Scariest House on the Block

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The author, in her Halloween splendor.

I won Halloween last night.

Let’s back up:

I used to hide from trick-or-treaters because of some weird introvert issues, so I’d just let the doorbell ring. Over the years, though, hiding from the doorbell on Halloween has become an even bigger anxiety fest for me. For the last several years I’ve been away at conventions on Halloween, avoiding the whole question about whether I’d give out candy at home. This year, I found myself home alone on Halloween night, so I had a long think about what exactly triggers my anxiety. Once I narrowed it down to the doorbell, I knew what I could do. I could make the doorbell inaccessible. So I covered it with a sign:

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“If you are living, please knock. If undead, please ring bell.”

Then I realized I could avoid the door interaction entirely.

I didn’t dress up scary. I didn’t decorate the house. My last minute purchases were, literally, candy and a tissue box. I’ve had the wig since 2011. The purple and black velvet medieval-ish dress has been in my closet since 2002 or so. I’ve had the LED tealight “candles” since before we moved to this house, so they’re at least four years old. I took the tissues out of the box and wrapped it in black construction paper and then in a layer of lace (a tank top that was destined for the giveaway pile anyway). I stapled the lace to the top of the box. In the box, I put candy and the votive candle, so that some vague flickery orange light would come out of it.

I turned off all the lights in the house. My garage faces the street, and a walkway leads around the side of the house to the front door, which is in a recessed entrance, not visible from the street or the walkway. I turned on the outdoor light, stood on the walkway with the pouch in my hands . . . and waited. Because I was already outside, nobody had to ring the bell. Anxiety trigger: avoided.

But I hadn’t prepared. Nothing about my house said that anyone was home. You had to be looking down between the houses as you passed, or you’d miss me completely. And that, it turned out, was the best part.

That alone startled a few people, minding their business and then suddenly realizing someone was there. And when that someone didn’t move . . .

Groups of kids gathered at the foot of my driveway, debating whether I was real. From the street, with me mostly back-lit, and the glowing thing in my hands, they couldn’t tell. I didn’t move until they could see me clearly. I let them wonder and debate, and felt like an NPC in a Pathfinder game, listening while the players decided their next move. Would they take the risk and approach me, or would they decide I was too dangerous?

I honestly had no idea that I’d end up being so scary. I was going for “creepy statue,” not “scare the crap out of people,” but it just goes to show that sometimes less is more. The less description you give people, the more mystery, the more their imaginations fill in the blanks. And on misty Halloween nights in particular, imaginations go to some very dark places.

I scared an older group away. One of the boys said, “nuh uh, I’ve seen how this movie ends,” and dragged his group to keep moving.

At one point, from a group of about ten kids debating my scaryness from the street, a young high-pitched voice yelled, “Stop calling me a wussy!” It was really hard not to laugh. I was extra nice to the little ones in that group.

Another boy, about 13 years old, I’d guess, said: “Nope. That’s a trap.”

“It’s a person,” his mom said.

“Nope, it’s a trap. It isn’t real.” So I slowly lifted my arms, extending the bag forward. He screamed. Close to tears, voice trembling, he said, “Say something! I’m not coming any closer until you prove if you’re a person and say something!”

I wasn’t out there to traumatize anyone, so I chose to break character. I bent double with laughter and said, “You guys are cracking me up. That was awesome.” Tension broken, the two kids and the mom approached. I gave them extra praise because they’d been extra brave.

Two very little ones were terrified, digging in their heels as their parents tried to push them forward.

An older boy in a gruesome bloody wolf mask, the tallest in a group of about fifteen brave kids, said “Trick or treat!” and added under his breath, “Please not a trick. Please not a trick.”

But as a rule, after I said “Happy Halloween” and gave them candy — that is, after I spoke and moved — most of them relaxed, laughed, and were excited to tell me all about how scared they’d been. And the parents all complimented me as well, saying mine was the best house in the neighborhood. That surprised me, since other houses decorated more or did fancier things. It also made me extremely proud.

And, as always, it ties back to writing. There’s a tendency among novice writers to over-explain the gore and horror, especially in relation to the rest of the narrative, to make sure the reader gets the image loud and clear. This is an insecure way to write, because it means you don’t trust the reader to “get it.” The solution isn’t to spell it out more plainly, it’s  to manipulate the reader’s mind more. Letting the experiencer bring their own fears, anxieties, and perceptions to a situation makes it more powerful for them than drawing a complete picture, because if the picture is too complete there aren’t blanks for them to fill in. It’s not a conscious thing; it’s a result of us all being products of our experiences. But when you know that, you can play with it and twist it to your advantage.

I broke the Halloween script. I took away the preparation. I took away the doorbell. I took away what they expected from a trick-or-treat interaction. Some of them enjoyed it. Some of them took longer to adapt to it. Some of them were paralyzed by it. All of them were invested. All of them felt the endorphin rush of relief once they realized they were safe.

All of them will remember it.

Of The Essence, In the Flesh

 

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The author, with her precioussssss 

So. Last weekend at CanCon, I got to meet my book. As anyone present can attest, I could not stop hugging my book. 🙂

Yes, that’s a hardcover, with a book jacket and everything! It’s also in trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook. I will be selling the print copies, signed, from this site…eventually. I won’t put ordering info up until I have a box of them safely in my hands. This one? This one is mine!

Here’s a sampling of what people are saying so far:

  • “Harbowy[‘s] ability to create realistic portrayals of otherworldly lives is astounding.” -Lambda Literary
  • “Harbowy writes with the precision of an editor, and the sensibility and passion of a writer.” -Leah Petersen, author of the Physics of Falling series
  • “Can’t describe the radness of Gabrielle Harbowy’s Of the Essence in 140 characters. You’re gonna have to hear it to understand.” -Angela Dawe, voice actor; narrator of Of the Essence

Zae’s gaze

“Zae’s gaze” is one of those awkward things that you don’t realize is awkward until you read it out loud. Which I’m doing, on this pass of Gears of Faith, to make sure I catch all the little things that fell through the cracks of my big rewrite/revision.

Reading my soon-to-be-a-book out loud to catch typos is mortifying and humbling. I’m catching the unfortunate, the unexpected, and the just plain awkward. Also I’m recording them. Chapter 5, for what it’s worth, has bonus cat.

Despite Excuses

This is my second full day back from the Despite Excuses Writing Retreat up near Fort Bragg, CA. I can still hear the sea if I close my eyes and listen hard enough.

It’s called Despite Excuses because we all have excuses not to write. We all have lives and responsibilities and day jobs and things. Despite Excuses is about writing even though Real Life happens, rather than waiting for Real Life to agree to leave us alone for a while. If we wait for that, we’ll be waiting a long time.

I don’t do well with roommates or housemates, but somehow I managed to get along with almost everybody in a ten-person house for a week. “No introvert-shaming” was a big rule and that helped a lot. If someone needed time to themselves, to write or nap or spend some time in nature, there was nothing wrong with that.

I tried out my Rejectomancy and Other Myths exercise on the group. This is a modification of my Rejectomancy presentation from a couple of years ago, expanded to include other myths and “truisms” about publishing. We had a nice mixed group of new writers and veterans, so the input was great and people learned a lot from it.

With a lot of teachers and parents in attendance, I also had the opportunity to crowdsource some ideas and inspiration for my YA novel-in-progress. I’m stuck at the point where kids experience the brunt of other kids’ meanness, and I’m out of touch with the techniques teens use to make each other’s lives miserable these days. We didn’t have mobile phones when I was in high school, so harassment has changed a lot since my day. We had to pass notes…uphill, both ways, in the snow, while fending off bears.

(Minor aside: I did see a mobile phone when I was in high school. It was a giant lunchbox with a brick of a handset attached to it. But it would be about fifteen years from that point until I had my own mobile phone. That phone was a brick of a handset, too, but it was a sleek brick, at least.)

I fell about 750 words short of my writing goal for the retreat, but toward the end I made the executive decision that spending time with people was more important than spending time writing; experiences are writing fodder, and I needed the inspiration more than the wordcount. I can make wordcount at home; I can’t stretch out on my back in a hot tub at home and gaze up at the Milky Way, oohing at the streaks of meteors across the sky.

In short, if you have a chance to drop everything, go to the coast, and write…take it. Despite excuses.

 

Revision Purgatory

Revision Purgatory is a much better place than Revision Hell. I’m fortunate to be working with an editor who has a great developmental eye and a lot of patience for “what if we…” emails, so I’m definitely not in hell. If I were in Revision Heaven, I could just wave my hand and say “Let it be done,” and lo, it would be all done. So I’m definitely not there, either. But Purgatory is a good place to be. It’s neutral, it’s not distracting, there are no loud parties. Just a few loud cats, but that’s my own fault.

The down side of working from home is that every afternoon my office mates start yelling at me about how hungry they are, several hours before the cafeteria opens for dinner. They also walk across my keyboard and try to rename my characters with their feet.

Anyway. I’m about two-thirds through the big, substantial edits on my Pathfinder novel. I still have to go back and brush up a few things, but I’m trying to focus on the big picture first. I’m pleased with the shape it’s taking. Zae, Keren, and Appleslayer are a lot of fun to write, and I’ve had enough of a break from this story that I can see it with fresh eyes now. I’ve written a whole separate novel since I turned this one in, and having that extra experience at this is also helping me now.

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This sign (on Route 580 in Oakland), is my measure of how deeply into this novel I am, in my own head. If I read this out of the corner of my eye as “Zae and Coliseum” as I’m driving past, I know I’m thinking about the story.

There’s not much to say from Revision Purgatory. It’s hard to update when my updates would essentially be things like “this scene you know nothing about? it now happens after this other scene you know nothing about, and I have to find another reason for them to be doing the thing I can’t tell you so that this other thing I don’t want to spoil can happen.”

I took yesterday off to visit the SF Maker Faire, which was a lot of fun and a needed break, and was also inspiring on a tinkering / creating / inventing-weird-stuff level, which of course is a perfect thing to get me into Zae’s world.

Zae’s world, as it happens, is an interesting place to visit. Check out some of the other Pathfinder Tales novels while I polish this one up. I’m looking forward to sharing more of her story with you!

Onder Radio

Have you checked out Onder Radio, the first podcast from Onder Librum (aka the Ed Greenwood Group)? In the first episode, Ed Greenwood gives a lovely shout-out to my debut novel, Of the Essence, which will be out at the end of April. (This month! Eee.)

Ed says:

Mysterious and dark, it brings more than a few daemons to VERY vivid life…and explores a lot of England, too. It’s by Gabrielle Harbowy, a very talented writer and author whom I’ve had the honor of working with on FOUR anthologies now.
[…] I think it really captures what it feels like for the daemons who live among us and are happy to live among us — or at least, are happy to live on earth. And how cruel daemons can be with each other, and what happens when daemons start putting pressure on each other.
It’s a deliciously dark book.
Thank you, Ed!    🙂

Next Up…

My next novel-in-progress (working title: Hearts Are Jerks) is a big departure for me. It’s Contemporary Young Adult, which means the main characters are in high school and there are no science-fictional or fantastical elements. It’s kind of a non-traditional romance, in that it has LGBT main characters, gender fluidity, and positive, realistic portrayals of polyamory.

It’s the first novel I’m writing that isn’t a tie-in to someone else’s world, and that isn’t already under contract. I’m trying to resist the urge to worry about what I’m going to do with it until it’s finished, but of course…worry is the one thing writers don’t procrastinate on, right?

Because this novel brings up a lot of questions for me.

Do I publish it under the same name I use for my genre work? Do I use a variant, like adding my middle initial or something? Do I use a new name entirely?

Do I try to use this novel to get an agent? Is this the sort of novel a mainstream publisher would even want? If I get an agent for this book, would they want to represent my future works in other genres too? Would I want to seek out someone who would want that, or would I rather have an agent who wouldn’t want that? Who do I hire to edit this for me before I start submitting it around? Who do I ask to critique it for me before I’m ready for an editor?

What’s ironic about this: when I’m wearing my editor hat, these are questions I help other people answer ALL THE TIME. Seriously, all the time. Which is to say, I do know the answers because I know how I advise other people, and how I would advise them if they were me.

I’d use a variant name, I’d seek an agent who represents writers who write books like this, I’d refer this colleague to edit and these two to critique/beta-read and ask these three if they’d be available to give me a blurb. I’d send it here, here, and here for review, and submit it to these three awards.

What’s amusing about this: I know all this stuff. But then I feel like I don’t, all of a sudden. The tables turn when it’s my manuscript in the spotlight. I have become every writer I’ve ever worked with.

What’s fascinating about this: everything I go through as a writer makes me more sensitive as an editor.

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I Finished My Novel!

I debated over titles for this post, but I think this is the biggest thing I have to say. I finished my novel!

If you’re counting, that means I’ve turned in TWO original written-by-me novels this year. I’m still a little stunned, honestly. This isn’t something I would have thought I could do, but I did it and I even held on to my sanity and health. (Mostly.) It meant canceling on all but one convention for 2015 and missing Thanksgiving with my family, but I did it. Hopefully this will make a lot of travel opportunities happen over the next two years. Including visits to my family.

The Hellmaw setting is still under a pretty tight Non Disclosure Agreement, so there isn’t much I can tell you about the book or the setting. However, I’ll tell you what I can:

  • My book title is OF THE ESSENCE.
  • It is a standalone novel. That is, there are no sequels planned at this time. It’s open-ended enough to entertain a sequel in the future, if it does well and readers clamor for more, but I had so many plates in the air already that I only wanted to commit to one book at a time.
  • It has chapters, but not chapter titles. Just chapter numbers.
  • It has characters.
  • It passes the Bechdel test.
  • It does not contain sexual violence.
  • If it were a movie, it would probably be rated R.
  • It will be available in May, 2016.
  • The moment it’s up on Goodreads and Amazon, I will let you know.
  • I’m really, really proud of it, and I hope everyone else enjoys it too. 🙂

 

 

Process: Writing the Actiony Stuff

I complained to Matt, my husband, that I’m not confident about writing the big action sequences. I can do them, I’m not saying I can’t, but they’re not my comfort zone.

He said, “You’re going to have to get used to them. You’ll probably be writing a lot of them. If only there was a macro you could use as a template and just fill it in.”

I said, “Like Pokemon? ‘$name attacks $name2 using $skill. It’s $adjective effective!’ except not like that?”

He said, “No. Exactly like that. Block it out like that, and then embellish around it until it’s a scene.”

Blocking is a theater term for staging out where characters go and when.

I did it. Just the bare bones at first. I made the decisions, keeping it simple.

A shoots B.
C taunts B.
B attacks C.
D, unnoticed, moves to get a clear shot at C.

Then I turned those bones into a fleshed-out sequence, which was much less intimidating once I knew the mechanics and could see it in my head.

It works. I was self-conscious about complaining, but it spawned conversation and a good, do-able solution.

Also, my husband is smart. 🙂

6 Tips For Successful Readings

Performing a reading from your novel is a great way to get an audience interested in buying your book. How do you choose an excerpt to read and what should you watch out for?

1..A reading from your book should be entertaining, but it should also be a promotional tool. You’re giving your audience a sample because you want to intrigue them and make them want to buy the book. Choose an engaging excerpt with some action, some humor, and some drama. Show them that you can do all three.

2..Choose a section that more or less stands alone. Something that requires minimal set-up and minimal knowledge of the story is best. By minimal, I mean something like, “This is our protagonist, this is his passenger. We’re joining them just as they’re about to land on the asteroid.” More than that will make your listeners feel overburdened with facts and relationships to keep straight before the reading even starts. Listeners will be able to figure out a certain amount of backstory just from context, and those context clues help to intrigue them. Instead of picking a section that requires that you explain why they’re on the asteroid, pick a section that your audience can follow along with even if they don’t know all the background, and one that makes them curious about the background. The best reading is one that intrigues them to pick up the book and learn for themselves.

3..Choose a section that involves your main character. It might be easier to find a sampling to fulfill the “stands alone” requirement by focusing on a side plot or a minor character, but remember that your goal is to draw your audience in and make them want to read the book. Focusing your reading on a minor character, if it succeeds at that goal, will get them interested in someone with relatively little “screen-time,” and doesn’t necessarily present an accurate picture of what the book is like or what it focuses on.

4..End your reading on a cliffhanger. Draw your audience into your world, get them invested and make them care what happens next… and then don’t give it to them! If you build sufficient tension and drama in your reading, you’ll hook them into buying the book on the spot: they’ll be caught up in the urgency of the scene, and they’ll need to know! If you end on a resolution, they’ll walk away thinking it was a nice little story and that you’re a talented author, but they won’t feel as driven to give you that sale.

5..Choose content that translates well to the spoken word. A passage that relies on a diagram, a mathematical equation, a written measure of music, or something deliberately unpronounceable will only get in your way. If you really must choose a selection that relies on your audience’s ability to see the page, prepare a display in advance and make arrangements with your venue so that it can be of a size and form that the whole audience will be able to see clearly.

6..Time your reading. Practice it. I can’t stress the importance of this. Be comfortable with your words and be used to saying them out loud. A reading is a performance, and your ability as a performer affects your audience’s interest, too. Don’t just start at page one and go until your timekeeper cuts you off. Make sure that your reading fits your time slot so that you can end on that perfect note.

(originally posted August 2009)