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Write The Next Sentence

Working on a new novel is always a bit destabilizing. You start off with what you think is a good idea, hopefully enough to galvanize the process, but then you reach the dreaded three-quarter section slump. My novels do tend to be on the shorter side, but I don’t see this one concluding for another twenty thousand words or so. I know where I want the story to get to, sort of, but how to get there?

While procrastinating before my morning writing session waiting for the caffeine to kick in, I often amuse myself by watching YouTube writing videos. There are some good ones out there, as well as some really bad ones whose advice you should never take. But among the videos I do find useful are the ones by Dean Wesley Smith. I’ve mentioned him before; the reason I like his advice is that he’s a pro who’s been there. He also put the idea of “writing into the dark” in my head. I read his short book on the topic, but honestly, you can glean enough from the videos to get the message.

I’ve written the past two novels, including my current draft, into the dark and I will probably never go back to outlining again. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a much more creative one. By not knowing what is going to happen next in my story, I am tapping into my creative brain, not the critical one. Now, that doesn’t mean a writer can’t get extremely creative inventing an outline, and I have approached writing that way in the past. But if all the creativity is spent on the pre-write, then isn’t getting the words down just an exercise in filling in the blanks? Many successful writers, I imagine, prefer outlining, but I’ve found it much more satisfying—and scary—to write into the dark.

As I approached this morning’s writing session feeling my way around blindly, hoping to grasp something familiar that will guide me to the light of sudden inspiration, that “aha” moment every writer lives for, I took Smith’s advice to not think too far ahead. Just write the next sentence and then write the next one.

So, I did that until I had written 1700 words in less than an hour. I feel pretty good about it, and not only that, during my writing into the dark session I found an entry point to the next scene I hadn’t thought of before. This is the value, and the joy, of discovery writing. It’s the essence of creative writing. When you get stuck, just write the next sentence.

It worked for me. If you’ve ever tried this approach or if you’re dead set against it, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

For weekly vlogs on the creative process, including writing into the dark, consider becoming a Patron.

 

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Storms and Melodramas!

I am almost through reading the Landy Series by V.C. Andrews (ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman). In one of the series’ most dramatic scenes (spoilers), the teenage protagonist gives birth while a hurricane rages outdoors, threatening to tear the Bayou shack down around the heroine’s ears. Just as I was reading this harrowing chapter in book two, Pearl in the Mist, real-life hurricane Ida was tearing through New Orleans sixteen years to the date of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Luckily, this time the levees held.

As the storm moved north, I became more absorbed in my V.C. Andrews’ melodrama and less interested in following the weather report until I received the first-ever tornado warning on my iPhone.

What? Tornado? The only time I’ve ever confronted a tornado was during my annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz.

Laughing off my concerned friend’s “Go to your basement now!” text (my basement’s nasty), I obliviously returned to the next paperback in the series with its nifty step-back cover. The flickering chandelier lights and rain-lashed windowpanes added to my enjoyment. I only hoped the electricity would remain on until I got to the end of the chapter where the heroine was being chained to a bed in order to be raped by a drunken lout.

I was riveted, quite oblivious to the fact that a tornado was, indeed, about to rip through my town. The first image is about two miles from where I live and the second is only three blocks. Yeah, it was that close.

Yesterday, my husband and I trekked down the Delaware River banks to observe the damage at the bridge. It was humbling to see the evidence of Nature’s wrath, her ability to render tall young trees into scattered timber. 

Despite the danger, there is something about storms that always invigorates my spirit, provides grist for my poetry.  Here is an example.

Perhaps I’d view storms less romantically if it were my roof laying on the street. But somehow I doubt it.  Storms—like highly operatic melodramas—ease my own interior chaos like nothing else.

However, the next time my phone alarms with a tornado warning, I will take my friend’s advice and bring my book, my candles, and my loved ones down to my nasty basement. As much as I adore storms, I’d rather not star in my own melodrama.

Speaking of melodrama, here is my spoiler-ridden discussion of V.C. Andrews’ Pearl in the Mist. I am working my way through all of the V.C. Andrews series and loving every minute of it. If you’re a V.C. Andrews fan, please let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts.

On a different note, I just started a Patreon to help support my writing and my YouTube channel. My patron perks include weekly vlogs, ebooks, merch, and even personalized tarot readings by our own Batilda Belfry so please give it a look.

 

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Whatever Happened to Gothic Romance?

I loved visiting my Aunt Rita when I was a kid. Her little brick house in Doylestown, PA was not only warm and cozy, it was also a few blocks away from a castle. Seriously, it’s called Font Hill, and here is a photo of it.

 

Widowed at a very young age, my Aunt Rita was a single mother who developed her talent for art, music, gardening, and pop psychology.  She was also an avid reader. Every visit to her house was an exercise in art emersion and mind expansion.  It was also the place where my much older teenage cousin kept a store of great rock albums, Mad Magazines, and underground comics, but that’s for a different blog topic.

One thing I loved to do whenever I visited her house was read from her seemingly never-ending stack of Gothic romance books. As a collector and reader of this brand of pulp fiction, I often wonder why the genre fell out of favor with readers. Or did it just evolve into Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer? I enjoy Twilight, but somehow, the Cullen’s high-tech Washington home does not manifest the same chills as Wuthering Heights or Manderley. Nor can their mountain-top vampy ball games compete with bareback rides through the moors. I still long for the girl running away from the castle.

It is generally agreed that the Gothic literature genre began with Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. From there, the blackened vine wove its way through Ann Radcliffe and the Brontes. But what we know as modern Gothic romance probably began with Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

The distressed heroine is so meek she isn’t even named in the novel, and yet her goodness wins out against the “ghost” of wealthy Maxim DeWinter’s beautiful and accomplished former wife. The sweeping English estate, Manderly, is as much of a character as any other.

Recently, while preparing to write in the classic Gothic romance genre, I consulted a book written by Dean Koontz about the craft of genre writing. The book came out in the mid-70s, so much of it was outdated, like what is the ideal typing paper to purchase. But I took to heart his advice about not veering too far from the expected tropes. These include the virginal young governess type who arrives at the estate to fulfill some job. She is often an ophan, impoverished, but dignified and smart. Her status at the estate is far below the owner, but one step or more above the domestic staff which usually includes a hostile housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers exemplifies the trope perfectly. The lord of the manor is the Byronic hero personified. He is remote but charming. His reputation is stained from some past indiscretion. He is the subject of local gossip. The nearby village of “common folk” is often featured as a homey contrast to the corrupting influence of the grand estate. As our heroine attempts to perform her job, creepy supernatural events cause her to question her dashing but dangerous employer and inadvertently lead her into his arms.

In his chapter on Gothic romance, Koontz stressed that the “love scenes” should never go past gentle kisses and brief caresses and that the heroine should not be the “women’s lib type” because she will turn off readers. Interesting.

Perhaps the best primer in Gothic romance comes from the TV sensation Dark Shadows. Even before Barnabas Collins makes an appearance, young governess Victoria Winters grapples with the strange events at Collinwood, and soaks up some local color at the Blue Whale. I collect and read the accompanying books written by Marilyn Ross (W.E.D. Ross, the prolific genre writer) and they follow Koontz’s checklist to a T.

Did the Gothic romance genre evolve into domestic noir such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train as the article listed below suggests? Possibly.

The 2020 release of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Morena-Garcia offered high hopes for a return of the genre. Although the book was well-received, I found it lackluster.  By making the heroine a “strong female character ” who pushes back against the patriarchy instead of focusing on her vulnerability and inner strength to overcome the doom-filled environment, the author missed the mark. In that respect, I think Koontz was right.

I attempted in my own way, to meet the criteria of the genre in my recently completed Gothic romance novella, Ravenscroft Hall. Read if for free on Wattpad.

 

I made this video a while ago. My obsession continues. If you’re a fan of Gothic Romance, please comment below with any of your favorites.

Additional reading:

https://www.toledolibrary.org/blog/a-glimpse-of-genre-the-gothic-romance

The Girl in the Mansion: How Gothic Romances Became Domestic Noirs

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New Novel Inspirations – Carnival Horror

The new novel I’m working on, titled Carni, will be my first attempt at writing carnival horror, a sub-genre that includes killer clowns, freak shows, and tunnels of love leading straight to hell.

My story is set in South Jersey, specifically Burlington Island, 300 acres of wilderness wedged in between Jersey and PA on the Delaware River. The island has an interesting history that I’m using as a springboard for my creepy carnival story.

Burlington Island from the PA side

Called Matennecunk by the Lenape natives, the island became the location of New Jersey’s first recorded murder when two Dutchmen were slain by Lenape braves in 1671. No, my story will not include an “old Indian burial ground” filled with vengeful ghosts. I think that cliché has been done to death by now. That’s not to say I won’t be using established genre tropes because I always do. Creepy clown anyone? But I will be attempting, in my own way, to give them a fresh merry-go-round spin.

Island Beach Amusement Park

What inspired my story, besides the island itself, was that it was once the location of an amusement park called Island Beach. Judging by the old photos, it was quite a popular attraction. A fire in the 1920s ended the fun, however, and the island changed hands and purposes. It is currently owned by the state of New Jersey and is used for mining sand and gravel, thus the man-made lagoon at the island’s center. Clean-up efforts persist to this day, as do occasional exploration into the rusty relics of the island’s past lives. I’ve never set a foot on its banks, but I hope to soon. I want to absorb its essence for my story. I’ll probably absorb plenty of mosquito bites and Poison Ivy as well, but it’s all in a day’s work.

I begin my story with the fire at the carnival and who set it (all fictional). My villain is the Island Beach mascot called Carni, a killer clown inspired by Coney Island’s Steeplechase Jack—can’t tell me that grin isn’t creepy, and Alfundo, the Dorney Park mascot featured on this wonderful sign I remember from visiting Dorney as a kid. A fire in the mid-1980s destroyed most of Dorney’s original small-town charm, but the park is still there.

Dorney Park’s Alfundo
The Dorney Park fire

Creaky wooden rides erupting into sudden flames, roller coasters becoming derailed, creepy clowns with Glasgow grins, that persistent legend of the kid who lost his arm in the fun-house machinery—these are what adds those extra chills to the carnival thrills. As part of my story mapping, I’m not only recalling my own fond memories of being deliciously scared at carnivals and amusement parks, but I’m also revisiting some carnival-themed works like Dean Koontz’s The Fun House and classic horror films like Freaks and Carnival of Souls. From the unsettling strains of the calliope to the rough-trade roustabout who just might mess with the gears on that ride, there is always danger lurking within, and just outside, the midway’s colored lights. Isn’t it fun!

My latest video, adding to the discussion.

 

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Read What Thou Wilt

Last week, I wrote a blog post about intuitive writing, a concept I’m finding useful while working on my current writing projects.

Yesterday, I finished a short story for a new BookTuber anthology that will be coming out in a few months. It took me about a week to get it to where I needed it to be. As many fiction writers know, short stories can be more challenging than full-length novels. I’m never completely satisfied, but when I find myself changing back things I already changed in the editing process, I know it’s time to let it go. Also, finding a reliable proofreader is always a challenge. Anyway, it’s gone through the internet chute and now I’m back to writing my new horror novel, which I will be attacking this week with a daily 3,000-word count—my goal is to finish it by the fall. But Sunday is my blogging and reading day so here I am.

Yesterday, I posted a video about what I’ve been reading lately, bemoaning the fact that I’m no longer accepting ARC copies to review because I don’t want my reading to feel like a chore. I want to support indie authors, but at the same time, I’m not really a reviewer. Or rather, it’s not my ambition to establish myself as a book reviewer per se. I’m just a lifelong reader who likes to discuss books. I like to hear what other people are reading too. I’m an emotional reader and I’m not ashamed of it.

Just recently, one of my favorite BookTubers with a popular channel put out a statement to defend his right to “pleasure read” after being criticized for not reading the books authors sent him. As an indie author myself, I empathize with trying to draw attention to one’s book. A positive review from someone with a large platform can create a real buzz. As someone who does both, writing and BookTubing, I am flattered when one of my books gets reviewed by a peer. But I don’t push it because I know what it feels like from the other end. Nothing makes me resist reading more than feeling forced into it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. If I wanted to subject myself to compulsory reading, I’d go back to school.

My reading tends to be all over the place and I’m okay with that. To illustrate, I am currently reading Moby Dick in tandem with a V.C. Andrews pulp novel. I love them both! Like many of us, I think of reading as my great escape. I can get into a seafaring adventure story as much as a family melodrama. As a commenter on one of my videos recently pointed out, if someone can watch several TV series at once (and most of us do) then why not read several books at once? He’s right, of course. Sometimes you want a little pulp, sometimes something more substantial. Both are valid if you enjoy them.

It’s good to remember the readers’ bill of rights: read what thou wilt.

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Intuitive Writing and Why I’ll Never Go Back to Plotting

What Lies Beneath

The surrealists were on to something when they discovered automatic writing. By shedding the constraints of the rational mind, they were able to tap into the visions dwelling in the well of the unconscious and thereby discovering new truths to explore. Party games like Exquisite Corpse (lovely name) where artists collaborate blindly, perhaps with just their id’s as their guides, show how creativity unleashed is always interesting and often amusing. The “quality” of the results may vary, but what’s useful (for me anyway) about the intuitive approach is it feels like a direct line into the creative brain. This is exactly where I want to be when I’m writing fiction and especially poetry.

Spend any time trawling the internet for writing advice, and you’ll encounter the inevitable plotter vs. pantser debate. Pantser—the name sounds unappetizing—refers to writing by the seat of one’s pants as opposed to working from an outline. I used to be a great proponent of outlining until I just recently tried the intuitive approach on my last few projects. And the results were surprising.

Ain’t gonna lie, I was scared at first. I was an explorer sailing my ship into uncharted territory. But soon I discovered hidden treasures along the way which caused me to release my grip and just allow the story to guide me. Trade winds of fresh ideas filled my sails and I was gliding along freely, not thinking, not planning, just going with the flow. It was lovely. And fun! And before I knew it, three hours of solid writing had zipped by and I didn’t want to stop. Any writer who’s ever forced themselves to push through a writing session knows the difference.

Okay, you might say, that sounds great, but what about the results? Sure, you were having fun, but exactly what kind of unreadable drivel did you produce? Would you be surprised to hear it was some of my best work? Reading it back was a surprising delight. Yes, I had to go back and reshape, but the ideas were there—good ones— and buried not too far beneath, the structure.

Artists like Picasso knew how to paint “realistically” before they became masters of modernism. In other words, the structure may have been abstracted, but it was there. Not comparing myself to Picasso here (ahem) but I’ve studied story structure extensively, including reading Robert McKee’s Story several times and taking his seminar. In other words, I know it well enough to let my thinking side relax a bit, confident that my knowledge of story structure will be residing in my subconscious when the intuitive side takes over.

When embarking on a new writing journey, which side (intuitive or thinking) should be at the wheel and which below deck? After trying both, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being a plotter.

Which type of writer are you? Have you ever attempted intuitive writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kindle Vella – a Writer’s (and Reader’s) Perspective

Amazon’s new episodic fiction platform, Kindle Vella, launched last week, and a lot of writers have already jumped on the bandwagon, myself included. So, let’s take a look at how Vella is stacking up against what I imagine is its chief competitor: Wattpad.

As a Wattpad star and Watty winner, I’ve had a lot of success on that platform and have enjoyed the experience every step of the way. I especially enjoy the social interaction on Wattpad. It’s fun to chat with readers in the comments and offer suggestions to other writers via book clubs and contests. Politeness and positivity are encouraged.

Wattpad started as a free reading platform and has slowly adapted its business model to include a paid membership (no ads and a choice of profile color) and now offers paid stories redeemed with purchased “coins.” The latter seems to be Amazon’s inspiration for Kindle Vella, an app where readers may access stories (the first three episodes are free) by purchasing tokens. Additional features include author’s notes at the end of each episode. Readers may voice their approval with a thumbs up or by rewarding their favorite story with a coveted crown by redeeming tokens.

Caught up in the hype and eager to get in on the ground floor like many of my fellow authors, I uploaded the first eighteen episodes of my epic fantasy Starlex to Vella. The multi-character POVs and various plotlines seemed ideal for serialized fiction. For my launch, I did the requisite email blast and ran some Facebook ads. But after all the effort, my story is pretty much dead in the water. Not even a crown! (cue sad queen face).

Scrolling through the comments on some of the Facebook groups I belong to, I see that I’m not alone in my struggle to find readers. Part of the problem, for me perhaps, is that I’m trying out a new genre. I usually write horror so there hasn’t been much reader transfer. It’s also possible that readers haven’t yet discovered the new platform despite all the promotion authors have been doing, or maybe there is just too much damn competition. I’ve already detected notes of despair among some authors’ comments, some already expressing a desire to give up. Maybe there is too much expectation to strike Amazon gold. I went in with the attitude of experimentation so I am fine with diligently updating my story every few days along with a Facebook post boost expecting little returns and being pleasantly surprised if someone discovers my story.

Depressing? I suppose that depends on one’s perspective and is a topic for another blog.

On to the Vella reading experience. Stories are divided into episodes (akin to Wattpad’s parts vs. chapters). Leading up to Vella’s launch, there were plenty of discussions in the Facebook groups about how serial fiction differs from a standard novel approach. From the stories I sampled there doesn’t seem to be much distinction. There is, however, a lot of talent on display here. The stories I read were decent genre fiction I hope will attract a readership.

Comparing my reading experience on Vella to Wattpad, I have to say Wattpad wins out on two fronts. One, Wattpad offers a clever feature where the reader is shown how much time is left in the chapter. This is useful, like Kindle’s progress feature, for readers to gauge if they want to stick out the chapter (part, episode) or put it down for now. Vella’s episodes vary from 500 to 6,000 words so there is a lot of range. Coins are redeemed according to word count.

The second drawback is the reader’s inability to leave comments. After giving a thumbs up, I found myself returning to the Facebook groups to give a quick take on what I read and to offer words of encouragement, the same type of give and take that is part of the Wattpad experience. There are many conversations happening on Facebook that could be taking place on Vella. Vella does offer readers opportunities to leave a review (stars and comments) in typical Amazon style and there is apparently a return policy where readers may redeem their tokens if they’re unhappy with the story. Authors understandably are already taking issue with this feature given readers may read the entire story before requesting a return. Obviously, there is still some tweaking to be done.

So, what is your opinion? Are you checking out Kindle Vella as a reader or writer, or both? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you have any favorite stories to share, please let me know. I believe online fiction sites will continue to develop, hopefully offering more opportunities for writers to share their stories. But is there any real money to be made? Time and talent may tell.

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Vella Story Launch and Mid-Year Reading Wrap-up

Kindle Vella

Kindle’s new reader platform, Vella, launched today and I have a story on it. Check out Starlex, my interstellar fantasy. I’ll be adding new episodes every week for what will eventually be a two-season epic!  Be sure to give it a thumbs up to help more people discover the story in this brand-new app.

I belong to several Vella authors groups on FaceBook and there are over 2,000 writers involved! Obviously, it is competing with Wattpad. I knew when I joined Wattpad that it was pioneering an excellent idea. I don’t plan to transfer my stories from Wattpad to Vella any time soon, but I thought I’d dip my pen in and try it out.

Speaking of Wattpad, I have a new gothic romance story I’ve been uploading regularly. The first draft is finished. I wrote that story consistently for most of the summer. It’s my first foray into vampire romance so exploring that genre and mixing it in with classic gothic tropes has been fun. I may even develop this story into a series depending on the reader response I get.

Do you plan on using Vella as a reader or writer, or both? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Mid-Year Reading Wrap-up

I can’t believe I’ve read thirty-four books so far this year! I discuss all the highs and lows in my latest BookTube video.

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Beach Reads, Baby

It’s the Fourth of July weekend. My poor dog is hiding beneath my desk from the a-holes lighting firecrackers in the street, and I’m wishing I were down the shore with one of my favorite paperbacks, the more well-thumbed the better, sand stuck between salt-stained pages. Whether it’s a bodice ripper romance or an old-school horror classic, dog-eared and dirty evokes a certain nostalgia. 

One of my favorite Jersey Shore retreats has a stack of well-worn books I revisit each year like old friends. Some books may have been swallowed by the sea, left on the sand, or absconded in a piece of luggage, but another one is always left in its wake. When it comes to beach reading, my taste leans toward the sleaziest romance or horror offerings. Monsters or monster c***s hit the sweet spot every time. 

A few recommendations:  

Lace by Shirley Conran

No matter what beach rental I stay in, I always seem to find a copy of Lace. It doesn’t matter if I already know which bitch is her mother, I zip through the pages as if they’re greased with Coppertone. If rain ruins your day at the beach, you can always pop in the Lace mini-series. 

Once is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann 

Forget Valley of the Dolls. When the sleaze includes a daddy-obsessed heroine, drug-filled orgies, a nipple-pinching Dr. Feelgood, and the rape of an entire convent of nuns, your sleaze bases are covered. One New York Times critic groused that the 1966 bestseller was, ” populated by “a cast of obscure, unpleasant, implausible, stupid, or sly characters who lurk in the mind for weeks only because one wants to meet and kick them.” For quality like this, one read is definitely not enough.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

Benchley reinvented the classic sea monster story with a realistic spin that made us all afraid of the water. The film is superior on many levels, but nothing says beach-read quite like a well-thumbed copy of Jaws. Just look at that cover!

The Jersey Devil by Hunter Shea

If you think sea monsters are scary, try driving through the New Jersey Pineys a night. The Garden State wilderness contains its own thrills and chills among the scrubby pines. Shea’s flying maneaters will keep you well-entertained as you bake in the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

For more beach read recommendations according to your zodiac sign, check out Batida’s July Horrorscope

 

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More Writing Advice: Believe in Yourself

Because no one else will.

At least not at first.

Late last night, after working my “day job” as a theater “roustabout,” I received the fantastic news that my screenplay, Unmasked, was chosen as a finalist for the Best Horror Feature Screenplay Award at the Oregon Scream Week Horror Film Festival. A few months ago, on a whim, I entered my screenplay into a bunch of film festivals. So far, I’ve heard back from two. It won fourth place at The International Horror Hotel, and now it’s up for another award.

Look for rainbows and you’ll find them.

I’m thrilled! Unmasked was the first feature-length screenplay I ever attempted to write, the first draft produced in a weekend fever dream over a decade ago. Since then, I’ve written many novels and other works, but Unmasked convinced me I could do it.

I don’t think there is one writer, professional or novice, who doesn’t feel a level of terror when facing the blank page. I’ve written about this before. There is always trepidation, the fear that you can’t do it. The only way to prove to yourself that you can do it is to sit down and do it.

Easy right? Not really. I think what holds most creatives back, and I’m certainly not immune, is that it takes a great deal of self-belief even to attempt a creative endeavor, let alone complete it and work it to some level of competence. Framed another way, you’ll never prove to yourself how incompetent you really are unless you try. The dreaded I suck! fear is probably the number one reason most of us make excuses about why we can’t do something.

I’m telling you, you can. But it takes work. And practice. Most of all, it takes belief in yourself. We’ve all seen examples of mediocre talents who’ve gone on to have tremendous success because of their unwavering confidence in their abilities. They shake off criticism like a dog after a dunk; they keep pushing forward no matter what. As annoying as some of these creatives are—Madonna, I have you in my sights—you have to admire their tenacity.

Conversely, there is another type of which many of us are all too familiar. You may count yourself among them. I’m referring to the creative person with immense talent who never seems to complete any project, or worse, has a self-destructive bent. I’ve seen it manifest in many ways. In fact, I’ve explored that destructive messaging myself in my work, including UNMASKED, which is essentially a horror story about a dysfunctional family. I know the territory all too well.

If you can turn your pain into art, people will respond to it.

Believing in yourself means showing up for work every day without expecting any accolades. Keep working and keep pushing forward. People will start to notice. You’ll gain fans and maybe even turn it into a lucrative venture. I’m still waiting for the latter, but in the meantime, I’ll keep working on it every day because I love it. If you are struggling with your creativity, start with self-belief and let the rest of the world catch up.

Read UNMASKED