writing our wounds

The other day, while writing the sequel to Eidolon Avenue, I found myself facing a familiar fork in the narrative road. That moment when, like it or not, I have to put on the page something I find abhorrent and confusing and wrong. Something painful. Something only the most shattered of souls could even think of doing. Something the story demands, that the story has been building towards, but which still makes my heart wince and my soul sob.

As I said over on Facebook:

…I’ve just ended up on a road I dread because I know what’s coming next and it screws with my head and makes my skin crawl to have to write it. The depravity and pain and wounding and heartbreak is something I simply do not – thankfully – understand or comprehend.

Now, after writing that, a reader who’s familiar with – and thankfully a fan of – my work sent me a PM with a simple question:
How do you write what you write when it’s obviously so difficult to do?
After some thought, this is what I sent back:
Writers, in many cases, as odd as it seems, write what they know, to some extent. A lot of creativity and imagination goes into it, of course. And if you’re writing in a different genre – romance or self-help or something – then, obviously, the arc from personal to page doesn’t bend too dramatically.
But those who write horror are digging into their wounds whether they realize it or not. Only when you touch the darkest, deepest, most vulnerable parts of yourself, your psyche, can you put the worst of the worst fears on the page. And when you write with your body and soul, you feel that worst of the worst. You feel those wounds. You write with blood and tears and dread and hope.
And that’s what readers respond to. There’s a tacit acknowledgement, more subconscious than not, of the courage it took to tell your story. As if the writer’s taken a metaphorical bullet in order to guide the reader, from the safety of the page, into the dark and then safely out again.

After some thought, I suspect the above is more accurate than I realized. And that’s why I strongly believe horror is a necessary genre. And the stories we tell – as dark and f’ed up and terrifying and “wrong” and twisted and boundary-pushing and unique and brave as they are – are as widely accepted and applauded as they are.

We’re the brave ones who forge the trail and cut back the brambles and, torch in hand, show you, the reader, the way into fears you didn’t even know you had. And then help you back to safe ground. Because we’ve been there. We’ve opened the way. We dug the earth with our bare hands to make the trail. It’s our home.

In writing our wounds, we, in some way, help the reader face and hopefully heal theirs.

Then again, this could be the second cup of coffee talking, so-

 #backtowork #writing

nope nah nyet

I pride myself on having a strong work ethic. One of those oh my god he’s so boring all he does is work work work-type of work ethics. I write every day, often balancing several projects – all in various stages of development (active fiction WIP, outline, first draft edit, new script, script polish, etc) – at once while brainstorming not only new projects but also new ways to expand the ones I’m already working on (adaptations, comic books, graphic novels, novelizations, amusement parks).

So it should come as no surprise to say that when I sat down the other morning, coffee in hand, and brought up the Word Doc of the Day, my brain said

Nope

Nah

Nyet.

Yeah. Just drew a huge blank. No words. Nothin’. It was like I was looking at some foreign language I could kinda maybe sorta understand but, in the end, made absolutely no sense.

I switched to a different WIP. That sometimes work to get the gears a’going’.

Same thing. Nothing. Not even a glimmer of where I was supposed to go next on the page or what direction the story was supposed to travel now.

Of course, keenly aware of my self-imposed calendar, I started to very quietly have a full-blown – but quiet – panic attack. Started rescheduling, moving projects around, buying myself a day here, a week – maybe – there. Started feeling guilty for letting people down if something didn’t show up on time or, I don’t know, when they expected it to.

And then I did something I rarely do: I shut my laptop. Just closed it. Left the WIP alone, stood up and took a walk. A long one, actually. Enjoyed the, what’s it called again? the sun?, on my face. The breeze.

In short, I played hooky.

But my creativity demanded it. To run yourself ragged on a self-imposed – I use that word a lot because everything I do is dictated by me; I am my own worst boss – treadmill without touching base with your humanity not only stifles your creative voice, it silences it.

So, in truth, my stories, my characters, their narratives, all stood up and stepped forward to shut me up, steal my voice and get me out of the house.

And what happened when I came back?

Nothing. I took the day off. Shocking, isn’t it? 😁

But, hey, sometimes we gotta be daring and break the rules in order to get those words on the page.

sneak peek at the Second Feast

Just the quickest of sneak peeks at one of my current WIPs, Eidolon Avenue: The Second Feast.

Of course, this would be the long-awaited sequel to Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast which was called “powerful and jarring” by Cemetery Dance and “as engrossing and thrilling as it is disturbing and horrifying” by the great Greg F. Gifune (Bleeding Season).

A bit slow-going – comes with juggling a full plate of other WIPS – but, nonetheless, I’m having a lot of fun with it.

eidolon-apt-2-excerpt

Coming soon from Crystal Lake Publishing

apologies…perhaps

I don’t know about other writers, but when I find I’ve written something a bit rough or cruel or viciously brutal— this doesn’t happen often, but it does happen — I feel more than a smidgen of guilt.

Not necessarily because of the experience the Reader will go through — they did sign up for it, though, so… — but more because of what I put the characters through.

Interesting, isn’t it?

For better or worse, I feel deeply for people who exist solely on the page. But that’s what I suspect gives my work emotional resonance: these people are real to me. Very real.

They are telling their stories. And, for better or worse, those stories follow me. Poke into my thoughts months, years, after being told. The consequences of what I create keep me awake at night.

No, seriously. That happens. A lot.

Almost a year after its initial release, Click, the third story in Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast, is one of those stories I can’t get away from. And it’s not just because of how brutal it was, but because of the innocence of the victims and the dangerous psychosis of the killer.

I’ve said this before, but I simply could not get my head around the absence of empathy and the glee he took in the act of hurting another.

You see, with my immortal Martuk, he does bad things, but there’s always a reason. So, at the end of the day, readers may disagree with what Martuk does, but they understand on a visceral, very basic level why he did it.

With Martuk, you hate him, you love him, you fear him and, most importantly, you understand the Why of his What.

But with Colton in Click?

He was pure evil. Evil and insanity. And, yes, there were reasons. A litany of Whys to his What. Wounds that drove him. Ancient scars that still bled.

But none of that excused what he, the Character, insisted I, the Writer, create for him.

I remember writing the story while sobbing — like, really SOBBING — because I HATED what was happening. Hated it. Made me sick to my stomach. Forced me up and out to take long walks just to escape it for a much needed breath of fresh air.

But it was the story that needed to be told.

You know, I still get emails and private messages via social media raking me over the coals for Click. Questioning my sanity, my kindness, my heart. Questioning what kind of monster I am to put on the page someone as horrible as Colton.

And I get it. I do.

Which is probably why I’m feeling the need to write what’s turned into an open letter.

But, listen, those of us who invest ourselves totally in our work sometimes don’t have the control over the final product people think we might. Sometimes our characters want to tell stories that we vehemently disagree with. Sometimes they grab us by the arm and drag us, kicking and screaming and, yes, crying, much deeper into the dark than we ever wanted to go. And when we stumble free, back into the light, after the story’s told, we find ourselves changed, wounded, even scarred.

But that’s the deal we made to do what we do. Life isn’t always pretty and perfect. Sometimes vicious people do atrocious things with no rhyme or reason. As someone who writes horror, it’s my job to capture the barest hints of that so that my readers can exorcise, vicariously, their own demons. I guess. I don’t know.

All I know is that I relish returning to the relative normalcy and sanity of my dearest immortal Martuk as I dive into Shayateen, his third and perhaps final book.

Still, though, I do wonder if there should be apologies…perhaps.

Looks like I still have some psychological knots to untangle.

yes I can

I got an interesting email the other day. And although I’ve hemmed and hawed about whether or not to share this, I decided to do so because I suspect others might benefit from my experience.

The note was from someone who claims to be an editor. Someone I know of through social media. Someone who had, on the advice of “high ranking writers” — we have ranks? I had no idea! are there medals? sashes? a dental plan? — decided to take a chance and see if this new guy — me! — is as good as they said he is.

The verdict?

I suck.

And, in their opinion, not only do I suck, but my work was LITERALLY unreadable. (Btw, that was in ALL CAPS in the email, so I REALLY feel the need to be consistent) Like, they couldn’t EVEN — again, ALL CAPS — get four pages in before they threw it across the room.

Now, what’s interesting about this isn’t the criticism — it comes with the job and I’ve heard much worse — it’s the list they kindly offered me.

Yes! A list!

Whoops, forgive me. I meant THE LIST. You know, a gentle reminder of what I can and cannot do as a writer. A little something to help me out — paraphrasing here — before I go back to school and take a ton of seminars and learn how to actually write a book, etc and so on.

So, this list of “Can’ts” included

  • I can’t structure my sentences the way I do
  • I can’t break formatting and ignore punctuation
  • I can’t ever, ever begin a chapter with dialogue
  • I can’t blend past and present in a narrative
  • I can’t ever start a chapter in the middle of action.

It was a very generous list. An exhaustive list. I needed a cookie and a nap after navigating, like a less-ambitious, slightly disinterested version of Marco Polo, this list. A great deal of thought went into this list.

Toward the end of THE LIST I found myself envying their free time.

Of course I responded and thanked them for writing and wished them well. I did not apologize for my work and I did not apologize for the way I write.

Because my answer to that list of Can’ts is

Yes I Can.

Again, the criticism is not the issue. Art is subjective and, hey, everyone has their own opinion. What I do is sometimes unique and it won’t always be to everyone’s liking. And that’s okay! No harm, no foul, right?

I’m just gonna do what I do regardless because it’s who I am.

What is the issue is an industry – which this person had decided to speak for, I guess – that actively bemoans everything sounding the same and the lack of new voices taking risks and then, when someone does find the courage to throw a curve ball, smacks them down because it breaks their rules. Raps them on the knuckles, brands them with the He Can’t Write label and pushes them to the back of the line until they “learn how to do it right.”

Well, even if it slows my ascent, I’ve never really paid attention to the rules. Hell, I can’t imagine a life (which is limiting enough, thank you very much) where I choose to limit MYSELF by quieting my voice by following rules.

Because you know what?

Those who do well, and I mean those who do well enough to break down walls, destroy boundaries and flip the script when it comes to how society see things, don’t do so by following the rules. They know the rules, understand the rules, know the limits and have worked within the limits. They’ve mastered building castles in that sand box and now spend their lives slowly pushing, testing, forcing these rules to stretch and bend and change.

But when they do this they put a target on their backs for all those armed with Lists lying in wait to bury them in an avalanche of Can’ts. And they endure that, all while paving the way to Freedom for everyone else. They go unread and misunderstood and discarded so the next crop can come in to find those earlier boundaries changed. And these new voices then build their castles in a bigger, somehow better sandbox.

Those who, supported by the rules, then decide to break them do this understanding the path they’re agreeing to walk. But do so anyway because their need to create the way THEY want to is stronger than their desire to be the Flavor of the Month.

So, if I write something that’s roundly rejected by Those Who Follow the Rules, that’s fine.

No, really. It is.

Listen, I have a voice, a unique voice, which often results in interesting stories uniquely told. That’s not going to change and if the bending and breaking of those rules disturbs someone’s sensibilities, I’m okay with that.

Because, truth be told, I spend my days surrounded by people telling me No, You Can’t. And, every day, week after week, year after year, my answer has been and will always be

Yes, I Can.

the hungry shadows of deepest dark

Occasionally, just occasionally, someone will pepper me with questions for which occasionally, just occasionally, I’ll offer somewhat cogent, intelligent, dare I say “witty” answers.

This was one of those times.

What attracted you to writing horror?

In my opinion, horror lets you write your own rules. I can create a haunting something out of a forgettable nothing in horror. A speck of dust, a loose thread, a glance in the mirror. In other genres, those everyday things are just that: everyday things. In horror, at least for me, they’re jumping off points for the total unraveling of a life, of one’s sanity, of one’s grip on reality.  For me, they’re the necessary first step into the hungry shadows of deepest dark.

For the rest of this fascinating — occasionally, just occasionally — read, head on over here.

You’ll also see why I believe my friends Paul Tremblay, Lucy Snyder, Josh Malerman, Mercedes Murdock Yardley, Brian Kirk, Lisa Mannetti and Chesya Burke are writers to watch and read and get to know.

Because, as I also said,

in my opinion, the more I dig, the more I realize we’re in a bit of a Golden Age when it comes to fantastic writers.

Yeah, I know, right? Good stuff!

So, take a look, have a read and enjoy. 🙂

Jonathan-Interview(Sept16)

Jonathan Winn is a screenwriter as well as the author of Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast (Crystal Lake Publishing), the full-length novels Martuk … the Holy (A Highlight of the Year, 2012 Papyrus Independent Fiction Awards), Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche (Top Twenty Horror Novels of 2014, Preditors & Editors Readers Poll), the upcoming Martuk … the Holy: Shayateen and The Martuk Series, an ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by Martuk …

In addition to Forever Dark, his award-winning short story in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2, his work can also be found in Horror 201: The Silver Scream and Writers on Writing, Vol. 2, all from Crystal Lake Publishing.

 

the importance of people

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t have a lot of people in my life. We writers — heads low, fingers poised over the keyboard, eyes watching (if we’re lucky) all those words skitter across the screen — are usually a quiet bunch. More often than not, our days are spent in silence creating other worlds because that’s what our work demands. Friends, conversation, interaction? For me, it’s often done via email and text. And that’s just how it is.

Again, it’s the nature of the work we do.

So what happens when that work fails you? When the words don’t come? When that silent world you so rely on retreats into shadow?

What happens when you have to look up from your keyboard?

Now, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit this because I have an article published about how to handle this and, because of that, am supposed to be some sort of “expert.” (I’m not) But there I was, the words gone, the sentences resisting, the stories refusing to leave the safety of being single sentence concepts. My doubts about my talent and future and career growing with each passing minute, hour, day, week…month. And having tried every dang trick in the book (see link above) to snap the cycle, I was still at a loss.

So I did something I never do: I reached out.

Yeah, I reached out. To my publisher. To my teeny-tiny circle of real life friends (I can count them on one hand). My entertainment attorney. Even to other writers I know only via social media.

I reached out and said “help”

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Heck, people do it all the time. But I’m not “people” and that’s something I rarely, if ever, do. Like most in my business, I’m self-sustaining and used to pulling myself up by my own boot straps. To show doubt is to show weakness. And in those choppy Hollywood waters, that’s akin to planting your butt in the middle of the buffet table next to the carving knife.

So to do this took chutzpah, it took courage, it took a willingness to admit that, Hey, I’m at a loss and I’m not sure I have the strength to do what I need to do. Doing this took a small, but necessary, admittance of defeat.

And it made all the difference.

How so? Because I reached out and others reached back. They reached back! I know, right? They — well, most of them, anyway — met me in the middle. Showed me I wasn’t alone. Showed me I was cared about and, in some way, mattered. That my work, my words, still mattered.

Point is, when everything else fails, when all those tips and tricks come up short and you’re still left stranded on Writer’s Block Island (also known as Hell Adjacent), reach out.

Just reach out. The answer may be there. Or maybe not. But at least you’ll be reminded that you’re not alone, that people care and, heck, sometimes that small touch of humanity is all you need.

Writing alone doesn’t mean you have to BE alone.

So, reach out.