This is part two of a three-part journal on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson, a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987.  Part one covered chapters 1-8.

In my first post, I mentioned how strikingly similar the advice is to that found in On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007.  I’ve still found this to hold true.  I don’t mean that as a slight against either work, as the essays in both are unique to the authors.  For me, this reinforces that the advice found within each work has a certain timeless quality to it even though markets have changed.

Stepping Into the Shadows, Charles Grant

Grant opens by telling us that the main purpose of horror “is to tell a story that will, somewhere along the line, give the reader a chill, a shiver, a good scare.”  Without that, the story won’t work.  In order to set up a situation that will deliver, Grant prefers “shadows more than daylight.”

What Grant is getting at is that horror is not about the shock value.  While shock can and often does have its place in modern horror, it is not the purpose.  Well-described scenes of violence are, in Grant’s words, “unimaginative and untalented”.  The reaction to such scenes are not fear, but revulsion.  Shock is but one tool in the toolbox of the horror writer.

Grant prescribes three elements for good horror, all of which he feels must be present.

The first element is sympathetic characters.  We must have characters that are likable.  Or if not entirely likable, the characters must be someone the reader cares about.

The second element is tension.  We can’t just throw the reader into the midst of the storm, we must let them see it brewing on the horizon first.

The last element is fantasy.  Grant is talking about avoiding rehashing old monsters.  To keep our horror fresh, we must use fresh monsters.  Monsters are literalizations of our fear.  Grant’s main point here is that we can keep our monsters fresh by working with the unknown.

I think Grant is right about these three elements, and I also agree that while shock is a tool in the horror writer’s toolbox, it is by no means the necessary for good horror.  One of the reasons I love H. P. Lovecraft is that he often keeps the horror out of sight, leaving the most frightening aspects for the work of the reader’s imagination.

Innocence and Terror–The Heart of Horror, Robert R. McCammon

Horror is about the human condition.  McCammon finds an excellent example for this premise in “A Christmas Carol”.  But it seems that even back in 1987 horror carried the stigma of being little more than shock and gore.  Yeah, I know, probably even well before 1987 horror carried this stigma.  But McCammon has a great point, that horror is more than raw emotion.  In order for it to do its job well, horror must also appeal to the intellect.

Humanity is what’s missing from bad horror fiction.  How can a reader feel the delicious anticipation of fear if the book has no humanity, if the characters aren’t real enough to reach out and touch, if the world that book represents is not detailed and colored and lavished with attention?

McCammon also refers to innocence, which one may find a strange topic for horror.  The concept raised my curiosity.  What he’s referring to, though, isn’t necessarily the innocence of the characters, but the sense of wonder the author brings to the work.  I think this ties back to Grant’s notion of reinventing our monsters to keep the work fresh.  Much of this article, I would say, supports the same concepts as Grant addressed.

What it boils down to for me is that horror–any good fiction, actually–must be about the human condition.  I’ve often heard some of the best work in Science Fiction–you know, those that transcend the genre–as being in tune with the human condition, but rarely have I heard the phrase used in praise of horror.  I try to make the work more about the people, because I think that we can best evoke emotions of fear by pulling the reader along through real situation with real people.

Finally, McCammon urges us as writers to have the courage to tackle complex issues.  As I read this, I thought of Stephen King (of course).  His work often touches on or represents complex social issues.  The Stand has as a major element the breakdown of technology and the ways in which it has failed humanity.  I would also say The Dark Tower series has much of the same ideas around technological breakdown at its core.  Carrie, which I just finished rereading, is all about the severe cruelty that adolescents are capable of.

So I think the key here is to keep our work in tune with humanity.  The more we make the work about the human condition, the more likely we are to connect with the issues–simple or complex–that are dear to our readers.

World Building in Horror, Occult, and Fantasy Writing, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Bradley’s article is all about setting the rules for your work.  She tells us that horror isn’t necessarily about the supernatural, and that you accomplish good world building through doing your homework.

She refers to isolation as being a tremendously useful element in horror, but that creating believable isolation is difficult.  With today’s ever-connected society, it seems nearly impossible to create believable isolation.  I blame the cell phone.  Too often we see the old “No Signal” bit pulled in movies and stories.  John August has a nice little write-up on his blog called “No signal” is the new air duct.  So how do we deal with building worlds?

Bradley has some good advice in her piece, which I won’t recap here.  But I will touch on a few items that are important to me.

First, she brings up the idea of superheros, and the difficulties the early Superman comics had in finding stories because he was, well, Superman.  He could do anything.  No one could relate, and there was no way to beat him.  The horror writer has a similar problem in the Devil.  Weak horror often calls upon the Devil as the stock representation of evil.  She goes on to discuss Stoker’s Dracula as an excellent example for setting boundaries for your bad guy.  She recounts a passage where Dr. Van Helsing explains all the limits on the vampire, which serves as a great example for how the horror writer can keep the bad guy from being “the Devil”.  In my thesis novel, I originally set out with a bad guy that was too awesome.  As I’ve worked through it, I whittled away all his awesome superpowers and tried to put constraints in place that could be used against him.

The other piece in Bradley’s article that stuck with me is near the end.  Bradley says,

The major choice, then, for the writer of horror, fiction or nonfiction, is to choose between limited and unlimited views of reality–the horrors of the tabloid writer, the true-crime addict, or the specialist in abnormal psychiatry, whether or not the unknown belongs to a different order of reality–to choose between the worlds, in fact, of the policeman, the priest, or the parapsychologist.

I think she does a nice job of distilling horror worlds down in that last part.  While the work may not contain a policeman, a priest, or a parapsychologist, the world represented in any horror novel could likely be represented by one of them.  I considered my thesis novel from this perspective, and I found that I had blended worlds–probably too much.  I was working in both the world of the police and the world of the priest.  I might be able to make it work, but I think by choosing one I’ll get better focus on the story.

Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess, Darrell Schweitzer

I’ll say up front that I didn’t have much interest in this article, simply because I don’t have much interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction.  I love Conan as much as the next guy, but I don’t have any interest today in working in the genre.  Schweitzer admits as much in the opening of his article, so I don’t feel bad admitting it.

Schweitzer gives a good list of pointers on how to write sword-and-sorcery, which I won’t recount here.  If you’re into writing such a thing, and you’re looking for some pointer, this is a definite read.

But once I finished, I realized that there was something in horror that relates.  If you’re a Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi fan, you probably already guessed.  Both Army of Darkness and My Name is Bruce do a wonderful job as horror parodies by taking the elements of a horror story and telling them using the elements of sword-and-sorcery.  So while this article wasn’t about genre blending, it gave me a little insight into why those movies work as parodies.

Science Fiction: Hard Science and Hard Conflict, Michael A. Banks

This article is a three-stage guide to help those intimidated by the idea of writing science fiction.  Why would one be intimidated?  Banks tells us, and I think rightly so, that many writers shy away from it because of the science aspect.  What Banks explains is that you don’t need to have a deep scientific background to write science fiction, but only a “technical orientation”.

The first stage he discusses is deciding how much the technical details will play in the story.  If the technology is just part of the setting, then there’s no need go any deeper than you would in discussing airplanes just because your character got on a plane.  But if the technology is part of the conflict, then you’d better be ready to go into deep detail to support the story.

The second stage is to acquire the knowledge.  Banks give plenty of examples on how he collects knowledge, largely by leveraging people around him, or by reading contemporary hard science fiction.

In the third stage, Banks describes how to work the science in without being obvious.  He tells us to think of it like developing a character, and give much of the same advice found in character development.  Avoid information dumps, use only necessary details, and if all else fails, have on character explain something to another.  But not in a contrived way.

While his article addresses using science in fiction, I think his last points are relevant for how a writer in any genre can incorporate uncommon facts into a story.  As writers, we need to be sensitive to what our readers are likely to know so that we can avoid bludgeoning them with common facts and enlighten them discreetly when needed.

Researching Science Fantasy, Sharon Baker

Baker’s article, like the previous article by Banks, discusses research related to Science Fiction.  Yeah, you probably got that from the title.  But her angle is a little different.  Instead of talking about researching facts, she addresses a few places to draw from to create a plausible background.

The first place she discusses is people.  I found it interesting that part of her research involved shadowing a cop, because slavery played an important part of the world she was building.  She did this because she drew a connection and realized that prostitutes served as a real-world analogy to the slaves in her work.

She provides several detailed examples on other places she drew from, which include:

  • Semetic languages, used as a model to develop a new language
  • The Merck Manual of symptoms and treatments to develop a poison and its cure
  • Oral Tradition and Middle Eastern Myth to develop a new mythology
  • Personal experience with loss
  • Ancient Middle Eastern Architecture to develop unique city structures

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these items is a catch-all approach for accomplishing world building, but I do believe that what Baker demonstrates is the need to be observant and resourceful.  She found and used as many parallels in reality as possible when developing her work, and drawing on reality adds to a story’s plausibility.

Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death, Ramsey Campbell

Campbell’s article addresses the issue we all face of keeping our writing fresh.  He says that while some people claim there’s nothing new in horror, that the situation isn’t as bad as it may sound.  According to Campbell, “many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.”  I can agree with that.  I think that anything that touches on the human condition is timeless.

The first advice he gives on avoiding what’s been done is to be true to yourself.  By that, he means to keep in touch with your genre by being well read, but also to read outside your genre.  See your work as part of a larger art.  He also suggests that you find your own voice.  This is not new advice for me, but it bears repeating because it’s so critical to developing your work.

He goes on to discuss how the idea of evil in horror is often presented “in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless–something vague out there that causes folks to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us.”  I have struggled with this myself.  For evil to work in horror, it must be more than “the Devil” (to borrow from Bradley’s article).  We must put a face on it, make it tangible, and show how it relates to our characters and our readers.  We can accomplish this by making the evil real to us, as the writer, to get us more involved with the work and draw our own emotional charges onto the page.

Another point of advice Campbell gives is that “the best way for a writer to compete is with oneself, to do better than one did last time.”  I think this is often an overlooked bit of advice, but one that can help a writer focus better.  When you compete with someone else, you’re using an external measure to gage your work.  Which can be okay, but how can you be sure that the external work you’re using is right?  I’ve found that once I stopped wanting to write like [insert favorite author here], my work began to develop at a much quicker pace.  I can never be like any other writer, or if I am, then I can never be better.  Too often we see log lines like “the next Stephen King,” or “the next Dean Koontz.”  In the sense of marketing, having such statements on a book is okay.  But the writer should never think like that.  I don’t want to be the next Stephen King–the world already has one.  I want to be the first David L. Day.

Campell provides a few other points of advice, such as over-writing in the first draft, combining unrelated ideas, and leaving yourself a ragged edge at the end of a work session.  All of these are fine advice, but I think the best point of this article is that of competing with yourself.

Why Novels of Fear Must do More than Frighten, Dean R. Koontz

Koontz’s second article in the book covers going beyond the scare in horror.  He tells us that works of horror “often fail to achieve the effect they seek because they are trying to do nothing else but scare the reader.  Fear cannot be generated in a vacuum.”  We must evoke other emotions.  This article reiterates advice found in those by Grant and McCammon.

Koontz tells us that we can get at those other emotions by making our characters both empathetic and sympathetic.  Absolutely.  Our readers must care about and like our characters.  Not new advice, but good reinforcement.  What Koontz delivers here that aren’t in the other articles are five common errors committed by new writers.  I’ll sum them up, but the article is worth the read.

  1. Characters must not act irrationally and must not get into trouble due to stupid decisions
  2. Characters must not be passive
  3. Lead characters must not be superheros who always succeed
  4. Characters must have lives shown outside the central story
  5. Lead characters must be concerned with more than just their own fate

It’s the first time I’ve encountered a list like this, and I think they’re all good things to watch for.  Missing any one of these can lead to two-dimensional characters that the reader either won’t like or won’t care about.  I struggle with number four, and often forget to show that characters have lives that go on outside the main story line.  But without it, can the reader ever really get to know the character?  I don’t think so.  We can learn a lot about a person by the little, daily interactions they have.  We don’t need to weigh down our work with every little detail, but the right details in the right place will help the reader develop a full picture of our characters.

The Supernatural? Naturally!, J. N. Williamson

I don’t think there’s a good way to summarize this article, so I won’t even try.  What I got from it is that we need to approach horror as fantasy, and need to allow ourselves as reader to engage in the fantastic.  Williamson talks about being comfortable with the ideas of the supernatural to write horror.  I can get behind that.  What most intrigued me, though, was the extent to which Williamson talks about his own shifting beliefs as a driver for his work.  His beliefs serve to build story credibility and guide his work because, he says, “most people want to believe what the majority of other persons believed or have believed.”  I think the core of his advice is:

Consequently, if I, as an author, can buttress the otherwise-improbable premises of my work by what was accepted as real or true by a large number of my fellow human beings, it stands to reason that I am more acceptable in my fictive intrigues, prepared to arouse, convince, and hold the attention of readers for the time it takes to read that fictional work.

When I stop to consider my work, I realize there’s a reason for the heavy use of western religious elements.  I had a lot of exposure to many flavors of Christianity as a child, as well as a good sampling of Eastern religions.  I find my strongest work comes out when I use these elements, and it seems that my strong belief–at least at one time in my life–in these elements is one reason for this.  Working with what we believe adds to the realism of our stories.  It’s one aspect to writing honestly, because if we don’t believe in what we’re writing, neither will our readers.

This wraps up part two.  Part three will be a couple weeks out.  Until then, peace.

This is the first of three posts on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson.  The book is a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987.

Late last year I did a series of posts on On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa

  1.  Twenty years separate the publication of these two books, but so far I haven’t found anything other than the market survey that really differentiate the two.  I’ve commented before that information repeated across authors is usually good advice, and I think that’s still true.  But, I’m a little disappointed that I haven’t found anything new here.  Yet.

The Editor’s Forward: Certain of What We Do Not See, J. N. Williamson

Williamson give a brief survey of the markets, then dives into providing definitions for the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres.  What I found most interesting is that Williamson states very clearly that the book was published:

…to help you write publishable novels or stories for the three genres coexisting beneath that umbrella term, fantasy: horror, or dark fantasy; science fiction; and fantasy itself.

I think it’s important to remember that horror, science fiction, and fantasy really fall under this one umbrella of fantasy.

Introduction: How to Write Horribly for Fun and Profit, Robert Bloch

I would sum up Bloch’s article as: Let the story dictate genre and length.

According to Bloch, hackwork flooded the market at that time (his words, not mine).  And most of that work consisted of ideas stretched to meet commercial needs.  He says that the difference between current authors and those who endured is that the enduring authors had something to say and knew how to say it.

He says of horror that some of the work succeeds on the “fast-read” level, but that he doubts it will endure.  He also thinks that the films of the day were an influence on the “heavy-handed sex and violence” that permeated horror and had little to do with story.

Then he gets to the most interesting part.  He talks about interior logic, and how it poses a problem for horror fiction.  Nightmares are “…inconsistent and episodic.”  But to scare a reader, the writer must present the premise in a logical framework.  I have struggled with this in my writing.  When I have ideas or inspiring dreams (nightmares), they do come in clips, often laden with personal symbolism that reinforces them as frightening.  To turn those ideas into a story, I have to work at wrapping a presentable, logical framework around them.  Although performing that transformation is challenging, it helps to clarify the original idea into something much more meaningful.  I also find that the process brings out opportunities for originality, which Bloch believes is necessary for success.

Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds, Ray Bradbury

Bradbury discusses an idea also found in Stephen King’s On Writing: stories are found things.  He does this by describing his own personal development as a writer.  He wrote fast, he wrote a lot, and he let himself make mistakes.  He wound up with an interesting process: he keeps lists of nouns and periodically reviews them for items that seem to click together into a story.  He also learned that his “…characters would do [his] work for [him].”   The more he worked through his process, the more ideas he built, and the more stories he developed.

Bradbury sums up his creative habit as such:

If I had not made up these prescriptions for Discovery I would never have become the jackdaw archaeologist or anthropologist that I am.

I’m discovering the same thing in my development.  Working on a story is more like discovering than creating.  I think it’s a little difficult for my critique partners–or will be soon–as I often submit things out of sequence.  But, it’s how the story comes around for me.  I set an idea down, I pull together some characters, and I let them work it out.  As the story takes shape, I discover new facets and characters that I feel must have been present all along, I just hadn’t seen them yet.  The more I write, the more I uncover.  That could lead to wandering and voluminous work, but I temper it with economy of language.

I think the metaphor of writer as archaeologist works for me, so I’ll hang onto it for now.

Plotting as Your Power Source, J. N. Williamson

I have mixed reactions to Williamson’s essay on Plot.  He breaks it down into 4 parts.

​1. Defining the Plot

Williamson claims hat all novels must have a sense that things are going somewhere.  One can hardly disagree:

…a plot is not an idea, one fairly well-rounded character, a flurry of conversation climaxed by a quarrel, kiss-and-make-up, and a cheery platitude.  That is a vignette.

So what is plot?  I had a little trouble picking out a clean definition, other than it’s the mechanism to keep things moving forward.  He cites Koontz’s article (later in the book) by saying plot is the skeleton, reiterates that plot is the sense of things moving forward, calls it “…a means of transportation for the characters in your fiction,” and again cites Koontz as saying that plot is the “most demanding task that a novelist must face…”.  So plot is what keeps the story moving forward.   I’m not entirely sure that’s a workable definition, but there’s nothing I can’t accept in it.

To me, plot is the connecting threads under all the scenes in a story.  It’s why all the pieces of a story are present, what makes them related.  That’s not so different from Williamson’s definition, nor any clearer.

​2. Plotting Unpredictably

Williamson states pretty clearly that, for the genres in question, the best stories have plots that contain unpredictable elements.  Again, I can agree with Williamson.  The best horror stories are those that take the reader by surprise at some point.

​3. Plotting with the Outline

Here is where my opinion diverges from Williamson.  This is the old argument for Plotting as opposed to “pantsing” (making it up as you go along).  I’m still working out which is right for me, but I suspect that most writers are actually neither.  Sure, we can plan the work out up from all we want, but at some point while we’re writing, things will change.  A plan is not the final product, and there’s no way to know what will and won’t work until you get to it.  I prefer to get into the work.  When I want to, I can be prolific.  I don’t mind wasting words on the page if it helps me work out the story.  In fact, that’s plotting, right?  It just so happens that I plot better during my writing process and not before it.

That aside, Williamson provides some more advice:

  • Start everything in the middle of action.  Too many works start with exposition.  He blames this on working without an outline, but the self-editing process can excise the extra verbiage.  What harm is it if it helps me think, so long as I take it out later?
  • End with all significant questions answered.
  • Every crisis must advance the plot, show more about your characters, and show more about the “enigma that resides at the soul of your plot.”
  • Follow expository scenes with action scenes.
  • Use a thesaurus.

​4. The Art of Plotting

I wasn’t clear on what Williamson was getting at in this last section.  I think he’s trying to say that plotting is essential to producing good art.  I agree if he’s saying that all good stories need a good plot, but I still disagree with the idea that outlining is the only means of producing a good plot.  Once again, he cites Koontz, and the quote is worth repeating:

The purpose of fiction is communication, and if the work is not read, the purpose is not fulfilled.

Very true.  But there’s still nothing to refute the idea that there are many ways of producing a good plot.  The idea that a writer must use an outline to plot is very narrow-sighted, in my opinion.  The writer must learn what works for them.

Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction, Mort Castle

Castle centers his essay around the idea of story time.  In order to effectively draw the reader into story time, the writer must create credible fiction.  And, the key to credibility, in Castle’s opinion, is setting and character.

These items are more important in horror (actually, any fantasy) because, by the very nature of the genre the reader is already asked to accept some wild “What-if”.  In order to keep the reader immersed in sustainable suspension of believe, everything around the story’s wild premise must be as believable as possible.  So Castle suggests that we keep the everything else (setting and character) as grounded in reality as possible.

He provides two reasons for such.

  • Readers are familiar with the ordinary, and relate to it without the writer having to put significant work into building that relationship.
  • Horror happens with the extraordinary infringes upon the ordinary.

I to agree with both of these ideas.  The most terrifying stories are those with characters and settings to which we can relate.  It takes the story from an idea to a demonstration of possibility in our lives.

One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction, Steve Rasnic Tem

Why is creating character in SF/F/H any different that other genres?  Tem tells us that the idea that characters in our genre are simply ordinary folks tossed into extraordinary conditions is false.  The concept ignores that stories are made things–artifacts that the writer uncovers and develops.  Characters cannot be separated from their context, so the writer must develop a context that helps the reader understand how the fantastic characterizes the protagonist (or presumably any character).  He references the Twilight Zone, and how it made consistent use of “something wrong…dropped into the midst of [a] highly realistic context.”  The best writers use this situation of a strange situation to “peer more deeply into the souls of the characters”.

Tem goes on to discuss dream characterization, based on a theory of “gestalt dream interpretation” that “suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer.”  Tem suggests this idea can be used in horror if the writer consider that everything in a story that’s not the protagonist is still representation of the protagonist in some way.  I find this an interesting approach, but I think it breaks in very complex stories, or stories where the protagonist and the POV character are different.

Detail is also more important in SF/F/H than in other genres, according to Tem.  He states that in science fiction, “people and communities characterized by the devices…they choose to surround themselves with.”  And that in horror, the reader needs to focus on detail to better understand the character, and possibly recognize things about the characters they either ignore or deny.

Finally, Tem links character and plot, stating that using plot to characterize just extends the idea of characterization through action.  He suggests that if working in the context of dream characterization, that those actions that happen to a character must also be considered reflections of the character.  Sounds like karma to me.

Where do we find ideas for characters?  Tem says:

Once you have developed a process of characterization that is intimately connected to all the elements of a story, you will be able to find complete and compelling characters just about anywhere.

But he doesn’t leave it there.  He actually provides a list of things that might inspire character, including: anxiety, autobiographies, fear, obsession, dark folk tales, and the anxieties of an era.

I think Tem provides an interesting framework–dream characterization–for developing characters, but I’m not convinced it would apply broadly.  As I said before, I think if the POV character is different from the protagonist, then it would be difficult for the POV character to get an exact lens on how the work around him is a reflection of some other character.  But, maybe I’m wrong.  This is something I’ll have to play with later to figure out.

“Oh, Just Call Me Cuthbert”: The Naming Game, Thomas Millstead

What’s in a name?  Millstead says there’s a lot, and that as writers we must pay attention to the “vast importance of names in tales intended to chill, thrill, or enthrall.”  Providing good names is important in all fiction, but Millstead tells us it is even more important in the fantasy genres because they strive to get at something deeper and become more than just representational of reality.

What makes the fanciful real, what fives it substance, is a name so apt that, in retrospect, it could be nothing else.

That seems pretty daunting at first.  I think he’s right–names are critical because they usually are a reader’s first brush with the things they represent.  We introduce characters and places and things by name, or we withhold the name (on rare occasion) to create impact later in the story.  They have to be the right names.

How do we get the names right?  Millstead tells us there are no criteria for picking the right ones, just an underlying precept.  The names must be compatible with the tone and texture of the story.  Don’t make the names an afterthought.  Avoid making hasty decisions, and pinning on names that are drab, suggest the wrong ethnic or social backgrounds, or overlap in sound.

Involving Your Reader from the Start, William F. Nolan

Nolan tells us that, “…the acid test of a story is its opening.  A good story should leap off the page, grab you by the throat, and demand, ‘Read me!’”.

That pretty much sums up the article.  The rest is a listing of about 20 opening lines from his own work.  They are interesting to review, and are good demonstrations of opening lines that grab.

He closes by saying that we live in a fast society, submerged in a variety of media, and that in order for writers to compete they must produce works that seize the reader’s attention.  If you don’t get them quickly, they have plenty of other options to explore.  This article is copyright 1987.  It was true then, and even more true now.  As technology has blossomed, our readers have plenty of other options for entertainment.  We might like to pretend that the written art is somehow “better” than television or movies, but I would reiterate the Koontz quote from earlier:

The purpose of fiction is communication, and if the work is not read, the purpose is not fulfilled.

To be read, the writer must learn to compete effectively against the other media outlets.  Grab the reader as quickly as possible, and never let go until the end.

Freedom of Originality in Fantastic Fiction–and How to Use It, James Kisner

Kisner claims that the genres in question give the writer more opportunity for originality than the others.  The writer must train his imagination to recognize for two reasons.  First, “the mind is easily fooled into grasping the obvious and claiming it for its own.”  Second, he says that beginning writers are told incorrectly that there’s nothing new–it’s all been done before.

How do we urge originality?  Kishner reiterates what all writers should be doing:  read and study.  The more work a writer is exposed to the more likely they are to avoid the mundane.  He suggests that the writer who keeps notes on original works and analyzes those works considered original is better able to find originality in his own work.  Kishner also reiterates the now familiar advice of reading across genres.

He cautions against letting a single work define what is original, and also states there is danger in reading too much.  Apparently the key is to read just the right amount.  I jest.  I think the advice here is correct, but it’s not new by today’s standards.

There is one place to use as a sort of ‘originality checker’ that I was not familiar with.  He suggests getting writer’s guidelines from publishers, as they will often include a list of things to avoid.  So far, I’ve only encountered one such list, but I also have yet to start marketing any book-length fiction.

I agree originality is important, but I think Kisner missed one item that can spark originality.  As T. S. Eliot said:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost - and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

I think originality can also be encouraged by placing constraints on yourself.  Back yourself into a corner and see how you get out.

Creating Fantasy Folk, Ardath Mayhar

Mayhar provides two means for developing fantasy folks–by which he means anything not existing, not just elves, etc.

  1. Begin with a world and its characteristics, then figure out what kind of creatures could live there.
  2. Begin with a creature that has to be a certain way, then develop the context around it.

These seem obvious to me.  Mayhar provides a couple examples, but I didn’t find anything very interesting in either of these.

But, he does wrap up with some very important advice.  As writers, we can’t let the plot get overwhelmed by explanations of our fantastic creatures.  Whatever information a reader needs to understand our creatures must come out naturally in the narrative and dialog.  They must be treated as any other character:

Its appearance and habits must come through observation of the being in action.

I thought of Lovecraft when I read this, who is at times given to providing long explanations of his creatures.  I think that may be part of why some readers are less than thrilled with his work.  In other words, “Show, don’t tell.”

Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat, Dean R. Koontz

Koontz introduces two kinds of suspense: light, and dark.  The light kind of suspense it the roller coaster ride, something fun and desirable.  The darker kind “strains your heart, breaks your spirit.”  He says that only in fiction do we actually seek both kinds of suspense, because fiction is vicarious.  Readers are drawn toward tales that can show how to face tragedy with dignity.

Koontz cautions us against confusing action for suspense, and says that action can only be suspense if the writer understands:

​(1) suspense in fiction results primarily from the reader’s identification with and concern about lead characters who are complex, convincing, and appealing; and (2) anticipation of violence is infinitely more suspenseful than the violence itself.

I agree with Koontz, but I think the first is another way of saying that the reader must care for your characters.  That’s common advice among my reading.  I think the second point is the key.  Anticipation serves the writer better than well-described acts of violence.  To be fair, I’ve engaged in the latter, but that doesn’t make it right.  You give the reader more when you build up anticipation.

Koontz continues to tell us that good, likable characters are important for horror because the best horrors are those we find lurking inside the hearts and minds of people.  In order to get our reader to come down that path, we must present them with characters whose heads they want to get into.

One piece I’ve not heard emphasized before is the importance of style.  Koontz claims it is as important as characterization and anticipation because it is the flow of words on the page that carry the reader along.  The downside of this advice, in my opinion, is that style is only developed, not learned.  I’ve been working on understanding my style the past six months, and it’s a challenge.

I’m a couple weeks into my second term in Seton Hill’s MA WPF program.  My thesis is a marketable horror novel, targeted at 350 pages.  My personal goal is to complete the 1st draft by the end of this term, and spend the rest of my program editing and revision.  Or rewriting if my mentors so command.

None of that is particularly interesting, but they’re facts that lay the groundwork for what’s been on my mind lately. Every professional writer develops their own flavor of discipline, without which they would be unable to sustain professional standing.  It’s actually pretty common among most successful people regardless of profession to develop a habit around their chosen work.  What I’ve been interested in is how writers measure their progress?

Last term I measured my progress in terms of word count.  It seems reasonable since the publishing industry is largely word count driven.  Every submission guideline includes a word-count limit.  The industry has accepted word-counts attached to novels in each genre.  For instance, horror novels range around 300-400 pages, but an epic fantasy comes closer to 700 pages.

What I found, when I measured word count, was that I spent too much time generating words to reach that count.  It became too easy to wander on the pages, adding words here and there to meet a necessary but arbitrary goal of 500 words per day.  I did pretty well–although Stephen King recommends shooting for at least 1000 per day.  But I had to ditch a lot of it due to the bad behavior that specific goal encouraged.

For this term, I’ve opted to measure my progress in terms of pages, a page being roughly equal to 250 words.  My goal is to write 4 pages per day, or 1000 words per day to align with King’s recommendation.  If you’re familiar with On Writing, you’ll know that King actually counts a page as 200 words, but for my purpose 4 is as good a stepping stone as 5.  I’ll ratchet my goal up another notch next term.

Does it really matter?  I put some thought into this over my break, and these past few weeks have shown my hunch correct.  Yes, I write better when my goal is page count over word count.  I focus better on the story and don’t worry at all about producing dense copy.  Before, I would work in extra words.  But now, I can write whole pages of dialog, which tends to be pretty sparse in terms of words per page, and still make my goals.  I just don’t care, because a page is a page.

In addition, it helps to remember that word count for a publisher is really a means of estimating number of printable pages.  They take the word count, divide by around 250 (I think this varies), and arrive at page count.  Novelists don’t get paid by the word, and I wouldn’t want paid that way anyhow.  My goal is to write well-told stories with efficient, emotionally charged language, not drudge on for miles, taxing both the reader and myself by counting every step along the way.

Just got back from residency orientation @ Seton Hill.  It’s nice to be back, even if it meant driving 4 hours through snow.  I had a great break, had a couple of good reads while I was off.  First was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a very entertaining science fiction book.  It’s not my typical flavor, but it kept me reading, full of good action and interesting characters.

My other read was The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 20, edited by Stephen Jones.  It’s filled with some excellent short horror from 2008, and definitely worth the time.  It’s late, I’m tired, so I won’t do any sort of review of them, but here’s a list of the one’s that appealed most to me:

  • It Runs Beneath the Surface, by Simon Strantzas
  • These Things We Have Always Known, by Lynda E. Rucker (my favorite of the lot)
  • Through the Cracks, by Gary McMahon
  • The Camping Wainwrights, by Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Oram County Whoosit, by Steve Duffy (excellent story in the vein of Lovecraft)
  • The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates, by Stephen King
  • 2:00 pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives, by Steve Rasnic Tem

That last one verges on poetic.  It’s shorter than this post, a mere 3 sentences, but paints a beautifully horrific picture and punches you in the end.  Loved it!

And now, I’m off to see if I can wrap up some stuff before getting into the groove tomorrow.

I’ve been on break from school since beginning of November, so I took the opportunity to brush up on mechanics.  Specifically, I took a much-needed browse through the old Elements of Style.  Good little book.  But, I wanted more.  So, I found a more contemporary take on style, Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale.  It’s longer than Elements.  There’s plenty of praise for the book out in the wild; I’ll say I’m glad I took the time to read it as well.  How do I know?  Some of my writing from as recent as a year ago makes me cringe.  [sigh]  Shortly after I finished, I set about some serious revision work on a few older short stories.

I just started reading Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, the reading selection for my January writer’s residency.  I’ve not decided if I’ll do any journal posts or not on it, since it’s not Horror.  First impressions [2 chapters]: Scalzi makes good use of the CDF contract as a framing device for providing background information to the reader; he does an equally good job of slipping in a space elevator explanation during casual conversation.  Those are just the first two things that came to mind; I am enjoying it as well.

Finally, I’ve started work on new short story based on the name of a character that I’ve carried around for a few years.  I didn’t mean for it to be a zombie story – already tried my hand at zombies once – but… it’s a zombie story.

BTW - Beware the Krampus!