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Pacing

     Several years ago, I made the transition from part-time freelancer to a part-time ghostwriter. While I’ve discussed working within the constraints of someone else’s ideas concerning good writing, I haven’t talked about all the particulars.

     And I can’t in a short format such as this.

     What I can do, however, is take them one at a time.

     Today’s focus is pacing.

     I had a terrible time with pacing originally. Personally, I want a story to develop in a certain way. More organic than formulaic. I think most of you reading this can agree with that. Writing out a specific iambic pentameter for chapters leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Especially when you’re a fan of letting your characters grow and change with the story.

     And that is all well and good when you are doing your own thing. I have plenty of stories where the development of a character or the climax of the tale takes a long time to achieve.

     If you’re working as a ghostwriter, then you need to think about pacing. You need to set your pacing so that you can put it on a graph where A stands for action, and B stands for anything else. Basically, when you lay out your chapters in front of you, you should have a rhythm, like so: A B A B A B…

     Ad nauseum ad infinitum, as the Romans were wont to say.

     Should you find yourself working as a ghostwriter and creating thrillers of any sort, keep this pacing in mind. Rev the engine, let it idle; rev the engine, let it idle. Not only will this keep your readers excited, but it’ll make your boss happy too.

     And, best of all, it can help you with your own writing.

     Speaking of which, time to do a little more of my own.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

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December 6, 1919

     The Sawyer family worked as woodcutters, traveling wherever their work took them, but never straying far from Cross for more than six months to a year at a time.

     Because they traveled to remote portions of New England, the Sawyer men often left the women and children home. The women would take in sewing work or do occasional work in the fields during a particularly heavy harvest season.

     In 1915, when the men were in Worcester County, Gillian Sawyer began to ‘show.’ It seemed that her husband had gotten her with child shortly before he left with his brothers and father. Six months later, the Sawyer men returned, and just in time. On September 1st, 1915, Silas Thomas Sawyer was born.

     Silas was a happy, bright, and attentive child, forever following his grandfather and father around the home. When the men would leave for their work, the child would be inconsolable for days afterward, his smiles few and far between until the men returned.

     In October of 1919, the Sawyer men returned, their pockets fat with money from their work. The women had also done well. There were more than enough funds to keep the family comfortably well into the spring when work would pick up again.

     On December 6th, 1919, the headless corpses of the Sawyer family lay stretched out in the snow of the front yard. Their heads were mounted on poles behind them.

     Yet two of the dead men were strangers. Men never seen in Cross before, and who were without identification.

     And there was one member of the Sawyer clan missing: Silas.

     The police found small shoe prints in the snow, and a zig-zagging trail behind them, which the police believed was made by the head of an ax.

     The tracks led into the forest, and no trace of the boy has been discovered.

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December 5, 1900

     Luke St. Germaine and his wife Olivia emigrated from Montreal to Cross in 1884. They worked a small parcel of land for Duncan Blood, and kept to themselves, except for Sundays, when they would ride into town to attend services at the Catholic Church.

     By 1899, the St. Germaines were a known quantity in Cross. People would nod hello, and Luke and Olivia would do the same. Most nights, when the weather was pleasant, Duncan could be found sitting on the porch of the couple’s small home, enjoying a pipe and conversing easily in French.

     On Wednesday, December 5, 1900, Luke was found frantic in his field. He was clad only in an undershirt and pants, his feet bloody and raw as he snapped at his horses and urged them on.

     Around him, a better part of the field had been transformed into churned earth.

     When he questioned as to what had occurred, he motioned towards the house, refusing to waste breath on explanations.

     Olivia was on their bed, a soft smile on her lips and her eyes closed. She wasn’t breathing, nor was there any heartbeat, but the woman didn’t seem dead.

     A letter beside her, written on vellum and in beautiful script, said, “Monsieur St. Germaine, her heart is in the field. Find it, and she will be yours again.”

     Luke worked himself to death in the fields, and when he passed, his body and Olivias were placed in a crypt erected by Duncan.

     The crypt stands beside the field, and within it Olivia is still perfectly preserved beneath the glass lid of her coffin.

     Her heart remains hidden, and no one knows how it was done, who did it, or why.

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The Horror of Shirley Jackson

     One of my favorite dedications by an author is the one written by Stephen King for his novel Firestarter. In it King states that the book is dedicated, “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice.”

     If you have ever read any of Shirley Jackson’s books or short stories – The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House to name a few – you know that King spoke the truth. The subtle terror Jackson wove through her stories was enough to leave you wondering if you were mad, if she was mad, or if you even existed at all. You doubted everything you saw, whether it was the tranquility of the New England village you drove through on a Sunday afternoon, or if you should really accept a cup of tea from a neighbor.

     Shirley Jackson was, in a word, magnificent.

     Not only was she a master of terror (and for an excellent explanation of the difference between terror, horror, and the ‘gross out,’ please read Stephen King’s On Writing and Danse Macabre, two excellent works on both the craft of writing and horror in literature), she was also a master of humor. There is a pair of books about her family and their time in Vermont. The two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, are pieces that show the breadth and depth of her abilities.

     Shirley Jackson’s works are subtle, with plots and characters that are believable enough to keep you thinking for decades, which I feel was the point.

     Stephen King was absolutely correct when he said she never had to raise her voice. It’s up to us to listen for what she’s saying, and to try to understand what she means with each carefully chosen word.

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Plowing Through Writer’s Block

     I despised high school.

     It was a difficult time in my life. I was physically small, and extremely underweight. Difficulties at home, undiagnosed physical and mental ailments, and a generally poor attitude all contributed to the misery of my high school experience.

     Aside from my few friends and teammates on the wrestling team, there was little I looked forward to when I went to school each morning. That ‘little’ consisted of the high school’s English Department.

     I attended a private, all boys Catholic high school due to familial connections, and the teachers of the English Department were the balm to my teenage angst. Teachers like Mrs. Starrett allowed me the freedom of the classics wall-locker, where I could take whatever book I wanted to read so long as I brought it back (and I did, just as I followed her advice about holding off on reading Deliverance until I was older). Mr. Sudowsky injected humor into the mind-numbingly dull translations of the Aenid and Iliad that we read (long before Robert Fagles gifted us with his own translations). And, perhaps most importantly, Mr. Richard White taught me how to get through writer’s block.

     Those of us who write all fear it. That terrible, hideous entity lurking like one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods in the recesses of our minds. It causes us to doubt ourselves, and our own abilities. And Mr. White had one simple, elegant solution:

     Write through it.

     It doesn’t matter if you turn out four pages of schlock. Write through it.

     Is your character as thin as the paper you’re writing on? It doesn’t matter, just write through it.

     So that’s my advice to anyone out there who’s struggling. Write through it. Look at the table, describe it. Again and again and again. Hell is repetition, but it also makes you better.

     So, if you have writer’s block, write through it.

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December 4, 1731

     The Clemence House sits on the back corner of Town Road, a squat, ugly building first constructed when Josiah Clemence settled down in 1691.

     There is a foul air to the home, one that makes some people ill merely by standing in its doorway, and some far more delicate souls refuse to even set foot onto a single portion of the land it contaminates.

     Rumors, passed on from one generation of Cross resident to the next, speak of horrific acts carried out in the upper room, and of foul meals cooked in the hearth. Parents and children whisper the same stories: of indentured servants and Abenaki Indians vanishing in Josiah’s house; of sobs and screams that erupt from the earth whenever a shovel is thrust into it.

     Josiah Clemence was a tall, slim man, a hawk-nosed individual who would be cast as a cartoon villain in today’s society.

     But there was nothing cartoonish about the violence he visited upon others.

     He whipped a man to death in his yard for the theft of an apple, and strangled a young Abenaki woman for refusing to wed him.

     On December 4th, 1731, it is said that Josiah fell down in his own home and broke his neck, a sight witnessed by a trio of men from the Honorable William Shirley, King’s Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

     Josiah’s body, however, was not found in his house, but rather it was outside in the pig sty.

     Only one resident of the town knows the truth of Josiah’s death, and Duncan Blood refuses to share the exact details. When pressed for information, and only when he’s had a drink or two too much, he’ll simply state, “I fed him to his pigs, but even they wouldn’t eat him.”

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December 3, 1945

     Albert and Agnes Thornsson emigrated to America with their parents in 1942, having slipped out of Denmark while Germany was tightening its grip upon the country.

     Their father and mother were a hardworking and industrious couple, and by 1944, they were able to purchase a small farm in Cross. They worked the land together, with the help of their children, and Albert worked the late shift at the factory in Boston helping to provide necessary goods for the war effort.

     In the spring of 1945, people were found in Boston with their right arms severed at the shoulder. Most of the injured died from their wounds and others remembered nothing of the incident.

     By the fall of 1945, people in Cross noticed they didn’t see the Thornssons around any longer.

     At the end of November 1945, it was reported that the parents had stopped showing up to work in the middle of August.

     The Thornsson Farm was located on North Road, near the border of Cross, and on December 3, 1945, Duncan Blood led a group of residents out to the farm to check on the family.

     Neither of the elder Thornssons could be found, but Albert and Agnes greeted them at the door, and they invited the guests to stay for dinner.

     There was, according to Agnes, a roast in the oven.

     Duncan asked if they could speak with the parents first, and the children were happy to oblige them.

     Together, the brother and sister led Duncan and the others out to a long, low shed, and they gestured within it.

     Neither Duncan nor the others needed to look.

     They could smell.

     The shed stank of rotting flesh and a glance inside showed the severed remains of the children’s parents and a fresh collection of limbs.

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