Tag Archives: writing

5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

When struggling writer and paranormal podcaster Noelle Blackwood gets the opportunity to ghostwrite for a bestselling thriller author, it seems almost too good to be true. The only catch is that she has to stay at The Oralia hotel until she’s done. Method becomes madness as she falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her own story and the demons it awakens. He Has Many Names is a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil story in the age of artistic desperation.

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WRITING FROM A FEMININE PERSPECTIVE TAKES NUANCE

In the first draft of He Has Many Namesmy editor wasn’t sure if the hero was a man or a woman. The protagonist was named Noelle but she spoke with the stock phrases one might find in a detective film. I’d just been writing a mystery and the lingo had rubbed off on Noelle.

When asked to make Noelle more feminine I didn’t want to emphasize what she was wearing or file her jagged edges down. Characteristics we identify as feminine like gentleness, tolerance, and sensitivity don’t fit Noelle. The Hollywood studio scene has hardened her. This doesn’t mean she’s stoic, like many women written by men, just that she’s tired embodying all those things people in her field consider feminine.

Leza Cantoral gave me great notes on Noelle’s voice. It helps having a female editor.

Noelle has traits that aren’t traditionally feminine in horror fiction (especially in films). She’s skeptical of the supernatural, ambitious to a fault, quick-witted, a tad catty, a bit jealous, and extremely resourceful.

SinceHe Has Many Namesis a story about storytelling from the perspective of a writer I thought it would be fun for Noelle to comment on what audiences expect from women in stories (especially in film). A producer once told Noelle she shouldn’t write herself into her own stories because she’s not very likeable. They want women to be sympathetic and vulnerable, but so resilient they never waste time whining or sulking. They want women to be gorgeous yet so modest as to be unaware of their beauty. They want women to be driven but not competitive.

I thought it’d be cool if Noelle acknowledged those contrasts before telling the audience she’s not going to write herself like that.

IF YOU PROMISE A DEVIL DELIVER ONE

The title He Has Many Namesis a direct reference to you-know-who.

Who has horns on his head?

Who has skin that’s very red?

Who has a beard on his face?

Who keeps souls in a case?

Horns on head, skin that’s red

Beard on his face, souls in a case

Must be Satan, must be Satan

Lord of the dark realm

In the first draft the entity haunting Noelle was something else entirely. I thought I was being clever setting up Satan and then hitting the audience with a sucker punch, but it was a let down. While the final draft retains many of its twists the true devil makes a grand entrance. Make no mistake Hell factors heavily into this story.

As much as I wanted to play with the audience’s expectations I forgot the “Chekhov’s gun” rule of storytelling: if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act it ought to go off in the second. In the same sense: if someone speaks of the devil in your first act the devil better rain brimstone down on everyone in the second.

CENTER EVERYTHING AROUND THE THEME

When I started writing He Has Many NamesI had a good concept: horror writer is sequestered in a haunted hotel room, but no clear theme, no thesis statement to leave readers with, no enlightenment to go with my entertainment.

The theme presented itself in the second draft (which was more of a reimagining than a mere edit).

He Has Many Names is about creators’ relationships with their audience. Be it a writer contemplating what horror readers are looking for or a devil pondering the quality of worship their reputation hath wrought. It’s about creators using art to take control of their lives only to then lose control of their art.

Once I knew the theme it informed every storytelling decision I made from then on.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO META

At a certain point in He Has Many Namesit’s revealed that the story we’re reading is the one Noelle is submitting to her publisher. This is shown in a scene where Matilda McDonald, the publisher, tears everything we’ve just read apart. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and I tried to replicate that scene one too many times later on.

I’d over-complicated the story by including references to Noelle’s imagined ending, an alternate scenario that pandered to the psychological thriller twists readers had been conditioned to expect. It was my way of playing with the readers’ expectations while promising them that this story was going someplace different.

The problem with Noelle’s prophetic ending is that it made her an utterly unreliable narrator. While it’s clear that Noelle is taking artistic license in describing these events I didn’t want the reader to feel like she was bullshitting them. So I made some adjustments. Noelle references the alternate ending, but assures us we’re reading the one that’s based on actual events.

NOT EVERY SCARY STORY NEEDS TO END WITH AMBIGUITY

Some of my favorite scary stories leave readers wondering if anything supernatural happened at all. For great examples of this type of horror check out Paul Tremblay’s ambiguity trilogy: Head Full of Ghosts,Disappearance of Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World.

He Has Many Namesstraddles the line between psychological and supernatural horror but ultimately it picks a side. I thought about ending the story in such a way where the reader had to sift through clues to suss out what happened, but decided it would be more rewarding if suspicions were confirmed and given a hard “yes.”

I wanted to reward attentive readers for paying attention, while giving everyone a big bold note to go out on. Without spoiling everything I chose a grandiose conclusion over an ambiguous one. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

Dear Non-Creative People

Respect One Another’s Creative Energy

Everyone has their own way of recharging. Some join friends at the bar for karaoke. They stumble out of the bathroom with their pants at their ankles to sing along with off-key.

“Sweet Caroline. Bah-bah-bah!”

Some set out wine and cheese platters and go around in circles discussing highbrow literature. Some park themselves in an ass grove and multi-slack, gaming on one screen and crushing half a season of science fiction on the other.

Others sling yoga mats over their shoulders and stretch that tension out, others sprint around the neighborhood at 4AM, and others lift ingredients into pans.

Whatever it is that you do to revitalize your vitality may good vibes be upon you.

My Vice

I write. I love the activities listed above, but writing gives me a sense of agency I don’t get from other outlets. Blogging gives my passing observations a sense of permanence. Poetry gives my abstract emotions a tangible form, and narrative writing turns my daydreams into something worth sharing.

When the writing is flowing it’s a big jolt to my self-esteem. When it’s not it taxes the energy it’s supposed to be replenishing. After a day of dealing with draining customers and a night of staring at a blank page I find myself completely tapped. I don’t even have the energy to make a Netflix selection let alone migrate to the bed from my couch cushions.

Creative endeavors are both risky and rewarding. Measuring the costs and the benefits is an undertaking. A lot of patience goes into fine-tuning that work/life balance.

As artists age we can’t help but compare our status to our career minded friends. How are we supposed to afford children in this economy when our Amazon royalties are but pennies? As our lives fill with commitments our creative careers go on the back burner.

A lot of artists give up and way they reconcile with all that wasted energy is by distancing themselves from their creative identities. Continue reading Dear Non-Creative People

Thoughts on Turning 29 for the Umpteenth Time

When it comes to attaching expectations to annual events I go off like clock work. On News Years Eve I keep my head down at the count down. On Valentine’s Day I listen to a well-curated playlist of sad songs, and on my birthday I do everything I can to avoid introspection. I have a bad tendency to throw myself a pity party, to review the previous season’s events and try to figure out where it all went wrong. It’s my party and I’ll stare off into the middle distance if I want to, stare off into the middle distance if I want to, stare off into the middle distance if I want to. You would too if you were a maladaptive daydreamer like Drew.

I’ve taken another trip around the sun, but this one feels different than the last few. I’m not so worried about getting lost in the Twilight Zone of my subconscious tonight.

Rather than hold my head and wonder, “When the hell are things going to start happening?” I already know the answer.

The answer is NOW BITCHES. Things arehappening. No vows have been exchanged, no baby names have been chosen, but soon my name will soon be in print. That’s a hell of a lot of something.

Sure I’m one year further from being a rock star, but I’m one year closer to being an author (I’ve been a writer for a while, but now I’m finally getting my ass published).

This year, rather than stare off into the middle distance counting super heroes in my head to give myself a distraction I’m going to count my blessings.

I’m older, but despite a few gray hairs and handful of smile lines I haven’t aged too hard. I’m hoping I have Paul Rudd syndrome in that I have a few more decades of looking like this to look forward to (knock on wood, knock on all the wood).

I’ve also got Nemo, an adorable kitten that tears my flesh to ribbons.

And I have book called HE HAS MANY NAMES and another secret project that I’m editing (it’s called I AM FIRE slide into my DMs so I can spoil the ending).

Anyway. I have birthday reservations at my favorite establishment.

Word up to all my fellow Virgos (even though we notoriously don’t believe in astrology).

Goodbye KillerCon 2018

It turns out there is such a thing as summer camp for adults, a place where friendships are founded on a mutual love of monsters, where ghost stories are on tap 24/7, and according to Jeff Burk Dinosaurs Attacks trading cards are still in fashion. Thanks to camp director Wrath James White KillerCon was the summer camp I’d always dreamt of attending. It was a place where kids weren’t shamed out of wearing Hellraiser t-shirts, where all the counselors swore (especially Matt Shaw), and telling dirty jokes meant you were developing healthy social skills (at least that’s what Edward Lee told me).

Instead of a dining hall we had a continental breakfast, followed by a blindfolded tasting of freaky foods and a hot wings challenge. Then Michael Allen Rose, a saintly gentleman in a Nine Inch Nails tribute band, passed around Jeppson’s Malört to help us wash it down (type #MalortFace into Instagram to see just how refreshing it is).

Instead of fireside hymns our camp gathered around a keg of beer. Instead of a talent show we had a gross out contest. And our prayer circles, well, they looked a little different.

The panels with Brian Keene, Matt Shaw, and Lucy Taylor gave me an invaluable peak into the bloody inner workings of the publishing industry. It was a hoot to sit in on readings by Joe Lansdale and his daughter Kasey Lansdale.

I was blown away by Nate Southard’s shrewd then outspoken performance as he weaved through the audience throughout his reading.

It was treat to working the conference floor with Rose O’Keefe and Max Booth III (congrats on the Hulu pilot, btw).

Thanks to Leza Cantoral and Christoph Paul the ClashBooks reading was easily one of the best experiences of my life. I was happy to share it with such sketchy individuals as Brendan Vidito, Charles Austin Muir, Jeff Burk, and of course Wrath James White… and I’m pretty sure Sam Richard was the attendee of honor (seeing as how he got an exclusive lap reading from Brendan Vidito, I mean I’m not saying I’m like supes totes jelly or anything, but… lucky).

Killer con was all of my summer camp dreams come true. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how sweet, charming, and utterly disarming horror authors can be. I can’t wait to come back next year.

KillerCon Travel Journal: Strange Rites

I’ve read books with gaudy covers because I’ve loved their authors and I’ve watched as the cover art shifted in my mind as I went. Geometrically the illustrations were in the exact same positions, but I’d attached new meanings. After putting the book down I was hard pressed to imagine any other cover. The design had improved upon association.

The same phenomenon applies to people. Charm can make an average looking Joe handsome and a sense of humor looks great on a woman. A positive association of someone attaches to their form, like an aura of positivity, and makes you eager to see them.

I felt these positive associations form in my brief time here at the KillerCon, getting to know established writers, up and comers, and the fans roving the hotel floors.

In my home city of Minneapolis I function on a safe predictable loop (yes, like the second season of Mr. Robot). I go to work, for coffee, and my weekly club night. I’m less likely to feel socially anxious when I know what to expect.

My first day at KillerCon I was out of element, a stranger in a strange land of splatter punks and hardcore horror aficionados who’ve traveled on the same circuit. At first I felt less like a participant and more like a pop cultural anthropologist.

Then I realized everyone was wearing conversations starters on their sleeves, literally tattooed right on: portraits of the Bride of Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Pinhead, and Cthulhu.

Eventually those of us with thousand yard stares at the bar started looking closer at one another, laughing over shared obsessions, pitching stories, telling morbid tales of our own hometowns.

Since opening ceremonies we’ve tortured ourselves with hot sauces, death peppers, strange foods, and gross out stories. Last night I took the Malort challenge, shots of a drink whose creator says is for drinkers who disdain the light flavors of neutral spirits. If you enter #MalortFace into Instagram you’ll see a series of portrait of people who’ve taken the same challenge.

View this post on Instagram

#malortface

A post shared by Drew Chial (@drewchial) on

That was last night, a whirlwind of hotel room parties, singing, and storytelling. This morning on the final day of KillerCon the event feels like summer camp. I wasn’t sure if anyone would like me on the day I arrived now I wish I had more time with everyone.

KillerCon Travel Journal Day 1: Check-in and My Room

Windgate by Wyndham Round Rock

Turns out I’m not afraid of being alone in a creepy hotel room. (The ghouls, phantasms, and phantoms have all been accommodating.) This king-sized bed is my element. It’s the lounge filled with strangers that scares me: laughter growing to a cackle, individual speakers cutting through the crowd walla, referencing authors I really ought to know by now. I’m at the front desk checking in. I can’t see them, but I’m casting them in my mind. I just know they’re covered in conversations starters: Clever horror t-shirts, sleeve tattoos that tell stories, and then there’s me still rocking a wallet chain I bought in the 90s. Now I’m looking at the mirror thinking I really should’ve learned to accessorize before I came down here.

After a long flight and a long drive all I want to do is amble across the highway and get me some Taco Bell. Daddy needs his guilty pleasure comfort food and he’s willing to hike through the 102 degree Texas sun to get it… But that wouldn’t be making the best use of my time here. I should be networking, talking fiction, and inserting business cards into hands.

I’m going to assume that fleeting moment of social anxiety is a natural part of con and that the only remedy is fear aversion therapy. So. Here. Goes.

KillerCon Travel Journal Day 1

Minneapolis International Airport

It’s been a while since I’ve found myself biding my time in an airport lounge hours before a flight. The last time was in the early aughts, back before there were complimentary charging stations, free Wi-Fi, and touch screens drilled into every flat surface. Back when a book, a Discman, and a beer were your only distractions. Now everyone is plugged in, multitasking on multiple screens: dual wielding tablets and laptops, smartphones and smartwatches.

I’m one of them, typing in my awkward little chair, cutting out the boarding announcements with my giant head cans, and scrolling through Paul Tremblay’s t-shirt collection on Instagram. I went to my gate without setting foot on the moving walkway just so I could check how many calories I burned on my Apple Watch.

I’m not saying that if it weren’t for all these screens the frequent fliers would lean over their dividers and start getting to know one another. There’s just something to be said about being trapped with your own thoughts for several hours. There’s a mandatory meditative quality. Boredom has a way of forcing the imagination to surface.

Maybe we’re all maladaptive daydreamers, scared that too much time to ourselves will have us looking back on our lives wondering what could’ve been. So we lean into our connections. We keep things real, stay in the present.

There’s something to be said for indulging in fantasy, cartoonish, spooky, outlandish fantasy (even if you’re not a writer). The imagination is a muscle far too many people let atrophied.

That said: my flight boards in a half an hour and I’m going to get myself a drink.

See you in Austin.

Questions Writers Hate Answering

Where do your ideas come from?

I can’t speak for other writers, but all my ideas came to me after I’d signed a contract with a strange fellow named Mr. Scratch.

A group of guys in my improv class had dragged me to a cabana party in the Hollywood hills. We found ourselves in an endless pool with a breathtaking view of West Hollywood. This was at the Chateau of a big director with an appetite for young actors. He was snorkeling through the shallow end dressed like a lifeguard. My buddies didn’t mind. They were hoping the situation would score them a role. I was hoping to score a drink. Good thing there was a bartender in the water. I drank until I was good and beached-whale-drunk. I propped myself up in my palm as everyone gossiped around me.

“Hey Drew, what do you think of all this Lindsay Lohan controversy.”

“I literally couldn’t give a shit.”

“So you’re constipated then?”

“What?”

“You said that you ‘literally’ couldn’t give a shit. So I took it to mean that you were incapable of shitting due to your use of the adverb literally.”

I found myself wandering through the woods in my swim trunks, ranting about how I’d be hot shit too if only I could put my thoughts into words.

“I’d literally be the toast of Hollywood, or wait, does that mean I’d be burned to a crisp?”

That’s when Mr. Scratch staggered into my path. He walked with a limp, because one his legs had been replaced with custom cloven hoof prosthesis.

“Shit, that’s cool.”

“I know right.” Continue reading Questions Writers Hate Answering

An Excerpt from Retail Hell

The following is an excerpt from Retail Hell, my new short story (at 8,600 words it’s more of a novelette) now available on Amazon.

The Customers Cometh (an early chapter from Retail Hell)

Jezebeth led Barbara to a cliff side overlooking an endless subterranean shopping center. To Barbara it felt less like a cavern and more like another world with a rocky skyline. Great walls of shelving stretched in all directions, cut from lopsided stones, like catacombs with sale signs. Barbara could just make out the checkout counters on the horizon.

Jezebeth pinched Barbara’s shoulder.

“Do you mind if I give you a bit of fearless feedback? I couldn’t help but notice that you were lagging behind on the way out. I know it’s your first day and you’re trying to contain your enthusiasm, but don’t worry about it. Just let loose. Run headlong into each new challenge. Alright?”

Barbara half nodded.

Jezebeth slapped her on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll get another opportunity after the meeting.”

Barbara turned away, preferring the endless hellscape to her micromanager’s wild unblinking eyes.

Greeters, in red and black uniforms, ran out and scattered along the plane below.

Jezebeth clapped her hands. “There they go.”

The greeters scurried behind volcanic craters, like townsfolk fleeing bandits in the old west. Some fought over hiding spots, while others helped each other bury themselves in the dirt. Continue reading An Excerpt from Retail Hell

The Difference between a Good Muse and a Bad Muse

I’m going to be using the word “muse” a lot in this post. When I do I’m referring to people with the power to influence your material, not the arpeggio-laden rock band, or the nine daughters of Zeus and any of the sexist connotations that go with them (that conversation is being held in the lecture hall across campus, if you hurry you can still make it).

Call me a cosmonaut but I believe the arts are a form of telepathy, a way to express thoughts and feelings that simply talking (or texting) fail to do. I believe a subtle story of heartbreak has more power to resonate than a loud I feelstatement. By showing instead of telling the story draws out the reader’s empathy. It compels them to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. The abstraction makes the expression all the more genuine. It forces the reader to participate, to draw their own conclusions, and unearth their own theme.

So if art is telepathy and artists are psychics it stands to reason many of us have ideal minds we long to inhabit. Let’s call them muses. These muses could be family members, romantic partners, or associates with mutual interests.

Good muses enhance our writing. When we write with a close confident in mind we put our guard down, get intimate, and create work that resonates, but when we write with the wrong muse our work gets guarded, diplomatic, and disingenuous.

So how the hell are we to know the difference?

Lessons on Screening Muses from Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony the Great is considered to be the father of all monks (and more importantly one of the first Obi-Wan Kenobi figures). Anthony started life with every advantage. His parents were wealthy landowners. He had a stable full of camels and a pocket full of bling, but when he heard Jesus’s message of trading material treasures for treasures in heaven he gave away everything.

Anthony cast off his inheritance, ventured into the desert, and wandered the land. He abandoned human companionship in favor of the divine. He fasted, exposed himself to the harsh Egyptian sun and eventually he started to see things. Anthony had visitations from ethereal figures whose divine leanings weren’t always clear to him.

Angels appeared as scrubs. Demons came on as ballers. It was hard to tell the difference between an angel in humble attire and a devil that had cleaned up well.

Antony’s visions were impaired. Not every angel wore a halo made of tinsel and not every demon wore a vinyl smock with a picture of who they were supposed to be on the chest. Anthony had to rely on his feelings to know which of the creatures he’d encountered.

He realized angels left him feeling rejuvenated, hopeful, and optimistic, while Demons left him feeling drained, exposed, and humiliated.

When screening for muses consider your feelings for the people in question. Really consider. Just because someone is important to you, just because you admire them, doesn’t mean they’re the right person to have in mind when you put pen to paper. That person you’ve been crushing on could be throwing you off your game.

The Person You Most Admire Might Be the Wrong Muse for You

I’m drawn to emotionally unavailable people, people who say, “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. Not anything serious.”

I want something substantial yet I’m drawn to those people. Of course I don’t consciously admit I have a thing for vagabonds. I’m not the one driving when my subconscious decides whom I get to have a crush on. Yet when I do take the wheel I find myself fighting to stay on a winding road that in all likelihood lead straight into a ravine.

These relationships are built on a rocky foundation of abstraction, emotional dithering, and the tension that comes from knowing that at any moment the whole thing come crashing down.

What I’ve learned from my pursuit of these impossible people is they slow my narrative writing right down. People who make you nervous in your heart don’t make for great muses in your art. They do if you’re writing about the individual in question, but not if you’re trying to cover the broad spectrum of human experience. Especially not if you’re delving into a topic that’s outside of the scope of their interest.

Do An Inventor of Your Muses

You can’t always decide who you’re drawn to, but you can decide whom your ideal reader is. Maybe that person shouldn’t be the one you’re trying so damn hard to impress in life. A bad muse will make you feel too embarrassed to write something heartfelt. They will make you censor your life experiences and hide your humiliation. They will have you filing down your jagged edges when you ought to be making them sharper.

If your muse hates horror you’ll find yourself taking all the teeth out of your terror. If they’re prudish you’ll find yourself softening your sex scenes. If they have conservative leanings you’ll find yourself hiding your rebellious streak.

Conversely, if your muse thinks romance is an antiquated notion for sexist baby boomers guess what your stories are going to be lacking? If they harbor a deep hatred of yuppie squares you might get freakier than you really are. If they gag on sentimentality you’ll find yourself getting more sarcastic than you care to be.

A bad muse can stunt your growth or take your writing somewhere insincere. A bad muse slows your flow, they compel you to edit as you go, and ultimately give you writers block.

Closing Thoughts

Just because you want to impress someone doesn’t mean they’re the right person to let into your headspace when you start writing. Use Saint Anthony’s metric for screening demons. Ask yourself: How does this person make me feel the moment they leave the room. Rejuvenated or drained? If they’re someone who consistently pokes holes in your ego odds are they aren’t going to read your writing anyway. So who cares what they think?

Write for the people who hear what you’re working on and ask a slew of follow up questions, for the people who remember story details from one conversation to the next, for the people who make you feel good even after they’ve left.