I just started and abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing aI just started and abandoned another one of those serial killer novels. I don’t usually read serial killer novels, even though I am sort of writing a serial killer series. But really it’s more like an anti- serial killer series.
However, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. I teach it in my film classes, I analyze it in my workshops and workbooks. It and Red Dragon are the platinum standard of serial killer novels and probably the reason that I ever pick up any other serial killer novel to begin with. And those books are also the reason that I almost always abandon any serial killer novel almost as soon as I start it – often in disgust and horror. Because let's face it - nobody has ever done it like Thomas Harris. And most attempts are not just bad - they're probably actually harmful.
It was Harris who mythologized the serial killer to classic monster status, although Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula (supposedly based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler), and various depictions of Jack the Ripper were strong precursors. We are fascinated by the idea of pure evil in a human being. And because of Harris, the serial killer has become an iconic modern monster, like a vampire or werewolf or zombie (maybe replacing the pretty much defunct mummy!).
Because with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Harris did a completely brilliant thing. In the 1970’s Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit) began a series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers to see what made these men tick and hopefully develop strategies for catching them. The agents, along with Professor Ann W. Burgess, compiled their findings into a textbook and started to train agents as profilers. This new department got a lot of press and media attention and a large number of authors jumped all over that research. But judging by the books that resulted, very, very few of those authors seem to have actually read those interviews.
Thomas Harris, though, took the same research that was available to everyone, and used a combination of absolutely precise fact and police procedure and a haunting mythological symbolism to create those first two books (and then Hannibal sort of went off the rails, if you ask me…). The result was two of the best horror/police procedural blend novels ever written. The killers Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Francis Dolarhyde were both more and less than human. And Lecter, of course, is a mythic archetype of the evil genius.
And then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there are now hundreds of Lecters-lite, if you will.
I love Harris’s first two books for their mythic resonance. But I have a real problem with the way most authors portray serial killers because it’s so incredibly dishonest. They romanticize and poeticize serial killers – portraying them as evil geniuses that play elaborate cat and mouse games with detectives and law enforcement agencies. Yeah, right. These men are not geniuses. They don’t leave poems at crime scenes or arrange their victim’s bodies in tableaux corresponding to scenes of great art or literature. They are vicious rapists who brutalize their victims because the agony of those victims gets the killer off, and a large number of them continue to have sex with the corpses of their victims because they are that addicted to absolute control and possession.
That’s evil. But the serial killer subgenre as a whole has perpetrated a very unrealistic view of what these monsters really are. Most authors who write about serial killers don’t show the sexual correlation. They skirt around the issue of rape.
The very worst ones write torture porn - sexualizing the violence, fetishizing women’s bodies, sexualizing the torture of women (conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these killers rape and torture and kill men and children as well) and basically avoiding portraying the pure horror of what these men actually do.
I’m sure some authors (not the last group) have an honest desire to create an exploration of mythic evil to rival Harris’s books. I get that. But the fact is, most authors (and screenwriters and filmmakers) who write about serial killers are dishonestly romanticizing them and leaving out the unmitigated, repellent malevolence of these men.
I can’t blame Harris for that. But sometimes I wish we could just say, "You know – the definitive serial killer book has been written. Twice. Let’s just move on from there, shall we?"...more
From the beginning of the year been insanely busy - emphasis on “insane” - with all the preparation and marketing involved with the Huntress series, rFrom the beginning of the year been insanely busy - emphasis on “insane” - with all the preparation and marketing involved with the Huntress series, relaunching Huntress Moon and Blood Moon and launching Cold Moon with Thomas & Mercer in a rollout over just five months.
But that’s not all there’s been to it. The last part of last year was really hard, in a professional sense.
The delays in the release of Cold Moon made me anxious and depressed. At the same time that I was grappling with that, I committed myself to a complete overhaul of Screenwriting Tricks For Authors before taking it to print - and ended up doubling the material in the book. I’m thrilled with the result, but it took time away from my fiction writing and stretched me more thin than is really healthy for me, or anyone for that matter.
Also, I’m writing Book 4 in the Huntress series and I seem to be writing three different books at once, which, while it is probably exactly the process I need to be going through, is also hugely confusing.
And oh yeah – I started Book 1 of a new series set in Scotland and in LA.
All of this while I have been adapting to life in a new country. That marginally speaks English, but not always. Especially after a few pints.
Are we starting to get what’s wrong with this picture?
It was time to stop the madness and reassess.
The good news is, I didn’t have a complete nervous breakdown.
The better news is, I knew how to heal myself.
Some of you may be familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – a classic on creativity, spirituality, and recovery. It’s a twelve-week program sort of based on twelve-step programs, but for artists and creativity.
The Artist’s Way is a huge commitment. You do Morning Pages every day (three mandatory pages of free form writing) and an Artist Date every week, plus numerous assignments on top of that. This is what I decided to do on top of everything else I was doing. Crazy, right?
But I knew I had to do something.
Workaholism is a big problem for me. Let's be blunt - I get a lot of rewards from it. Certainly it pays off in a career sense – it’s kind of the job description for a screenwriter and pretty much for an author, too, if you want to make a living at it. There’s another big payoff, too. When I’m insanely busy I don’t have to think about myself much. Or at all.
But you know…. that’s maybe not so great.
The Artist’s Way is designed by someone who has had all those issues and knows the score, including all your sneaky little tricks.
The first time I did the program, I didn’t make it all the way through the twelve weeks. I rarely did the Artist Date. I openly scoffed at and ignored most of the suggestions for fun stuff. And I certainly didn’t do some of the scary deeper work – like the week of reading deprivation. (Yes, that means an entire week of no reading. I know some of you out there just stopped breathing at the very thought).
But even not doing it full out, the breakthroughs that happened for me at the time I was working the program and in the year or two after I did it were extraordinary. I finished Huntress Moon, decided to e publish it instead of going for another traditional publishing deal, and did it to big success. I got back all of my backlist of traditionally published books and launched those books as e books. I wrote my YA thriller The Space Between, and wrote a romance version of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. I started teaching a college film class, which I loved. And, oh yeah - I met this guy Craig Robertson
This time through, the breakthroughs are already coming fast and furious. Sometimes I’m taking two weeks to do the work suggested for a week. Sometimes I’m skipping stuff. I put off the reading deprivation while I was doing copyedits, but I did it last week, a full week, and WOW. (I’ll write about that in a separate blog.).
I already feel so much more aligned and focused. I can’t wait to get started with my day in the morning. In the midst of some pretty dangerous burnout, I am healing.
It is an immense relief.
So a huge thank you to Julia Cameron, for saving my skin - and soul - again.
And for you all, some questions. Did you know about The Artist’s Way? (It’s not just for artists and writers. It’s for everyone. We’re all creative beings at our core.) Have you ever worked the program?
Or is there some other way you’ve found to take stock and heal yourself in times of burnout? I’d love to hear!...more