Another Round of How-To, Part 3

David | Apr 7, 2010 min read

This is the last 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; part two covered chapters 9-18.

The advice found in these final chapters still mirrors advice found in the wonderful On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007. But here’s one thing I’ve learned from reading both books (and a slew of other How-To books) that’s not actually in either. I’m sick of reading How-To books on writing. In my genre session during last writer’s residency, Dr. Arnzen commented that if all you read are how-to books, then all you’ll be able to write are how-to books. I’ve grown to appreciate his statement. With that, let me get through this and hopefully I’ll be done with anything How-To for a while.

Sexist Stereotypes and Archetypes: What to Do with Them/What the Writing Woman Can Hope For, Jeannette M. Hopper

Hopper starts off with the keen observation that women and men are different kinds of creators and then questions where sexism exists in publishing today (circa 1987). She provides three traditional roles of female characters in SF/F/H and gives a nice breakdown of each.

The stereotypes she discusses didn’t interest me much. I try to avoid stereotypes, be they gender or otherwise, in my writing once I became aware that I was using them–mostly as a result of picking stock characters. They’re relevant and still a problem today (think of the helpless victim), but I feel I’m taking all the right steps to avoid promoting them in my work. The section closes with advice of making your characters unique–advice found time and again in work about characters and characterization.

What did catch my attention, though was her discussion on what struggles a woman writer faces. She talks about how it’s easy for a new woman writer to “blame her lack of success on others’ prejudices.” To me, this argument parallels that of getting published requires being “in the club.” And she uses pretty much the same objections: editors buy good stories. Hopper also provides some interesting discussion on whether there’s intentionally balancing of male and female protagonists, and pretty much boils it back down to the same idea: editors buy good stories.

So if you want to get published, write a good story.

*“They Laughed When I Howled at the Moon”***, Richard Christian Matheson**

Matheson’s piece addresses the closeness of humor and horror. He makes his point with a discussion on Ed Gein, and how jokes popped up pretty much all over Wisconsin within hours of the first news stories. Except for the town where Ed lived and did his dirty work. Why? Matheson says the tension there was too great for anyone to find the humor.

His point is that getting humor into horror requires just the right amount of tension. Too much or too little and the humor is lost. I find that the humor surfaces by itself as I write–which in my case is not often, but I’m okay with that. I find one way is to let the characters break tension with their own form of humor.

*The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy Fiction***, Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.**

Ramsland’s article was a little difficult for me, as she had a lot of psychoanalytical language in it. But, I did get some bits from it that I could relate to. She supports the idea that horror springs from isolation, and gives a unique bent on the idea that it springs from the fact that we can never truly know ourselves because our current moment of experience can never be understood… man, or something like that. Anyhow, however she choose to put it, the idea still comes through. Isolation is a fundamental part of the human experience, and it terrifies us. Horror gives us a place to explore the fear of isolation, and related fears, in relative safety, engaging them vicariously through the characters. And I think she says this goes for both reader and writer, but that the writer goes beyond.

So, for the storyteller, dark fantasy goes beyond just the function of contacting the primal self; it launches him across the spectrum where human existence shades into nothingness, closer and closer to the vulnerability of total individual isolation in the face of destructive forces.

As my work has grown, I have noticed some patterns that show my own fears of isolation. And as I’ve noticed those patterns, I see what makes my work stronger–tackling them head on.

Fantasy and Faculty X, Colin Wilson

When a writer says to himself, “I have an interesting problem…,” he induces in himself the same state of mind a child feels when his mother says, “Once upon a time…” This is the proper starting point of any novel.

Wilson presents an interesting view on the writer’s mindset. He tells us that we have to get right into the scene, become a part of it, and fully visualize it. He compares the this technique to something called Faculty X, an ability to put oneself into another time and place, which he coined for one if his books. The visualization advice is not new to me, but Wilson provided some pretty cool supporting scientific background on the idea.

He tells us how the brain is split into two halves–most of us know this already–each with its own set of abilities. The left is considered the seat of logic and scientific ability, while the right is considered the seat of artistry and conceptualization. He cites research by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga that determined that what we consider ourselves is the left half. Most of us are out of touch with the right half. Further, they discovered that the two halves run at different speeds: the right is slow and the left is fast. And here’s the neat part: the writer (or any productive artist for that matter) works best when the two halves run at the same speed and freely communicate.

I have spent much time trying to figure out why sometimes I can fall into my writing and other times I cannot. I knew vaguely that it had to do with being relaxed, although I also found that much of the time I can get right into it when I’m all jazzed up on caffeine–clearly not a relaxed state. Wilson provides an important answer:

There are two basic methods for re-establishing contact between the two selves. One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down. The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement–the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights–so the right begins to move faster. Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the window and talk…

While what Wilson says may seem simple, it helped me understand that I can use different techniques to achieve the same state of a synchronized mind and get into my writing. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that the excited state works better for me. I’m going to get another cup of coffee…

*A “Do” List for Getting Your Literary Agent***, Mary T. Williamson**

Williamson’s article is pretty standard advice for getting an agent, and why you need an agent. There are a series of recent posts by Jim C. Hines that support the idea using some survey results: First Novel Survey Results. Pretty much, the best bet for getting a novel published (assuming you’ve written a good novel) is through an agent.

So the rest of the article gives tips on things like writing a query letter, submitting only what you’re asked for, and being professional in general. There’s another point to the process that Williamson doesn’t state directly, but I think is very important for writers to recognize. The process is there to ensure quality, but it is also serves to gauge how easy an author is to work with. No one wants to work with a jerk (trust me). Follow the process, listen to instructions, and work with your agent. Getting through the process takes time, but the process is there for a reason. The agent will buffer you from the business aspects and let you concentrate on writing.

Putting It on the Editor’s Desk, Alan Rodgers

Rodgers’ article falls in line with the previous one by Williamson. He provides a list of process considerations the writer should follow when submitting work to an editor. With respect to format, that’s pretty easy: use a standard one. I use William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format guide, and have even developed a set of OpenOffice templates from his guides (he provides templates for WordPerfect).

Rodgers is undecided on a cover letter, and I have no opinion yet either. I haven’t gotten that far in the game yet. I hope to have an agent handle all that stuff for me, but we’ll see.

I found the next part a little funny. This article is copyright 1987, and that’s pretty obvious once Rodgers gets into the protocol around copies. With the advent of home printers, whether or not to send a copy is an unlikely question. Most people will simply print another copy, or take it to Kinko’s (er… FedEx Office) and have another copy run off on high-quality bond. For any agent or editor out there still concerned, relax–I won’t be sending you a carbon copy anything soon. I promise.

The last thing Rodgers covers is simultaneous submissions. I think that’s pretty simple to address today as well, with the major market guides being available online or at the local library. Rule of thumb still holds true, though: no simultaneous submissions. Unfortunately, that’s part of what makes the process of getting either an agent or an editor so long.

*The Mechanics and Mystique of Submitting Your Novel***, Patrick LoBrutto**

Continuing in the vein of the publishing process, LoBrutto brings advice on submitting a novel. Much of it aligns with the previous two articles–get an agent and follow instructions. He also makes mention of some outdated items such as don’t send dot-matrix printouts (I still remember the harsh buzz and scrap of my first dot-matrix printer). Don’t give the editor or agent a reason to toss your manuscript aside unread. Submit professional quality work. All of this advice falls under what he calls the “Writer of the Past”, meaning the long, hard road to publication as an unknown.

The second part LoBrutto calls the “Writer of the Future”. The advice he provides isn’t about some secret shortcut around the publication process; it’s about how to eliminate the element of being an unknown. And his advice boils down to two words: meet people. LoBrutto recommends attending conventions and conferences. Put in some face time with the industry. Meet the people you might send work to. Name recognition helps.

On the subject of conferences, LoBrutto says that at least in SF, the people who attend can be cliquey. Those who attend alone can find themselves feeling left out. I had such an experience the first time I attended the Context convention. I don’t blame anyone there–I chose to go alone, and I had a great time at the workshops. But, I would have felt much more at ease if I had taken a friend with me. It’s like going to any big party–it’s always more fun when you know someone there.

If LoBrutto were writing this article today, I suspect he would also suggest using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to make connections. You don’t have to say a lot or be everyone’s friend, but I’ve found encouragement in seeing how wide a social net I have and how many industry connections I can make through these tools. A writer needs to build a platform, and that means getting name recognition. Use whatever ethical and reasonable means you can to get your face out there.

At first, this might seem contradictory to the “club” mentality–that it’s who you know that gets you published. But I don’t think so. There’s a fine line between being with the “in-crowd” and name recognition. You can build name recognition without being everyone’s friend. I don’t have to be able to call up an agent on their personal line any time I want to have name recognition. You can have name recognition and not be liked. I guess to me that’s the difference. You don’t have to like me, but I want you to recognize my name and the work that’s associated with it.

Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction, Douglas E. Winter

Last term I read Winter’s insightful book on King, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. I found this article equally insightful because he approaches his topic not as a series of rules, but as a series of principles. Where rules enforce boundaries, principles offer guidance. A subtle, yet important, difference. Winter tells us there is no recipe for success when it comes to quality fiction, but that a developing writer can grow their skill by applying these principles. He also makes it clear that his advice isn’t about achieving fame and fortune, and that bestsellerdom “is more often the result of extrinsic factors.” The more I’ve studied the publishing industry and what it takes to be a novelist, the more I’ve come to believe this as well. I believe King said in On Writing, that his Carrie deal was like winning the lottery.

I’m going to stop here. Why? I’ve already done a piece on this article in part five of my series on On Writing Horror. But, I left that earlier paragraph because it seems I’ve learned a little something since I read this article the first time. And, I think this article demonstrates what I’ve said many times already: much of the advice you find on writing is timeless. Markets change, genres blend, but the skills and mindset needed to be a writer have stayed pretty much the same over the years–at least in the 20 years that separate these two books, and most likely for longer. So, here’s what I originally said of this article:

I like how Winter starts. He says there is no recipe for success, but there are principles that provide guidance. Again, he repeats items found elsewhere, but I think that’s okay. I think it’s more than okay, actually. The repetition is a demonstration of the truth, and for all of these writers to say the same thing should indicate that it’s advice worth taking.

Winter offers the following principles:

  • Originality is unachievable if all you do is imitate. Be familiar with the genre, admire other authors, but don’t try to write like them.
  • Originality cannot be taught. Is is something we each much discover.
  • Horror is an emotion, not a genre. Study across genres and look for horror in other places.
  • Readers must have an emotional stake in the characters. Make the reader care. Give the reader the characters’ perception.
  • Juxtaposition of normal and abnormal is much more effective when the normal, or ordinary, is the more pervasive.
  • Everyday life may be mundane, but it is also the mystery at the core of humanity. The fundamental questions we all ask have no answer. Likewise, modern horror is not about the explanation. It is about the mystery itself.
  • Know the boundaries between good taste, bad taste, and taboo - not to stay in one and out of the other, but to make the boundary crossing a conscious decision. A good horror writer will cross the boundaries. (I like this one. I like crossing boundaries and showing people what’s on the other side.)
  • Concentrate not only on shock, or not on shock at all, but on the emotions. Being suggestive can have more impact than being explicit.
  • Don’t be afraid to add social commentary or subtext to the story.
  • Be subversive. Conformity as salvation is a thing of the past, modern horror sees conformity as ’the ultimate horror'.
  • Great horror is rarely about monsters. It is about us.
  • The ending must payout as well as payback. I think that means the ending must survive the cynical sensibilities of the modern reader. It’s not enough for some neat and tidy solution to wrap things up any more. Endings can be messy. I like what he says about the conclusion: “…it is the vehicle by which the reader is awakened from your nightmare and returned to his workaday world.”

Writing horror is a forward-facing activity. We can build on foundations, but as writer’s we should be aware that horror lies not in the tropes, but in the emotions those old tropes used to evoke. How do we go about invoking those emotions in the modern-day reader? That’s a question I’ll probably be asking myself the rest of my life.

I’m still trying to figure that last one out. Give me time, for chrissakes! It’s only been six months since I read it the first time!

Overview of Horror, SF and Fantasy: A long-range Market Study, Janet Fox

And here we are at the end of yet another wonderful series of How-To articles. How better to end than with the most important part of writing popular fiction: the markets.

Fox uses most of the article to give a core listing of markets to help the new writer explore the field. But she introduces it with some alternative sources and markets. She suggests networking, regional magazines, children’s magazine, and tells us that speculative fiction could potentially fit into any market–she cites anecdotal evidence of friends selling to biker magazines. And she’s right. Good fiction succeeds anywhere it’s relevant, not just in the genre magazines.

Since this was mostly market listings, I decided to do a little study of my own. How many of the markets listed by Fox are still operating today? This may not be entirely correct, as I only did my fact checking on Duotrope’s Digest, Wikipedia, and Google.

Still in operation:

  1. Analog (magazine):
  2. Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine (magazine - Asimov’s):
  3. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (magazine - F&SF):
  4. Sword and Sorceress (anthology):
  5. Baen Books (publisher):
  6. Bantam Books (publisher - Bantam Dell):
  7. DAW Books (publisher - under Penguin Group):
  8. Del Ray Books (publisher):
  9. The Donning Company/Publishers (publisher):
  10. Leisure Books (publisher - imprint of Dorchester Publishing):
  11. Tor Books (publisher):
  12. Space and Time (magazine & publisher):

Not in operation (or at least not on Duotrope):

  1. Aboriginal SF (magazine): 1986 - 2001
  2. Amazing Stories(magazine): 1926 - 2005
  3. Dragon Magazine (magazine): 1976 - 2007
  4. Night Cry(magazine): 1985 - 1987
  5. Omni(magazine): 1979 - 1995
  6. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine (magazine): 1981 - 1989
  7. Shadows (anthology): 1978 - 1981
  8. Synergy: The New Review of Science Fiction (anthology): 1987 - 2004 (?)
  9. Fantasy Book (magazine): ? - ? (couldn’t find them on the web)
  10. Fantasy Macabre (magazine): 1980 - 1996
  11. Grue (magazine): 1953 - 2004 (?)
  12. The Horror Show (magazine): ? - ? (David B. Silva now runs Hellnotes)
  13. Pandora (magazine): ? - ? (couldn’t find them on the web)
  14. Eldritch Tales (magazine): 1978 - 1995
  15. Weirdbook (magazine): 1984 - 1997

A little more than half of the markets Fox listed in 1987 are gone. But what that tells us is that the markets are ever-changing. If you search Duotrope for horror markets, it comes back with 265 primary results, so there are still plenty of places publishing horror.

That’s it for this book. In the next week or so, I’ll be posting a journal on Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children. I would have done it sooner, but man… I had to read it twice.

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