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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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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.