The Ghosts of October

Note from Jessa: Something about October is perfect for creepiness. It’s getting darker earlier. The scent of death and rot haunts your heels like a wet leaf stuck to your shoe. The claustrophobia of impending winter. Little kids swarming your porch… Or maybe that’s just me. Here’s writer Mike Garzillo to share his October creeps.


Thanks, Jessa, I felt inspired to blog because it’s October and the weather has been awesome.  Unlikely in Portland, it’s like this every October in San Francisco.   

I spent 12 years living in San Francisco.  Summer warmth arrives fashionably late every year, in September and October.  Fog becomes rare, the nights are clear, and a full moon is brighter than any streetlight.  October is a great San Francisco month; reverence for hedonism makes Halloween a favorite holiday while decorations are creative but rarely scary.  A skeleton in the shadows, with small mirrors for eyes, sitting in the front window of a dark Victorian as you jog by, is scarier.  Jogging late at night in October in San Francisco was different than during other months, creepier, not the fog-induced creepy of horror movies, it was more a sense of foreboding.  I’d assumed it was the random skeletons in windows or looming holiday expenses that made me imagine real ghosts hiding among the fake ones, watching.

24 years ago I was living in The City during the earthquake.  The evening started with countless groups of friends gathered at packed bars or house parties because the A’s were playing the Giants in The World Series.  It was beautiful weather as the game started.  I was at a bar with friends.  The TV on the wall started shaking and then went black.  Bottles of alcohol behind the bar flew forward, smashing against the bar.  Windows exploded, the sound of shattering glass blending with screams.  People ran for doorways, most ran outside.  It would have been more terrifying if it had lasted longer but suddenly it was over.  The power was out.  We all smelled gas.  This was before the Internet or cell phones so nobody knew anything more.

A buddy and I had motorcycles so we drove toward our apartments, agreeing to meet at his.  He lived in the Marina, I was in Pacific Heights.  There was very little damage to mine; some stuff in my living room had bounced around.  As I drove toward the Marina I could see the fire and smoke.  My buddy’s apartment was in a building that was still standing, even thought there were huge cracks in the side.  Five blocks up, buildings burned.  Soldiers in camouflage uniforms with guns were already standing on the corners of Chestnut Street, watching, a convincing looting-deterrent.

The Ghosts of October

No phone lines worked.  We didn’t know about the Bay Bridge or what happened in Oakland, yet, or when power would be restored.  My buddy left to find his girlfriend.  I stayed in the Marina, watching news helicopters land in small areas, unloading guys with TV cameras.  Soon film crews were everywhere as firefighters sprayed the flames.  Cops were putting yellow strips of Keep Out tape across the front of buildings, condemning them, not allowing anyone to go in and get their stuff if the building was unsafe.  One guy had died already trying to get his stuff, falling through the back stairway of a condemned building after it had been tagged.

Night descended with no power or phones.  We were being told to get inside.  I had a motorcycle and could go anywhere.  Currently between girlfriends, I’d been with a few of them recently enough that there was still hope.  I opportunistically drove toward one of their apartments.  People were outside still, standing and talking with each other.  It seemed like a good night to knock on the right door.  She wasn’t home.

I rode around on my motorcycle again, seeing what other areas of The City had been damaged.  The night had become darker than ever before.  People were all inside now, the streets empty in neighborhoods other than The Marina.  I love the dark, I’m never afraid of it, but started to feel like I had reason to be, that same ghosts-while-jogging feeling magnified, as if they had all come up through cracks in the earth into San Francisco, accompanied by death and destruction.

I really didn’t want to spend the night alone and was hoping the next door I knocked on, she’d feel the same way.  She did.  I asked why and she described the same thing I’d felt, like there was something out there to be afraid of.  She was concerned about what would happen next, tomorrow, and asked me to spend the night.  I agreed while thinking about what was happening already while we were the ones hiding in the dark.

Mike Garzillo is one of the few men in the Rose City Romance Writers, which teaches him as much about women as living in San Francisco did.  His 1980s San Francisco Gothic romance Emerald Eyes will be released in February, 2014.  Follow him on Twitter @SFGothicRomance.        

Worldbuilding our real world

I followed a link courtesy of author friend Teri Brown to a thoughtful piece by Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station about the, er, interesting times we find ourselves living in at the moment. It’s about dogma, fanatics, and fear. It’s a clear and rather terrifying glimpse into a mindset I sometimes have trouble understanding, so if you’re like me and frequently find yourself thinking, “WTF, humans?” you might go check it out.

(I know the post risks a tl;dr dismissal, but it’s worth reading, and a lot of the comments too.)

As a writer, I know well that THE hardest thing I can make a character do is face his or her cherished, long-held, clutched-to-the-chest-like-Grandma’s-pearls worldview. To question characters’ worldviews (their identity, as author and story consultant Michael Hauge calls it) challenges the very heart and soul of who they have been and offers only an uncertain glimpse into the future of who they might become.

Those characters who can’t accept the challenge have three options:

  1. Be left behind.
  2. Die.
  3. Become villains.

Sucks to be them. No wonder they are so afraid.

Those characters who are willing to face the challenge should be even more afraid. Because they will be hurt. They will find themselves on the run, usually stumbling, probably barefoot, most likely over rocks. Rocks with nails sticking out. Nails coated in salt and lime juice. They will lose whatever they cherish most, including Grandma’s pearls.

Whatever they fear most will inevitably loom up before them. How do I know this? Because it’s in the Author’s Handbook of Torturing Characters, of course.

But in the end, the characters willing to challenge — and change — the flaws and weaknesses in their own beliefs become heroes.

As readers, we demand such fortitude from our fictional characters. I wish we could expect the same from our real-life leaders.


Nothing to fear

Currently working on: Shiny new idea!
Mood: Squawky

October here is the darkening month, heading toward Halloween when spooks and specters and Pixy Stix come out to play. I find Halloween very interesting because on the one hand, it is so child-oriented, with Disney princess costumes and reminders to trick-or-treat with a flashlight so cars don’t squish you on the street — emphasizing safe and fun — while on the other hand, ghastly monster masks hang next to fake blood in capsule size, spray can “for covering larger areas”, and gallon o’ blood, presumably for the buffet table.

laughing scared

Researchers suspect people like to be scared because of the emotional thrill of “surviving” a dangerous encounter. The mingled “happy plus horror” experience is on wild display at Nightmares Fear Factory photo stream.

This haunted house takes pictures of people at the heights (depths?) of their fear. And a surprising number of times, they are smiling. And you get the feeling that all of them are giggling wildly when they finally escape.

Fun and fake fear seem to go together like… um, Halloween candy and running around wildly. Maybe that’s why blood and gore and belly guffaws appeal to me. One of the most fun mixes I’ve seen lately is the new movie Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. The movie takes a classic horror scenario — murderous hillbillies stalking innocent college students — and flips it all around.

I don’t know what my biggest fear is. I mean, I’d be scared if I was audited, and I wouldn’t want to be chased by a grizzly, but I don’t think those are unnatural fears. I like spiders well enough, pitch darkness doesn’t frighten me, and I can speak in public without throwing up (although I do sweat a little). But even though it might be useful to have a personal experience with terror to apply to my writing, I don’t think Iwant any real fears. I’d rather stick with the fun fear where I can giggle afterward.

Do you have any truly terrible fears? And if you’ve ever experienced anything horrifying, did that change your tolerance for fun fear?

Fear itself

For some reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately about fear.

Actually, it’s not “some reason.”  I know the universe is tweaking me (the universe and I have a passive-aggressive relationship) because I’m indulging in suffering sophomoritis, the fear that your second attempt won’t be as good as your first attempt.

This is not to be confused with the freshman fifteen, which is where you write 15% more on your first book than you should have.  But that’s another post.

Back to fear.  I’ve long avoided thinking of myself as a fearful person.  Instead, I call myself a perfectionist.  See?  I’m not afraid of doing poorly.  I just know I could do better.

Yeah, I realize it’s the same coin.


The longer the lion-tamer waits to step into the lion’s cage, the more dangerous it becomes to do so.

I’m butchering the quote, much as that lion dreams of butchering the tamer, but you get the idea. The clever part of the quote is that you can’t be sure where the danger comes from.  The lion?  I suspect not.  At least, no more than before.  No, the danger grows only in the mind of the reluctant lion-tamer.

I also like that my mangled requoting leaves ambiguous which part is becoming more dangerous: The stepping in?  Or the waiting?

It’s my mangled quote, so I think it’s the waiting that’s dangerous.

So step in.

You first.

A writer’s fears redux

This week at Silk And Shadows, we were discussing the fears writers suffer.  I dashed off a rather blithe response about my fear of being eaten by a bear and wanted to go into a little more depth here. 

Because in retrospect, I should amend that fear to a fear of being eaten by a worm. 


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death
that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me
and through me.
And when it has gone past 
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone
there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.*

Well, who hasn’t feared being swallowed by a giant saber-toothed worm?  I loved this quote when I first read it in Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction adventure Dune because I think it captures a truth about fear: That you can’t just not be afraid.  You have to live through it and let it go.

Fear is adaptive, after all.  If we fear being eaten by bears, fear handily keeps us from going into the forest where hungry bears live.  But if we follow my Silk And Shadows analogy that the bear is the creative process, then staying out of the forest might keep us living but prevents us from discovering adventures and treasures and hawt sleeping Princes along the way.

I’ve read that professional fears fall into three categories. In a writer’s case, these categories conveniently follow the oft-times rocky (and by “rocky,”I mean “Denali-on-Annapurna-on-K2” not Balboa-victory-dancing-on-the-stairs) path to publication:*Geek attack!  Paramount Pictures is allegedly developing a new Dune!  IMO, Dune hasn’t yet been “done” properly.  I loved the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, so I know massive books can be done and done well.  We can totally thumb wrestle over who would make the sexiest, moodiest Paul Atreides.

Fear of failure

Fear of rejection

Fear of success

Because I am currently paralyzed by the thought of undertaking revisions on Book 2, let’s examine my fears in greater detail intead.

1. Fear of failure:

“I need to read one more craft book to understand some obscure element of scene structure.” “I can’t find time to write because of the job/kids/dirty toilet.” These are some of the reasons I’ve used heard explaining why a story isn’t getting written. You can always tell when something is an excuse instead of an explanation if the next thing out of my the person’s mouth is a recap of the fascinating television I’ve they’ve been watching. At the heart of these excuses, I think, lies a fear of failure.

Failure sucks because… Wait, do I really have to explain this?  Failure sucks because.  That’s probably enough for most of us, right?  They say you’re not supposed to wrap your self-identity up in such ephemera as jobs and kids and — presumably — books, but really, if I’m not a writer, what am I?

And if I’m not a good writer, what good am I?

As emotionally unhealthy as that sounds, I think the fear of failure is legitimately useful if its energy drives us to hone our skills and focus our determination.

 2. Fear of rejection:

Oh boy, do I fear rejection.  You finally get over your fear of failure and finish the damn book just so people can start telling you no.  I heard no a lot.  I heard that writers can expect to hear intermittent no’s for the rest of their lives.

And you know what no spells backwards?  That’s right — ON.  So you go on despite the fear of rejection.

Wow, I think that was profound.  Let me emphasize that:

No spelled backwards is ON.

Actually, does it even count as a fear if it’s right up on top of you?  The definition of fear is the anticipation of danger, and pretty much rejection in the writing life is right here, right now, right always and forever.

3. Fear of success

This one is harder for me to understand.  To suffer through failure and rejection just to stop because you finally have a chance?  I’ve read that the fear of success is basically the fear of change. 

But I’ve got a fix for that fear.  See, if you do finish the damn book — thus overcoming the fear of failure — and then send it out — thus overcoming the fear of rejection — and then you get a yes on that query, next you’ll send the complete — overcoming the fear of success to finally sell that book…  Just to face the fear of failure again.

See?  No need to fear change, because the fears don’t change at all.

Ooh, gotta go.  My favorite show is on.