokerCon, BookCon, Terror Con, Necon, Comicon...the cons go on and on! First, conferences are just a lot of fun in general, a great excuse to be around other writers and/or horror fans and learn a ton, but in addition to being enjoyable, conferences are inspiring in myriad ways.
Take a look at the schedule of events for any horror and/or writing conference and you’re in for a real trick-or-treat. The lineup for StokerCon’s 2016 Horror University included courses on Building a Better Monster, Poetic Forms: The Scary World of Structured Poetry, Vice and Virtue in Horror Poetry, Writing from Experience, Writing from the Wound, How to Write Scary, and Making the Reader Squirm.
Finally, a conference in and of itself can be fodder for a story idea. Take Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence, published by Night Shade Books, the tagline of which reads: An author's murder during an H. P. Lovecraft fan convention reveals dark secrets beneath the printed page in this biting murder-mystery satire. Not only do I want to read this book, I want to go to NecronomiCon this coming August!
Step three: write anyway! When all else fails, write through the barriers. Write a journal entry that’s the equivalent of your sister’s Instagram feed, i.e., pictures of palm trees and champagne brunches. Write a grocery list. Write one-hundred times in a row, I CAN’T THINK OF WHAT TO WRITE. No matter what, just write. Eventually, instinct will take over, and before you know it, future, potentially-plagued-by-cerebral-obstruction, Christa Carmen, your writer’s block will be the stuff of nightmares. And hopefully, so will your writerly brainstorming.