Priorities change and that’s okay. Writing shouldn’t consume your life.

When the act of writing stops being fulfilling, it’s okay to stop doing it for a while.

Hard work, discipline, and the grueling ups and downs of submission and rejection are part of the game. Writing is difficult, and that’s fine, but writing should also be a fun addition to the rest of your life. Your bills are paid, your house is in order, and the hours you put in drafting and editing fulfill you in the way any hobby should. Writing shouldn’t be your whole life.

In my last post, I spoke about wasting years of my life worried about my legacy. A different side of that dice is the fact that, cliche of all cliches, a writing career is a marathon run, not a sprint.

Facebook and Twitter have created an atmosphere that inundates fiction writers with constant stimulation. Much of it is positive on the surface: how-tos, ease of access to writers we admire, submission calls, marketing tips, what have you. I have benefited from these things in many ways. However, I also experience an enormous sense of not being successful enough, not being successful fast enough, or not writing or selling myself in the correct ways (per the latest Internet author marketing standards).

You may have felt this scrolling through your newsfeed. Updates of others celebrating publications in magazines; authors promoting their latest book, which seems like it took a few weeks to write; a dozen blog posts you must read about craft; advertisements hocking courses that promise to make you as good as *insert biggies in your genre*. Of course, you’re happy for them even if envious. But you also might wonder if your kayak can hack it on the white water rapid they’re on, seasoned experts navigating their way with ease.

What I’ve learned from meeting many of these “seasoned expert” writers, in whatever genre/circles, is that they’ve been at it for decades. Inundated by these constant digital reminders of our shortcomings, we lack the perspective to see their excruciating years of failures, their learning curves, and moments when they were inconsolable because no matter how hard they worked they felt like impostors, or worse, invisible.

The point of this post is not to stick it out. That horse has been mutilated plenty. I want to talk about pacing yourself, about putting your life first.

I had my first child recently. A lovely little cherub we call Isabel. She breathed new light into my life, but also, much to my surprise, re-oriented my priorities. I realized that for a longer time than I’m proud of, I’ve treated writing fiction like a second full-time job and then some. I’ve been damn close to paying no mind to anything but writing fiction when I wasn’t at the prison working my “day job.” I don’t regret the exponential growth, the time I’ve put into my learning curve, or the joy experienced when several editors said yes. But I do regret the enormous pressure I’ve put on myself to compete with those seasoned kayakers.

I worked so hard, and driving myself mad with anxiety and depression trying to wade into waters I just wasn’t–or may never be–ready for. In doing so, I neglected my adult responsibilities. I interacted with my wife in a constant state of bitterness and inadequacy. When I could have been taking better care of my mental and physical health, I became more depressed, drank, and gained fifty pounds in a couple years. When I could’ve have been saving and managing money better, in order to pay off the overwhelming amount of student loan debt I’m in, I coasted in survival mode; buying take-out even though I’m a good cook, letting interest payments pile up…

When I held Isabel, watched her looking up at me with brand new eyes, I realized all that “normal” for me was anything but. My work ethic is admirable, yeah. But letting my life remain in shambles around me is far from. The starving, mad artist shtick, viewed nakedly for what it was in that moment, with a dependent human life in my hands, seemed ridiculous. I had new perspective on my life, and suddenly being good enough at writing fiction to publish it seemed like the last thing a person should place in the center of their world. I had to become happy; I had to get back in fighting shape; I had to pay off debts, and manage my financial life smarter. For me, for Isabel, for my wife.

Some reading this might think this is the song a man sings when his dreams die. Maybe that will turn out true. I don’t know. All I do know is that writing fiction stopped fulfilling me, so I stopped for a while. Moving forward, it will be less of an obsession for me, given much less immediacy. I will view it as a lifelong process and, like I said in my last post, open myself to other writing avenues and means of self-expression.

Priorities change, and that’s okay. Take care of yourselves. Trust me, if your priorities want to change and you don’t let them, you’re setting yourself up for depression and self-hatred.

 

 

I wasted 1/3 of my life worried about this part of my writing identity.

Have you ever had a fantastic idea for a children’s book, for a personal essay about dating in your 20s, for a political op-ed, but stopped yourself because you write (fill in the blank)?

I’ve realized that I sabotage myself this way all the time. I identify as a fiction writer first. Horror writer second. Before that, a “literary” writer. Which means I didn’t let myself dabble in any genre fiction or nonfiction. For eight years, ideas for crime fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, and personal or political nonfiction would pop into my head, begging to be written. I would admonish myself, “NO, Tom, you’re a literary fiction writer. Stay in that lane.”

There’s one specific type of perfectionism I’ve been haunted by. It’s absurd and embarrassing. Heck, I almost hesitate to admit it, but it’s my truth, and maybe it will help someone.

I worry about legacy.

I know. Yikes. Here I am, most assuredly a Nobody, worrying about whether my ideas are on brand or not, instead of finishing manuscripts and publishing them. Worrying about how the public will view me when the dust of my golden years settles.

I always sought to write in ways that satisfied a particular self-image I wanted to conjure. At first, at my most naive, I wanted to be Hemingway; then, as I matured, it turned into wanting to be Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, etc al. So I would have these phases where I would, again, put blinders on to all of the things I want to say about the world, and write exclusively in my “genre-of-the-week.” Of course, when you do this, last week’s writing may get thrown out the following week. After that cycle repeats itself enough, you have years without publications, nor even submissions.

Does this sound familiar? I think it might. A lot of us love literature and love writing fiction, but a lot of us also, if we’re honest, aspire at one point to achieve household literary fame. It’s strange to state that so baldly, but now that I have, I understand that it has kept me from expressing myself genuinely for three-quarters of my life. Gulp.

I encourage you to write whatever the heck your heart desires. But to be more practical, let me remind you that every writer of status, did not stifle their creativity. They wrote journalism and they wrote weird essays and average poetry and short stories you have never seen because they haven’t been put in collections. Nowadays, the big writers of tomorrow probably do freelance copy writing and content writing and also write strange flash or micro fiction we’ll never know about, even when they’re NYT bestselling authors.

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite example. He worked as a mechanic back in the day, and wrote these complex, regional, literary novels that on the surface would only be appreciated where the stories were set, in Appalachia. Suttree had a first print run of three thousand copies, and his number of fans hovered around that figure for years, as he plodded on writing Appalachians and some Westerns. Blood Meridian, held by many as one of the greatest novels ever was his sixth book. And then, All The Pretty Horses came along and became a bestseller. It took seven books. And then, boom, his back catalog went back into print and his new releases sold like hot cakes.

Imagine if McCarthy had cast aside his five ideas prior to Blood Meridian? Imagine if he was so caught up in his “image” he hadn’t written those (“I’m gonna wait until I can write a Western, I’m a Western writer!”) and therefore did not have the publishing credentials to get his sixth and then bestselling seventh books published. Furthermore, he might be a mechanic in El Paso, Texas right now who writes as a hobby…

The point here is to express yourself for your own well-being. Be congruent with yourself, your worldview, and what interests you. Write what you believe and finish things. The genre or categorization doesn’t matter. Submit your work and then publish it. Make a difference however you can. Lest you look up at thirty, like me, and realize you’ve wasted a solid chunk of life fretting about nonsense.

So long as you can see the way back to the main trail, don’t fear the sun setting through the trees.

I’d love to hear if you relate to this.

I’m in the early stages of brainstorming for children’s books about American History. This is a huge departure for me, but I think it’s a way I can make a difference in the world, perhaps moreso than escapist fiction.

What are you currently writing/struggling whether or not to write?

 

Blood Sugar Cauldron: Lovecraftian Flash Fiction Inspired by an Existential Candy Meme

BLOOD SUGAR CAULDRON

by Tom Scanlan

I remember when War Heads sprang into existence because it’s when my problem started.

As a kid, I used to consume the hard sour candies until my tongue split and bled. The sugar (C6H12O6) became inseparable from my blood.

I changed.

I yearn for Sour Patch Kids and the lesser sour candies still. I eat them until the roof of my mouth turns into dry whale ribs that I can run my tongue over, a xylophone that produces not sound but pain. I gorge myself on them at the expense of my body, which turns the sugar into fat that stuffs my skin like an overfilled sand bag.

I’m in the 24-hour Seven Eleven. I come here while the world sleeps. I’m studying the candy section for my next selection, when I hear the universe chant unintelligible words. I see a vast cauldron nested in a corner of the cosmos. Dark amber glucose tar churns inside, popping, sizzling, letting off a sweet hot candy reek. The presence from whose mouth the chemical song comes ignores the spitting liquid scalding its space-time flesh.

Does the presence notice me notice it? I think it does.

I think it wants me to know.

Its ululations increase in volume. I need to blot out the noise. It sounds like something is being willed into existence…

Is the time now?

The bag of sour Now & Laters my glassy eyes have been looking beyond shakes. One by one, bags of Sour Worms, Sour Skittles, Air Head Xtreme Sours, Sour Jolly Ranchers, Sour Trollis, and the War Heads that started this journey, tremble. The plastic containers crinkle. The loose grains of sugar inside them shake like sand in maracas.

“YO.”

A pale employee with a neck beard looks at me intently.

“What?”

“I’ve been asking if you can hear me. Lay off the weed, dude. For fuck’s sake.”

“I’m not high,” I say. “I–” I can’t tell another person that I’ve been communicating with a deity I call (C6H12O6) about the progenation of its offspring.

I keep my mouth shut.

The cashier shrugs. “Fine. Whatever then. Stare at the candy until you get your heart’s fill.”

“Wait,” I say, before he walks away.

“Yup?”

I cough. My throat’s felt tight, but now I can breathe. “Bags. Please get me bags to carry my selection up. I’m going to need a lot of candy tonight.”

END


gummy bear horror

I started this post as a means of sharing this hilarious meme about gummy bears becoming a singular consciousness because they melted in a car. I thought I’d leave a funny line about how my die hard consumption of War Heads, as a 90s kid drawn to their “extreme sour” allure, contributed to candy somehow acquiring consciousness.

Then this flash piece took on a life of its own, and then a half-decent form, and then after a couple hours with it, I realized it’s kind of a cool story.

You know… “what if…

  • you took a sweet (sour) tooth to its illogical extreme?”
  • gave that creeper in the late-night convenient store setting a cosmic backstory?”
  • considered that environmental forces and nutrition are already changing our bodies in ways no one could’ve foreseen in the 1950s, and gave that horror a dollop of glucose?”

Anyway, I don’t try flash fiction often. Let me know if this makes you think/feel anything!

Where Nightmares Come From, A Must Read for Horror Buffs

Where Nightmares Come FromWhere Nightmares Come From

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a must-read collection of essays for anyone who:
• wants to write horror literature or scripts (or entertainment in various forms)
• wants industry insights that would otherwise take decades of trial/error to learn
• is a connoisseur of horror who wants richer perspective on how creators work

All the essays are well-done. There is plenty to learn from the ones focused on script-writing, even if you’re more interested in horror fiction like me. So do read them. However, based on my tastes and biases as an aspiring horror writer I’ve selected three standout essays from Where Nightmares Come From.

Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta by Michael Paul Gonzalez

A brilliant, original exploration of how the Internet has paradoxically taken humans back to primal methods of storytelling. By osmosis, it’s also a useful guide on crafting creepy shorts for marketing purposes!

Bringing An Idea To Life Through Language by Mercedes M. Yardley

As a person who has read volumes on crafting characters and finding your writer’s voice, this is by far the most beautiful and effervescent essay I’ve read on the topic. Yardley’s personality is a bonus, though, not a gimmick–this short essay about word choice/character/voice deserves to be taught in Fiction 101s and MFAs.

The Process of a Tale by Ramsey Campbell

If you’re a fiction writer, at some point you’ve no doubt read a story and thought, I wish the author could take me step-by-step through how they pulled this sorcery off! Good news, kids! Ramsey Campbell, horror fiction icon, uses his story “The End of a Summer’s Day” to take us from idea germination to draft-by-draft processes and rewritten passages to final product. The lessons are conveyed with remarkable accessibility and humility.

View all my reviews

Millennials Revolt Against The Big Banks: Dark Fantasy Writing Prompt

Someone use this and write a short story, please!

Sinister

Courtesy of Sinister Central

Here’s one helluva what-if scenario writing prompt.

What if…

Millennials literally did die a little inside once their mortgage-sized student loan debts went into repayment? And those morsels of dead souls were then transmogrified into a symbolically fitting murder of crows? All of whom were hell-bent on revenge against the Big Banks?

That’s what I saw when I looked at this picture.

If that gets your juices flowing, see where it takes you! Hell, you could even make Bernie Sanders a wizard responsible for bringing the murder to life!