Monday, July 18, 2022

Sometimes Bigger IS Better! Expanding Your Novel

 


The other day a writer I mentored for the Horror Writers Association emailed to ask for advice on how to make novels longer. I thought, “Wow, that’s not a topic I can address in an email. It would make for an excellent blog post, though.”

So here we are.

Fiction writers tend to come in two varieties: Those inclined to write short, and those inclined to write long. The shorties often have to keep adding material, especially if they’re trying to write a novel, while the longies write a bunch and then have to cut it down to the right size. Before we go any farther, let me say this: It’s okay to be a short-writer or a long-writer, and you don’t have to try to make yourself into the opposite if you don’t want to. Some writers predominately write short fiction throughout their careers, while others focus on writing novels. When I started out forty years ago with a goal of becoming a professional author, I was most comfortable with the novel form. I finished my first novel at 19, and it came to around 72,000 words. But I wanted to learn how to write short fiction so I could master all the skills of a fiction writer. But that’s me. You do you. But if you want to write novels and you struggle to create enough material to fill an entire book, I’ve got some tips that will hopefully help you out.

So how long is a novel? In general, traditional publishers consider a novel to be at least 50,000 words, but they’re more often looking for lengths between 80,000 to 120,000 words. If you self-publish ebooks, however, your novels could be as long or as short as you want, as the physical size of the book – and the cost to produce it – is no longer a factor. My novels tend to run around 82K to 90K. That’s a natural range for me, and business-wise, I don’t get a larger advance for writing more words than the minimum. Why would I write 120K words if I’m going to get the same advance for writing 80K? Sometimes I do write more, especially when the story seems to demand it, but not often.

Young adult novels tend to run between 25K to 50K words, and middle-grade novels from 10K TO 30K. My most recent middle-grade novel, I Scream, You Scream, is about 30,000 words. (This book still hasn’t found a publisher yet, so don’t head over to Amazon and wonder why you can’t find it.) My recently-released novel We Will Rise is around 90K words, and the novel I just finished and turned in to my editor at Aethon Books, The Atrocity Engine, runs slightly more than 100,000 words. Most of the tie-in publishers I’ve worked with wanted lengths of around 80K from me.

Now for some advice . . .

1)      Aim for the Bare Minimum. If you’re having trouble reaching novel length, I’d advise you to start off aiming for the shorter end of the spectrum. This is one of the reasons the goal for National Novel Writing Month is 50K words. It’s the shortest novel length you can write that isn’t YA or MG. Fifty thousand words isn’t a marketable length in terms of traditional publishing, but some small press publishers might be okay with it, if you’re self-publishing, shorter novels tend to work better anyway. (Shorter but more frequent releases seems to be the most successful business model for self-publishing.) Breaking 50K on a manuscript for the first time can help you overcome the psychological hurdle of writing a novel. For a lot of beginning novelists, the novel form can seem too intimidating. But once you’ve hit 50K, you’ve gotten over the first big psychological hurdle, and you can try to write a longer novel next time.

2)      A short story is an event; a novel is a series of events that add up to a much larger journey. If the length of a novel seems intimidating, don’t think of your story as a novel, but rather a series of connected short stories. For example, if you’re writing a novel about a haunting, one scene might be the story of the first time your main character suspects there’s a ghost. Another scene might be the story of how the ghost came to be in the first place. Another scene might be the story of the ghost’s first attempt to kill your main character or perhaps possess them. You can write these stories in any order you want and combine them later. Using this technique, your novel is almost like a short story collection where all the stories are linked and they add up to a plot progression from beginning to end. And if you need to write some connecting scenes so the stories fit together better, so be it. And if you’ve already got a novel draft finished but it’s too short, ask yourself if there are any other small stories related to the overall story that you haven’t told yet, then tell them. For example, maybe the haunting in your novel has been going on for two centuries. This means other people than your main character have encountered the ghost. Why not tell their stories in your book?

3)      Add more characters. One of the ways I get length into my novels is to use an ensemble cast. This means I can write scenes from different characters’ viewpoints, and it allows me to show different aspects of the story. I try to keep the number of characters in the ensemble manageable, around ten or less, with three to five main ones. Sometimes I’ll fall in a love with a character who was originally supposed to have only a few scenes or who was even supposed to die. But I see possibilities for expanding the story with them, so I keep them around. Sometimes I’ll introduce a character later in the narrative who’s only going to stick around for a while (maybe they’re going to be killed by the antagonist) but I’ll write a scene of two from their point of view. I want to give them their moment on the stage, give them their dignity, before they have to bow out.  

4)      Add more obstacles. One of the easiest ways to make a novel longer is to give your characters more hurdles to overcome. On the way home from teaching at my college today, I was listening to an audiobook, a fantasy adventure story. The characters were traveling on foot attempting to sneak past an enemy army at night. Now they could’ve gotten past without incident, but what fun is that for readers? They got noticed by the army, were chased, and got separated. Two had to jump off a cliff into a river, and two others had to disguise themselves and attempt to pass through the army to get to a castle of potential allies under siege. It wasn’t easy, but they all managed to eventually meet back up inside the castle, relatively safe (one of them caught an arrow in the shoulder). The author could’ve simply had the characters all get from point A to point B without trouble, but by making it harder for them, not only did the author make that part of the story more interesting, he made it longer.

5)      Use the Triangle Technique. Many writers try to create novels using only two points of conflict. Let’s use the movie Jaws as an example. Two points of conflict: Sherriff vs Shark. But now consider three points of conflict: Sheriff vs Shark and Mayor who wants to keep the beach open during 4th of July holiday weekend at all costs. The novel Jaws has a fourth point of conflict. The oceanographer Hooper dated the Sheriff’s wife in college and they begin an affair. Adding extra points of conflict not only makes your story richer and gives it more depth, it allows you to regulate the pace of your novel by switching back forth between the points of conflict, and it allows you to make your story – you guessed it! – longer.

6)      Employ Murphy’s Law. A lot of beginning writers have almost everything go right for their characters. The characters may have some kind of obstacle to overcome to get from point A to point B, but they will get to Point B, usually unscathed (more or less). For example, say you have a scene where a character needs to get to a job interview, and they’re running late. Maybe they almost get involved in a car accident but manage to get there at last. But what if they don’t get to the interview? What if something occurs that completely sidetracks them? They get into an accident. Or someone runs up to them at a stoplight and begs for their help. Having something go truly wrong in a scene can send the story off into interesting and unexpected directions – and lengthen your novel in the process. Some books on novel plotting call this a Disaster, as in scenes should always end with something going wrong, whether large or small. I think that approach is too mechanical and could quickly become repetitious, but the basic concept is sound.

7)      Combine story types to develop your novel further. There are many different story motifs, and one way to make a story larger is to combine them. Stereotypical action movies do this well (because the action in and of itself isn’t enough to carry an entire film). Let’s say the main thing our action-adventure hero needs to do is stop vampires from releasing a genetically-modified virus that will lower humanity’s collective IQ to the point where they’re no smarter than cattle (thus making it easier to control them and use them as a food source). If our hero knew all this, though, it would make it too easy to locate the vampires and stop them. So we add a Mystery element. Why are formerly brilliant people turning up on the street with low IQ’s? Why are there mysterious murders where the victims die of blood-loss? And so on. That’s still not enough, though, so let’s add a Love story. A scientist who’s looking into the mysterious low IQ’s gets threatened by a mysterious assailant (who we’ll later learn is a vampire) and our hero ends up saving them and starts for fall for them. Maybe we’ll add a Chase too. The vampires are desperate to get their hands on the scientist. They manage to abduct them and the hero goes after them. Now we’ve got a Rescue, too! So if your novel is too short, add in one or more story types. Following are a few different story types to choose from. I’m sure you can think of more.

·         Chase

·         Love

·         Rescue

·         Revenge

·         Coming of age

·         Discovery

·         Quest for object

·         Quest for truth

·         Survival

·         Escape

·         Defense/protection

8)      Stories within stories. At the start of this blog entry, I talked about how you can think of a novel as a series of stories, and how you can expand your novel by adding more stories. Here are few specific types to choose from.

·         Flashbacks: You can show a great deal about characters and setting by adding dramatized flashbacks. Just don’t overdo it and have every other scene be a flashback. And if you have more than one, space them out. And try different techniques. One flashback could be a memory, one could essentially be a monologue as a character tells their story to another character, one could be a separate dramatized scene that you insert without any explanation where it came from (readers will understand you’re simply showing them something from the past), or you could present it as a dream (which means you can add surreal touches to it here and there, maybe combine it with another memory, or turn it into a nightmare). And speaking of dreams . . .

·         Dreams: Other ways dreams can be used are as a portent of the future (whether the character’s dream is magic or psychic in nature) or as a reaching into the past (again, via magic or science). You can also have bits and pieces of these dreams – or psychic episodes – occur periodically throughout the book, keeping the mystery of what it all means until later, when all the puzzle pieces are in place. You can have characters communicate in dreams. This could be two living people or it could be a living person and a dead person, or people connecting across time or dimensions. It all depends on the kind of story you’re telling.

·         Imaginings: This is the Walter Mitty technique. One of your characters can imagine a dramatized scenario – maybe one they’ve been dreading or one they hope will happen.  They can try to imagine something that happened in the past. These scenes may be short – anywhere from a few paragraphs to pages – but when you’re trying to expand your novel, every little bit helps.

·         Hallucinations: Your character might be under the influence of some supernatural force or they might be sick, injured, drugged or suffering from some sort of mental illness. Any of these could cause your character to experience a dramatized scene that may not be real, but it’ll show more about them and, depending on how you write the hallucination, even advance the plot. And if your character (or characters) experience periodic hallucinations, so much the better.

·         Origin stories. Say you have a character that has a deathly fear of drowning. Instead of telling readers about it in a short summary paragraph, you could write a dramatized flashback showing the origin of this fear. Maybe you’re writing a science fiction novel in which a space colony has for some mysterious reason become deserted. You can alternate between scenes of the current investigation into the disappearances with past scenes of the colonists experiencing the events that lead to their eventual disappearance. (This alternating between past and present storylines can work well for short fiction too.) You can tell the origin of a people, a civilization, a technology, a curse . . . anything, really, just so long as it’s pertinent to the story and above all, interesting to the reader.

·         A supporting character’s story: Have an important supporting character? Tell their story, either all at once or in bits and pieces, but tell it in a dramatized scene.

·         Use epistolary techniques: Epistolary techniques – making a novel be a collage of documents written the characters – used to be a common storytelling techniqye. It’s still around today, but most people probably know if as found-footage movies. You can use diary/journal entries, excerpts from a fictional book in your world, letters, emails, new articles, web articles, TV news, recorded videos, security footage, records of scientific experiments, etc. Putting excerpts from these things in your novel can enrich it by adding some narrative variety, as well as additional length.

9)      Additional expansion tips.

·         Have your characters work at cross purposes: Too many writers have all of their characters working well together the entire time, with perhaps a token argument here and there, but nothing so serious that disrupts the group’s forward progress. But you lengthen your story (and add additional conflict and character development) by having your characters argue about the best way to deal with a problem, or having them go their own way to address the problem because they can’t agree on strategy. Maybe your characters have different goals (and maybe they’re concealing their true motives). Having your characters work at cross purposes also complicates your plot, which . . . yep, makes the story longer.

·         Twist in the middle: A lot writers save a plot twist for the end of the story, but what good does it do then? The story’s over. But if you include a twist in the middle, it can send your story off in some interesting directions, and make your story longer, especially if the twist is something that plays itself out after a while. What if one of your characters is revealed to have stolen someone else’s identity and in reality, they’re a criminal? Your other characters will no longer trust them once they discover this secret, and additional complications might ensue, such as the police coming to arrest the character or maybe some of their former criminal associates showing up to collect an unpaid debt. These complications are eventually dealt with, the other characters get over their distrust of the deceptive character (maybe by learning their backstory, as I mentioned earlier) and then everyone gets back to the regularly scheduled plot and the story moves on from there.

·         Sidetracks: One of the earliest tie-in novels I wrote was a young adult Dragonlance novel for Wizards of the Coast called Temple of the Dragonslayer. This was the first YA novel WotC produced, and after I turned in my draft, my editor contacted me and said, “I know we told you we wanted 40,000 words, but we’ve decided the book should be 50,000 words.” So I had to add another 10K words, but I wanted to avoid significant rewriting. I needed 10K words of story that I could drop into the novel somewhere without changing anything before or after it. My heroes were traveling to a valley where the temple mentioned in the title was located, and in the original version, they reach the edge of the valley (after a long and hazardous journey), look down upon the temple with relief, and head down toward it. For my extra 10K words, I decided to have one of the characters be kidnapped by goblins and dragged down into their subterranean lair. Then I had the other characters go in search of her. (Basically, I added a mini-Rescue story.) I wanted to make this sequence important to the overall book, so I decided to make it an explanation for why goblins always seem to pop up out of nowhere in D&D campaigns. They travel through a series of underground tunnels, come up, cause their mischief, then escape back into the tunnels. The rescue was successful, my characters got back to the edge of the valley, they took a deep breath, relieved that they could finally head down to the temple, and started forward again. I’d plopped an additional mini-story into an already complete draft, but readers had no idea when they read the finished book. I made the rescue exciting and made it pertinent to the overall story by showing something about the world. Having characters get sidetracked, maybe for a lengthy portion of your novel, can work great to add length. It’s a variation on adding more obstacles, but this is a big one, one that might add several chapters to your book instead of a few pages.

·         Wrong turns: Even if characters encounter obstacles on the way toward meeting their goals, beginning writers still have their characters make right choices along the way. But you can add length to a novel, and make the story more interesting, if your character makes a mistake that sends them off in a wrong direction, especially if they don’t know they’re headed in the wrong direction. Ever seen a movie in which characters are searching for a treasure, and after deciphering a series of clues, get to what they think is the location of the treasure, only to find it’s not there and in reality it’s located at the place where they started their search? The entire damn story is a wrong turn, sending the characters on an absolutely unnecessary journey. Unnecessary for them, but maybe quite entertaining to an audience. Characters should make mistakes, operate under false assumptions, follow bad (or deceitful) advice on how to proceed, etc.

·         Ask yourself, “What couldn’t possibly happen next?” then make it happen. This is a piece of advice I share with aspiring writers all the time. Too often our plots are simple, contrived things, a subconscious recycling of stories we’ve read or viewed before. Let’s say one of your characters is going to confront their spouse about having an affair, and you imagine them having a huge argument that ends with them deciding to divorce. Nothing especially interesting about that, plus it’s not that long. So ask yourself what couldn’t possibly – at least in the way you currently envision the story – happen next, then make it happen. Maybe your character walks into the house and finds their spouse dead. Maybe they find the spouse being held hostage by someone they’ve never seen before. Maybe the spouse isn’t there, and there’s nothing to indicate where they went. Maybe the spouse’s mother has dropped by for a visit and they can’t have a discussion about the affair. Or maybe they do have it with the mother, and maybe she’s the one that unexpectedly starts it. Maybe that’s the moment when an alien race invades Earth. Whatever. This technique works better in the outline stage if you’re a plotter, but you can try it anytime in the drafting process if you’re a pantser. I’m a little of both, but I’m never hesitant to make a sudden swerve in my story if a good change occurs to me, and I need to make my novel larger.

So if your novel turns out to be shorter than you (or your editor) would like, hopefully the tips I’ve given you will help you expand it. Just remember what I said several times above: Anything you add should be pertinent to the story and interesting to the reader, not just random words crammed into your novel only to make it longer. You want your novel to be both bigger and better.

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

We Will Rise Release



We Will Rise, my ghost apocalypse novel, is finally out from Flame Tree Press! Early reviews have been good so far. But you don’t have to take my word for it – here’s a sampling:

 

We Will Rise is a tense, emotional, scary ride and one of Waggoner’s best.” – Zach Rosenberg, Horror DNA

 

“The book is CREEPY. It's devastating and brutal, with parts not for the faint hearted. It's definitely a horror, and one of my new favourite horrors that's for sure!” – Melissa

 

“Such a fun, horrifying rollercoaster of a book! Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.” – Sugar Spice Coffee

 

“From the first page on Waggoner had me hooked. His imagination is truly off the charts, and never could I have predicted what would happen next.” – Julia C. Lewis

 

If you read We Will Rise, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave a review/rating somewhere. Reader reviews are the lifeblood of a book, and they help publishers decide whether to bring out more work from an author.

 

You can also hear me read the first scene from the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqQWpRmZRAc&t=52s

 

Synopsis

In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.

A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?

Purchase Links

Flame Tree Press

https://www.flametreepublishing.com/we-will-rise-isbn-9781787585249.html

Amazon Paperback

https://www.amazon.com/We-Will-Rise-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1787585220/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1635525326&sr=1-1

Kindle

https://www.amazon.com/We-Will-Rise-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B09JPF5XZD/ref=sr_1_1?crid=11ZC2NOOC3S1J&keywords=tim+waggoner+we+will+rise&qid=1635593108&sprefix=tim+waggoner+we+wi%2Caps%2C192&sr=8-1

Amazon Hardcover

https://www.amazon.com/We-Will-Rise-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1787585247/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner&qid=1635525512&s=books&sr=1-2

Barnes & Noble Paperback

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/we-will-rise-tim-waggoner/1140376625?ean=9781787585225

NOOK Book

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/we-will-rise-tim-waggoner/1140376625?ean=9781787585263

Barnes & Noble Hardcover

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/we-will-rise-tim-waggoner/1140376625?ean=9781787585249

 Writing in the Dark: The Workbook


This workbook is my follow-up to
Writing in the Dark, and I’ve gotten some really good feedback on it so far. While you can use it in conjunction with Writing in the Dark, I wrote it so it could be used on its own as well. It’s available at all the usual places online, but here’s a link to the publisher’s website if you’d like to learn more about it (and order it from them). Plus, you can download some sample exercises for free!

 

https://rawdogscreaming.com/books/writing-in-the-dark-workbook/#:~:text=Like%20Tim%20Waggoner's%20Bram%20Stoker,developing%20the%20art%20of%20suspense.

 

I hope you’ll help spread the word about the workbook. Like Writing in the Dark, I wrote it to help people improve their horror fiction – or if they’re new to horror, to help them get started in the genre – and I want to help as many people as I can. You can help me do that. And for those of you who’ve already spread the word, thank you so much!

 Want to stalk me in real life?

 No one knows what impact COVID is going to have in the future, so I might end up canceling any or all of the following appearances. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here are all the convention appearances I have lined up for the next year. If you attend any of them, make sure to say hi! I’ll be doing panels and workshops, I’m sure, but I don’t have any specific schedules yet.

 

Chicon 8: The 80th World Science Fiction Convention: Chicago, Sept. 1-5.

 

World Fantasy Convention. New Orleans: Nov. 3-6.

 

Authorcon 2. Williamsburg, Virgina: March 31-April 2.

 

Stokercon. Pittsburgh: June 15-18.

 

Want to stalk me virtually?

 

Want to follow me on social media? Here’s where you can find me:

 

Website: www.timwaggoner.com

Twitter: @timwaggoner

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tim.waggoner.9

Instagram: tim.waggoner.scribe

Blog: http://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZEz6_ALPrV3tdC0V3peKNw

TikTok: @timwaggonerscribe

 


Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why Horror (Still) Matters


In the aftermath of 9/11, horror writers went through an existential crisis. “How can we continue writing horror fiction,” they asked, “when the world is filled with real-life horrors that are so much worse?” Was it even moral to write horror fiction in the face of terrible tragedies? Were we mocking them? Worse, were we somehow contributing to them?

 

After the recent mass shooting at Uvalde elementary school in Texas – in which an eighteen-year-old gunman took the lives of nineteen children and two adults and injured seventeen others – writers of dark fiction are doubtless asking themselves the same questions that they did when the towers fell. I know I am.

 

If you feel you need to step away from writing the dark stuff for a while, I get it. If you feel you need to take a longer break, maybe even a permanent one, I get that too. But even in a world which contains such true darkness in it, I think horror fiction, film, TV, and games still play an important role, maybe even a vital one.

 

I wrote about the importance of horror fiction to humanity in the first chapter of Writing in the Dark, which I’ve posted below.

 

WHY HORROR MATTERS

Originally published in Writing in the Dark, 2020

 

Years ago, a student asked me why I write horror. “You seem like such a pleasant person,” she said.

            I looked into her eyes and smiled a slightly wicked smile.

            “Writing horror is what keeps me pleasant.”

We all have a dark side that whispers to us, a side that we struggle against and ultimately need to make peace with if we don’t want it to destroy us. In many ways, that’s probably the most primal story of humanity. Horror fiction gives us a safe way to explore and – hopefully – come to terms with our dark side.

Horror stories allow us to confront our deepest fears through the buffer of fiction. Wrestling with the darkest questions of human existence – why is there violence, pain, cruelty, and death? – can be emotionally overwhelming. These questions can be too intense to deal with directly. Like an eclipse, the only way to safely view these aspects of life is indirectly. Horror allows us to do this. Horror can serve as a buffer in another way. It can distract us from the horrors of the real world, all of which are far more terrifying than any story about a ghost or vampire. Horror writers are like dark clowns that caper in front of our readers, making grotesque faces in the hope that the audience won’t look over our shoulder and see the true darkness of existence behind us.

Not that most readers think that deeply when they pick up (or download) a horror book. They’re looking to be entertained, and probably even more so with film and television horror. They want to enter a dark dream and experience the delightful frisson that comes from feeling they’re in mortal danger, when in reality they’re perfectly safe. It’s the same for people who enjoy a trip through a carnival spookhouse. It’s a fun experience that gets the blood pumping, that jolts people out of their everyday existence and – if only for a short time – makes them feel alive. And if this was all horror did, it would still be important. Who doesn’t want to feel really alive? But even when it entertains, horror can do so much more, be so much more.

Horror is as much, if not more so, about an individual character’s experience than it’s about whatever dark force confronts them. There’s an old saying that an adventure is someone else having a hell of a tough time a thousand miles away. Any type of fiction can teach us more about ourselves and our fellow humans by showing us how particular characters deal with conflict – both external and internal. But horror turns up the conflict all the way to eleven. How do characters deal with the unknown, the impossible, the nightmarish? How do they deal with being exposed to – or tempted by – evil, whether demonic, mundane, or symbolic? What would we do in those situations? Would we be smarter, braver, more resistant to corruption? Would we be smart enough not to go into the dark basement, to resist opening the Necronomicon, to not invite the vampire into our house? Could we hold onto our sanity in the face of the awful things we encounter – or become? Psychologists suggest that reading and watching horror allow people to develop stronger survival skills. We engage in fictional scenarios to explore what we would do in dangerous situations. How many of you have spent time arguing with friends about the best way to survive a zombie apocalypse or how you’d react during a home invasion by a Michael Meyers-like serial killer?

All fiction can make people more empathetic by simply dropping us into a character’s life and allowing us to experience how he or she tries to deal with problems. But horror fiction allows us to follow characters pushed to the absolute limits of human experience and beyond. The more pain – of all sorts – a character experiences in a story, the greater our empathy for that character.

Horror also allows for deep catharsis. The ending of the movie Jaws is a perfect example. After an entire film dealing with an implacable inhuman force, Sheriff Brody – clinging to the mast of the sinking Orca and literally in the shark’s environment – manages to kill the beast at the last moment. And the resultant explosion is a huge catharsis. When characters not only survive but triumph against dark forces, we feel relief. We also feel that if characters in a story can do it, maybe we can too in real life. But good horror isn’t predictable, isn’t safe. Maybe the heroes succeed in banishing the evil, maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re defeated by it, changed by it, become part of it. Or maybe they only believe they’ve won, but it’s a temporary victory at best because the evil returns in the sequel. (I contend this, aside from being a marketing tactic, reflects how we deal with darkness in our own lives. We can never banish it entirely. The best we can manage is a holding action or temporary respite until it returns, and it will keep returning until it finally claims us. How’s that for a cheery thought?) Uncertain outcomes like these keep readers and viewers on their toes mentally and force them to deal with the more complex and mixed emotions uncertain endings bring.

Horror also offers another kind of catharsis. We get the chance to experience what it’s like to be the monster, to not be constrained by morality or even our humanity. We can stalk, torture, maim, kill, despoil souls, destroy worlds, all without ever committing an actual act of violence in the real world. We can get in touch with our dark side, explore it, map it, acknowledge it . . . and once we do, it ceases to have power over us. Or at least, its power is lessened. We’re no longer afraid of thinking “bad” thoughts or imagining “bad” things. It’s like The Purge, only without all the blood, death, and screaming.

Horror can be deeply existential, too. How can we mere mortals hope to defeat all the things that make up Darkness with a capital D: death, disease, violence, temptation, degradation, insanity? What does it mean to be human in a world where the dead can return to life and seek to drain your blood or devour your flesh? What does it mean when otherworldly forces – infinitely more powerful than we are – seek to destroy or dominate us? What does it mean to be human when the monster is inside us, growing stronger every moment? The vast majority of audience members don’t think this consciously about the horror they consume as entertainment, but subconsciously? I believe they do engage with the existential questions horror raises on that level, just below the surface of everyday normal thought.

Horror can provide comfort for the weird ones among us. (And I count myself as a member of this tribe.) With horror’s focus on monstrous distortion – on Otherness – those of us who for one reason or another don’t fit into society’s paradigm of normal can find a place to belong. My wife once told me, “You talk about monsters as if they’re your best friends.” That’s because in many ways they are.

A lot of you reading this might be thinking that literature of any sort has the potential to do all the things I’ve discussed so far – and you’re right. This proves my ultimate point. Horror is literature, and it’s just as important and vital as any other type for the health and growth of humans and their culture.

This sounds cool and all, you might be thinking, but I like to read and write horror because it’s fun.

There’s nothing wrong with fun. If we didn’t have fun from time to time, imagine how miserable our lives would be. But I believe even popular fiction meant primarily for entertainment can fulfill a higher purpose, too. We all know that entertainment can provide an escape from our everyday lives, but it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I truly understood what this meant.

There was a small bookstore in the town next to ours. (This was back in the pre-Amazon past, when such places still existed.) My dad and I were browsing the bookshelves, and I was happily surprised to see a new novel by Piers Anthony in his Xanth series called Centaur Aisle. I’d loved the first three books in the series and had no idea there was going to be a fourth. Dad and I went up to the register, and when he saw the book I was holding, he asked, “Do you mind if I read it first?” I was shocked. In my family, whoever bought a book was always the first one to read it. No exceptions.

My mother – who suffered from a number of health problems – was scheduled for surgery the next day. The procedure wasn’t a very serious one (or so my parents claimed), but I understood then that my father was worried, and he wanted something to distract him in the hospital during my mother’s surgery and recovery. I said yes, of course. And I realized then that popular fiction of all kinds – fiction written to be fun – has a profound power. It can provide comfort to someone who’s scared. It can take someone’s mind off their worries, help them get through some of the hardest times in their life.

Not only do horror writers work in a genre with a long and rich history, the stories we create perform numerous important functions for people as individuals and for civilization as a whole. So if anyone ever asks you why you’re wasting your time writing horror instead of “real” fiction, tell them, “Horror is as real as it gets, baby.” Then for good measure hiss and bare your fangs, then get back to work.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Exploring Perception in Dark Fiction: Guest Blog byTori Eldridge

 


Exploring Perception in Dark Fiction

by Tori Eldridge

Every day, people make decisions that take them toward empowerment and righteousness or toward resentment, bitterness, and despair. Not all of these choices are clearly marked like forks in a road. Some creep up on us with insidious stealth, altering our perception and twisting the truth. The micro decisions we make every day can lead us to irrevocable actions that cause our own demise. They can also raise us from literal or emotional poverty and set us on a nobler path.

In Dance Among the Flames, we meet Serafina Olegario at a vulnerable time in her life. Born in the stilt-shack slums of São Salvador, Brazil, sixteen-year-old Serafina takes her newborn son to meet her married politician lover. When commanded to do the unthinkable, she finds her strength through a supernatural force that changes the course of her tragic life. From this moment forward, every choice she makes pushes her toward the light or the dark. How the readers perceive her evolution is up to them.

It’s these gray areas of human behavior fascinate me the most.

I have yet to meet a person who is a hundred percent in the right or in the wrong. Nor have I met anyone who always acts in the best interest of others or even themselves. Although we might aspire to the most noble course of action, our past experiences and beliefs can lead us astray. Everything we have seen, heard, thought, or been taught; every joy, heartache, failure, and success; every suffering, privilege, or injustice leaves its mark and alters how we perceive.

Dark fiction takes on on a journey of discovery without judgment and let’s us see the world and ourselves in a whole new way.

“Purity was a lie made up by weak people without the guts to face the truth. There was no good or bad: There was only context and conditions. View something as bad and it was. View someone as evil and they were. Spend your life bemoaning your fate and you suffered.”

 —Thoughts from Serafina Olegario in Dance Among the Flames

Could we spiral into the darkness like some of the characters we read about or write? Dark fiction gives us the privacy and context to ask: Where are the lines in the sand after the tide rises and ebbs out to sea?

Our perceptions about everything change slightly—or sometimes dramatically—from one moment to the next. This is one reason why I aspire to write every day. I never know what creative ideas my new perceptions will bring.

DANCE AMONG THE FLAMES by Tori Eldridge

From the national bestselling author of the Lily Wong thriller series comes a “stunningly original novel” (F. Paul Wilson) about a desperate mother who rises from the slums of Brazil to become a powerful wielder of Quimbanda magic. Across forty years, three continents, and a past incident in 1560 France, Serafina Olegario tests the boundaries of love, power, and corruption as she fights to escape her life of poverty and abuse. Serafina’s quest begins in Brazil when she’s possessed by the warrior goddess Yansã, who emboldens her to fight yet threatens to consume her spirit. Fueled by power and enticed by Exú, an immortal trickster and intermediary to the gods, Serafina turns to the seductive magic of Quimbanda. Passion. Horror. Betrayal. It’s dangerous to dance in the fire. But when you come from nothing, you have nothing to lose.

“Eldridge masterfully navigates the nuances of Brazilian religious syncretism and takes a deep and daring look into the issues of colorism, class, generational trauma, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Spanning decades and generations, this is both a page-turner and an emotional powerhouse.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

Tori Eldridge is the national bestselling author of the Lily Wong mystery thriller series—THE NINJA DAUGHTER, THE NINJA’S BLADE, and THE NINJA BETRAYED—nominated for the Anthony, Lefty, and Macavity Awards and winner of Suspense Magazine’s Crimson Scribe Award for Best Book of 2021. Her shorter works appear in the inaugural reboot of Weird Tales Magazine and other horror, dystopian, and literary anthologies. Her short story, “Missing on Kaua‘i” appears in the 2022 Mystery Writers of America anthology, CRIME HITS HOME. Her horror screenplay THE GIFT, which inspired DANCE AMONG THE FLAMES, earned a semi-finalist spot for the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Born and raised in Honolulu, Tori’s deep interest in world culture and religions has prompted her to visit nine countries, including Brazil.

Monday, April 4, 2022

How I Try to Avoid Racism in My Writing

 



I wrote the following in the latest edition of my newsletter, which went out yesterday. I thought I'd post it here as well.

Recently, a small-press horror publisher posted the back cover copy of one of their forthcoming books. The story revolved around a terrorist plot to exterminate the world’s white people using a plague genetically engineered to only affect Caucasians. The plague succeeds, 98% of white folks die, and world civilization collapses. The premise seemed more than a little problematic, and the plot description made it sound even worse. When I first read it, I thought, “This sounds racist as fuck!” And I wasn’t the only one. On social media, many horror authors were appalled by the description and said so. Some vouched for the author (a white man), saying he’s a wonderful guy, has been very supportive of upcoming writers over the years, and is by no means a racist. Besides, some added, people were wrong to judge a book by the publisher’s description! Others said, “Uh, dude, that’s what cover copy is for – to help a reader decide whether or not to buy a book.” The writer and his supporters were baffled that anyone might view the premise and plot description as racist, and the publisher, perhaps unwilling to deal with the fallout over the situation, decided to close shop.

(Since I originally wrote this post, I've learned the publisher wrote the synopsis and posted it on social media without showing it to the author first.)

I’m not going to name the author, book, or publisher. If you don’t already know who they are, a couple minutes of digging on social media or Google will fill you in. I will say I’ve been acquainted with the author for years, he’s always been supportive of me, as well as many other writers. I’ve heard him described more than once as an elder statesman in horror. But does this mean he can’t be unconsciously racist? Or at the very least be tone deaf to racial issues?

 

Of course not. If you’re a white person raised in America – like me – you’ve grown up in a culture steeped in racism, and because this culture has been designed to privilege you, you can never be fully aware of how it’s shaped you and your attitudes. And if you decide to write about racial issues in your fiction, you’ll do so from a perspective of privilege, and even if you have the best intentions, there’s an excellent chance you’ll screw it up. We may never be able to fully transcend our acculturation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to learn, grow, and do better.

What can you do to try to deal with these issues when it comes to writing and being part of the writing community? Some thoughts . . .

·         I wrote a previous blog entry about dealing with diverse characters when writing fiction. You can find it here: https://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2021/11/writing-characters-from-diverse.html

·         I live in a diverse world, and I want my fiction to reflect that, but I won’t tell a story that’s not mine to tell. I won’t write a story that centers on the identity of someone from a different background than myself. I feel totally comfortable writing characters that aren’t cishet white guys like me, but only when their race/gender identity isn’t central to their role in the story.

·         I examine my ideas for possible racism (and any other -isms, for that matter). If I write anything that has racial elements to it (or gender elements, LGBTQ+ elements, disability elements), I ask myself why do I want to write about these elements, what purpose do they serve in the story, and how might they be perceived by readers? My intent as a writer is important, but my execution of these ideas is far more important. It doesn’t matter what I tried to do, only what I did do. If I have any doubts about my ideas, I seek out beta readers who can let me know if my execution is flawed.

·         I try to read the damn room. Thanks to years of Trumpism, racial, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and anti-intellectual attitudes and tensions in America are high. Any story I might write which deals with these elements is likely to cause strong reactions in readers right now. I try to be mindful of this and proceed accordingly. Maybe I’ll decide to not write the story. Maybe I’ll rework it to minimize or avoid any potential negative response. Maybe I’ll write it but tread carefully.

·         I listen to readers, especially people of color. This one’s more of an intention right now, since so far I haven’t received any negative feedback on my portrayal of non-white, non-cishet characters. But even if I feel I did a good job, if readers don’t think so, I intend to listen to their criticisms without being defensive. If I agree that I’ve made a mistake in my portrayals, I’ll apologize, work to repair whatever damage I may have done, and actively work to do better in the future.

·         I try to be a good literary citizen and lift up people of color (and others too). All aspects of American culture have been designed to privilege white people (and straight men and abled people), so I do what I can to help level the playing field. I do this in simple ways, by sharing people’s posts on social media, by mentoring people, by being available to answer questions or blurb books, and by treating all writers – regardless of background or level of experience – as colleagues. And I’ll keep looking for ways to lift others up as long as I live.

If you’d like to see how I do with diverse characters, some of the main characters in We Will Rise (out this July) include a black woman, an Asian woman, a Muslim man in his early twenties, and a teenage trans man.