The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘horror

The beginning of the year has been a whirlwind, in a good way. I was invited to lead a craft workshop for the students attending Carlow University’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, taking place in early Jan, in Pittsburgh, PA.

I was very excited, honored and nervous. I am an educator by training and routinely teach undergraduate and graduate students in my areas of my research expertise (e.g. women’s and gender studies, sociology, and political science). Although I have given craft talks, I have never designed and solely led a workshop for MFA students. Even though I have taught writing workshops alone and with others, I have never taught in an actual MFA program.

I received the invitation in September. Once I accepted, an annoying inner critic voice popped up and said, “Who does she think she is to teach MFA students, especially when she doesn’t have an MFA?”

I had to repeatedly say to myself, “This is not about your ego or degrees. You are here to serve the students and offer up what you think will be useful to them.” One of the reasons why I was invited was because they have had students express an interest in writing speculative fiction. The administrators gave me complete freedom to design the workshop in any way that I wished.

Once I reminded myself that I had something unique to offer and that it was OK not to be perfect on the first round, I totally got into designing the workshop.

The MFA students sign up for the classes they want to take about a month before, so I sent some preliminary questions about their goals, challenges, interests, etc. I used their answers to guide me as I developed the workshop.

I taught about speculative fiction and my path as a winding path as a writer (i.e. why I went to get a PhD in political science instead of an MFA). I integrated mindfulness and contemplative practices as resources for sustaining their writing. I also had them generate lots of material through prompts and free writing. We looked at some ways that writers can play with premise, setting and character as part of speculative work. I drew on a wide variety of authors and my own work as demonstrations of particular approaches.

Boy, does two and half hours fly by!

The students were amazing and generous to me and each other.

I so enjoyed watching students dive deep in the exercises and claim some of their buried interests, including horror and dark fiction.

The fantastic MFA students I worked with at Carlow.

I absolutely loved teaching the workshop.

I’m glad I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. I’m also glad that without acting like a know-it-all, I could share with them some lessons I’ve learned as well as hear what their writing lives are like. As in all adult learning communities, you know some things and they know some things. Learning happens in the middle.

The only thing I would do differently would be to send some of the short readings ahead of time, so we would have more time for in class writing and reading our work.

I was honored to read alongside Patrice Gobo (center) and Lynn Emmanuel. We read poetry, memoir and fiction and our selections all complimented each other.

The faculty and staff were welcoming and it was a joy to be with them. I loved reading with the other faculty, too.

Creatives, don’t we just light up when we are with other creatives?

Below are two of the exercises that I used as warm-up material. I absolutely adore Dena Metzer’s Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey (a more spiritual approach to creativity, but some of the deepest writing advice I’ve ever seen and great prompts throughout the book)

The Dream Police

We are what matters to us. Our identity materializes through images, memories, events and through things.

Suddenly there is a knock on your door. A trusted friend enters to warm you that the Dream Police will arrive in twenty minutes. Everything, everything in your life that you have not written down will evaporate upon their arrival. You have a short time—twenty minutes-to preserve what is most previous in your life, what has formed you, what sustains you. Whatever you forget, whatever you have no time to record, will disappear. Everything you want must be acknowledged in its particularity. Everything to be saved, must be named. Not trees, but oak. Not people, but Alicia. As in reality, what has no name, no specificity, vanishes.

*set the timer for 20 minutes and GO. This is great prompt to help us dig deep and go from the abstract to the concrete. Every time I do this exercise, my list looks different.

The Dream Police #2 (also from Writing for Your Life)

Imagine you are an anthropologist who has unearthed this list of “possessions” that once belonged to some unknown person. Write a brief portrait of fleshing that person out, speculating on his or her character and life.

-The anthropologist writes about this subject in the 3rd person, (i.e. he, she, they)

My addition: circle 3-5 items, images, memories from this list that interest you. How might you approach what you have created as the basis for a new character? What kind of trouble or setting might be interesting to explore with this character sketch?

Photo credit

 

January has started off well for my writing.

File this under the category: Believe in your work. As creators, I believe we have to pursue a variety of storytelling modes that are available to us. I’ve started to enter my published work into contests that help pitch the work and get it adapted for film and TV. Nussia, my novelette published in 2017 by Book Smugglers just made it to the quarter finals in the ScreenCraft Contest (Cinematic Short Story Competition)!

I love the cover that Book Smugglers had commissioned for Nussia.

They chose about 200 people from over 1,200 submissions. Here’s my logline: “In this sci-fi psychological dark/horror story, Lindsay, an African American girl “wins” an extraterrestrial in a national contest only to find her family’s life upended. It’s E.T. meets Fatal Attraction.” It’s set in NYC in the 1970s. Wouldn’t you want to see that story told? Please send me good vibes so that I advance to the next round. And, bookmark this contest for your future entries (they have contests for published and unpublished work, plays, etc.).

Screencraft Contests.

If interested, you can read Nussia for free here

I’ve had to sit on VERY GOOD NEWS for a few months, so I am happy to share my contract news and publishing story with you.

Many of you know that my sci-fi novella Reenu-You was published in 2017 by Book Smugglers Publishing, a very small press. What many of you don’t know is that in Nov 2018, BSP decided to get out of the publishing business. The two women who ran the press were wonderful and committed publishers, but they realized that after running it for almost six years, they would need to quit their full-time jobs to take the business to the next level.

This left me and all of their other authors without a publisher. Reenu-You became unavailable in any format by Dec 2018. You can imagine how I felt. I was definitely not expecting this turn of events. It had taken me so long to get that story into the world!

Here was my little novella doing well, garnering great reviews, finding its audience, making its way in the in the world and then BAM—it was GONE.

I have since discovered such is the life of tiny presses and the state of publishing. BSP told me that I should approach other local publishers that might be interested in acquiring it. They believed that it would find a good home. I was daunted by their advice, but I believed in the work.

Luckily, I reached out to the wonderful John Hartness, author and publisher of Falstaff Books to see if he was interested in acquiring the rights to Reenu-You. I had met him the year before at a local sci-fi con and when the local bookseller didn’t show, he did me a favor by selling copies of Reenu-You through his booth. In that intervening year, I also met many of his authors and knew that as a local publisher with a wide distribution network, he was actively recruiting speculative fiction authors who were with presses that had folded.

Last year we had a great meeting. He read the novella, liked it and asked me what I was working on. I had looked at his catalog before our meeting and saw that he didn’t have very much horror and so pitched him my idea—a horror novel that takes place in the Great Dismal Swamp. He loved it and said he would buy that and reissue Reenu-You!

I now have signed contracts and can make the official announcement. Reenu-You will re-emerge later this month and I will be delivering a horror manuscript to him in the summer.

Sometimes, life works out better than one can imagine. There’s so much we can’t control about publishing, but we can control or greatly influence things like building professional relationships, being persistent and believing in one’s work

I am incredibly thankful and honored to officially join the author family of Falstaff Books. Before joining, I knew some of the authors by their fantastic works including Samantha Bryant, Nicole Smith, Michael Williams, Alledria Hurt and Jason Gilbert. Now, I know how kind, supportive and generous they are as a community of writers who uplift and support each other.

If you like speculative fiction, please check out Falstaff’s catalog.

I, of course, will keep you updated as this new publishing journey unfolds.

October has been designated Black Speculative Fiction month when we especially pay attention to Black creators of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi! Luckily, there is still time to share some of my favorite writers with you and provide links to some great lists being circulated. If you don’t get to check out these writers now, the holiday season will be upon us shortly, so consider putting them on your list for yourself or as a gifts for others.

 

 Nisi Shawl

When I was in graduate school and thought that I was the only Black person that loved and wanted to write science fiction, I luckily met Nisi Shawl who worked in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. She was the first person of color that I had serious conversations with about Black speculative fiction and ideas that would eventually would become known as ‘Afrofuturism’ many years later. This was probably more than 25 years ago. She was a mentor and friend and I have followed her career with great joy. If you don’t know her, you should. Her recent steampunk book Everfair received critical reviews. It re-imagines the Belgium Congo and asks what would have happened if African peoples had developed steam technology first. She is active in sci-fi circles and is a cultural critic. She also co-facilitates a workshop for writers called ‘Writing the Other’ which has become a standard for writers both in sci-fi and out for helping writers develop deeply diverse, human and grounded characters. Even though she moved away before I had come into my own as a writer, I owe Nisi Shawl a great debt for her vision and encouragement. Check her work out!

http://www.nisishawl.com/Everfair%20reviews.html

Nicole Givens Kurtz

Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wonderful collection of stories of the ‘weird west’ by Nicole Givens Kurtz. As I said in my review: “…it is dazzling, groundbreaking and compelling. We are privy to complex and memorable characters, mostly Black women and women of color and viscerally experience how they have to make a way out of no way and keep their dignity whole doing so. In several stories, Kurtz explores the challenges these women faced in a post-Reconstruction world that was sometimes indifferent, often hostile, and sometimes brimming with new possibilities. You’ll cheer and cry for them at every turn.”

Kurtz has turned me on to a whole new subgenre of speculative fiction! You can see the Author  Q&A I did with her in the summer here.

https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Weste…/…/0999852248

Tananarive Due

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Tananarive Due (tah-nah-nah-REEVE-doo). She’s an author who has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image award and a British Fantasy Award. She primarily writes horror and you can see her in a new fantastic documentary that she produced: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (available on Shudder and it is excellent). One of her most popular series is the African Immortals which begins with My Soul to Keep.

https://www.tananarivedue.com

Here’s a fantastic list put together by the Oakland Public Library! Enjoy!

My 90 day fast draft novel challenge is done! I finished up last week. I ended up with a little under 55,000 words. Not bad for a first draft. I had a few setbacks though, including losing 6,000 words (!) due to a computer glitch in a recent Microsoft Word update for the Mac. Losing that much material really sucked, but overall, I feel inspired about the progress I’ve made on my nascent horror novel.

Why This Challenge Worked for Me:

-I love a good writing challenge! Doing a fast draft appeals to me for the same reason that doing NaNoWriMo appeals to me. Both challenges provide structure and encourages and rewards daily effort. I love stretching past what I think I can do. With NaNoWriMo, you also get community through numerous online support via their website. Since I was posting my word counts on my author Facebook page, many folks cheered me on there.

-I also love the first drafting process. The first draft, as Jane Smiley has said, “only needs to exist.” In first drafts, I can put all my crazy ideas, flights of fancy, strange characters, and meandering subplots in. Although I was thinking some about the reader experience while writing, I was mostly writing to discover what I thought about the setting, the characters, my themes, etc.

-It gives me something to revise later. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass he said that when revising, you should look at a first draft and figure out the themes and ideas you were interested in exploring and then in the next draft to consciously write toward them.

-Writing 800-1,000 words five days a week was demanding, but also doable. I took Mondays and Tuesdays off which gave me some time to mull over what I was writing. NaNoWriMo’s daily word count of 1,667 words is not for the faint-hearted. This lower word count was just enough of a challenge to keep me focused, but it wasn’t so demanding that I had to keep the breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

-This challenge requires writing all the way to the end of the story. It forces you to construct some type of ending, no matter how provisional.

The only thing that I didn’t like about this challenge was that the research, writing and reading in the field was so all-consuming I couldn’t work on much of anything else during the 90 days. My submission rate plummeted. So, if I do this again, I will be more intentional about using one of my off days to stay on top of my submissions.

What’s next?

This big messy draft exists somewhere between an extended outline and fully fleshed out scenes and chapters. I’ll sit down in the middle of October, read it, make a new outline and write the next draft.

Want to know more about 90 day fast drafting? Check out Racheal Herron’s inspiring video.

I finally got to visit the Great Dismal Swamp. My new WIP is set in the GDS and I feel lucky that I could take a few days and drive up to the Dismal Swamp State Park in South Mills, N.C. and look around.

The GDS (that stretches across southeastern VA and northeastern NC) has a long and fascinating history as it was a place that provided protection to outlaws, moonshiners, runaway slaves and anyone that didn’t want to be found. The GDS Canal in the late 1790s played a key role in the harvesting of timber. It once spanned close to a million acres and now is about 112,000 acres that are under Federal Protection.

This trip allowed me to get the feel of the swamp and also dig deeper into its history. Although my WIP is set in the present, it has connections to the past. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in the swamp for days, months and years, either as a laborer or in a maroon society.

These are pawpaws, a type of fruit I found while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. Pawpaw trees were everywhere and there was fruit on the ground for the taking.I had tasted them many years ago in a dessert and thought I didn’t like them. Boy was I wrong! They look funny, but eating them fresh while ripe was a major treat. They are custardy and a cross between a mango and a banana. This is a fruit that many people living in the swamp would have eaten. The leaves also have medicinal qualities.

I found a flush of mushrooms called ‘chicken of the woods’ while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. These are choice mushrooms and have a delicious meaty and slightly nutty taste. They are easy to identify and my partner and I have only found them once before in TN, though they tend to be common. I wonder if people who lived in the swamp knew about eating mushrooms. Will have to dig a bit more to find that out.

 

Kayaking down the Dismal Swamp Canal. All that green you see on the surface is duckweed.

 

There was much to explore and I will be reporting back on other things I learned while in the GDS!

It’s the end of the first week of July. We’re in the third quarter of the year.

As I look back over the first two quarters, I can count some successes:

Two pieces of mine are out circulating in the world!

My novelette “Doll Seed” appears in the recent issue of FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. It is about dolls, magic and civil rights! You can read excerpts and even hear a playlist for the issue, as well as buy the issue here.

My essay, “The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank” is reprinted in this gorgeous new book whose cover I love:

Available for purchase at all online booksellers.

My goal for the next 90 days include producing a fast draft of my horror novel. I’m aiming for around 60,000 words. I was inspired to do this by Rachael Herron’s YouTube video about why it is a good thing to fast draft a book. Rachael Herron is an author and podcaster. She said doing a fast draft ensures you are the same writer from roughly start to finish. As a writing instructor she said she witnessed many students struggle with projects that were undertaken over many many years. She said these kinds of projects can be beasts to revise because the writing was completed in very different stages of ability. That makes so much sense to me as someone who has had to mine a 400,000 word unfinished novel over the years!

She gives great suggestions on how to fast draft a novel (but could work for memoir, too), including how to outline and how to stay motivated with the writing. Herron backs up her ideas by describing the success stories of her students that she’s taken through this process. In some ways producing a fast draft over 90 days is like doing an extended NaNoWriMo, but without the exhaustion and frantic energy.

Beginning July 1, I committed to writing between 800-1,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

To give me a little more incentive and accountability, I decided to post my word counts on my Author Facebook page. Knowing I am sharing it with everyone there keeps me honest–public accountability = heightened private results.

It’s funny how quickly one can establish a new normal when you commit. I made my goal this week and have almost 5,000 words. Fast drafting is by far the hardest part of my day and so I try to get to it before the afternoon. This pace hopefully will be my new normal for the next 90 days to produce a draft.

I’m also doing Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that takes place in July. If there’s a project you’d like to set a goal to move toward completing in July, this might be a fantastic way to get support.

Thinking about and writing a fast draft of the novel is going to take up most of this quarter. I’ll still actively submit work, but I won’t be producing a lot of new work. I’m also judging a literary award for the North Carolina Humanities Council and a writing fellowship for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so I’ll be busy with those service commitments. It’ll be busy but really fun!

What are your third quarter goals?


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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