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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Women in Horror Guest Post by Cynthia Tottleben

This week I have the full spectrum of JournalStone female horror authors as guests on the blog.  Earlier in the week, you read Lisa Morton’s take on being a woman writer in a fairly male dominated genre.  I would argue she is the top of the genre for women right now.

Today, we have the other side of the coin... the newest up and comer in the genre.  Cynthia Tottleben is this year’s winner of the JournalStone writing contest and her prize, getting her novel published.  Entitled The Eye Unseen, Cynthia’s novel is fast paced and horrifying (in a good way since this is horror).  You can click here for some plot details, but what I found most striking in The Eye Unseen was how well she managed the multiple points of view.  This technique is a good choice for horror because it picks up the pace and increases the level of dread and terror.  As the pov changes, the readers knows more than the characters, ratcheting up our anxiety and, as a result, our enjoyment of the horror tale.

However, many authors have trouble negotiating a smooth switch of pov.  It is something that often takes years of practice to get right.  Currently, Jonathan Maberry is the champion at this, in my opinion. Badly written pov switches are painful to readers.  When they are obtrusive and forced, it takes away from the atmosphere, turning what should be terrifying into something laughable.

So kudos to Tottleben, so mastering this horror skill right off the bat. The Eye Unseen is worth a read.

But enough about her book, let’s hear from the author herself.

My sordid relationship with the slush pile started the summer I turned eight. I had not only penned my first book, HOMER THE GRASSHOPPER, but illustrated the story myself, and mailed my masterpiece to the publishing houses of the books adorning my bedroom floor. With all the confidence in the world I began plotting my fame and naming the legions of followers I would soon have, other children poised in anticipation of my next tale, the sequel to HOMER, one of many that would grace bookshelves and nightstands for decades to come.

Until the rejection letters arrived, the pestle of those horrid words grinding my ego into a fine powder, even at such a young age. 

Thirty years later I found myself playing the same game. My manuscript for THE EYE UNSEEN received excellent feedback from agents unwilling to back genre fiction. Several suggested I change my focus and get my feet wet on mainstream material, but I wield words like weapons and didn’t want to change my rusty razor blades out for cookie cutters. Unless, of course, they were incredibly sharp and matted with dried blood. Those I could handle.

The author Heather Graham pulled me out of my rejection blues by suggesting I submit my horror novel to small publishing houses that would welcome the genre.  After a bit of research, I discovered JournalStone Publishing and felt we would be a great team.  My query letter was answered within days, suggesting I submit THE EYE UNSEEN to their annual horror-writing contest. With the prize being publication and a $2,000 advance (which would allow me to join the Horror Writer’s Association), I didn’t see how I could refuse.

The submittal was quick and painless, but the waiting butchered me. I wanted the contest to run like a slot machine, where I inserted my novel, hit a button, and instantly determined whether I won the grand prize or settled for just enough feedback to keep playing. Fortunately, I am a retail manager. Just as I became jittery with impatience, we moved into the dark side of the year, where Time gets her fangs in me and life is nothing but a revolving door of work shifts and the sporadic half-night’s sleep. I didn’t have the energy to write, let alone obsess about the contest. My edges smoothed out.

When JournalStone posted the top ten finalists, that calm went to the wayside. Fast. Even if I didn’t win, my writing was validated. THE EYE UNSEEN, narrated through the viewpoint of four female characters and very much a woman’s story, had stood out to a panel of mostly male judges. My book had been read and deemed worthy. Despite the genre. The niche. The visceral threads that made others shy away from it.

On the day I won Christopher Payne, owner of JournalStone, called to congratulate me and discuss the parameters of our relationship.  I in turn detailed the play-by-play of our conversation onto post-it notes, adhering them to our appliances while my husband worked in the kitchen. My family renamed me The Winner, a title I still invoke if I need to throw my weight around, and it took weeks for me to settle down. My words were at the starting gate of publication. The characters I had both tortured and nurtured were going to be able to share their dark tale with an audience from around the world. And, finally, I belonged to a group that embraced the macabre and understood my fascination with it.

 My vacation this year fell during the week of my publication. I traveled to Indiana to visit my mother and fawn over her copy of THE EYE UNSEEN, the first one I had touched. As we stood in the living room inhaling the new book smell, we both immediately thought of HOMER THE GRASSHOPPER, and the little girl who was so determined to become a published writer.  Her dreams, no matter how sick and twisted, had finally come true.

Find more from Cynthia:

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