Sunday, June 3, 2018

Keep It Brief: Writing Short Stories

Dark and Distant Voices, my fifth short story collection, has just been released. All told, I’ve published over 150 short stories in the thirty-six years since I began writing seriously at the age of eighteen. But when I started writing, I had no special fondness for short stories. I preferred reading novels, and that’s what I wanted to write. But I figured if I wanted to become a professional writer, I should be skilled at writing different types of fiction, so I decided – somewhat grudgingly – to begin working on short stories as well as novels.
Short stories didn’t come easily to me then, and after all this time, they still don’t. They make my brain hurt when I write them. My imagination feels cramped and constrained, and it’s an uncomfortable experience. But you know what? The limits of the short story help focus my imagination and keep it controlled. My imagination – like that of so many artists – is a wild thing that wants to run as fast as it can in all directions at once. Short stories keep it from doing that. And the focus I’ve learned from writing short fiction has helped me write more focused scenes in novels. Plus, short fiction allows me to experiment, to try different narrative approaches and explore different themes, both of which sometime find their way into my novel-length work.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things about writing short fiction over the years, both from doing it myself and teaching others how to do it. What follows is an overview of what I think are the most important considerations when it comes to writing short fiction. Whether you’re a beginning writer or you’ve been doing this for a while, I hope you find something of value below. (And I’m quite aware that there are exceptions for every bit of advice I give. As I tell my students, “The only real rule in writing is that you have to use written language to express ideas. Everything else is simply custom, ways of doing things that in general work most of the time for most readers.”)  
Some Basic Advice
Length: As a rule of thumb, short stories tend to be around 1000-5,000 words (4-20 pages). They of course can be shorter or longer, but this is a solidly marketable range, as well as a good range for beginners. It’s long enough to practice the basics but not so long that writers are too intimidated to revise.
Keep it Simple: Keep your ambitions in check when learning to write short stories. Avoid massive research or worldbuilding. Elaborate research and worldbuilding can make a story so complicated that you can’t properly tend to the basics of characterization, dialogue, etc.
Story Content: Use violence, sex, politics, profanity, religion, etc. when necessary to serve the needs of the story. Don’t try to shock readers with naughty words and sexy scenes or beat them over the head with political or religious messages. The story is what’s most important. But follow market guidelines, too. If a magazine says that it will not publish a story that portrays violence against children, don’t submit that story to that particular market. Editors say beginning writers ignore their guidelines all the time, and it’s a sure way to receive a fast rejection.
Short Time Frame: One way to keep a short story under control – as well as to maximize its intensity – is to limit the events to a relatively short amount of time: minutes, hours, maybe a day or two at most.
Limit the Number of Characters: Only have two or three main characters, and don’t add too many supporting characters. There’s not a lot of room in a short story (obviously), and because of this, you don’t have the opportunity to fully develop more than a couple characters, and there’s only enough time for readers to become emotionally invested in one or two. If you have too many characters in a story, it makes the story too complex for its length and makes it difficult – if not impossible – for readers to connect emotionally.
Limit the Setting: Another way to maintain focus in a short story is to confine the action to one setting. This can be as limited as one room, one house, one street, one town, etc. The fewer settings there are in your story, the fewer times readers’ imaginations will be yanked from one setting and plunked down into another. Such transitions can be jarring for readers, and unless you’re looking to create a such jarring effect, keeping the setting limited works best. 
Point of View: In general, stick to one character’s point of view in a story. As I said above, too many shifts in a story can be jarring for readers. Readers need to time to attach to a point of view in a story, and while novels have plenty of room for readers to become attached to multiple viewpoints, a short story doesn’t.
Simple Story Problem: Stick to one main story problem. Again, novels have room for multiple – and major and minor – story problems. Short stories do not. Stay focused on one story problem, and your story will have more impact on readers.
Scenes: In general, try not to have more than two or three scenes in a short story. Again, for the same reason I keep mentioning: short stories don’t have a lot of room.
Obstacles: Avoid having too many obstacles (because . . . you guessed it: short stories are short). There’s room for a number of simple obstacles, such as a locked door or a character who momentarily doubts another. There’s less room for major obstacles such as an earthquake or a kaiju attack.
Begin Close to the End: One way to keep a story short and focused is to begin telling it as close to the climax as you can. If I was writing a story about a person trying to defuse a bomb, I’d begin with the character already in the process of defusing it, and then I’d work in whatever backstory was needed, probably in the form of short snatches of memory that pass through the person’s mind, distracting him or her while working. Not only is this a great way to keep your story focused, it can maximize story tension as well.
Show Don’t Tell: Don’t tell us your character is an angry person. Show us who the character is through the character’s actions and thoughts, as well as the dialogue of central and supporting characters.
Who Cares About Their Hair?: Describe the physical aspects of characters only when necessary. Again, there’s not a lot of room in a short story, and unless it’s important what color eyes a character has or what sort of clothes he or she is wearing, these details may not only be unnecessary, they may slow the pace of the story.
Background Check: Limit the amount of background information you present on a character’s past. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character had a poodle named Bitsy as a child, then don’t mention the damn dog.
The Most Important Aspect of Character: A character’s personality – his/her psychological make-up – is the most important thing for a writer to know. How does a character meet obstacles, try to obtain goals, react to people, places, changes, challenges, etc.? What is this character like under stress? If you know all these things, then you’ll know what your character will do in a given situation, which will help you plot your story.
Vivid Fiction
Sensory Detail: Beginning writers usually rely on sight and sound in their stories for two reasons. One is that these are the strongest senses humans possess, and therefore we pay the most attention to them. The other reason is because all our visual media is made up of sight and sound, and that’s how we’re used to experiencing stories. No matter how much you read, you’ve probably watched far more movies and TV shows, and played more video games, than you’ve read fiction. So don’t forget to evoke the other senses – taste, smell, and touch – in your fiction. And here’s an important tip. Since taste, smell, and touch are weaker senses for us, we have to be in close proximity (sometimes very close) to whatever it is that we smell, taste, or touch. This means that these three senses are far more intimate than sight and sound and have a greater emotional impact on people. They’ll do the same for your readers.
Don’t Hide What’s Inside: Visual media can’t get inside a character’s head, but written fiction can and should. To make your fiction more vivid and help readers more deeply identify with and attach to your main character, portray his or her internal world, their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, memory connections. Also use psychological comparisons: similes and metaphors. When your main character watches the sun rise, does he or she mentally compare it to anything? “Bob thought the sun rose like a giant orange lollipop in the sky.” That’s a terrible simile, but it tells you something about how Bob perceives the world.
Anchors Aweigh!: We experience the world as an ever-shifting deluge of information that comes from both outside and inside us. To create a sense of this for your readers, use what I call Anchor Points. Use a blend of different techniques – a sense, a thought, a bit of dialogue – to help anchor a scene in reality for your reader.
Conflict = Story: Characters can directly deal with conflict, indirectly deal with it, try to avoid it, try to ignore it, but they are always reacting to it somehow.
Conflict = Plot: The character dealing with conflict is what gives the story its shape and forward momentum.
Use Only as Needed: Don’t let your stories become bogged down with too much unnecessary information. Include only pertinent background information. Try to blend exposition in smoothly, in different places, using varied techniques, and avoid expository lumps. If you’re unsure how to do this, write your first draft without any exposition at all then have someone read it. Ask them to mark places where they have a question about something. Any place they marked is a place where they need more information. Add the least amount of information necessary to answer that question and no more.
Straight to the Point: Dialogue must be purposeful, and each line of dialogue should advance the story. Not just the plot; dialogue should advance our understanding of each character. 
Keep It Real: Remember how people really speak – in fragments, simple words, slang, and they interrupt each other.
He Said, She Said: Keep dialogue attributions simple and to a minimum. Bad: “Look out!” he articulated with great passion. Good: “Look out!” he shouted.
Lights, Camera, Action!: Avoid having action and dialogue take place simultaneously. Bad: “Look out!” Bob said as he fired six shots, hid behind a dumpster, reloaded, stood, and fired again. Good: “Look out!” Bob said. He fired six shots then hid behind a dumpster. He reloaded, stood, and fired again.
Format: Start a new paragraph whenever you switch speakers. Use italics and no quotation marks for internal dialogue. EX: “Hi, Sandra!” God, I can’t stand this woman!
Event-Centered Plot
The event-centered plot is the classic and most commonly used plot design (but this doesn’t mean it’s always the best).
It begins with a character who has a goal.
Character takes steps to reach the goal.
Character encounters obstacles on the way to reaching the goal.
Obstacles force the character to work harder to meet the goal.
Obstacles get worse; the character works even harder to overcome them.
At the climax of story character either . . .
Achieves the goal completely.
Fails completely.
Succeeds or fails partially.
Succeeds or fails in an unexpected way.
The classic plot design is useful for novels because it allows for expansion. Keep the goal relatively simple the obstacles fewer in a short story.
Character-Centered Plot
If the story is intended to focus on a character, then the purpose is for readers to get to know the character and gain insight into that character. Create the character first, then write detailed character notes. Look for aspects of character’s life that will show character at his or her best and/or worst. Search for problems and crisis points. Use these problems and crisis points to develop a plot that reveals character through story action.
Organizational Patterns
Chronological order: This is an obvious one, and as I said earlier, consider beginning close to the climax. Also, it’s okay to skip stuff that’s not important. You don’t need to show your characters arguing for twenty minutes about where to go out to eat. You can just say: Jill and Sam argued for twenty minutes before finally deciding to get pizza. Or can end a scene and begin the next one with Jill and Sam already at the restaurant eating pizza.
Flashbacks: These can be overused. If you’re a beginning writer, I’d suggest keeping them to a bare minimum or leaving them out entirely. But one or two in a short story can be a good way to present exposition in a dramatic way instead of through dry narration.
Alternating Timeframes: I’ve used this technique a lot over the years. I’ll have a present-day story that alternates with a past story featuring the same character which provides insight into the present-day story. Sometimes the pattern will be fifty percent Present and fifty percent Past, and sometimes it’s more like seventy-five percent Present and twenty-five percent past. Whatever seems to work best.
Snapshot Technique: If your story covers a long time period, you can’t cover every moment. So instead, choose several key moments of the story to dramatize in detail. It’s like pictures in a photo album. The album might be labeled Christmas 2017, but it doesn’t have pictures of every single moment of how you celebrated the holiday. There might be ten photos that, taken together, create a collage that communicates what the overall experience was like. At a guess, you might have anywhere from three to five scenes like that in a short story written in this manner.
Point of View
Generally Speaking: Stay in the same person/point of view for a short story. Point of view shifts within a scene break the illusion of reality for readers. While it’s of course possible to alternate point of view in a short story, such back-and-forth shifts tend to be jarring in a short piece.
Emotional Core
I Heart You: At the heart of a story should lie a strong emotional core. This emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them – and writers neglect this all the time (and often leave it out entirely). For short fiction include an important emotional relationship between two characters and use this relationship as a foundation upon which your story rests. The emotional core doesn’t have to be between two people. In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the emotional core is right there in the title. Can the fisherman still do his job – can he still master the sea – or is he too old and weak? The man’s struggle to catch a swordfish and bring it back to land is only the surface action. The story is the emotional core: the man’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle against mortality and Time itself.
Hopefully you’ve got a few new tools, or at least a different perspective, on writing short fiction. Now go out there and write short fiction that will knock readers on their asses and make them say, “Damn! Now that was a story!”
My latest story collection Dark and Distant Voices is now available in both print and eBook editions. Here’s what people have been saying about the book:
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. "Especially the one we see in the mirror," implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection. – Mort Castle
"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones
Tim Waggoner's Dark and Distant Voices is quite the short story collection. Bizarre, weird, and utterly intriguing, the stories found here will get under your skin. – Horror Novel Reviews
And now that you’re dying to get the book, here’s some Amazon linkage:

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Try, Try Again

Some writers know exactly what sort of stories they want to tell right from the start of their careers. The love romance novels, have read a shit-ton of them, want to write romances, and they never want to write anything else. And if that makes them happy and leads to a fulfilling career – however they define fulfilling – that’s fantastic. But even if you have a strong preference for writing a certain type of thing, I’m here to suggest that maybe you’ll learn more, and perhaps stumble onto a wildly satisfying career writing stuff you never imagined you’d write, if you spread your wings a bit and try something new from time to time.

Writers are bombarded constantly with advice on how to market their writing, and often this advice begins with the “proper” selection of what to write in the first place. Romance sells more than any other type of fiction. So if you want to increase your chances of publication, you should write romance novels. Nonfiction earns writers far more money than fiction or poetry, so if you want to make money, why would you write anything other than nonfiction? Even if you’re determined to write in a genre you love – in my case, usually horror – you’ll be told to write this kind of horror and not that kind of horror if you want to get published and gain a readership.

This advice is awful from an artistic standpoint, but it makes perfect sense from a business point of view. But regardless of whether you’re aesthetically or monetarily-minded (or like most of us, some combination), trying new genres, new techniques, reaching out to new audiences, experimenting with new ways of getting your stories to people not only can add new and different skills to your writer’s toolkit, you might very well discover a type of writing that you not only enjoy, but plays to your strengths in ways you never imagined.

Consider Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch. Both started out writing Lovecraftian fiction, but they also wrote other types of stories until both of them evolved into their own type of writer. Hell, I’d argue that they even became their own subgenres of horror and suspense. Their subject matter and styles are so distinct, it’s quite possible to write a Campbellian or Blochian story. John Jakes started out writing science fiction but became famous for his novels using American history as the setting. Lawrence Block started out wanting to write the great American novel, ended up writing softcore porn in the 50’s and 60’s, and eventually became one of the best mystery and suspense writers around. Tom Piccirilli first gained success writing horror, but he tried mystery and westerns, too, before finally coming to write award-winning noir fiction. A colleague at the college where I teach, Rebecca Morean, visited by Writing to Publish class the other day, and she spoke about a friend of hers who was a fiction writer who eventually found success writing narrative nonfiction – a genre he didn’t even know existed before he stumbled into it. If these writers had stuck with what they were doing when they started out – stuck with what they knew – they never would’ve had the chance to grow, and readers would’ve been the poorer for it.

At twelve or thirteen, I wrote and drew my own superhero comic. At eighteen, I began writing fantasy and science fiction (more of the former than the latter), although I did try a few horror short stories. From eighteen to thirty, I tried writing medieval fantasy, humorous fantasy, humorous science fiction, urban fantasy (before it was called that), contemporary fantasy, absurdist fantasy, mystery (serious and humorous), suspense, romance (only one proposal that an editor didn’t buy), young adult, middle grade, nonfiction, humorous nonfiction, articles on writing, and more. None of the books I wrote during this time were accepted for publication. My short stories tended to stick to fantasy and horror, though, and I sold a number of these by the time I was thirty, and I sold a few articles, too.

I started selling short stories regularly to anthologies Marty Greenberg edited. These anthologies were usually themed, and I got to write stories about Merlin, alien pets, elves. Civil War fantasy, and so many more. I could’ve written stories about any of these topics on my own, but it never would have occurred to me to try until I read the submission guidelines and thought, “I wonder if I can write something like that.”

I tried writing media tie-ins, too. I had success with writing for Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf. I started writing horror novels and had success publishing them with Leisure Books. My horror novels grew out of the subject matter, themes, and approaches I explored in my short stories, and that’s how I developed my horror “voice” – by trying stuff. Media tie-ins have led me to write a choose-your-own adventure book, a couple “nonfiction” books set in the Supernatural TV show universe, and three novelizations of films.

Not everything I’ve tried has worked out, though. I’ve tried to get gigs writing Star Trek novels several times over the years, pitching to three different editors. No go. I’ve tried to get gigs writing Star Wars. Same result. I’ve tried writing for the Warhammer game setting, but it didn’t happen. I tried establishing a couple urban fantasies series, but the publisher discontinued the series after only a few books. I’ve tried to get other publishers interested in bringing out the series, but I’ve have had no luck. I’ve tried to get a fantasy series going as well as a supernatural thriller series. Both were failed attempts. For whatever reason, series success eludes me.

I tried to sell proposals for Mack Bolan novels for men’s adventure publisher Gold Eagle, but they were ultimately rejected. I did get a two-book contract with Gold Eagle to write adventures in their spy series Room 51, but the line was canceled before my books could come out. I was allowed to keep the rights to the books – if I changed the details Gold Eagle created – but I haven’t been able to get them published. (Yeah, I know I could self-publish them, but I like the challenge of traditional publishing. Maybe one day I’ll jump into self-publishing, but right now, this blog is pretty much the extent of my self-publishing ambitions.)

Would I have liked all the above failures to have been wild successes? Hell, yeah! But there’s no way for me to know which things I try will work or how well they’ll be received by readers. But if I don’t try, I don’t grow, and trying all kinds of different things increases my chances for successes. So don’t be afraid to write outside your comfort zone or try that story you’ve always wanted to write but have been afraid of. You never know where it will take you, and you may end up becoming the best writer version of yourself possible.

Just for fun, I’ve included the two chapters for my proposed Mack Bolan novel below. For those unfamiliar with the series, Bolan is an ex-cop and ex-soldier known as the Executioner who fights bad guys as a one-man army. I’ve filed the serial numbers off the chapters, meaning I’ve changed some details so it’s now a Curt Macon the Warlord story (because I don’t want to get sued). But before you read it, it’s time for . . .


My prehistoric monster action thriller THE TEETH OF THE SEA is still available. It’s a good example of me trying something different. I’d never written a monster-chomps-people book, but I enjoyed them as a kid, and I thought it would fun and challenging to try my hand at one. Reviewers seem to think I did a good job, so why not buy a copy and see for yourself?

Crossroad Press has been bringing out new e-editions of some of my horror books. If you haven’t read them before (or even if you have), check them out:


And now, without further ado . . .



On a pleasant autumn Saturday at precisely 12:37 pm, Death came to Grigsby, Ohio.
Ironhorse Park was located on the south side of town, a ten-acre stretch of land surrounded by upper-class suburban neighborhoods where dentists, lawyers, architects and their families lived the good life. The park was home to baseball diamonds and soccer fields, oak trees and swing sets, even a meandering creek that ran through the middle of it all. The grass was always neatly trimmed and parking spaces were plentiful. Good thing, too, for this Saturday afternoon every soccer field was in use as the Grigsby Soccer Association’s five to ten-year-old divisions battled it out in the season-ending tournament. All the parking spaces were filled, and more than few mini-vans had been pulled onto the grass by parents who refused to park on the street and walk all the way back just to watch their little Johnny or Susie kick a white ball up and down the field.
But there was one person who didn’t mind walking. He strode across the parking lot, his open black trench-coat billowing in the late autumn breeze. He was in his early twenties, with short brown hair moist from styling gel. He wore a Slipknot T-shirt under his coat, faded jeans, and worn tennis shoes. The young man’s face was devoid of expression, but his gaze was clear and sharp, and his eyes gleamed with anticipation. He carried a pump-action shotgun in his right hand, and his coat pockets bulged with extra shells. More than he’d need probably, but it paid to be prepared. As he set foot on grass still damp from last night’s rain, his lips stretched into a cold smile.
The first person to notice the gunman was Gayle Simmons. She was a radiology tech and a single mother, and though she always came to her daughter’s soccer games, she got bored quickly and spent most of the time sitting in her canvas chair yakking on her cel phone. Today she’d gotten her daughter to the park just as her game was about to begin, and so she’d been stuck setting up her seat down by the goal, as other parents had already claimed the better spaces alongside the field. This meant that Gayle was the closet person to the parking lot, and the closest to the gunman as he made his initial approach.
She was talking to her supervisor – who also happened to be her lover – when she caught a black flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Without pausing in her conversation, she turned to see a man in a trench-coat raise his right arm and point something that looked like a long metal tube at her. At first, what she was looking at didn’t register because it was so far removed from her everyday reality. But somewhere in the back of her mind, an alarm went off and adrenaline flooded her system. But it was too little, too late. The gunman squeezed the trigger, the shotgun roared, and Gayle Simmons no longer had a face.
Gayle’s blood sprayed nearby spectators, along with shreds of meat and shattered bits of cel phone. Her body slammed into an overweight mother sitting next to her, and the woman screamed as the impact knocked her onto the ground. The gunman ejected the spent cartridge, aimed, fired, and silenced the fat woman forever.
A moment of quiet followed as children stopped playing and adults stopped watching them. All heads turned toward the gunman and then panic flashed through the crowd like wildfire. Parents leaped out of their seats and ran onto the soccer field to get their children, some of who were already running in the opposite direction. Many children stood frozen, though, staring at the man in the black coat who had just killed two women – two mommys – before their uncomprehending eyes.
The gunman began firing at will. He aimed for adults, but not because he was reluctant to kill children. Meat was meat as far as he was concerned – young, old, what was the difference? He fired upon adults out of simple pragmatism: they were larger, slower targets. The gunman continued walking forward, firing and pausing to reload as necessary. He tried to keep track of his kills as he went, but with all the people running, screaming, and sobbing around him, he lost count. It wasn’t important, though. The entire country would eventually know his final tally, and that meant his friends would too. That was what truly mattered.
A couple of men came at him, obviously intending to play brave husband and Daddy and take him out. But this wasn’t the movies, and all their attempts at heroism got them was an early and very messy death. He had just finished putting down the last would-be hero when he heard a man shout.
“Freeze, you sonofabitch!”
The voice came from the gunman’s right, and from its commanding tone, the man wasn’t merely another hero wannabee. He was probably an off-duty cop come to watch his kid play soccer, just another devoted parent who happened to be at the right place at the right time. The gunman grinned. A cop meant extra points.
The gunman whirled and fired off a blast from his shotgun. In the same instant he caught a brief image of a man holding a pistol – a 9 mm most likely – just before a sledgehammer blow slammed into his chest. The impact spun him sideways and knocked him off his feet. He fell to the grass and landed hard on right side. He hadn’t heard the cop fire his weapon, but he knew that’s what had happened.
The gunman rolled over onto his back and lifted his head to look down at his chest. There was a hole in his T-shirt directly over his heart. His chest hurt like hell, and he was having trouble catching his breath, but he saw no blood and assumed his Kevlar vest had stopped the bullet. He had to admit it had been a damn good shot, though. His realized his right hand was empty, and he knew that he must’ve dropped his shotgun as he fell. He turned his head to look for he weapon as he started to rise.
“Don’t move, or I swear to Christ I’ll blow your goddamned head off!"
The gunman turned toward the cop. He got a better look this time and saw the man was in his forties, balding, with a bushy black mustache and a burgeoning pot belly. He was dressed in a yellow polo shirt beneath a blue windbreaker. The left shoulder of the coat was a ragged, bloody ruin, and the gunman was gratified to see that he’d at least wounded the cop. But wounded or not, the man still had hold of his 9 mm and the barrel was trained on the spot directly between the gunman’s eyes.
He looked around and saw clumps of people gathered around the prone bodies of his victims. Some attempted first aid, while others simply stood and cried, unable to believe their loved ones were gone.
The gunman smiled. Not bad for a day’s work.
Ignoring the cop’s warning, he propped himself up on his elbows until he was in a half-sitting position. The cop kept his pistol trained on him the entire time, and though the man had to be hurting from his shoulder wound, his aim never wavered.
The gunman stared into the cop’s eyes for a moment before speaking.
“This is just the beginning.”
Then the gunman nodded once, and a split second later the top of his head exploded. As he slumped to ground, the cop could only stand and stare at the corpse in confusion, for the final shot hadn’t been fired from his weapon.


At the same moment the trench-coated gunman’s heart beat its last, Curt Macon was driving west on Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania, trailing a black Jaguar. The overcast sky and heavy rain rendered visibility poor, but that made little difference to Macon. Though the Ford Acura rental he drove was hardly built for speed, all he had to do was keep the Jag in sight, and Macon had done so for close to a hundred miles. So far the Jag’s driver had been scrupulous in following the speed limit. The man obviously didn’t want to draw the attention of any state troopers, but Macon knew the driver’s caution had nothing to do with the large highway signs posted alongside the road detailing the various fines for speeding.
Ninety minutes ago the two men in the Jag had paid a visit to an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor who office was located in the well-to-do Philadelphia neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. There’d been nothing remarkable about either of the men. Both were Caucasian, in their thirties, trim instead of beefy. But just because they weren’t muscle-bound didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. They carried themselves like pros, scoping out the area with practiced eyes as they headed for the entrance to the ENT’s office. Both wore leather jackets – one black, one brown – and the coats were roomy enough to conceal shoulder holsters. Macon had no doubt the men were armed, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had more hardware in the Jag.
They two had gone in empty-handed, but when they came out ten minutes later one of them carried a brown briefcase. Macon had been parked at the curb watching the office, and when the two men got back into their Jaguar and pulled out, the Warlord followed. He’d been tailing them ever since.
If the intel Jack Solomon had passed on to him was correct – and it almost always was – the briefcase contained a half dozen vials of a genetically engineered superflu virus that would make the global pandemic of 1918 look like a case of the sniffles.
The ENT’s wife worked in a medical research lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’d either created or stolen the samples – it wasn’t clear which – and then passed them on to her husband. The husband had in turn made some discreet inquiries of drug companies via the Internet hoping to find a buyer for his deadly wares. A pharmaceutical company could make a fortune by studying the virus, developing a vaccine for it, then releasing it into the general population. The fact that thousands, perhaps millions might die in the process would simply be a few broken eggs on the way to making one very tasty omelet.
The doctor had received multiple offers, but the high bidder was an outfit calling itself Pharm-Tech Industries, based out of upstate New York. The cyber-warriors at Garrison HQ constantly monitored the Net for the slightest hint of terrorist activity, and Pharm-Tech was on their watch list. The company was a front, but for whom was as yet unknown. A corporation that wished to remain anonymous? Terrorists? A private buyer? Hence the reason for Macon’s road trip on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It was his job to follow the errand boys back to their boss, discover the buyer’s identity, and find out what he, she or they wanted with a genetically engineered virus. And if the Warlord left a few bodies along the way, that was just par for the course. After all, he knew how to break eggs, too. In fact, he was an expert at it.
Instincts honed on a thousand different battlefields warned Macon that something wasn’t right. He glanced at the Acura’s rearview mirror and saw flashing lights behind him. A state trooper’s vehicle, he guessed, approaching fast.
Thoughts raced through Macon’s mind as he shifted from surveillance to combat mode. Neither he nor the delivery boys in the Jag were exceeding the speed limit, and there was no way local law enforcement could’ve gotten wind of the deadly cargo the Jag carried. Outside of the Garrison, Macon doubted that a half dozen people – the President included – were aware that a genetically engineered superflu virus was being transported across the great state of Pennsylvania.
Macon looked in the rearview again. There was no vehicle fleeing from the statey, so that left only one possibility. The trooper was responding to some emergency that had nothing to do with Macon and the virus. He just hoped the men in the Jag really were pros, because if they were jumpy, they might overreact at the sight of a patrol cruiser coming up fast on their ass with lights blazing. And if that happened – 
Macon never got to finish his thought. The patrol car had almost drawn even with him now, and that was too close for comfort for the delivery boys. The driver of the black Jag tromped on the gas and the high-performance sports car surged forward, rear fishtailing on rain-slick asphalt. For an instant Macon thought the driver was going to lose control and go skidding off the road. The man managed to keep all four tires on blacktop, but unfortunately he overcorrected in the process, and the Jag slid into the left lane – directly into the path of the speeding police cruiser.
It’s a simple principle of physics that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and Macon was about to get a first-hand demonstration.
The trooper tried to avoid hitting the Jag, but it was too late. The cruiser struck the left side of the Jag’s back bumper and both cars started to swerve. Macon swore and took his foot off the gas. He knew better than to slam on the brakes in rain this heavy. The Acura dropped back as the cruiser’s rear spun around to the right, and the Jag’s front end swung left. It looked as if both cars were going to collide, but despite his earlier jumpiness, the driver of the Jag proved he had some skill behind the steering wheel. He momentarily let off the gas, swung the Jag’s nose back toward the front, then stomped on the pedal again. Once more he Jag fishtailed as it leaped forward, but it cleared the spinning cruiser and roared off down the interstate.
Macon had been conducting his private war on evil for more years than he liked to count. And during all that time he’d held tight to one inviolate principle: civilian casualties were unacceptable. He’d failed to prevent them far too often, but he was only human. He hadn’t forgotten the names and faces of those honored dead who had fallen along the way, though, and he never would.
But as much as he didn’t want to see any harm come to a cop who’d been simply trying to his job, he couldn’t afford to let the black Jag and its lethal cargo get away. He pressed down on the Accura’s accelerator and yanked the steering wheel to the right so that he could pass by the spinning patrol car. Still, just because he couldn’t stick around didn’t mean that he couldn’t give the statey a quick hand.
As Macon’s Acura drew near the out-of-control police vehicle, he edged left and with split-second timing tapped the car’s right front fender with his bumper. The nudge helped turn the cruiser forward again, but the maneuver proved to much for the trooper to handle, and he swerved toward the grassy strip of land that served as the interstate’s median. Macon continued driving and watched in his rearview mirror as the patrol vehicle slid to a halt in a shower of mud and flying sod. Satisfied the trooper was unharmed and relieved that the man would no longer by part of the pursuit, Macon focused his attention on catching up to the Jag. The car hadn’t gotten very far ahead of Macon in the few moments it had taken him to give the statey a love tap. The red glow of the Jaguar’s taillights was still plainly visible, although receding fast. Macon would have to haul ass if he were to have any hope of catching them.
Time was of the essence now, for the trooper was undoubtedly already radioing in to headquarters and reporting that a black Jaguar had run him off the road. Before long the interstate would be full of police all looking to serve up some payback for their fellow officer. Macon needed to intercept the Jag before that happened.
The rain was still coming down hard and heavy, so much so that the Acura’s wipers could barely keep the windshield clear. But in one way that worked to Macon’s advantage. The errand boys in the Jag would be looking for the flashing lights of state troopers – not a Ford Accura that was hard to spot with visibility so poor. Especially if he made it even harder for them to see him. He flicked off his headlights and the road ahead of him went dark. The interstate was a straight stretch here, and there was no one between him and the Jag. All he had to do was keep his eyes on their taillights, keep the gas pedal pressed to the floor, and try not to hydroplane himself into oblivion.
The Acura’s engine whined loudly and the car shuddered as if it were in danger of shaking itself apart any moment, but Macon didn’t slow down. The thought of what might happen if whoever took delivery of that flu virus decided to use it spurred him on. He’d catch the Jag or end up crushed in a makeshift coffin of twisted metal, but he wasn’t going to back off.
Luckily for Macon, the Jag began to slow down a bit. Most likely the driver had either witnessed the statey ditching his vehicle in the median, or perhaps he’d simply noted the absence of flashing lights in his rearview mirror. Either way, the Jaguar was still moving at a good clip. The delivery boys had to know other officers would soon be looking for them, but it seemed they’d calmed down enough to decide not to risk driving all-out in this weather if they didn’t have to. That gave the Warlord the chance he needed.
The Jag was driving in the left lane, and as Macon came up on the vehicle’s tail, he switched to the right. The incident with the state trooper had convinced him that the errand boys were too erratic for him to simply follow anymore. Macon intended to stop them and retrieve the briefcase full of death before it could cause any harm. Solomon wouldn’t be happy, and the people in Washington he reported to would be even less thrilled, but that didn’t matter to Macon. He was a soldier, not a politician. He did his duty as he saw it, consequences be damned.
With his headlights still off, Macon pulled even with the Jag. He thumbed the button to lower the driver’s side window, then drew his Beretta 93R from its shoulder rig. A quick glance in his rearview mirror showed the road behind him was clear, at least for as far as he could see. No need to worry about anyone else becoming involved in what was about to happen.
As soon as the window was two-thirds of the way down – cold rain pelting him in the face like bullets of ice – Macon aimed the Beretta at the Jag’s passenger window and fired a three-shot burst. Safety glass exploded inward as the 9 mm Parabellum rounds penetrated the Jag’s interior. The vehicle swerved violently to the left and its driver’s side tires went off the road and caught hold of the grassy median. That was more than the driver – assuming he was still alive – could compensate for, and the Jag whipped around, flipped into the air, and came crashing down on its top.
Macon hit the Acura’s brake, sending the car skidding, but he managed to keep the vehicle under control with only one hand on the steering wheel, and brought the car safely to a stop on the shoulder. Still holding onto the Beretta, he threw open the driver’s door, grabbed a metal object shaped something like a soup can from the canvas bag on the passenger seat, and then plunged out into the storm. He ran to where the overturned Jag had slid to a halt, tires still spinning, wipers slapping back and forth. Macon was soaked to the skin by the time he reached the car, and he saw that the driver – the errand boy in the black leather jacket – had already managed to crawl halfway out of the shattered driver’s side window. The man’s face was covered with blood, either from one of the Parabellum rounds, as a result of the crash, or both. The specifics didn’t matter to Macon. All that mattered was that the damage had been done.
There was no sign of the man who’d been riding shotgun, but Macon wasn’t foolish enough to think that meant the man was no longer a threat. A kill was only a kill once it was confirmed. Until then, a smart soldier assumed all unfriendlies were still alive and dangerous.
Macon drew a bead on the driver with his Beretta.
“Give it up! The race is over, and you lost!” Macon had to shout to be heard over the wind and rain. 
“Fuck . . . you.” The man’s voice was weak, and Macon had to read his lips to make out what he was saying. The errand boy waggled his right hand then, and Macon saw that he held a glass vial sealed with a rubber stopper.
The man called the Warlord knew he was looking at a killer far deadlier than he could ever be. The fluid inside the vial was clear, but Macon didn’t delude himself into thinking that meant it was harmless. The most effective killers always came silent, swift, and unseen.
“Stay back or I’ll . . . break it.” Bloody froth bubbled past the wounded man’s lips, and Macon knew he was near death.
Macon had no idea whether breaking the vial would release the superflu virus, but even if it did, the rain should keep it from becoming airborne. But Macon hadn’t survived as long as he had by taking chances. He lowered the Beretta and brought the thermite grenade up to his mouth. He bit down on the pull ring and yanked the grenade away. He spit out the metal ring, crouched down, let go of the release lever, and quickly tossed the incendiary weapon past the dying man and into the Jag’s interior. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of the other man inside, still buckled into his seat, blood-stained body limp. If the man wasn’t already dead, he soon would be.
“You sonofabitch!” the driver said, loud enough to be heard this time.
Macon straightened and started running back toward the Acura. He thought he heard the sound of the glass vial breaking, but he couldn’t be sure. He felt a wave of heat roll over his back as the thermite bomb ignited, but he was far enough away that he wasn’t burned. He stopped and turned back around to watch.
The crumpled remains of the Jaguar were engulfed in white-hot flames. Rain hissed as it was instantly vaporized by the 4000 degree heat. The fire would only last for 30-45 seconds, but during that time it would burn hot enough to reduce the car to molten slag – assuming the gas tank didn’t blow first. Regardless, the samples of superflu virus would be completely destroyed. And as for the two men inside the car, as far as Macon was concerned, when you played with fire, you got burned.
The Warlord holstered his Beretta, then turned and began running toward the Acura as the Jag’s gas tank exploded with a sound like the thunder of final judgment. His work here was done.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Thoughts About Literary Fiction

For nine years I served as mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, and I’ve mentored a number of writers one on one who’ve gone on to graduate programs in creative writing. These mentees usually go into programs where creative writing classes are taught by literary writers who have, at best, a limited tolerance for genre writing or, at worst, who outright loath it. These mentees become extremely frustrated, and they reach out to me for advice. “Why can’t I make my professors happy?” And if they try to write the kind of literary fiction their professors want, they ask, “Why can’t I write this stuff?” A former mentee emailed me recently to ask these questions, and I thought I’d share my response here, edited to remove any indication of my mentee’s identity.


I was lucky during my college career. None of my professors at Wright State University ever said a negative word about my writing genre fiction. Maybe it would've been different if I'd been in an MFA program instead of an MA program. I've heard from dozens of people over the years that professors who write literary fiction often view all genre fiction as worthless, although they have a difficult time explaining why. I think these professors just parrot what they were told when they were students, the same way high school English teachers tell their students never to use "you" in their writing, without ever knowing why. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Try not to let it get you down. Your thesis advisor's view is a limited one. Ignore his views on genre fiction and learn whatever you can from him. The only arbiter of what makes good fiction should be you, since you're the one writing it.

In terms of how literary fiction differs from genre fiction, I've thought a lot about that over the years. I don't write literary fiction. Twenty years or so ago, I wrote a handful of literary stories, but editors rejected them all, so I shelved them. So take my thoughts with at least a grain of salt! My advice to anyone who wants to write literary fiction is to leave out anything remotely resembling genre elements. Just tell a story about real people doing real things in the real world. Literary fiction focuses on character -- getting to know a character, watching character be revealed, watching character be transformed in some small but profound way. Despite this focus, literary fiction tends toward emotional restraint and intellectual distance. It's a paradox. Literary fiction deals with the emotional life of humans but does so at arm's length. I sometimes wonder if that's because it's written by intellectuals who struggle to understand their emotional sides. At times it almost seems as if they're naturalists writing about animals they're trying to understand. A couple quotes I've heard about literary fiction (I can't remember the sources): Literary fiction is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. (I take this to mean that the characters tend to be more intelligent and perceptive than normal; small events can move them and transform them profoundly.) A second quote: If you want to write a literary story, write a first-person, present-tense story then cut off the beginning and ending. That's usually meant as a joke, but I think there's some truth to it. Literary fiction eschews what its practitioners see as anything approaching what they view as simplistic, childish, pop-culture storytelling, and the basic linear narrative pattern – character with a goal takes steps to meet the goal, encounters obstacles along the way, works to overcome those obstacles, the obstacles get harder forcing the character to work harder until a crisis point arises, then climax and falling action – is too formulaic for them. I think a pattern for a literary story might be better described as a spiral. At the center is the conflict/emotional core/theme of the story. The main character circles around this core, drawing ever closer to it bit by it, until the character is forced to confront it. The moment of confrontation leads to an epiphany which changes the character in a profound way. This change is often not depicted “on screen” and is left up to the reader to ponder after the story is finished. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a good example of this spiral technique. If you haven't read it, Google it. You can find it free online.

Now, something weird about the Literary Story Spiral is that the same technique is often used in horror fiction, except that what lies as the center of the spiral is the Terrible Thing (whatever it may be).  Shirley Jackson's "The Summer People" is an excellent example of this. The epiphany happens for the audience as much or more than it does for the characters, and horror stories often end in a suspended moment, when the characters and readers are left in a situation that isn't resolved on the page, which is only resolved – or at least pondered over – by readers. So the Horror Story Spiral is almost the same as the Literary Story Spiral. The big differences are what lies at the center of each spiral, and the intellectual distance and restraint of literary fiction, and the deliberate attempt to evoke emotion (fear). So my theory – which I haven't tested out yet – is that horror writers should be able to write basic literary fiction because they have a deep familiarity with a spiral pattern.

My former mentee had been revising the same story for a couple years, trying to get it “right” for his/her professors. He/she asked if this was typical.

Is it typical to spend so much time working on a story? When you're using it as part of a longer learning process it is, and I think that's what's happening here. Any story can be reworked a zillion times, and eventually you reach a point where you're making it different, but not necessarily better. And whose definition of better do you use to judge it? Your thesis director? Mine? A friend's? In the end, only your judgment matters.

Long ago, I used to be in a writers' group, and I had a buddy from college who I exchanged stories with. One day I wrote a weird, surreal story called "Mr. Punch" that depended a lot on imagery and implication. It was the first time I'd written a story like this, and it felt right – SO right – but I was worried people wouldn't get it. I shared it with my group, and they liked it, but thought the ending was too enigmatic. I tried changing it, rewrote it a couple times, then I decided to say fuck it and trust my instincts. That story became my first professional sale, appearing in an anthology called Young Blood, next to stories by King, Poe, and Campbell. After the story was published, my college friend sent his feedback. The manuscript was covered in red ink. I decided at that point to trust my own sense of what makes a story effective, for good or ill. I still have moments of doubt, and I still try new things that I'm not sure will work, and sometimes they don't. I also still try to be open to learning new approaches to writing. But I do my damnedest to stay focused on my . . . I guess you could call it an inner artistic compass. I listen to other voices, but I don't let any of them speak louder than mine. Does that make sense?

I once had a dream long ago where I was standing in the middle of my high school gym. The bleachers were filled with silent people, and even though they didn't speak, I heard their voices in my mind. They said, "Trust your feelings." I grew angry, didn't want to accept what they said, started stomping my feet in a tantrum. As I did this, I began to grow larger and larger, but the silent people remained calm and quiet, and merely repeated their message: "Trust your feelings." The dream has stuck with me for decades, and I try to remember it whenever I get confused. I pass it along to you now. Trust your feelings. You have excellent artistic instincts. Just follow them.


The divide between literary and genre fiction can be summed up thusly: literary fiction primarily focuses on character, while genre fiction focuses primarily on plot. Yes, I know you can think of a zillion exceptions. There are literary horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery stories. I’m not sure there are literary romance stories, since that genre depends heavily on a specific plot elements – it must be a romance, there must be obstacles/conflicts during the course of the two main characters falling in love, and there must be a happy ending – any literary story that deals with a love story wouldn’t be considered a category romance.

The character/plot divide is a false one, and writers of all stripes would be better served not to worry about it and tell the best story they’re capable of, focusing on and stressing whatever elements each particular story needs to be successful. I believe many creative writing instructors would better serve their students if they understood this. The best book that addresses this divide and why it’s unnecessary – if not downright hurtful to producing good fiction – is Plot Vs Character by Jeff Gerke. Here’s a link:

Over the last few decades, genre elements have become more accepted by writers and publishers of literary fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is social science fiction, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a parallel world story, for example. There are many literary journals that accept fiction with genre elements – and some that focus on genre – so if you’re a genre writer and you’d like to explore writing for literary markets, they’re out there. The Poets & Writers website has a database of literary journals and what they’re looking for. You can find that database here:

Go through it, read the guidelines for each magazine, see which ones accept fiction with genre elements, check out some sample issues (hopefully, they’ll have some online), and then submit your work.

Keep in mind that literary magazines are usually not high-paying markets, if they pay at all. In the academic world – which literary journals are often affiliated with – the compensation for articles/stories/essays/poems is that professors can use these publications to help them get promotions, tenure, merit pay, etc. Also, being published in the more highly regarded journals can help writers land an agent or a book deal. So while many genre writers will firmly tell you never to write anything unless you are paid with money, literary magazines don’t operate on the same philosophy. This is different than “For the Luv” markets that pay “in exposure” (and which rarely offer you any real exposure at all since hardly anyone reads them). Being published in literary journals does come with compensation, even if it’s not always immediate and financial. So yeah, you won’t get rich writing for literary journals, but writers of genre short stories who always insist on being paid – even if it’s only a token payment – aren’t getting rich, either. So if you want to submit to literary markets, do it. If you don’t want to, then why the hell did you read all the way to the end of this entry?



My latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions. Nothing literary about this bad boy! It’s meant to be an action-filled monsters-chomping-tasty-humans adventure.

They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .

. . . and it’s starting to rain.

My story "Cast-Offs" appears in this anthology. More a nightmarish horror story than something literary, but I think you'll dig it.
Welcome to Golden Elm Lane. It’s just like any other small-town street…or is it? Horrible things happen on Golden Elm Lane…vile, monstrous, evil things. Serial killers, ghosts, and monsters of all kinds hide behind the walls lining this cursed street. Each house tells a story…a horrifying story. And now, for the first time ever, fourteen masters of horror will give you a bloody tour of Golden Elm Lane and bring it to full, terrifying life. With an introduction by the legendary creator of Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th franchise, Victor Miller, you'll find it difficult to turn down an invitation to attend our…CHOPPING BLOCK PARTY. Featuring all new stories from: Ray Garton, Richard Chizmar, Adam Howe, Bryan Smith, Damien Angelica Walters, Gerard Houarner, John Everson, Hunter Shea, Jeffrey Thomas, Kristin Dearborn, Nate Southard, Paul Kane, Simon Wood, Tim Waggoner, and Brendan Deneen.

My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime. This one’s blood, gore, and insanity. Not literary.


My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press. Of the three works I’m promoting right now, I consider this the closest to literary genre fiction.

It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I’ve got a confession to make.
I hate writing action scenes.
Well . . . maybe hate is too strong a word, at least these days. I’ve written so many different books – horror, fantasy, tie-ins, novelizations – that writing action as gotten easier for me. And I’ve gotten fairly decent at it. One of the reasons my editor at Titan Books asked me to write the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle was because she thought I was good at writing action. And who am I to argue with an editor? Especially when she says nice things about me.
Recently, I posted about the Kingsman novelization on Facebook, and the wonderful literary dark fantasy writer Jeffrey Ford commented that I could probably give some useful tips on writing action scenes. I thought, “Hmm . . . a potential blog post idea!” And now that I have a new novel to promote – an action-filled sea-monsters-attack book called Teeth of the Sea – it seemed like a good idea to dive into the subject (see what I did there?). So let’s cut to the action.
I usually don’t listen to music when I write, especially music with lyrics. I find the words of the songs get in the way of the words I’m trying to write. But fast-faced music, often with a hard edge, helps me write action scenes. Not only does it get me in the proper mindset to write action, it inspires me to put the same kind of frenetic energy into the prose. I used Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” when writing the Kingsman novelization because I knew from the script that the song was going to be used in the film. When writing Teeth of the Sea, I listened to something a little different: Themes from Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, which features music from the giant-monsters-attack movies Tarantula and the Deadly Mantis, among others. Movie soundtracks work great, too. They can help inspire you to bring a cinematic feel to your action scenes.
Something else I do to prepare for writing action scenes is to watch action movies, and I also read action-adventure novels. I want to immerse myself in action sequences, both visual and written, so I have an action mindset when I sit down to write.
I first encountered this technique at SF conventions, where panelists would talk about how it was THE key to writing effective, saleable fiction. They all mentioned one book: Techniques of the Selling Writing by Dwight V. Swain. After the con, I hauled ass to the bookstore and snagged a copy. You can Google “scene and sequel writing” or “scene and sequel fiction” to learn more about this technique (and I encourage you all to do so), but here’s the short version. Fiction can be divided into two basic units. a SCENE, in which a character takes active steps to achieve a small goal that helps him or her make progress toward the larger story goal, and a SEQUEL, in which that character processes the outcome of the scene and decides on his or her next move, which leads directly into the next SCENE, and so on, until the story is finished.
One day while writing an action scene for a novel, I realized that action scenes were nothing but a fast-moving chain of Scenes and Sequels. For example: Bob wants to get out of a burning building, but his arch nemesis Jim is determined to keep him inside so they’ll both burn to death. SCENE: Bob wants to reach the front door, so he starts running. Jim tackles him and they both fall to the floor. SEQUEL: (which can be an instinctive reaction instead of a well thought-out plan) Jim is lying atop Bob, so Bob decides to slam his head back into Bob’s face. SCENE: Bob does so, stunning Jim, who rolls off Bob’s back. SEQUEL: Bob is now free to move, so he will. SCENE: Bob gets to his feet and starts heading for the door once more. Jim has a baseball in his pocket. (Why, I don’t know – just go with it). He pulls out the baseball and throws it at Bob. It hits Bob in the back of the head. SEQUEL: Bob: “Ow!” The pain of the impact causes Bob to stagger, slowing him down. He fights through the pain and dizziness because he needs to get to that door. SCENE: Bob continues toward the door, staggering and weaving, moving slower now. And so on.
Using Scene and Sequel allows you to choreograph a fight scene – especially when you remember that each character has his or her own chain of Scenes and Sequels. In order to determine Bob’s actions and reactions, I also had to know what Jim’s were. Scene and Sequel also helps you remain anchored firmly in the present action so you don’t rush it. (More on this later.)
In the above example of Bob, I focused on one goal: Bob wants to get the hell out of the burning building. Jim may be his arch enemy, but Bob doesn’t have time to settle old scores, no matter how satisfying that might be. He has to get out or he’ll burn to death. Everything in the action sequence needs to be focused on Bob trying to escape, and Jim trying to keep him from doing so. If physical action won’t work, maybe Bob will try to reason with Jim, even offer to make a bargain with him of some kind – anything that will get him out of the burning building. As the fire spreads and the situation becomes more dire, Bob’s actions will become more frantic, more desperate, and more instinctive. Maybe he’ll give into that, maybe he’ll fight it. The goal can change during an action sequence, too. Maybe Bob is almost out of the building when he hears a baby crying from somewhere in the room, and his goal shifts to save the baby, and then escape.
Staying focused on your characters’ immediate goals will help you write sharper, more intense action scenes.
Too often in action movies, everyone can do everything. All the characters are equally good at fighting, driving, etc., and all the fights, chases, and escapes are the same. (The only exception is Asian characters, who almost always possess superhuman martial arts skills that somehow their opponents can counter with only basic street-fighting moves.) But all of your characters have different backgrounds, training, and experience (or in the case of a normal everyday person thrust into an action scene, no training or experience). They also have different psychological makeups. How do they normally deal with problems? Do they tackle them head-on? Do they seek others’ help in dealing with them? Do they try to manipulate others into dealing with them instead? Do they try to ignore problems and hope they’ll go away? How do your characters deal with an unexpected threat? Will they immediately leap into whatever action is necessary? Will they stand there, stunned, in terror or disbelief? How do they deal with stress? (The stress of conflict takes its toll on characters no matter what sort of story they inhabit). Do they rise to the occasion? Do they check out mentally? Do they go over to the Dark Side so they can survive? Do they betray companions so they can survive? Knowing how each character deals with problems and reacts to stress (both immediate and long-term) will help you decide what they’ll do, and not do, in action sequences.
In general, I believe an immersive point of view is the best way to go when writing fiction. So far, none of our other ways of experiencing story – movies, TV shows, videogames – is capable of getting into characters’ heads, allowing us to experience what they’re experiencing. It’s one of the great strengths of prose fiction. If you write with an immersive point of view, we’ll know what a character thinks and feels, both emotionally and physically, during an action scene. The action will be intense because, in way, it’s happening to us. Avoid writing your action scenes as if you’re viewing them on a screen. Write them as if you’re living them. When I talk about this in classes, I show an action clip from one the Bourne movies, then I show the video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker.” The latter is filmed from the point of view of a James Bond-like spy. I tell students to imagine action scenes (any scene, really) as if they’re the character in that video. Here’s a link if you’ve never seen it:
I was an acting major for a time in college, and one of the most important lessons an actor has to learn in is to “play the moment.” This means don’t rush dialogue, don’t rush past the emotional beats in a scene. When writing action scenes, don’t rush through the chain of events. Allow your characters to have responses and make choices, however quick they may take place. Allow them to having physical and emotional responses to the actions they take or are taken against them. Staying in the moment is what makes an action scene feel real, and it helps create intensity and build suspense.
Too many writers write about characters who, while supposedly human, possess superhuman strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to injury. Even if your character is an action-adventure badass, he or she will slow down during an action sequence, from the build-up of lactic acid in their muscles if not from injuries. The most believable action sequence I’ve ever seen in film was in John Carpenter’s They Live. Roddy Piper and Keith David are fighting in an alley. The fight starts off high energy, but as it goes on, the combatants slow down, become out of breath and exhausted. That’s the way a real fight would go.
There’s little suspense with characters like Batman and Superman, until Batman’s back is broken and Superman is suffering from kryptonite poisoning. It’s not what you give heroes that makes them interesting; it’s what you take away from them. So consider not writing about superheroes in the first place, but if you do, try to make their action scenes believable. Let them get winded, get tired, get hurt. And let them make mistakes. Maybe they don’t make every jump they take or hit every target they shoot at, even if they ultimately succeed in a story.
And think about how your characters will feel physically and emotionally after the action is over. Tired but exhilarated? Sick to their stomach over the violence they committed? So upset they’re determined never to raise a fist in violence ever again? Surprised – and maybe more than a little ashamed – to discover they like violence and want to commit more? The aftereffects of action are just as important as the action itself.
Writers forget that the bodies of characters in action scenes are flooded with adrenaline and stress chemicals. It doesn’t matter if these characters are well-trained and experience action veterans or newbies. The veterans will be able to handle the effects of these chemicals better, but they’ll still experience them. Here are some of the effects:
·       Increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
·       Dilated pupils to take in as much light as possible.
·       Constriction of veins in skin, which causes the chilly sensation associated with fear.
·       Increased blood glucose.
·       Tensing of muscles and goose bumps. Relaxation of smooth muscles.
·       Shutting down of nonessential systems such as digestion and the immune system.
·       Difficulty concentrating on small tasks (the brain is directed to focus on the big picture).
·       Once the threat diminishes, the body releases cortisol to calm itself back down.
Questions to ask yourself: How does your character’s body work during fear? After fear? How does your character’s senses perform during fear? How effectively can your character process information during an action/fear scene? How effectively can they think and react?
I read once that the reason so many shots were fired during the gunfight at the OK Corral was because the participants’ bodies were so full of adrenaline, their physical actions were too fast, too broad, too erratic for them to shoot accurately. If that’s true, maybe it explains the lousy aim of the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe.
How far is your character willing to go in an action scene? What risks will he or she take? Will your character jump off a cliff like the anti-heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Will he or she be willing to face a shark in its own element, as in Jaws? In a fight, how much violence are they psychologically prepared to commit? It’s easy to hurt and kill humans. Stick thumbs through their eye sockets into their brains. Slice their carotid artery. Bash their brains out with a heavy object. But most people won’t immediately go for those moves. You need to know what moves your character will make naturally, and which they’ll make when pushed somewhat, and which they’ll make when they’re pushed to the wall and feel they have no other choice.
One of my favorite sentences that I’ve ever reach in fiction came from a novelization of one the Friday the 13th movies, written by Simon Hawke: “Jason surged out of the water like a Polaris missile.”
I still laugh at the silliness of the image. The simile doesn’t work at all (nothing against Simon Hawke. I enjoyed the rest of the book just fine). A Polaris missile is military tech, science-y instead of slasher-y, and a missile is far more deadly than one dude with a machete could ever be, making Jason seem like a much lesser threat. Readers need to be able to picture clearly and accurately everything that’s happening in an action scene, not least because it’s (hopefully) fast-paced and they’re reading it quickly. If someone read the above sentence too fast, they might think a missile actually followed Jason out of Crystal Lake. Even if they realized it was a simile, they’ll still picture a Polaris missile shooting out of the water, and the image will clash with what’s really going on. Because of this, I try to avoid using similes and metaphors in action scenes, and I advise you to do the same.
Put energy into your writing so the words themselves feel like action. Instead of saying,
“She ran into the shadows,” say “She plunged into the shadows.” Instead of saying “Bob hit Jim,” say “Bob slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw.” Instead of saying “Jim let out a gust of air!” say “The wind whooshed from Jim’s lungs.” You have to be careful when writing like this, though. If you overdo it, you risk plummeting (see what I did there?) into parody.
In order to make action sequences more fast-paced for readers, write with shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Avoid excess description and focus in the action itself, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
I think the above says it all. Use action figures if you want or those posable wooden models that artists use. Use toy cars, boats, guns, etc. Anything that will help you visually conceive of action moves and help you describe them more effectively. If nothing else, it’ll give you an excuse to play with toys and act like a crazy person (as if writers need an excuse.)
By this point, I’ve spent all my energy, I’m gulping air, my muscles feel like lead, and I’m lightheaded and a trifle nauseated. (Writing is action, right?) I think I’ll go rest for a bit. Next time you write an action sequence, try using some of the above tips, and you’ll kick more ass and take more names than ever before.

Now that you’ve read my tips on writing action, you know you want to see if I practice what I preach! As I said earlier, my latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions.
They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .
. . . and it’s starting to rain.
My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime.
My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press.
It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.