Sometimes, one is matched up, by the organizers of a book festival, for a panel with other authors unknown to yourself. Usually, those panelists turn out to be rather terrific. That was the case when I was included on a panel at BooksNJ earlier this summer (Women's Perspective on Writing Memoir) and I met Melissa Palmer a few minutes before our panel got underway. A bonus was that she's also a New Jersey author, funny and smart, with books in several genres, including Baking for Dave (young adult novel, published 2016); A Life Less Normal (memoir, 2015); and Twin Oaks (literary fiction, 2014).
Please welcome Melissa Palmer
Last year I started a book I was so excited to write, my first horror novel. I love horror. It’s what I was raised on as a little baby writer. I love horror so much it took me almost thirty years to write my own.
Because I wanted it to be good.
In fifth grade, I wrote a magnum opus about a bug monster; in sixth, I wrote a ghost story about a man in a mirror (not at all like Michael Jackson’s). Then, I never wrote horror again.
I’ve continued to be a connoisseur of horror, but I knew that writing good horror is tough. So I waited.
Then last year when a scary book idea came to me, I all but jumped through my keyboard to get it all down. I felt ready. For the first time I wrote with a daily word count goal. (I’ve never done that before.) Every day I set out to write a minimum of 1,000 words, then upped the ante by setting a personal hard deadline for the project’s completion. My normal “schedule” bounced between one paragraph days and ten page days.
Normally, I am a stickler about every word, whittling down passages by paragraph as I write. But I was so eager to get Husk out into the world, I approached it like a machine, tapping away mechanically each day to get that first draft done.
Can you see where this is going?
Somewhere around my “deadline” I realized something terrible. My book was crap. Like any hopes of horror writing I had in sixth grade, I put Husk aside.
I focused on my happy stories. My novel, Baking for Dave, was released and I got to go to BookExpo America and show it off. Smiles and warm fuzzy feelings abounded.
Then something strange happened. It was a dark and stormy night in Transylvania. Actually, it was a gorgeous day in New York City. Walking through the Javits Center during BEA, I noticed an odd thing, and I gasped. NO HORROR! There were thrillers sure, lots of twisty, missing person capers, but there was a distinct absence of good old fashioned scares.
I had to step in.
After a year away, I picked Husk up again. Reading old work can be jarring, like looking at old high school pictures. How much you’ve grown and changed is evident in one glance. All your flaws stick out like giant overbites.
I’ve spent the summer of 2017 picking through that old manuscript: fussing, reworking, and CUTTING. So. Much. Cutting. In so doing I’ve discovered one thing.
A good story is told in the things you don’t write.
Maybe it’s the summer talking, but I took a hint from the film version of Jaws. What makes that shark so chilling is all the time we don’t see it. I cut a lot of exposition, explaining, and so many passages that made me ask myself out loud, “WHY IS THIS EVEN HERE?”
Reading old work makes you question yourself. It will make you wonder when it was you forgot how to write. But overall, you learn some valuable lessons.
> Choose the approach that works for you.
One look at my Husk manuscript and it was evident. Word counts don’t work. FOR ME. When I was obsessed with hitting word goals, the quality of the words I chose took a hit. Style wise, I’d rather get 100 quality words then 1,000 full of crappy metaphors, repeat phrases, and way too much telling. The word count, FOR ME, made for rushed, shoddy writing. Some people swear by them. Not this gal. As a writer you need to find what works FOR YOU.
> Write the story as if you love words, but edit as if you hate them.
Of course a horror great swears by the age-old writing advice “Kill Your Darlings.” What Stephen King suggests works for all writing. Too many words kill pacing. Too much showing kills suspense. Too many words kill the story. So even though you love your words, sometimes you have to 86 them.
> Go dumpster diving.
For a year I considered my horror story garbage, but when I picked it up and sifted through the mess I made, there was treasure hidden inside. You may have a story you think is “horrible.” The odds are it isn’t. Sometimes we get so frustrated with what we are doing, or we put so much pressure on ourselves as writers, we don’t see the proverbial diamond in the rough.
> Take time off.
This links with the above sentiment. Time away from a project gave me the mental space I needed. (Think of it like being lost in the middle of woods, then returning later with a Google Maps view of where you are.) When we pull far enough away, the path becomes clear.
I am so glad that I took up this book project again. Last year it had begun to feel like an onerous task to write. The product, something I hated. Now I’ve found a book I truly love. And…It’s scary!
Note from Lisa: Melissa would like to gift one blog reader with a signed copy of one of her books. Simply leave a comment here on the blog by Saturday, August 26, and specify which book you'd like. (Must have a U.S. postal shipping address.) Melissa will also answer any writing-related questions left in comments during that time.