The sensory details in this piece are so vivid and tangible. I’m pretty sure I had that jar with the dinosaur on it as a kid, actually. Do you start with an image and build out from there, or do you plug in the details after settling into your structure?
For most of my works, this one included, the narrative voice is the first key element. This story started from what began as, and remains, the first line: “The caveat is that I’m going to lie to you.” (In fact, the original working title was actually “Caveat”!). While this story is first person, to me, the narrator is always as much, and often more, of a character than the people we see in the story. It takes some drafting to find the voice’s nuances, but once I do, I can find the rest of the story—what situations are most interesting for this voice? What is it trying to tell the reader or what is it trying to hide? What details does it notice and what significance does it attach to them?
Here, that voice ended up talking like people I knew growing up and so the details it noticed started to dovetail with my own. I definitely had those dinosaur jelly jar glasses and they still stick with me, so that detail found its way in, but the narrator’s intense focus on that particular detail (and the others) developed organically from that. I wrote the first draft here pretty much linearly, so the details that accumulate throughout the narrative were a pleasant surprise to me by the time the narrator and I finished our first draft.
I have always loved the kinds of shorthand and symbolism that horror writers use to add texture for their readers and what a well-versed reader will glean from those symbols. What are your favorite horror tropes and symbols, and what’s your favorite way to engage with them? Tradition or subversion?
That’s a great question! I like to think/pontificate a lot about story structures and writing techniques, and tropes and symbols are a fascinating part of our work as authors. When employed judiciously, and for the right audience, tropes and symbols can do a lot of heavy lifting, freeing the author to do more with the other story elements. As readers can likely glean from this story, I’m a sucker for the “unreliable narrator” (especially when combined with a “silver-tongued devil” subtype), but I also love the trope of using the supernatural as a reflection of a character’s inner state, particularly when the full truth might be unavailable to the characters themselves. I also love the stylistic flourish of discursive essays or narratives that seem to wander around, laying out lots of little details whose significance isn’t fully apparent until they all come together in the end.
Both tradition and subversion have their places, so my answer as to how I prefer to engage is the cop-out “Either, so long as it’s done well!” I think that for all the talk of story structures, tropes, et cetera, the only real structure is: the story begins, the author draws along the reader’s interest by whatever means necessary, and then pays off the reader’s investment in a satisfying manner (or intentionally unsatisfying, if you’re a sadist). A well-executed traditional structure can hit just as hard as a perfectly done subversion, so I’m always up for either, whether in my own work or in that of others.
There is a photo on your website that I adore, a marked-up manuscript at some stage in the revision process. I also noticed the note on the wall of another photo: “Can’t edit what hasn’t been written.” I enjoy revising more than drafting, so this really speaks to me. Can you talk a little bit about your drafting and revision processes?
I’m with you—the revision is my favorite part. I read somewhere that while a sculptor may take a block of marble and remove everything that isn’t an elephant, the writer has to create the damn marble block in the first place before they can begin chipping away to get that final sculpted story. Although maybe it’s more like digging up clay . . .
I tend to brainstorm with handwritten notes—ideas, sentences, images, maybe a scene or line of dialogue—but generally do my first full draft on the computer. I try to build a momentum by writing mostly linearly, if I can, and this results in some parts being massively overwritten—lots of falling too deeply into a detail or using three sentences where one must do—but also some parts massively underwritten. My second pass, then, is normally done right away, also on the computer, and fleshes out those thin spots, fixes auto-correct errors, et cetera, but doesn’t get too much into cutting. The result of that draft is a bulky thing, but then I print that out and do the remaining revision passes by hand in red ink.
I can’t really understand a story or a sentence until I see it on paper. Unlike the computer, which eats the edits or barfs Track Changes over everything, when the work is on paper, I can play with movements, minor changes and savage cross-outs, make new insertions or distillations, and still have both the original and the revised in front of me. Once I go through the entire draft by hand, I’ll type the edits in, which is like another half-pass and often results in further changes. (Secret tip: I input edits back to front, because that way it won’t mess with the pagination and because it helps me focus on just the line level of the edit, rather than getting swept up in the overall flow, which can mask weak elements.) I’ll print out the next draft and repeat this anywhere from one to infinity times, until I can’t stand it anymore, then off it goes!
What else can readers look forward to from you in the near future?
Lately I’ve been focused on longer works, but those operate on a much different publication timeline, so I might seem to be quiet for a bit. Right now, though, I’m in the process of putting the final (hopefully!) touches on a second horror collection before I start approaching publishers, as well as neck-deep in a novel rewrite about family ties, necro-hortimancy in the Carolinas, and other hijinks. However, the short story gears are always turning, so I have some more stories on sub, as well a flash fiction piece about circus-adjacent horror still in the Nightmare publication pipeline!
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