Tag Archives: Mary Pletsch

Beyond the Nightlight

There’s nothing to be afraid of.  Childhood fears fade as the years pass.  They are never as real as they were when you were a child.

Unless they are.

“Beyond the Nightlight” is an anthology for adult readers about the terrors of childhood boogeymen.  My contribution, “Big Boy,” is based on the earliest childhood fear I can remember.  I wasn’t afraid of monsters under the bed, creatures in my closet or the dark shadows in the corners of my room.  I was afraid…of the light.

More specifically, I was afraid of the light cast by trucks going by on the highway outside.  Their powerful headlights reflected through my window and created an illuminated square that crawled over my wall and disappeared right above my headboard.

My goal, in writing this scary story, was to show readers, firsthand, what’s so scary about light on a wall.  Most people are familiar with common tropes like boogey men and monsters under the bed.  And, because those tropes are common, writing a story about them demands a fresh twist or some new insight into the reasons those concepts became tropes in the first place.  I decided I’d rather take my uncommon fear and show readers why that moving light kept me awake late into the night, watching it come creeping towards me.

To do that, one of the things I had to do was put myself in the mindset of a three-year-old.  I remember arguing with my dad that headlights shone straight ahead on the road, not sideways and up into people’s windows, so how could a truck cause that scary moving square?  The square, of course, was caused by the shape of my window, and the light moved as the truck moved on the highway, appearing when the vehicle came into range and disappearing when it passed by.  My father tried very patiently to explain this to me, but my child’s logic didn’t think it made sense.  Moving patches of light aren’t scary to adults.  I had to describe this scene through a child’s eyes.

Next, I asked myself what I remembered the most about this childhood fear.  Why do I still remember being scared of the light over three decades later, when I’ve long forgotten why I was ever afraid of other childhood boogeys?  (I remember the Sphynx and sprouty potatoes being other terrors of mine).  I thought back, and realized that my other fears could be easily escaped:  I just closed the book on Ancient Egypt, or put the lid back on the potato barrel.  With that light, though, all I could do was lie very still and hope it didn’t notice me.  I remember calling for my parents, not knowing if they’d come or not, knowing the light would reappear sooner or later after they left.  That feeling of being alone, possibly abandoned, holding very still in the dark and watching the light come crawling my way…that feeling lasted.  That was the feeling I wanted to convey to my readers:  the feeling of being there with the three-year-old protagonist, small and young and all alone in the dark, wondering if your parent would come…or if the light would get you first.

Thankfully for me (and unfortunately for my main character), “Beyond the Nightlight” falls into the horror component of speculative fiction.  That means that I wasn’t bound to write a story that conformed to my reality (which always involved the illuminated square of light vanishing harmlessly once the truck moved out of range).  No, in fiction I’m free to describe exactly what three-year-old me was so afraid might happen if I fell asleep with that light on my wall.

Are you scared yet?  No?  Are you….curious?

You can order your own copy of “Beyond the Nightlight” in paperback or ebook here.

Shine your light on twenty-four terrifying stories for grown-up readers about the horrors that lurk in a child’s imagination.

Who’s holding the camera? Choosing the Point of View Character

I like to write tight third person point of view.  Briefly, that means that the story is seen “through the eyes” of one or more characters.  The descriptions of events, the value placed on those events, the decision making process, and the interpretation of actions and gestures is all coloured by that particular person’s experience.  Readers see how this character thinks and analyzes.

One of the most fun things to do with tight third person is to drop hints in the narrative that the point of view character might be misinterpreting events, misunderstanding other characters, selectively perceiving some factors while overlooking others, or missing some of what’s going on.  Different people can experience the same event in very different ways depending on their histories, values and beliefs.  Writing in tight third person challenges readers to question the point of view character’s interpretation.

What character the writer chooses to “hold the camera” can change the entire story.

Two examples stand out to me.  The first is when editorial feedback convinced me to change the point of view character; the second is when I chose not to, despite my beta reader’s advice.

fossil lake 2 coverLater this year I have a short horror story called “Red Ochre” appearing in Fossil Lake 2:  The Refossiling.  In the initial draft, the story was told from the point of view of a white male student named Perry.  As the story went on, clues in the narrative indicated that Perry’s fascination with, and actions toward, his friend Meesha were twisted and dangerous, even though Perry’s narration showed that he considered his behaviour to be normal and unremarkable.  I liked the idea that readers, like Meesha, might be taken in by Perry’s charm at the beginning of the story.  The scare factor was to come in when readers realized that Perry had deceived them as well as her.

I gave the story to a beta reader, and he told me that in his opinion, the story was a failure.

Initially, I thought he’d missed the “creepy” cues given by Perry throughout the narrative.  No, he said.  His problem was that Meesha, a Native American student, appeared as an enigmatic, romanticized object of infatuation rather than as a person in her own right.

That wasn’t what I’d wanted the story to do at all.  I tried to rewrite it, but given that Perry didn’t really know much about Meesha as a person, nor did he care to know, I couldn’t fix that problem while telling the story from Perry’s point of view.

I scrapped that draft and started again from the top, using Meesha as the point of view character.

Perry’s object of fascination became a fully developed human being, with her own reasons for disregarding the “creepy” cues Perry gives off as the story progresses.  Better yet, I realized that the stakes were higher for Meesha, and the story would be more intense because of it.  Perry has only his life to lose.  Meesha has her trust in her friend, her understanding of the world around her, and ultimately something even greater than her life on the line:  she is risking both her identity and her soul.

Changing the point of view character made “Red Ochre” a much stronger and ultimately more unsettling horror story, and I’m very pleased with the results.

When-the-Hero-Comes-Home-2-coverThe other example is from the first story I ever sold:  “Blood Runs Thicker” in the e-book edition of When the Hero Comes Home 2.

In this story, a woman becomes a reluctant war hero.  When her childhood best friend attends her homecoming, he realizes that she has been maneuvered into playing this role, even though she did what she did for her own reasons, and without succeeding at her intended goals.

My beta reader for my first draft told me that she didn’t think that the stakes in the story were high enough, and perhaps I should reconsider telling the story from the hero’s point of view, instead of from her friend’s.  After all, she was the one forced into this situation against her will.

I began re-drafting and two thousand words in, I realized it would never work–but more importantly, why not.  The core of the story was not about war.  The core of the story was about how much a person would sacrifice for a loved one.  The focus of my narrative was not the hero’s actions in combat, but that her friend was willing to sacrifice the future he’d planned for himself in order to protect her.  He was the active character, and he was the one with something left to lose:  she had already lost everything that mattered to her.

I re-wrote the initial story, emphasizing how much the point of view character stood to lose if he acted to protect the war hero.  I focused the narrative on the point of view character’s internal conflict, emotions, and doubts.  During my rewrite, I kept foremost in mind that the core of the story was about sacrifice.

The story sold.  You can check it out for yourself here.

In this case, trying to tell the story from someone else’s point of view helped me understand the theme of the story.  I used this knowledge to give the story a tight focus on the crucial concepts and tell a better tale.

If your story’s not working, consider how the plot might look from another character’s point of view.  The lenses through which each character filters the events can make all the difference.

Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods – Where Sci-Fi and Religion Meet

The newest volume of the Aurora-Award winning Tesseracts series is available online today!

T-18-Cover-270x417-100dpi-C8Tesseracts 18:  Wrestling with Gods examines the intersection between speculative fiction and religion.  It’s my honour to be part of this prestigious series with a story entitled Burnt Offerings.

Corporal Pasharan was destined to spend the rest of his life in a military sanitarium were it not for his tale of a near-death experience with a god.  Now sanctified as a Shaman, he’s been equipped with cutting-edge technology and the freedom of cyberspace.  He can never dare admit that his tale was a fabrication, or that he remains unconvinced about the existence of any form of deity.  When a young soldier converts to another religion and risks the wrath of her theo-political superiors, Shaman Pasharan must find his own kind of faith to make a choice between truth and power.

The title of the anthology was a big inspiration:  Wrestling with Gods.  I knew I wanted to write about a character whose relationship with his faith wasn’t an easy one.  I started thinking:  what would it be like for an agnostic character in a ministerial job?  What if he didn’t have the luxury of resigning over his doubts, because he counted on that job not just for livelihood but survival?  That got me thinking about the intersection between faith and power; between privilege and faith; between speaking the truth and the fact that honesty can sometimes get people killed when the wrong folks are listening.

For the main character’s dependency on his job:  I had a hemiplegic migraine one day and decided to waste time on the internet.  A while later I realized:  here I am chatting to people who don’t even realize I’m sick.  Nobody notices facial droop or slurred words on the computer, and I had a lot of fun despite being in no fit shape to go anywhere.  I put that experience into my main character as well:  he’s disabled, but his role as Shaman to a technology god gives him this incredible power and authority in a virtual environment.  And yet all the time he’s very aware that his physical body makes him face pain, limitations, and dependency on others.
I’m a Wiccan with primarily Christian family and in-laws, and I have an amazing family that believes in respectful discussion and mutual understanding.  In the real world, I’ve seen cases of people horribly persecuted just for being Christian, and cases of people who call themselves Christian harassing and demonizing people of other faiths.  I think every faith is capable of having both immense good and immense evil done in its name, and I tried to represent this in my story.  The theo-political complex my main character lives under is a Pagan religion.  The Kin are my idea of what an organized, institutionalized, corrupt Paganism would look like, and they’re kind of a mixture of Asatru and Catholicism with a bit of eclectic Paganism thrown in.

You can get your own copy of Wrestling with Gods today on Amazon Kindle.  Paper copies will be available starting in March (Canada) and April (US).

Choosing Your Battles

2014 has brought me an odd mixture of success beyond expectation and abject failure.

fossilMy goals for 2014 were to duplicate my short story sales for 2013 (six stories, five under my real name) and to complete a novel.

Over the past year, I’ve sold eight speculative fiction short stories under my own name, and an additional two stories and a novella in another genre under a pseudonym.

And I haven’t come anywhere close to completing a novel, though I have two partial attempts and several outlines.

In 2015, my goal is to choose my battles.

I’ve already set parameters for my short story submissions.  As a rule, I submit only to paying markets.  (I do allow for exceptions—for example, if proceeds from sales go to support a charity I feel passionate about, I’m willing to write a story in lieu of a donation to the cause).  But overall, at this point in my career, I feel my writing is strong enough that I should be earning money in exchange for my work, not just a free copy of the finished product.

This statement is not to denigrate anyone who is writing as a hobby.  I spent many years writing fan fiction and giving it away for free.  For myself though, last year, I decided that if I’m good enough to be paid and I want to earn some of my living this way, I needed to to focus my efforts on markets that represent income opportunities.

I’m excited to have my first SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America)-qualifying story coming out in the second half of 2015.  It’s a short story called “Folk Hero” that will be appearing in Apex Magazine.

KITSLIn 2015, I want to refine my parameters further.  I want to limit my short story writing and focus it on pro markets.

This plan is going to be challenging for me.  Pro markets are highly competitive.  I may not make six sales in 2015.  However, I am at a point in my career where quality is more important than quantity.

I want to take a large portion of the time I spent on short stories this year, and spend it on completing a novel.  I’d also like to do another novella under my pseudonym.

Long term, I believe novels represent the best income opportunities.  I don’t regret spending the past two years focusing on short stories.  The short stories have given me the opportunity to practice writing story arcs, strengthen my beginnings and endings, and explore different genres.  They have forced me to learn to be concise:  to introduce characters, establish their world, and immerse the reader in their conflict, with a minimum of wordiness or filler.   And they have provided me with validation.  I can do this.  I can sell my writing.  I have seen my work in print.

Validation, though, has a dark side.  It would be relatively easy, I think, for me to set and meet a goal to replicate my 2014 success in 2015.  It would make me feel good.  Short term, it would make me feel better than dedicating my year to a novel.   Long term, though, I see my career focusing on novels.  It’s time for me to play the long game and focus on long-term rewards.

I have my validation.  In 2015, it’s time to move on and take another step towards making that vision a reality.

In January I wrote about the importance of maintaining one’s health.  In December, I think I’ve done well in that regard.  I suffered hand and wrist injury in the summer, recovered in the fall, and now use a brace to prevent future injuries.  I’ve struck a balance between a part time job, a sustaining family life, and accomplishing my writing goals.  Health-wise, I’m in a good place to achieve my goals in 2015.