Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

One of the things I’ve gotten over since I started writing (I think this came in as either the second or third Big Writing Revelation(tm)) is saving ideas. At a certain point in the writer’s life, you realize that you’re creating crap, but that you have to go through that woodland crap to get to the glade of good words. And then like blue jays screaming through the woods come these gleaming moments of non-crap and you need to decide what to do. Now, this new stuff is good, having handled crap for long enough you know when ideas and words have that different feel to them. The new stuff fits into what you’re working on, but the rest of what that work is crap and you know it. Do you put these chunks of gleam into the crap making the gleam craptapulous or do you hoard your gleam until you get better and that gleam can shine with the other shinola you’d be producing then?

And the young writer, like a pack-rat dragon wondering when he’ll get his next hit of gold-plated meth, will think “I’ll hoard the gleaming things until the pile will shine forever.”

Resist this behavior. With all your might, resist. The only idea that shouldn’t be put into the story you’re writing is the idea that doesn’t fit. You can’t horde the good words, they don’t behave like that. And ideas, if hoarded, grow stale and die, losing their gleam. Then they begin to stink. The bright leaves flare and fade into the forest floor.

Here’s the secret though, just because you use it once doesn’t mean you can’t use it again. So throw that idea, or those words, into the big pile of crap that is the story. You might have to scoop them out later when you’re killing your darlings, or they might impart some shine to the rest of the load. They may even inspire you to polish up the rest of it. Who knows, it might make the story successful. Even if it does help your story get published, that still doesn’t mean you can’t use it later.

And if you stop the flow of gleaming ideas by hoarding them, then you get idea constipation. And the ex-lax for that condition isn’t any fun at all and ranks right up there with a unicorn enema. So roam through your woods plopping out the craptastic and the shinola with great glee and abandon. Soon you’ll see more shinola than crap. And eventually you’ll get to the editing point where you’ll be cutting the crap out instead of the gleaming parts to make the writing smooth.

Ideas work better when they can rub up against other ideas in a story. Keeping them herded off doesn’t help anybody.


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Paper chasing

Questions from newly minted writers tend to come in candy flavors. There’s some difference in how the questions are asked, or the actual words used, but they all tend to boil down to some basic metaquestions.

The first one often asked by fresh novelists is, “How do I get an agent?” That one is easy to answer. I have no clue. Well, yes I do, it’s the same as getting published. Write the best manuscript you can, research agents like you’re researching a market (ie. the agent you query should handle the type of work you’re sending), read the submission guidelines and follow directions, and send it off. Cross your fingers. Also in this case the general Wheaton Rule#1, “Don’t be a dick,” applies.

Fortunately at the panel on Short Stories we didn’t get this question. This is good. Because the answer for shorts stories is, “Agents, in general, don’t handle genre short stories. There isn’t enough money to make 15% worth their while.” (for some reason there’s a voice shouting in my head, “Castles don’t have phones”)

The other question did get asked. That question (which I’m going out on a limb here and say 95% of all questions about writing boil down to) is, “How do I get accepted?” My answer seemed glib, and I apologize for seeming that way, but it’s still true. My answer was, “Suck less.”

Every story is full of suck (no, really, I’m reading the Years Best and there is plenty of suck there to go around). Your story needs to be the best in the slush pile, it needs to suck less than all the others.

Your writing, if you’re doing it right, needs to suck less than your previous writing (it’s not always a linear progression, but you get what I mean). Two years ago what I wrote that year, it was IMHO brilliant and the perfect example of exemplary craft and skill. This year, re-reading those stories to figure out why they aren’t selling I’ve come to wonder just who rewrote them so full of suck while I wasn’t watching. The answer is that what I’m writing now sucks less than what I wrote last year, two years ago, and (shudders) eight years ago.

On the subject of submissions, I still send the wrong story to the wrong market sometimes. But I’ve gotten better in my selection. My submission process sucks less.

My fellow panelists, who are all made of win, BTW, with very little to no suck present (I was the token “suck” panelist) gave much more concrete answers about the slush process, joining a critique group, read a lot, etc. But it all boils down to learning the craft, learning the business, sucking less, and following Wheaton’s Rule #1 (might need to make that the Prime Directive, but I don’t think he would like that comparison), “Don’t be a dick.”

There’s also a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. But even that won’t work unless you have the right story, one that doesn’t suck. Also, you might have the most bestest excellent story ever, and if the market isn’t right, doesn’t have a slot open, or it’s the wrong size to fit in the holes they have, they still might reject it.

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Fictional Biography

I’ve been having a non-fiction envy moment. Some writers can move from fiction to non-fiction with equal ease, but I have a real problem with it. I think its because I’m not really an expert on anything in particular so I don’t feel qualified in writing a book about something that interests me. I haven’t had an ultra interesting career or life filled with tragedy or broken any records along my way. So what could I have to write about that would be interesting in a non-fictional book? Well, nothing.

I have always liked aviation. Over the years I have collected a considerable library of aviation pioneers, fighter pilots and military men. But even though I love the subject and can talk about it with some knowledge and conviction, I still don’t feel like I have the authority to write about it. But man would it be fun to write a biography of a favorite pilot.

Turns out the one thing I do know an awful lot about is my own imagination. I’ve lived with it and the universe where most of my SF takes place, my entire adult life. You could say that I was an expert in my Galaxy Collision universe. So why not write about someone in that universe? Someone who was modeled after a real life pilot. Why not write a biography of a famous pilot in my fictional universe. Now that I can do with conviction. I won’t have to research it much, because it will all be made up. Sure I will have to stick to the already established canon that I have created in short stories and novels, but that’s okay, it really just ads to the world building verisimilitude.

A writer usually creates elaborate background stories on characters that they develop and so this will be no different, just a lot more detailed. The trick is to make the moc-bio so interesting that people will read it like they read a normal fiction book and come away just as satisfied. For that I think it needs to be written in first person and the story arch must show the person’s entire life as if he were the hero in his own story. This appears to be the formula for all popular biographies of famous people.

At this time the idea has a new project created for it and a rough outline of chapter titles that tell the story of a starfighter test pilot who helped test and then fly some of the first fighters used in what will become a millennial conflict. The person the moc-bio will be about? Red Allen. You can read a short story about one of his adventures on my Scribd page.

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Remember this quote? 

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.

That was Stephen King, famously, in Danse Macabre. And he’s right, of course. Terror is the finest emotion we could snatch from our readers (at least it is if that’s your goal starting out). But do you know the difference between terror and horror? Recently, I wrote about writing spooky fiction, something, it seems, that a lot of writers have a problem doing, and I base that solely on the fact that there’s very little fiction out there right now that’ll really give you the willies. But is terror, that grand emotion, really even achievable at all? 

Well, because terror is the heart of true fright, I’d say that if you’re writing something for the purposes of being scary or spooky, terror should at least be at the heart of what you’re trying to put to paper (Maybe they should have called the genre “terror,” eh?). But the sad fact is that in fiction, true terror is pretty much impossible to achieve. Unless you manage to make a rusty scalpel leap off the page and give the reader a good nick, that is. Because terror is that primal emotion that we experience when something really, really bad is about to happen to us personally. You just can’t capture that with words, you can’t convey that emotion; sure, you can give somebody a thrill of excitement, you can even make them wary of the dark (if you’re really good), but to achieve terror in a reader is practically impossible.

If that guy with the mask and the chainsaw began walking your way, and you couldn’t get away, the sensation you’d most likely be experiencing is terror. And in a circumstance like that, it’s one of the purest emotions there is. You won’t find anyone’s mind wandering when they’re in the throes of terror, no, they’ll be focused on one thing and one thing only (probably escape). So, bearing that in mind, terror is probably a sensation you’d want to avoid handing to your readers, right? I mean, why would you want anyone to experience a prolonged sensation of what I’ll call Hacking Death Syndrome (without the hacking). And if you did, would there be any chance they’d ever read you again? It actually sounds like the plotline of a horror novel, now that I think of it: A book that the reader cannot put down (literally), in which is written things of such an arcane and bizarre nature that the reader screams himself to death while reading it. (Hm. But that sounds too funny to be horror. Can you imagine someone screaming non-stop while reading a four-hundred page book on the toilet? Hold on, I got the giggles).

So anyway: Terror. Terrorists want us to feel it, right? But did terrorists call themselves terrorists or did some spook in DC come up with the term? I think the latter. Probably a politician. But I don’t see many terrorists crying out about political correctness when we refer to them as terrorists. They seem okay with that moniker, as if, you know, that’s what their job is. But then I don’t really know; it’s not like I have a terrorist focus group handy for a quick Q&A session. But my thoughts are that, as a terrorist wakes up to face the day, his thought process is probably something like:

I think I’ll do some terror this morning, then lunch, and later some more terror. And tonight we make sweet love. Tomorrow is all about the terror again though. Falafel?

If only terrorists had to work their terror schemes on sheets of paper instead of in gunpowder and bombs, it’d be a lot harder to terrorize people. Because even the masters have a hard time of it when it comes to feeding terror to a reader.

In the end, horror, it turns out, is aptly named after all. Some of the scariest fiction I’ve ever read was written by Edgar Allan Poe, but not even that could terrorize me. And let’s not forget Lovecraft. King’s written some pretty scary stuff, too. All I have to do is look at the cover of Cujo and I want to put the book in the freezer (that’s what we do with disturbing books in my house. We leave it there until we’re ready to read it again). But really, it’s not terror at all. It is horror, because we’re looking at it as something that happens to someone else. When fiction scares us, we’re horrified because of what’s happening to those people in the story, who, as circumstance would have it, are experiencing terror. If those things that happen to them in the story were happening to us…then we would understand terror. But you can’t convey that with fiction.  

So, on to horror, which is what we experience when we see someone else’s terror. By writing horror, we’d of course prefer to terrify the reader, difficult as that is, but at the very least we’d want to horrify them. Make them feel the pain of the protagonists experiences, let them inside of the primary fear. If they can somehow come to experience some of that fear themselves on a somewhat personal level, congrats! You’ve just escalated into terror, and you’ve done a Great Job. 

So, in today’s lesson, we’ve learned that the goal is to terrify the reader but, failing that, to at least horrify. Pin pricks and beads of sweat and nervous giggles and diverted glances and creaking doorways and dark corridors and DAMN WAS THAT A BIG FRIKKIN SPIDER…oh. Sorry. <evil grin>I’m happiest when I’m writing spooky stuff</grin>. 

But anything we write can only be false reality. True terror, without that rusty scalpel or big frikkin spider is pretty much impossible to achieve in fiction. Sometimes horror is achievable, especially if you’ve somehow managed to get the reader invested in the words, but terror is what it is for a reason. To be in terror means your life is probably in imminent jeopardy, in which case, you’re probably not reading a book. So, it’s the impossible dream, to write a piece of fiction that’s truly terrifying. You might give me the willies, creep or spook me out, I may feel fear in the pit of my stomach and be horrified at the experiences of the protagonist, but all that really boils down to is…nerves. Tension. If you add a little tension to a story with macabre circumstances, it might be easy for you to make them think they were in terror. That’s where it really gets fun.

In the end, terrorists are terrorists because they inflict pain and fear and horror on people using physical, life-ending methods. So we, as writers of horror fiction, can never truly be terrorists. We are horrorists.

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Writing Spooky

Keep in mind when I write articles like these, I’m not offering advice, necessarily, I’m just communicating my own thoughts into the works of writing. Take it as advice if you like, but I’m just an ol’ hack, so you might be loster later than beforer…Anyway, let’s get to it.

Did you ever curl up with a scary book and find yourself peeking over your shoulder to make sure nothing’s lurking in the shadows? It’s one of the things that keeps me reading books, but it’s very, very rare. I’ve read horror from the best authors in the genre, but I rarely find a book that really creeps me out. 

Writing spooky fiction is more challenging, to me, than even writing action sequences. To get into a reader’s head and make them wary of the dark corners is tough, and sometimes we try to achieve it through overkill, by making the story overly gory. Keep in mind that often it’s the unseen that’s scariest; just telling someone you’re tearing off an arm and chewing the gristle with a blood spattered baby bib around your neck isn’t going to really scare anyone. It’ll gross them out, sure, but it won’t be spooky.

Movies have it easier.
Movies have an easier time of it, it seems, because of course they have the visual and auditory mediums to accentuate the story. Buy why does it seem so hard to get spooky fiction written down? In fiction, one would think, we’re not restricted by simple visual and auditory mediums. We’ve got the whole of the reader’s imagination to stimulate, right? One of the key ingredients is the same ingredient you’d use in any fiction piece: tension. The best horror sequences I’ve ever read didn’t benefit from grotesquery, but from the unknown, the behind-the-scenes mysteries that keep everyone on the edge of their seat, including the reader. 

Just compare The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the book to the various movie adaptations. In the book, you never actually see the Headless Horseman, you only hear of its legend. In the movie, generally, you’re going to get ol’ HH himself, galloping through the mist and chunkin punkins. Could a movie have been filmed without the HH? Sure, but that would have required a master stroke, and master strokes are rare birds and generally don’t make a lot of money.  

For example: The Shining. A creepy book as well as a creepy movie. But the movie was different from the book in many ways. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance wasn’t really that good of a fit. Torrance was really just a regular-looking guy, a teacher-archetype from the New England states, who was slowly losing his mind and had a penchant for booze. Nicholson looked crazy from the get go, though, and in the film, it worked.

In the book, little Danny was hounded by the hedges, and in one particularly terrifying sequence, was running away from them, and every time he turned around they were a little closer, but he never actually saw them moving. The hedges played a pivotal role in the movie, as well, but in an entirely different way. They were more representations of the family’s isolation and fear. But in both applications it worked out very well. The movie business doesn’t benefit from the imagination of the audience as it does in fiction, so Kubrick adapted the story to fit what the audience could respond best to. 

Granted, there are times when one of those master stroke movies feeds the audience’s imagination, but with most movies, any thinking about what’s going on comes later. While the movie’s running, there’s too much sensory input to involve the imagination. Take the Blair Witch Project. What really made that movie a master stroke was the involvement of the audience’s imagination. The witch of the movie, the horrible horror out in the woods, was never actually seen at all. But the movie was no less scary for it. The movie incorporated tension and let you, the audience, imagine the horrors that lurked. Jaws was the same way; although you did get to see the shark, it didn’t come until later, and by that time you were already freaked out about it. 

But back to fiction…
So how do I, as a writer, get that level of tension in my own stories? Well, we’ve got to learn first to separate horror from humor. Sometimes horror can be funnier than we want it to be. It can be a nice break for the reader when you incorporate some humorous elements into the story, but why would we want to cut them any slack? We want them crapping their pants and sleeping with the light on. We don’t want them comfortably chuckling as they take off their glasses, put the book on the nightstand and turn out the light, going softly to sleep thinking cheerful, funny thoughts. 

For instance, refer back to the short sentence I wrote above, about chewing the arm gristle with a baby bib around your neck. That’s humor, not horror. It may not be very good humor, but you get the idea. For it to be horrible, the main thing we need is to be able to connect with the character whose arm is being chewed, be able to visualize the monster that’d doing the chewing, and forget about the bib altogether. Nothing funny. No humor. Immerse them in fear. Tangle their hair with rats nests and grind their nails to the quick with naked stone. Keep their hearts pounding with the tension that never abates, that only builds and grows. Write to the beat of a different drum, one that only sounds with regular, booming bass: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Make them feel it. 

Sounds easy when you put it like that, doesn’t it? I know, me too. But here’s the point of this rambling article: I don’t think there’s much good horror being written right now. I ready Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and it was pretty good, but in recent memory I can’t remember a book that really got me creeped out. It may be that the public doesn’t want it right now, or it could be that publishers are playing it safe and staying away from the really high-tension stuff. But I think the public does want it, and it may just be that it’s a genre worth exploiting.

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