New short story…Breakfast in Bed

Please check out my new short story called Breakfast in Bed.

breakfastinbed

Julie can’t sleep at night. There’s a evil thing outside her house that’s stalking her every move and keeping her up with it’s moans and dead stares. Her husband doesn’t believe her and tells her if she’s going to stay up all night then he could use some breakfast in bed. When she falls asleep after making his breakfast, the thing moves closer. It’s in the house. But where is it? And what is it?

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How to Critique: A Quick Guide

critiqueWhen I first joined my critique group, I went in with some knowledge of how a critique worked, but  I knew things would be different. I had critiqued in various art classes during high school and college and even in some creative writing classes, but a writer’s group is unique. It’s not assigned work. It’s people writing what they believe is the THING that they HAVE to write. It’s their passion. I wanted to help other authors, but I also didn’t want to offend people. I think writing is something that a lot of people hide and always wish that they were successful at but don’t share because they are scared of rejection. How many people say they are working on a novel and never publish it? I didn’t want to be that critique partner who was harsh instead of helpful.

And when you’re an introvert, it’s like you don’t want to draw attention to yourself in a negative way so giving criticism was another whole layer of anxiety for me.

I was also so overwhelmed with how to actually critique and what to look for. It seemed like there were so many different areas to look at. So after reading about a million online posts and doing about a hundred critiques of other writers’ works, I came up with a little cheat sheet of things to look for.

When I do a critique, I let myself read it first without caring about what I’m going to critique. At the end of it, I write down my first impressions. Good and Bad. Then I go back and reread it one more time and write down comments.

Remember, you don’t have to go through this entire list of questions. You can always pick a few areas and focus on them.

Things you can critique on:

Character – Is the main character consistent? Is the main character interesting and someone who you see as a real person, or at least someone to care about? Is the main character the driving force in the work? Do things just happen to the main character or does the main character show how they react to their problems? Do the supporting characters add something?

Dialogue- Does the dialogue sound real? Does it actually serve a purpose or is it just filler? Is there enough dialogue or too little? Can you hear the voices of the characters in the writing?  Does the dialogue show tension or movement? Is the dialogue just a dump of information?

Plot- If it is a chapter, do you want to keep reading? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end? ( especially in shorter pieces, but chapters too.) Does the plot serve a purpose or is it just a character going through the motions? Does the plot advance the story? Is the plot boring? Do you care about what’s going on? Is there tension?

Voice or Tone – Is the voice believable? Is the voice interesting? Does the voice know too much? Is there too much telling instead of showing? Does the voice put you into the story or do you feel like you are just observing? Does the voice stay the same throughout the piece?

Description – Do the descriptions make sense? Was there world building? Is there too much description which leads to distraction? Does the writer assume you know things without describing them? Does the description make you feel things, good or bad? Is there too much description or not enough?

Flow- Is the piece easy to read? Did something stick out as confusing? Did the writing move at a good pace? Did any sentences stick out, good or bad?

Some more little hints:

Don’t say, “You,” when you critique. Instead of , “You didn’t have a good ending,” I would write, ” The piece ends in an incomplete way, which made it confusing for the reader.”

I always write down what confuses me. Not what I hate, not what sucks, etc.

No personal attacks. You are critiquing the writing, and not the author. Even if you and the author aren’t BFF’s, just focus on the words.

Use the sandwich technique – good things, bad things, good things. I always end on a good note. It’s the worst to read a critique and it’s ended with some scathing remark that sticks with you.

Let the writer know if it’s not the genre you are familiar with. Or let them know if it’s something you really enjoy reading.  I write horror and I noticed that a lot of people don’t like horror. They want me to immediately reveal the killer in the first paragraph, write the happiest ending ever, and won’t even read a gory scene. ( I put in disclaimers when I submit my pieces, just so people know if there’s a brutal scene). I know that their critiques are going to be different than a fellow horror lover who reads everything scary and bloody.

Use positive language.  A stronger choice of words would be… The main character could be more believable if… The scene could be cleaner by….

Don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t worry about nitpicking every last detail. I try to focus on the overall work in general. What works and what doesn’t. What kind of mood is the piece trying to portray? What kind of person is the main character? Why do I want to keep reading or why do I want to put the piece down?

Although your first time critiquing might be a little bit confusing, it gets easier the more you do it. You’ll end up finding out really interesting things about your own writing by looking at the work of others.

I plan to do some more in depth posts on each of the critique topics I’ve listed, so stay tuned.

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The critiques you shouldn’t listen to

hearnothingLike every artistic group, writers consist of people with various habits, diverse personalities, and endless quirks. When you join a writer’s group, you are going to be exposed to people with differing viewpoints and perspectives, which, for the most part, will help your writing get better.

However, all writers will come across a small percentage of people who bring nothing helpful to your work. These are the critiquers who you smile politely at while they rip apart your manuscript, say things that aren’t relevant, or leave you so confused that you can barely blink.

The person who rips apart your manuscript with “how they would write it.” – They take out their red pen and instead of telling you that your main character doesn’t have a conflict, they cross out your main character’s dialogue and write in some new words in a voice that isn’t your main character at all. Maybe they even tell you that your female character should be a male. They tell you that you need to up the love story, because they are writing a love story. Maybe you should make it scarier because “thrillers sell.” They have their own project on their minds when they critique and it doesn’t help you. Don’t take it personal, they are working through their own writing problems.

The person who only critiques grammar – More red marks, but no depth to them. Sure, it’s helpful, but did the plot work? Was the opening line intriguing? Should I edit or add more to it? Who knows, but did you know that your tense is incorrect on page 8, line 20? Did you also know that they charge for their editing services and yes you need them? Be careful of people like that at your groups. Because they are out there. They offer “author services” as they hand you their business card. You’re left with a marked up manuscript and the feeling like you’ve just been to a sales pitch that you didn’t know you signed up for. On the other hand, if you need help with editing, these grammar guardians are excellent.

The person who says “This is not my genre, so I don’t care”- Okay, so maybe they aren’t that harsh, but the moment they start their critique they act like reading another genre is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Now, I don’t read all genres, but I try to read a lot. And for what I don’t read, I do a little research. And I try my best to critique with the basics of  what makes a piece of writing good, no matter what genre you are reading. Character , plot, voice, etc. But other people…simply dismiss your young adult work as “cute,” while they explain that they don’t read anything but literary fiction. Or they don’t “get sci-fi,” consider horror “too scary,” and tell a romance writer that the whole idea of romance is frivolous.  Instead of just focusing on the elements of the piece, they focus too much on the genre and won’t even try.

The person who says “Please critique my whole book, but whoops I forgot to read the other author’s works.” This happened to me in my most recent group. We had a member who would send out pages of work to the point of going over the limit. Our limit is about 20 pages for each submission, but most people don’t submit that much. It’s more like a chapter or two. Or a single short story. He would take all of the spots to get critiqued so that we basically read half of his book as quickly as possible. When it was his turn to critique other people, he would say that “he forgot,” or “his printer broke,” or “he didn’t get the email.” Finally, the leader of the group had to make a rule that everyone in the group had a chance to sign up at least once for the month so that he didn’t take all the spots. And if you didn’t critique others, you weren’t able to submit. It helped slow him down and now he seems to get it.

The “I’ve read this book and that author says,”- This person is irritating because they are so obsessed with technical writing books that it’s all they know. They don’t like it when people don’t write a blockbuster. They don’t like it when sentences are experimental, when a main character is unlikeable, or when there’s a tragic ending. Why? Because their book about writing tells them what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes you may be lucky enough for them to bring the book to your group as their “evidence.” This is tricky because different writers have different ideas of what is right and wrong. Which is the whole point of critique. To learn something new. For both the author and the person doing the critique. But if the critiquer is so stuck in their technical book, they might miss things or focus on the wrong things.  For example, someone brought in a technical book to my group that was over forty years old with really outdated information by an author who never published an actual novel.  The “hints” in the book were great for a classical novelist writing a historical work, but not for someone writing a short story, a memoir, or a genre novel.

The “I’m going to link my personal experience that has nothing to do with your work to your work and derail the rest of the critique with my problems.” – This person makes the group uncomfortable with the way they link your romance to their failed relationships. Instead of telling you what’s wrong with your piece, they tell you what’s wrong with their life! If you write a story and the dad character is a meanie, they start to list all of the ways their own father was a terrible role model. If they were a train they would be off the tracks, in the ditch, with their wheels still spinning. Hopefully, your group leader can quickly remind this person to get back to the piece, and leave the therapy session for after the workshop.

Overall, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t “get” your work. But a good critique group can find things to critique in anything. Stay tuned for some upcoming articles about how to write a critique and how to write a critique when the writing is really bad.

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The first critique group I went to almost ended in a fist fight (Or how not to get upset at your first critique).

goats-competition-disputeAs I sat in the library’s meeting room, the other members of the writer’s group trickled in. There were six of us, four original members and two new members. This was my first time going to a writing critique group and I didn’t know the rules. It soon became apparent that there were no rules. As the three author’s works were critiqued, I could feel the tension in the room and I came to the realization that this wasn’t the group for me.

Authors could speak, and even yell at the people who were critiquing them. No one was in charge of the group so whoever spoke the loudest , spoke the longest. The remarks were cutting, mean, and unhelpful. For every one positive thing mentioned, there were about twenty negative things mentioned. I could feel a sense of jealousy among the members. The first author seemed to be at peace with what was said, while the second author seemed to almost shrivel up into a ball.

We got to our last piece, which belonged to the leader of the group. Everyone shuffled their papers nervously. I quickly gave my own thoughts, trying to focus on the same amount of positive things as negative and ending it by telling the group leader that although some things confused me, I think he had a good start. The other new member sitting next to me, an older gentleman, cleared his throat and  declared, “This just wasn’t good. In fact this was the worst of the three pieces submitted.”

Silence blanketed the room as I struggled to keep my mouth closed. The piece belonged to the group leader. He had submitted a science fiction piece and it was part written word, part outline, with “Insert love scene here,” every other page. It was confusing, jumbled, and even though it had some good elements to it, the man sitting next to me ripped it to shreds and did not say a single positive thing.

The group leader stood his ground, fighting back and telling the man that he didn’t know what he was talking about. At one point the group leader stood up and then sat down again, like he was ready to jump across the table and rip his manuscript out of the older man’s hands.  The older man hated the characters, despised the plot, and didn’t understand why the main character was at a grave yard. The group leader let out a large sigh and kept repeating, “you would know this if you read the other chapters.”

“Well, what do you want me to do then? It’s still nonsense.” the older man continued.

The rest of us watched uncomfortably as they continued to go back and forth. The meeting ended with the two men staring each other down across the table. The leader of the group left in a huff without even taking the marked up manuscripts from the other group members.

None of the other members even said goodbye to each other as we packed up our things and left the room. I convinced myself that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer if this was the type of criticism I would receive.

So when the group leader ended and abandoned the group that night with a hastily written email, I wasn’t surprised. However, one of the other members started a new group with rules, and I found myself submitting my work there a few weeks later.

We returned to the same room where the fight had almost happened. I looked around the large table at my fellow authors. Was I ready to get into a fight over my work? Of course not. I went into it with an open mind. Although the first critique was the hardest, I had to get it over with. I had to hear my weaknesses and then I had to move on. And yes, I did dwell on what some people said to  me, including the man who almost fought the old group leader. Perhaps, I’ll share some of the critiques he has given me some day. They are quite…interesting. Especially the ones that tell me to change my horror story into a sex story. Yep, he’s one of those writer’s group members.

So here’s the things that I learned from my first nail-biting critique:

It’s your work. Don’t feel like you have to change every single thing that people pick to critique. If you love that your main character is an alien from the ocean and someone tells you that they don’t like it, stick to your heart and what you know. It’s your story and tell it how you want to.

Listen to what people have to say and if you see a pattern, then it’s probably something you should work on. For example, in one of the first stories I submitted to the group, every other comment was “I hate the narrator,” and I immediately realized that I didn’t want the reader to hate him, so I knew I had to go back and rework his “stubbornness.”

Ask questions. Sometimes I write questions for my critique partners to consider as they read. Did I end the chapter with something that makes them want to keep reading? Should I make it scarier? Was it easy to read? You can always jot dot notes during your critique on the points that people made and highlight them if you need further explanation.

Let the critiques sit for a while. When I first got them, I went home and stewed over everything that was said. I looked at each of the pen marks and comments like it was a personal scorecard against me. It was too much at once. I’ve learned, it’s better if I let it sit for a couple of days before I review my notes and manuscripts, unless someone says something that clicks for me and I immediately want to rewrite or fix an obvious mistake that was pointed out.

Don’t argue with the critique. As much as you want to tell them they’ll never understand your artistic expression and you have a license to do whatever you want, hold back and keep those thoughts to yourself.  For some people, it’s just as hard to critique as it to submit work. Also, some people are not good at critiquing. I later found out that the man who harshly critiqued the group leader loves his work to be harshly critiqued because he says thats the only way he learns anything. The more red pen marks the better. So in his head he was doing everyone a favor when he ripped them to shreds.

Don’t take it personal. It’s not you that they are critiquing. It’s just your words. Which can always be edited, shined up, and made better. Just consider a critique part of the writing process.

And to restate, it’s your work. You know what it wants. You know the story. If it feels right to you, keep it.

Stayed tuned for next week’s post…The critiques you shouldn’t listen to aka just smile politely and zone out while they rip you apart.

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5 questions I have after watching the Santa Clarita Diet trailer

This morning, Netflix released the new trailer for Santa Clarita Diet, a series featuring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as California realtors whose problems aren’t limited to just selling houses. Barrymore’s character, Sheila, has a taste for the flesh and things are about to get bloody.  The thirteen episode series drops on February 9th.

As I watched the preview, I had a couple of questions…

1.Is Drew Barrymore’s character a zombie or a cannibal? I can’t figure it out from the preview. Her son talks about her being a zombie, but I’m not sure I’m convinced. If she was a zombie, she would most likely go after her family. At least, that’s how it’s always been in other movies. I guess I need to know the rules of this show so that I can figure it out. Maybe that’s why they have to hide the body parts of the people she eats. So that they don’t come back as zombie cannibals too. I don’t like when genres mix, so I’m kind of confused.

2.Will there be gruesome deaths or will the deaths be comedic? The preview has a lot of blood in it. Heck, the two main characters are dumping body parts in the middle of the night and it’s a pure bloodbath when they spill them all over the ground. But, is that where it ends? Are the actual kills going to be CGI or did they throw in some makeup and practical effects. Wow, I already have more than five questions!

3. How do they decide who she gets to eat? I know that they will eventually touch upon this in the show and it’s an intriguing concept. I hope that they do it in a way that makes sense, although it is a comedy.  Also, I hope that they portray the characters as people who we actually care about. I love crazy stories, but I need a little bit of depth to them.

4. Is this basically like Weeds but with eating people instead of selling drugs? Crazy suburbs, need to make some money. Maybe they start killing off people so they get their houses to sell and their real estate business flourishes. And things start to go well for them, but then too many people know about it and things go out of control. This kind of sounds like a tested formula for these kind of series. I hope they do something different with it.

5. Am I looking too deeply into this preview and should I just try and enjoy the show?At first watch, I kind of sighed and wrote this show off. I’ve watched a million zombie movies and I feel like the genre is pretty saturated with various viewpoints. However, this doesn’t look like a pure zombie show, so I’d like to at least check out what caused the main character to want to eat people. I’ll give it a chance, but from the trailer it seems like a show that is a comedy with small splashes of horror. Sometimes when genres mix, it is great and other times, it doesn’t work. Guess we’ll have to wait until February to find out.

 

 

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Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary Review

uneartheduntoldI grew up in the 80s/90s, so I have a fondness for all horror movies during those decades. As a young kid, many Friday nights were spent at the video store, debating over which VHS tape to rent based on it’s cover.

I think I first rented Pet Sematary when I was about eleven or twelve. Actually, it was my best friend’s older brother who rented it and we snuck down to the living room in the middle of the night to watch it at a sleepover. We were supposed to be watching something that was PG or PG-13, not something that was a horror movie.

We were so scared, but at the same time there was something about this movie that made me fall in love with it. It became our go to movie to quote from ( to this day, I still talk about Thanksgiving for cats), and it didn’t help that we lived in a neighborhood that was surrounded by historical Indian sites. You could still find arrowheads down by the creek if you dug deep enough.

When I heard that there was going to be a documentary based on this film, I was so excited and I eagerly rented the film through Itunes on the Friday it came out.

This film was done with such love for the movie and is filled with so many interviews and behind the scenes tidbits that it kept my interest for it’s 75 minutes of running time. I was transformed back into the that kid who loved being frightened while a tape hummed in the VCR.

As a writer and lover of all things horror, it was so interesting to hear how the ideas for the story became the story and then became a movie.

I really enjoyed hearing about some of the behind the scenes info, including how the pet cemetery was made, and what is still there today. The interviews with the makeup artists made me realize how much time and effort went into creating Zelda, the scariest character of my movie in my opinion. There was even a fascinating part in which they explained the infamous Gage and the truck scene and the tricks they used to film it.

The cast interviews were very detailed, and included pretty much the entire cast. It was really cool to see all the kids grown up. Even though Fred Gwynne passed away, the other cast members seemed to keep his spirit alive with their stories and anecdotes.

The interviews with the local people of Maine were also really interesting, and it shows how much Maine was it’s own character in Pet Sematary.

If you are a Pet Sematary fan, I really recommend this film and I look forward to it being released on DVD too. I can’t wait to watch Pet Sematary again and look for all the little details that I picked up from the documentary. I’m so glad that John Campopiano and Justin White made this, and can’t wait to see what other films they make.  You can currently rent or buy the film on Itunes and Amazon and there will be a DVD release soon.

You can watch the trailer here:

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The Introvert’s Guide to Joining a Writing Group

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Writing is an activity that tends to be pretty solitary. Most writers enjoy that. I know that I do. What’s better than grabbing a brand-new notebook, a laptop, or even a napkin, and retreating into your own creative head until you lose yourself in your character’s world and don’t come out again until you need something to eat?

I also hate talking, unless it’s about important things. Like writing, of course. The idea of small talk basically makes me want to retreat into my writer’s cave and never come out. At the same time, I need some kind of feedback besides the blank stares from my cat.

So, after years of writing alone in my office, I decided to seek out a writer’s group. I went to meetup.com and was immediately overwhelmed and underwhelmed. I live outside a decent sized city so there were different groups with different priorities. Some were organized while others were just chaos.

This post deals with the different types of groups that I checked out and what I liked and didn’t like about them. I plan to write some more posts pertaining to the good points and bad points of critique groups, so be sure to stay tuned.

On to the groups…

A Group that focuses on just writing – These groups are usually pretty easy going and they meet someplace cozy where you can work on your writing as others around you are doing the same thing. The group near me meets every Saturday for coffee at Panera Bread, or at the library, and spends up to three hours just writing on their laptops. No one has to offer up what they are working on and it’s pretty relaxing. It’s kind of cool to look around and see everyone tapping away on their projects while you are doing the same. It’s a sense of camaraderie without the criticism. Sometimes they do little events where the whole group tries to get to a certain word count or just to finish a chapter by the end of the week. This is a good group format for an introvert or a person who wants to ease into a writer’s group without the pressure of being critiqued.

A Group that focuses on just reading your work – Warning, if you hate public speaking like I do, this may not be the group for you. However, if you want to work on your reading voice and just hear your work, this may be the right group for you. I went to a few meetings with a group that was strictly reading with the smallest amount of criticism afterwards. Each person would bring in about ten copies of their work to give to the group and the group would read along silently as you read aloud. You would read for about five to ten minutes, so only a few thousand words. Most of the comments were very positive, and this was the problem. How quickly can you digest the work in front of you if you only have ten to fifteen minutes to read it? Not that I want to be torn apart, but there was no real criticism. This was a good group for an ego boost, though.

Which leads me to, the critique group that I stayed with.

A Group that uses email to distribute an author’s works and then discusses it in person – The group I’m in meets once a week, although sometimes less depending on the weather and various obstacles. Two authors submit their work and the rest of the group has a whole week to critique it. There is a limit to the number of pages submitted and the group can’t just say “this is good,” or “this is bad.” While everyone is pleasant, our critiques are like a sandwich. The first layer is the good things in the piece. The middle is the things that need to be worked on, and the final layer is another good thing.

At first, this was nerve racking to me. The rules of the group are that the author being critiqued has to be silent while they are being critiqued but they can talk afterwards. You can take notes while you’re being critiqued too. You do get the chance to ask questions after the critique, which is helpful. The nice part of the group is that you don’t even have to submit if you don’t want to, so if you are really anxious about being the center of attention, or think you aren’t ready, you don’t have to share your work. I submitted my first work after about two meetings and that leads me to my next topic…

The first critique group I went to almost ended in a fist fight. (Or how not to get upset at your first writer’s group critique). Hope you will join me again for this series.

-J.S.

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Welcome to my Site!

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Hello, if you’ve stumbled across my blog I hope that you stick around. I’m a horror writer who enjoys exploring the writing process and analyzing the things that scare me. I guess that’s why I write about them. I’ve been writing since I was twelve years old, where I spent a whole summer in my basement writing a story called, “The Mystery Letter.” I filled a spiral notebook and from then on, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve ghostwritten in various genres and had a blast doing it. Now, it’s time for me to write some scary stories.

-J.S.

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