A Small Update

Wow, it has been a while, hasn’t it? I’d just like to take this opportunity to publicly show my gratitude to Veera, who has been an absolute treasure these past couple months. She is the most steady and reliable and punctual person I know, and I appreciate her so much for keeping Paperwights up and regularly posting. 🙂 Thank you thank you thank you.

So where have I been?

In November, I went AWOL to participate in National Novel  Writing Month for the twelfth consecutive year. I wrote roughly 90,000 words in 30 days, finished a manuscript, got a solid chunk of a second manuscript done, and started a third. I like bouncing around between lots of projects at one time. And then, as if that wasn’t an exhausting amount of work…

In December, I buckled down with a completely different manuscript than any of the ones I worked on in November — WINDFALL, my steampunk adventure novel! I spent the month beating it to death with blunt objects and polishing it to a high gloss (and learning to write a synopsis, but that’s a whole different rant) in preparation forrrrrr…

January! When I brushed its hair and helped it put its tiny backpack on and sent it off to Gollancz for their open submissions period! This is the first time I have submitted a novel to a traditional publisher, and it was just as exciting and nerve-wracking as you might imagine.

So, now that those enormous tasks are done, I’m going to try to start regularly scheduled reviews again next Thursday. 😀 Stay tuned.

(Veera, I love you. Thank you so much for your support and patience these last couple months. You are a jewel.)

Clive Barker: The Scarlet Gospels

If there’s a character who gets routinely excluded from the pantheon of great literary monsters, it’s the Hell Priest. (Pinhead. I’m talking about Pinhead, who got the nickname from the makeup team behind Hellraiser, the film adapted from Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart.) In a 1980s splatterpunk milieu crammed with masked murder machines, here you had an elegant, interesting, multi-faceted monster whose violence was almost epicurean in its sensibilities. Barker himself has always had a strange relationship with The Hell Priest, especially because of the endless wasteland of Hellraiser sequels produced by hack filmmakers banking on Barker’s credibility as a horror visionary. Barker is bitter about the sequels, and he should be. About the shambolic Hellraiser: Revelations, Barker said “If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butthole.”

Enter The Scarlet Gospels, a novel Barker’s been talking about writing for the better part of the last decade. He wanted to reclaim Pinhead from the clowns who’ve been milking the Hellraiser franchise for way, way too long. (Pinhead in space! Pinhead on the internet!) And so he finally made good on reclaiming Pinhead and, uh, killing him off. He tells you this on the dust jacket, for chrissakes.

The story revolves around Pinead’s ambition to collect every obscure magic text in the world and absorb limitless power so that he can take over Hell and, like any monster worth their weight in entrails, Earth. His story intersects with Harry D’Amour, professional shit-magnet and paranormal investigator, as well as one of Clive’s most famous characters. Pinhead wants Harry to be his Witness — to record everything that happens in Pinhead’s bloody bid for power so that everyone will have a true account of the event. Harry isn’t keen on the idea, so as leverage, Pinhead kidnaps Norma (Harry’s best friend in the world) and drags her to hell so that Harry and a ragtag group of weirdos have to go in and rescue her.

The first half of The Scarlet Gospels is just absolutely brutal. It opens with Pinhead dispatching a group of elderly sorcerers in true, bowel-churning Hellraiser fashion — you can feel Clive whispering “I know what you want, you goddamn deviants, so here you go” — and then it gets grislier. Even for Barker, who’s no stranger to Crazy Nonstop Murder Time, the first leg of the novel is a giant chunk of death and torture and deviance and madness. It’s just…the best. Absolutely the best.

The second half is self-indulgent wank. Too many questions are left unanswered, too many subplots meander into the abyss, and there’s a Return of The King-level “how many endings can we cram into this thing” coda. But here’s the thing: Even Barker’s self-indulgent wank is compelling and beautiful and impossible to ignore. Barker at his worst is still better than most horror writers at their best, and to produce a book as odd and horrifying as The Scarlet Gospels this late in his career is no mean feat.

The primary strength of The Scarlet Gospels is that it’s a book about feelings. Harry and his little group of friends genuinely love and respect each other, and even as they’re wandering through a Labyrinthine hellscape toward certain mutilation and death, they’re still trying to cheer each other up and make each other laugh. It’s a crucial thing that more horror writers need to absorb: In order to get your audience on board for terror and yelling and horrible things happening to various body parts,  there has to be a soft nougat center of tenderness and warmth, because if it’s just grim and unrelenting and sad, none of the brutality means anything. There needs to be tension and release. The Scarlet Gospels gets this, and even if the character banter sometimes seems like it undersells the looming terror, it’s so necessary for this kind of narrative.

The primary failing of The Scarlet Gospels is that Barker juggles way too many chainsaws without being able to catch all of them, and so you get a dozen subplots that never work out to anything worthwhile. It veers too far from Pinhead himself (who I would have adored learning more about as a character) and a little too much on everything surrounding his story. Too many garnishes, not enough meat. His death isn’t satisfying or cathartic because you can almost sense Barker dragging things out for the sake of Harry’s arc, and there are so many false starts to Pinhead’s death that you almost don’t believe it when it finally happens. Maybe my expectations were flawed, but in a novel about the death of Barker’s most iconic creation, I wanted more Pinhead.

However, I fell in love with the book when a doomed man about to be tortured to death makes a callback to Barker’s own annoyance with the nickname given to the Hell Priest: “It doesn’t matter how many abhorrent tortures you devise. You’ll always be the Pinhead.”

Jonathan Gottschall: THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL

Another once-in-a-blue-moon review! This week I’m reviewing a nonfiction book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN.

I picked this up on a rec from a friend, seeing how I am in the thick of a manuscript that is all about stories and our relationships to them, how they affect us as individuals, and as communities, and as macro-scale societies. Which sounds really boring when I put it like that, eh? Think of THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It’s like that.

Gottschall’s book is mesmerizing — it’s a paean for story and language, and it explores the biological impetus that makes humans tell stories. From a scientific stance, I felt like Gottschall was citing studies that were rather older than ideal, and perhaps using too many anecdotes. HOWEVER, if you approach this book as if it is philosophy — one man’s personal argument on the importance of story in human life, and indeed the inability for story to be extricated from human life —  rather than as if it is science, these problems vanish. It’s a lovely book, and while it didn’t really introduce any new concepts to me (having been aware of story and its impact both as a reader (for my whole life) and as a writer (for roughly fifteen years)), it put into words some nebulous ideas that I have always understood but never had concrete ways to think about.

It’s a lovely book, and I recommend it particularly for writers.

Outlining: Another Method

Since NaNoWriMo is starting up in a couple weeks, I thought I’d post something a little different today (and I might continue posting a-little-different things through November, since I’ll be pretty busy — I’m aiming for 100k next month!).

For yeaaaars and yeeeeeaaars, if you had asked me to write an outline, I would have looked at you with unveiled horror and slight nausea, with tears springing to my eyes. I would have offered to clean your entire kitchen as a more preferable alternative. That’s because my concept of an outline was the kind that you learn in third grade:

  • I. Introductory paragraph.
    • A. First Point
    • B. Second Point.
      • a. Supporting evidence

…and so on. Great for academic essays, utter shit for novels. I had tried to force a novel into this format a few times before. It was like trying to force one’s feet into really painful shoes. Hated every second of it, felt in nigh-physical pain, cried a lot, decided that outlines were The Worst Thing That Ever Were Invented. But my mama didn’t raise me to give up after the first try, so I did some research and experimented with other outline methods, NONE of which jived with my brain, none of which made the job easier – and that’s what they’re allegedly supposed to do. If a method didn’t make me cry, then it killed all the enthusiasm and interest I had in the idea and left me high and dry with a soggy, cold idea-corpse. Not sexy.

So for years I accepted that I simply did not have a brain that played nice with outlines. Seat-of-the-pants discovery-writing was what worked for me (within a limited definition of the word “worked”). Then one day I found myself with a half-written novel on my hands and no idea of what was going to happen next. I *needed* an outline – when you’re lost in the wilderness, what you want is a map and a compass (or, y’know, a smartphone with GoogleMaps on it). So I came up with a very cunning plan – a plan to trick my outline-hating brain.

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