Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Inaugural Guest Post

Happy Holidays, everyone!
From time to time, I'll be asking guest writers to answer a few questions so that you can get advice from perspectives other than mine (even though mine is AWESOME, right?). First up -- Ty Schwamberger!

What's the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Ty Schwamberger: When I started writing, I didn’t have someone to show me the ropes. I had to learn things on my own. Although, a few years ago I did receive a good piece of writing advice from Brian Keene while at a convention in Nashville, TN. The conversation started with me telling Brain what I was currently working on, my future plans, etc. I don’t remember what spurred his question but Brian asked, “Do you want to be a writer or a businessman?” I thought about it for a moment and replied, “I want to be a writer.” Now that it’s a couple years later, I think someone that wants to write fulltime (if that’s their goal, anyway) needs to be both – a writer and a businessman. But, Brian wasn’t saying that the business side of writing isn’t important. No. Instead, he was stating that at the beginning of every writer’s career, you need to focus on the actual craft of writing a good story. Then, once you start getting some published stories under your belt, that’s the time to start worrying about the business stuff.

What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

Ty: This is a tough one for me to answer. As I mentioned before, I didn’t have a mentor to show me the ins and outs of the publishing world. I had to learn things as I went along. I always knew that it would benefit me in the future, and I think it has, but it was definitely tough going my first year in the business. There was one particular publisher, whose name I won’t mention here, that kept telling me “this is the way it is in publishing.” Later, of course, I found out that the majority of things they had told me were bullshit. But, it was out of that experience I learned what to watch out for in the future.
To give a good piece of writing advice from the several bad ones I got from a certain publisher when I first started in the business…
Always do your research before signing on the dotted line. Or else, you might just get stuck in a long-term contract that’s benefiting the publisher more than you. Always remember, a contract should be equally beneficial to both the publisher and you as the writer.

What's something you've learned about writing or publishing that you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
Ty: It was mentioned earlier that an aspiring author should focus on the craft of writing when starting out. Now, I’m going to throw a monkey wrench into the conversation by saying, “The business side of writing is just as important as the creative side.”
Why, you ask? I’ll explain. But first a brief history…
Few people know this, but I didn’t start writing until early 2008. It was right after I read a couple novels by Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon that I said to myself, “Hey, I can do this.” That’s when I sat down and pounded out 100k words. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, but three months later I had finished my first novel. It was subsequently published (looking back, it really shouldn’t have been) later that year, then away I went. During the first year I was writing, I wasn’t really focused on writing as a career. Instead, I was just having fun doing it.
After the one-year mark, and a few published short stories later, I realized that it would take a lot of work, but writing was definitely my calling and something I wanted to do fulltime one day. It was then at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 that I started pitching ideas to publishers. I’m still not sure if it was something special I was saying in my letters or if potential publishers just saw potential in me (perhaps it was a little of both). That’s when things really started to take off. From my first published book, through the end of 2012, I should have close to a dozen books out there. Not too shabby for someone that started writing for the fun of it just a few years ago.
So, why did I somewhat contradict an earlier statement? It’s to show all the aspiring authors out there, that if writing is something you truly want to do, and you work really hard at it, that anyone can do it. But, if you want writing to be your fulltime dig someday, you have to know the business side of things, as well. Like any successful businessman (or woman): you need to study your chosen industry, learn market trends, test the waters with your product, go to conventions and meet potential publishers and the writers you enjoy reading. The publishing world can be full of trials and tribulations, but if you play your cards right, and work really hard, you can achieve what you’ve always loved doing.
To borrow from my literary idol, Richard Laymon, “In spite of all the drawbacks, the writer’s life is a great life. If you can manage to pull it off. And I believe anyone can. All it takes is desire, persistence, guts and a little bit of luck.”
Besides, who am I to disagree?

Ty Schwamberger is growing force within the horror genre. He is the author of a novel, multiple novellas, collections and editor on several anthologies. In addition, he’s had many short stories published online and in print. Two stories, "Cake Batter" (released in 2010) and "House Call" (currently in pre-production in 2011), have been optioned for film adaptation. You can learn more at: http://tyschwamberger.com/.

Ty’s zombie novella, THE FIELDS, is now available from The Zombie Feed Press, an imprint of Apex Publications. You can purchase a copy here: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/collections/the-zombie-feed/products/the-fields-by-ty-schwamberger or here: http://www.amazon.com/Fields-Ty-Schwamberger/dp/1937009025/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325043175&sr=1-1

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Think Before You Slice

Dear Sir or Madam,

I don't own a computer, and wouldn't know how to use one if I did, so I hope this letter reaches you. My name is ______, and after a great deal of worrying and praying over a moral dilemma, I'm writing to ask for your help. I'm facing some very serious surgeries, so in preparation for the hospital, I went to the store to buy new slippers, a robe, and a nightgown, and got a few paperback books to help pass the time and take my mind off my pain and fears. The store is small and hard for me to manuever in my wheelchair, so I didn't really examine the books -- a crossword puzzle book, a comedy, and a spooky one. The spooky one says on the cover, "The best novel of the year. I can't recommend this novel highly enough." It's called Pandora Drive by Tim Waggoner, and is supposed to be about a young woman with psychic abilities, but it's not really about her at all, and that's why I'm asking for your help. It was on a revolving rack right next to a Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books. I had no idea that it was so vile. The author's photo is on the inside, on the back cover with some information. He is a teacher at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, and there is something I sense from what he has written in this book that is so evil and so perverse and dangerous, that I am greatly concerned over the safety of his students, and everyone he may be in contact with. If you can obtain a copy of this book and read it, you'll understand what I'm trying to explain. It's not fair to judge someone by the way they look, but a person who can conceive of such evil thoughts, and expose impressionable students to them, might be a predator, a pedophile, and even worse. I don't want to accuse an innocent person, but he may act on his thoughts and not be so innocent, and someone who is truly innocent may pay the price with their lives. Please, could you run a background check or whatever you can do, to find out if this man is dangerous to others? With all my heart, I hope and pray that what I feel about this man is wrong -- that he just has a "warped" imagination -- but if he's harmed someone, or will in the future, perhaps you can help, you can stop him before something truly terrible happens. He's too sure of himself, he can write such vile things and get away with it, no one will check, after all -- he's a teacher -- and that's a position of respect (or it used to be.)

Maybe it's intuition, or fear, I don't know how to explain what I feel when I look at the man's picture, but it's upset me so much that I'm asking you, begging you, to please check into this matter. I apologize to you, and to him, if I've misjudged him, and pray for you (and his) forgiveness if I have, but if I'm right, maybe someone will be saved. Thank you for reading my letter, and for your time and help. May God bless you and your good work, and protect you and all those you love.

The above letter was sent to the Dayton Police Department in December, 2009. They forwarded it to Sinclair Community College, where it ended up on the desk of my division dean at the time. The dean has a doctorate in theatre arts, and she well understands the difference between art and the artist and wasn't unduly concerned. She told my chair about the letter, who in turn informed me. My first reaction was to laugh. Me? A danger to anyone? Why, as Norman's mother said, I wouldn't harm a fly. But seriously, I've never even been in a fight, never thrown a punch, not even to defend myself. I don't know if I'm even capable of violence. Yeah, I could be mean to my siblings when I was a kid (though my sister was much meaner and tougher than I was, and I'm still scared of her to this day), and there were times when my ex-wife and I were fighting that I yelled, and once I threw a TV remote against the wall and broke it. Once. And I still feel shame about that. As for being a pedophile, I have two daughters and four nephews (and now a new grand-nephew). The thought of anyone harming a child makes me ill. And corrupting the minds of my students? Most of them don't read for fun, and most of those that do don't read horror. And for those who do read horror . . . well, they often dig my stuff. Warped minds think alike, I suppose.

And when I finally had the chance to read the letter itself, I got another laugh when I saw this line: "There is something I sense from what he has written in this book that is so evil and so perverse and dangerous, that I am greatly concerned over the safety of his students, and everyone he may be in contact with." I mean, can you imagine a better blurb for a horror writer?

And the part of me that's a cynical salesman regrets that the media didn't get hold of this story and blow it up into a huge money-generating scandal for me.

When I was a younger writer, I might have viewed this letter as a badge of honor. After all, one of the goals of horor writing is to make readers uncomfortable, to provoke, unsettle, and disturb. As John Trent says in John Carpenter's brilliant film In the Mouth of Madness: "People pay money to feel like that? It's cute. Put it in the press kit." But this was an instance where someone reading my fiction was unsettled to the point of believing there was an actual threat in the real world. Kind of like a small-scale version of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast. My words had such an impact on this woman that the line between fantasy and reality blurred for her -- which is precisely what happens in Pandora Drive. So without realizing it, she had participated in a wonderfully bizarre metafictional experience -- and had brought the Dayton police and my college's adminstration in as well. (The best metafictional reading experience I ever had was when I read Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and the paperback slowly fell apart in my hands as I read it. Let's see e-books try to recreate that experience!)

But I'm an older writer now, just as prone to overthink things as ever, but perhaps a bit more thoughtful and less self-centered when I do so. The worst thing artists can experience is indifference to their work. As Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." The woman who wrote about Pandora Drive was definitely not indifferent to the book, and it certainly had an impact on her, although not perhaps the one I'd hoped for when I wrote it. I wrote the novel for horror fans and fans of bizarro fiction. (Don't know what the latter is? Google Bizarro Central.) I wanted to include every type of horror I could think of -- quiet, loud, surreal, erotic, psychological, supernatural -- and I wanted to include echoes of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. I also wanted to include a tribute to the wonderful Richard Laymon, by including a Laymon-esque character whose repressed sexual desires were suddenly brought to dangerous life by my protagonist's ability to manifest others' fantasies. And -- this is the last thing I'll mention, I promise -- I wanted to experiment with providing a false climax (no jokes, please), including what appeared to be a final conflict scene, only to have the story take off in a different direction afterward. (I firmly believe horror fiction shouldn't be safe, and that goes for narrative techniques authors use as well.)

Remember how I said I overthink things? Point proven, I trust.

I have artistic goals for everything I write, although I try not to call attention to them in my fiction. I want my stories to be fun and enjoyable but, if you're interested in delving a little more deeply, there are other levels beyond entertainment to explore and, I hope, appreciate. I don't expect everyone to like everything I create. Much of art appreciation comes down to personal taste. I hate raisins -- they're just the nasty little dried corpses of grapes -- and I refuse to eat the damned things. But while I wonder a bit at the sanity of those who eat raisins, let alone love them, I know raisins are what they are. They never change. Only the people eating them do. But the woman who responded so strongly to Pandora Drive didn't simply dislike horror fiction. She was profoundly, deeply disturbed by my words, ideas, and images. Perhaps even to the point of being traumatized -- and right before she was scheduled for multiple surgeries. I know she's responsible for her own choices as a reader. (Why she kept reading when she found the book was, to put it mildly, not to her taste, I'll never understand.) But I'm also not so naive as to think that my work has no consequences in the real world.

Some writers decry the use of genre labels, obvious genre covers, and genre-identifiable back cover copy, feeling that such things diminish the seriousness with which their work should be taken or begin to shape readers' response to the work before they've even begun to read it. I understand those points, and don't necessarily disagree with them. But we can't have a world like in the wonderfully strange movie Repo Man, where all products are generic, packaged in white with black lettering that says GOOD FOOD, GOOD BEER, etc. Would you want all your novels to be labled GOOD BOOK? (Personally, I'd prefer KICK-ASS BOOK or COMPLETE AND TOTAL MINDFUCK OF A BOOK, but that's just me.) But I don't mind labels and packaging.They let people know whether a work of art may or may not be for them. I tell my daughters they can't read any of my horror until they're at least teenagers, and for some of it, they should probably wait until they're thirty or so (or better yet, just wait until I've joined the choir invisible).

The Letter Woman was hurt by reading my work. Perhaps she hurt herself, but I made the knife she cut herself with, so to speak. And I've made a lot of other knives since then, large and small, some sharper than others. I suppose it's inevitable that when you make knives, someone's eventually going to get cut. But that doesn't mean I like it or that it's always easy to live with.

That woman did me a huge favor. She reminded me that if I'm going to make knives, I need to do so responsibly, always remaining aware that there's a person who will one day grasp the handle, pick it up, and attempt to use it. She reminded me that, as it says in theme to the old cartoon Super Chicken: "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

Do I believe in censorship? Of course not. Do I believe in self-restraint when it comes to writing? Only if it helps me tell the best story I can. But that means I also believe in a total lack of restraint if that's what a story requires. Do I always toss in as much sex, violence, weird ideas, and bizarre imagery into my horror fiction as possible? Nope. Do I give my imagination free reign to go where it will while at the same time keeping my readers in mind? You bet. These days, however, I consider my artistic choices -- and their potential impact -- a bit more carefully.

Bottom line: Respect the knife and the eventual wielder of it, but always make the sharpest goddamned blade you can.


Apex Books have released a new edition of my horror novel Like Death. which I wrote before Pandora Drive. (If the Letter Woman had read that book instead of Pandora Drive, she'd probably have sent the FBI, CIA, and every branch of the military after me -- along with the Salvation Army for good measure!) The book is available in both trade paperback and e-book editions, and this weekend Apex is having a Black Friday sale: 25% percent off all their books. So drop by their website and pick up a copy or ten of Like Death. And if, after reading it, you feel inclined to contact the media and report me as a major menace to society, my bank account will thank you for it. Here's the link: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/blog/4651912-black-friday-sales

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shadow Walking

"I find it hard to believe you write that kind of stuff. You seem like such a pleasant person."

One of my students has caught me in the hallway between classes. Her question is half-joking, half-serious, and there's a probing intensity in her gaze, as if she's looking for an answer to a question she can't quite articulate. I smile as I respond.

"Writing that stuff is what keeps me pleasant."

Since it's Halloween (or as horror professionals call it, Amateur Night), I thought I'd talk about writing horror this time around. I can't tell you where my love affair with the Dark began. One of my earliest memories is being a very small child, not even a year old yet, and being carried around the neighborhood at night by my mother. My parents have dressed me in a pink bunny suit -- the kind for kids that leaves the face open -- complete with bunny ears on the hood. I have no idea why they've put me in this thing, nor do I have any idea why we're going from house to house, knocking on doors. The neighbors make a fuss when they open the door and see me. Isn't he darling? I have no clue why they react the way they do, and I don't really care. I'm too fascinated by the small figures walking around, all of them dressed as strange creatures the like of which I've never seen before. They visit one house after the other, candy bags swelling ever fuller with each stop, but the treats don't interest me. I'm intrigued by the distorted faces, the dark colors, and the way these nameless figures move silently through the night.

A few years later when I'm four, maybe five, my parents let me watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man on TV with them. Afterward, my father teaches me a simple way to draw the Wolf-Man's face. I can still replicate that drawing to this day.

Not long after, one of the kids in the neighborhood shows me a book he's just gotten. It's called How to Care for Your Monster, and it's by Norman Bridwell, better known for the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. This book tells kids how to find a monster and keep it as a pet. I have to have this book, and I trade the kid a stack of baseball cards for it. Best deal I've ever made.

I could go on and on, from devouring issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland to watching scary movies on Shock Theatre with Dr. Creep every weekend. (After every program, the Creeper signed off with, "I'll be seeing you -- in your dreams. Muhahaha!") Reading Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and more. And then, in seventh grade, a friend told me about this book he'd just finished reading called 'Salem's Lot. I could also tell you about the very puzzling day in high school when, just before Thanksgiving, the teachers herded us into the gym and played Psycho for us while they stood outside and smoked. I couldn't figure out why the faculty decided on that movie as an appropriate holiday film, but I wasn't complaining.

But that's just the fun side of the Dark, like the costumes kid wear for trick-or-treat. Beneath those costumes is where the true Dark lies. I could tell you about what it was like when my Uncle Red died when I was nine years old, an event which sent me into a several year existential depression. What's the point of living when the end product is a corpse? What's the point of experiencing something good when even as you're experiencing it Time (just another face of Death) is stealing it from you? I could tell you what it was like to grow up with an agoraphobic mother who suffered strange fainting spells at least once a month, a condition doctors were never able to diagnose. I could tell you what it was like to be the weird kid in school, the smart one who tried to pretend he wasn't smart, but who still wore T-shirts with Frankenstein's monster on the front. But if I did, I wouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know. All of us experience this kind of Darkness, and many of you have probably experienced it a far greater degree than I ever have.

For a while after Uncle Red died, I hated monsters and wanted nothing to do with them. I realized that the way I felt -- the pain, the sorrow, the inexpressible loss -- was exactly what monsters in the stories I had once so loved caused. I now understood that when Dracula killed a victim, friends and relatives of that person felt what I felt. And if that victim rose from the dead to become a monster in turn, how much more awful would it be for the victim's loved ones and, if the victim had even a scrap of humanity left, how awful would it be for him or her?

I learned that horror isn't just about fear. It's about pain. And not just physical pain. Emotional, spiritual, intellectual, primal, types of pain for which we don't have words yet . . . The best horror writers and filmmakers know this. It's why I admire Rob Zombie's films so much. Zombie never shies away from his characters' pain. All of them, heroes or villains (although those terms are gross oversimplifications when applied to Zombie's films) are given their due, and their pain is respected.

So if you want to write effective horror -- or even just employ horror effectively as one element of your story -- here are some points to consider.

1. It's not about the monster.

A good horror story is about people. The "monster" -- whether literal, figurative, symbolic, situational, internal or external -- is a catalyst for conflict and change. The core of the story is what happens within your character's hearts and minds as they struggle to deal with their monster. An exception to this: stories like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in which the monster's emotional needs are just as important to the novel -- if not more so -- than any other element.

2. Physical pain is easy -- too easy.

A lot of beginning writers -- or writers raised on a steady diet of by-the-numbers slasher and torture porn films -- make the mistake of thinking that if a character is hurt physically in a story, that's enough to evoke horror. Any idiot can write "And then the Hash-Slinging Slasher cut off SpongeBob's arm with his Satanic Spatula." Of course your characters may suffer physical pain depending on the events of the story, but that should be the least of their problems. Cut my arm off, I'll hurt. Cut off the arm of someone I love as I watch, I'll hurt more. Make me cut off the arm of someone I love, I'll be devastated. Make me need to cut off that arm, want to, love to, beg to, and I'll be plunged into a nightmare of insanity from which I will never escape.

3. Horror is internal more than external.

As I said earlier, horror is about what happens inside your characters, not what happens to them. The horror in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" doesn't come from the murder the narrator commits, but from Poe allowing us inside the narrator's head so we can experience his (or her) insanity firsthand. In the movie Poltergeist, the horror doesn't come from the ghosts haunting the house, but from the parents' desperation to retrieve their youngest daughter from whatever otherworldly dimension the ghosts have taken her to.

4. Respect all your characters.

If you're going to kill someone off in your story, allow them their humanity. Don't treat them like a generic video game character who exists only to be mowed down by the player. You don't need to provide a character's entire life story, but readers need to get to know that character a bit before he or she bites it, and their death -- however bizarre and horrible it may be -- needs to mean something.

5. Dig deep. Don't be afraid to get personal.

Beginning horror writers go for stories based on well-worn tropes. Vampires, zombies, serial killers, ghosts, etc. Yes, you can write effective stories with these tropes, provided you put a unique spin on them. But if you want to write really good horror, you need to dig into your own psyche and find what disturbs you and then make it disturb me. I don't mean writing about spiders if you hate the eight-legged beasties. For example, when I was four and my sister two, our mother left us at home while we were napping. She left to run a couple errands (this is back when she still would leave the house) and she thought she would be back before we woke. We woke up early, though, and we had no idea where she was. We had never been left alone before. I tried to reassure my sister that everything was okay, and because I'd seen people on TV pace when they were worried, I told my sister that we should pace in a circle until Mom got home. She did return shortly after that, and my sister and I rushed crying into her arms. Mom promised she would never leave us alone again, and as the years went by and she became a true agoraphobic, you can bet that I recalled her promised to us with more than a little guilt. This specific experience is mine and mine alone -- my pain -- and I can use it as the basis for a horror story that will seem fresh and unpredictable to readers because it doesn't really on hoary old spookhouse tropes. Plus, they'll be able to relate to it because at its core, the experiences of being abandoned and feeling guilt are common human ones.

Be careful when mining your past for story nuggets, though. Avoid writing thinly disguised autobiography. Use the events as seeds to grow stories from, not as essay topics. And if you've experienced major trauma in your life, revisiting those places inside you might not be a walk in the park. But then again, as it says in the Super Chicken theme song (Google it): "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

6. Don't wallow.

Avoid the temptation to go on and on about a character's pain. Too much drawn-out detail -- whether physical or emotional -- and your audience will become numb to your character's fictional suffering. If that happens, readers can't fully engage with your story on an emotional level, and your story loses impact.

7. Be careful.

Is there such a thing as going too far in horror? Clive Barker's famous quote, "There are no limits" would seem to suggest there isn't. But keep this in mind. Readers read to be entertained, even readers of literary and classic fiction who read more for intellectual than emotional stimulation as a general rule. The more extreme your horror is in terms of dark content, bizarre imagery, violence, sex, and emotional pain, the more readers you'll turn off. As John Trent asks in John Carpenter's excellent film In the Mouth of Madness, "People pay to feel like that?" Some of us seek out the darkest fictional journeys we can find, but a lot of us prefer our horror on the less intense side. So if you want a larger audience, consider tempering your horrific elements. If you don't care how large your audience is, then feel free to go as dark as you want. But don't confuse dark with a bunch of blood and guts mindlessly strewn about the page.

So don't be reluctant to walk through the shadows, no matter how dark they get or how many strange shapes you see lurking there. But as you walk, remember: it's not the shadows outside that will thrill your readers, but the shadows within you, within them, and within us all.


Speaking of horror, the new edition of my critically lauded novel Like Death is available for pre-order. If you order between now and Nov. 4, you'll receive 25% off the cover price. Want to see if I practice what I preach? Want to read a horror novel unlike anything you've ever read before? Want to know why everyone talks about the infamous Chapter Thirteen? Then head on over to Apex Books and order a copy! www.apexbookcompany.com/products/like-death-by-tim-waggoner

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Write, Therefore I Am

About twenty-five years ago, I worked as a reporter for a small-town weekly newspaper. It was the kind of job where I wrote my stories on an electric typewriter, and people would call in to complain if we forgot to run the bridge scores from the nursing home that week. One day a young guy came in (I say young now, but he was probably a few years older than I was then) and asked to speak to a reporter. Since my desk was in the front office, he got sent to me. He introduced himself as a local writer name David Sain. He had just self-published his first chapbook of poetry, and he wanted the paper to run a story on him. Since I was always scrambling to find copy to fill the paper (there were two papers produced in our office, and I was the only reporter working on mine), I thanked the Universe for dropping a story in my lap and proceeded to interview David. He was a well-spoken man, eager to promote himself, and he gave me plenty of information for a story, along with a publicity photo we could run.

"I call myself a poet now," he said at one point. "I didn't used to because I felt I hadn't earned the title. But I sent some of my poems to Nikki Giovanni, and she wrote me back with some great comments in which she called me a poet. So since she bestowed the title upon me, I feel that now I can say with pride that I am a poet."

Last week I was teaching a class, and one of my students asked me how I saw myself, as more of a teacher or a writer. I told him that I have so many roles in life -- father, brother, partner, friend, writer, teacher, citizen, etc. -- that I simply define myself by my name. "Tim Waggoner" encompasses all the roles I play, and all those I'll play in the future.

The student's question reminded me of David Sain and got me thinking about how important it seems to be for writers -- especially beginning ones - to define themselves as writers. And how in many cases, that identity they're trying to create for themselves is just as important to them as writing itself. Sometimes even more so.

I initially resisted self-identifying as a writer. Starting in sixth grade, I began drawing a comic book series of superhero adventures featuring myself and my friends. The Six Million Dollar Man was one of my favorite TV shows, so I turned us into The Bionic Team, four kids who were injured in a roller coaster accident and, thanks to the addition of cyborg parts, were made better, faster, and stronger. I kept the series up throughout junior high and most of high school, but as much as my friends enjoyed reading these adventures, they always said my writing was better than my art. This irritated me to no end because I wanted to become a comic book artist when I grew up -- not a writer. I was only writing the damned comics to give me a story to draw!

In high school, I explored all the creative options I could. I played trumpet in band, took art and writing classes, and was a member of the Drama Club. I was in several plays (only in the spring since I was in marching band in the fall), and by my senior year I'd switched from wanting to be an artist to wanting to be an actor. Laurie Eckert, the Drama Club director, gave me a blank journal as a graduation present. Her inscription urged me to fill it with all my "creative ideas." While I was touched that she recognized me as a highly creative person, I was a bit irritated. "I'm going to be an actor," I thought. "Not a writer!"

A year earlier, I had taken a creative writing class with Mrs. Vagedes. I wrote a story ripped-off . . . uh, I mean inspired by a comic tale I'd read in Eerie magazine about the last surviving Christmas elf who continued delivering presents on his own, only he was a murderous psychopath. I decided to take the basic premise -- which I thought hadn't realized its full potential in the Eerie version -- and I wrote a non-horror tale called "The Last Christmas Present." Mrs. Vagedes was so impressed that she read it aloud to the class. But she didn't tell who had written it. She said that it was up to the author to identify him or herself. I said nothing. I was proud of how the story turned out, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to publicly claim authorship of it. I was just a kid who'd written a story. I wasn't a "writer." I was eventually outed and awarded the honor of Writer of the Month at my school for the story, and the local paper published the story along with an interview with me. (I actually wore a suit to be interviewed by the reporter, and at one point used the word "chagrined" to sound smart.)

Sometime during my junior or senior year, I read an interview with Stephen King in an issue of Dracula Lives. He was a relatively new writer back then, just starting out, really. I remember that in the photo of him which accompanied the article he wore a pair of plastic vampire fangs. Probably not something he'd do today, I'd wager. Reading that interview was the first time I realized that a person could actually choose to be a writer as a career path. King chose it. I could choose it. I left my bedroom, walked down the hall and into the family room, and told my mother, "I think I might like to be a writer." She looked at me for a second, and then said, "I think you would be a good one."

The King interview was a revelation to me. Up to that point, I'd never considered becoming a writer. I'd been inventing stories all my life. Sometimes I'd draw them, sometimes act them out with toys, sometimes act them out on the playground with friends, but it was always Story. It was as natural and necessary to me as breathing. And who decides to make something as simple as breathing their career? I didn't immediately dedicate my life to writing at that point, but I was a step closer.

When I was a freshman in college (this was after I'd switched my major from acting to theatre education), I was sitting on the porch one day when my father got home from work. He walked up to me and handed me a brown paper bag. Inside was a copy of Writer's Digest. "I saw this at the bookstore, and I thought you might like it," he said, and then he went inside. I sat there on the porch and read the magazine from cover to cover, not only because I was interested in the articles, but because my dad bought it for me, because -- even if he hadn't said it aloud -- like my mom, he thought I could be a writer.

During college, I began writing and submitting work for publication in earnest. I took a job as a tutor in the Writing Center. My senior year I became editor of the school's literary magazine. After I graduated, I decided to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration. In my mid to late twenties I began regularly publishing short stories, and my first novel came out when I was in my mid-thirties. But at no point in my life was there one moment when I decided that I was now a WRITER. I grew into that identity, just as I've grown into my others.

Some writers, like David Sain, need someone they respect and admire to anoint them as writers, whether that person's a teacher, a mentor, a publisher, or a reviewer. Others seek to invent themselves as writers, as if they can become whatever their ideal of a writer is through sheer force of will. And some seek to purchase it, although they'd probably never look at it this way. And to make it even harder to develop an identity as a writer, there's a lot of bad advice people get along the way. So let's talk a bit about some of the larger potholes and pitfalls to be encountered on the road to developing a writing identity.

If you write, you are a writer.

I've seen this bit of wisdom posted on many a message board. The idea is opposite of what David Sain needed. Instead of waiting for someone to pronounce you a Writer with a capital W, you are one from the moment you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and begin writing. On one level, this is freeing. There's no need for someone to anoint you. But it doesn't leave room for you to grow. If you're automatically a capital W Writer from the moment you begin, why bother striving to get better? Why bother listening to feedback? Why bother to continue writing at all, really? You wrote once, right? That was good enough to earn your capital W.

There's more to writing than typing. Just ask Truman Capote.

You're only a REAL writer when you (fill in the blank).

There are lots of way to fill in the blank. You're only a real writer when you . . . publish your first story, publish your first story for pro rates, publish you first story in Well-Regarded Magazine, get an agent, publish a novel, get a five-figure advance, get a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, make the New York Times bestseller list and so on. All of this is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. Don't allow others to define your writing identity for you. If you do, either you'll drive yourself crazy trying to achieve one particular goal or, if you do achieve it, it won't be enough. Eventually the glow of success will fade, and you still won't feel "real" yet. (Besides, being real is overrated. I'd rather be a surreal writer.)

Full-time vs day job.

This could also be filed under "You're only a real writer when . . ." Some people believe you're not a writer until you can quit your day job and make a living solely from your writing. (Teaching writing doesn't count, just publishing and being paid for it.) It's long been established by people who calculate this kind of thing that the average yearly income of a writer from writing is $5000 a year. This average includes bestsellers, as well as writers of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, etc. Many writers who try writing full time find that they don't produce any more work than they did when they had day jobs. Plus, not having health insurance or a steady income to pay bills leads to a ton of stress which, you guessed it, impacts productivity. A lot of people act like writing full time is the Holy Grail of the writing life when it's more like a double-edged sword. There are a lot of pros and cons to writing full time, and only you can decide if it will work for you and your family. But do you need to write full time to be a capital W? Of course not.

Literary vs genre.

Some people think "real" writing must be literary. Anything else is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Others believe "real" writing is writing that people read: stories that entertain, and only genre writing does this. Both views are horseshit. You and you alone determine what you write. Write what fulfills you for whatever reason it fulfills you. Anyone who tells you any different is either an idiot or so insecure in their own identity as a writer that they have to push their artistic values on other people in order to feel good about themselves.

You must approach it as a business.

I've heard this piece of advice I don't know how many times from genre writers. The only "must" in writing is that you must use words to communicate ideas in written form. After that, it's up to you. Now, if you want to have a career as a selling writer who makes money, approaching it as a business is a good idea. If you write to please yourself, for artistic fulfillment, and you don't give a damn about making money, that's okay too.

Writers must always get paid.

In a perfect world, we all would be paid for every word we write. In reality, not so much. If you want to use money to keep score of your success as a writer, that's your business. But if you want to write erotic haiku about lemurs in love, go for it. (Then again, you might find there's a thriving market for lemur love poetry.) But don't let anyone take advantage of you. If you choose to write for a nonpaying market for whatever reason, fine. But if a publisher is going to make money from your writing, you should too. And of course, never, ever pay anyone to publish your work unless you desire to self publish and you go into such a venture with your eyes wide open.

Writing programs

University creative writing programs have exploded in number over the last few decades, and for one simple reason: they generate money and employ literary writers. That doesn't mean these teachers are poor ones, but if they could make a living from writing full time, most of them probably would. A lot of beginning writers feel they need an MA or MFA in creative writing so that they are sanctioned as writers by society. It makes sense. You're not a doctor until you get your MD or a lawyer until you get your JD. But often enrolling in a creative writing program is an attempt to purchase an identity as a writer. Yeah, you have to do the course work as well as pay tuition, but getting a degree doesn't make you a writer. It just means you earned a degree from one institution. (And where you get your MFA makes all the difference, but that's a topic for another blog.) Statistics show that most graduates of MFA programs never go on to even modest writing careers. If they do remain in writing, it's as the next generation of creative writing teachers. A graduate program can be a wonderful growth experience for a writer, but you don't need a degree to write. The vast majority of the professional writers I know don't have degrees in writing, and most of the people I know who have degrees in writing don't write and publish. Make of this what you will.

Writers groups

Some think, "I'm a writer because I'm in a writing group." I hate to break it to you, but no, you're not. You're just a person in a writing group. Too many people treat critique groups (or writing classes -- see above) as validation of their identity as a writer -- but they never actually finish work and submit it for publication. Writing groups can be wonderful things, but only as a part of the process of one's growth as a writer, not an end in and of themselves.

I'm a (fill in the blank) writer.

It's tempting -- especially in these days of corporate branding -- to want to label yourself as a romance writer, mystery writer, or even more broadly as a fiction writer or poet. Most people consider me a horror writer, but I write fantasy and media tie-in work as well, mostly for adults but sometimes for younger readers, and my work is often cross-genre and perhaps ultimately unclassifiable. If you love one type of writing to the exclusion of all others, then by all means, call yourself a (fill in the blank) writer. But don't let it limit you. If you're a western writer who wants to try writing an absurdist play, then go for it. There's something to be said for branding when it comes to marketing your work, but there's no need for you to make a brand your identity.

Writers who rush to self-publish

I'm seeing this more and more these days -- writers who feel they must have a book published in order to legitimize themselves as writers . . . at least in their own eyes. E-pubbing has become incredibly easy over the last few years, and it's only going to become easier. If you really honest to God believe that your book is the very best that it can be, that it's of high enough quality to be competitive with other books that are out there, that it's going to be worth a reader's time, attention, and money, that it's so good that YOU would pay to read it if you hadn't written it, then self-publish away. But if you're just in a hurry to be a capital W, do the world -- and yourself -- a favor and hold off until you've written something truly worth taking public. Because when you publish, you begin building an identity in readers' minds, and who wants an identity as someone who produces sub-standard work? Sure, you may improve as the years go by, but why should readers suffer through your growing pains? And do you really think they're going to keep buying your books while you grow? And do you think all those one-star reviews on Amazon and bad reviews on blogs will magically vanish the day you finally write a really good book?

I guess what I'm trying to say with this blog entry is not only be yourself, but create yourself. And it's not a bad idea to have a little fun along the way, too.


Ghost Trackers, the novel I co-wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show, is out in trade, mass market, and e-book formats. My horror novel Like Death is due to be reissued as the inaugural release from Black Room Books, hopefully by the end of the month. Both make wonderful Halloween reading fare and deserve an honored place on your shelf. (Hey, it's called shameless self-promotion for a reason!)

Friday, September 23, 2011

All the World's a Stage

Last time I talked about being a theatre education major during my undergraduate years, even though by that point I knew that I really wanted to be a writer. I've never taught a theatre class in my life, but those years in college were hardly wasted because studying theatre -- and especially acting -- taught me a ton about writing fiction.

Allow me to set the scene for you . . .

A studio classroom in a Midwestern university. Soundproofed walls, carpeted floors, a few chairs lined against the walls. A group of acting students, most in their late teens and early twenties, sit on the floor, dressed in T-shirts, tights or sweats, and leg warmers. I'm one of these students, a sophomore (though I have too much self-respect to wear leg warmers; a man has to draw the line somewhere). This is Dr. Huberman's acting class, and today he tells us we're going to learn about the essence of great drama. He's a tall thin man in his thirties, wearing wireframe glasses, a gray suit, and tie. Standing in the middle of the room like a circus ringmaster, he asks for two volunteers. My friend Doug Blakesly steps forward, as does a woman whose name I've forgotten. Let's call her Katie. Dr. Huberman tells Katie to go stand out in the hall until he comes out to get her. She leaves and shuts the door behind her. Dr. Huberman then gives Doug his instructions.

"We're going to do an improv scene. You're an employee of a company. You've worked there for years. You're wife is very sick, and your insurance won't cover all your medical bills. You've decided to go to your boss and ask for a raise. But you're a proud man, and the one thing you will not do -- under any circumstances -- is tell your boss the real reason you need this raise. You can say anything else you want to say to try to persuade her, but you will not tell her about your wife, and you will not leave her office without getting a raise. Got it?"

Doug nods and Dr. Huberman sends him out in the hall and tells him to send Katie in. She enters and closes the door behind her.

"Katie," Dr. Huberman says, "we're going to do an improv scene. You're a middle-management-level supervisor in a large corporation. Business has been falling off the last year of so, and profits are down significantly. So much so, in fact, that the corporation is in serious jeopardy, though this isn't public knowledge yet. Even most of the company's employees don't know. Because of the current situation, all supervisors have been informed that they cannot grant any raises for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, you're not allowed to discuss the real reason raises are no longer allowed. If someone comes to you and asks for a raise, you can give them any reason you want for turning them down, but the one thing you won't do, under any circumstances, is tell the truth about the company's financial situation. Understand?"

Katie nods. Dr. Huberman goes to the door, opens it, and asks Doug to come in. He then has them pull a couple chairs to the center of the room facing each other, then tells Katie to sit. Doug stands by, ready to enter her imaginary office. Dr. Huberman steps back and gives his customary command for the scene to begin.

"Astonish us!"

The scene begins simply enough. Doug enters and asks if he can speak to Katie. She agrees, he sits and begins making his case for why deserves a raise. He talks about how long he's been with the company, how much time has elapsed since his last raise, and how sales are up in his division because of his leadership. Katie listens, and when Doug is finished, she tells him that while he has been a loyal employee for many years, there are employees with longer tenure who haven't received raises. She goes on to say that while his sales figures are good, others in the company have done better in the last year.

So far, so unremarkable. But then Doug tries again, giving Katie more reasons why he deserves a raise, which she in turn shoots down one by one.

Then something amazing starts to happen. Doug begins to become desperate, and he works harder to convince Katie. And while she clearly sympathizes with Doug, she's beginning to become frustrated with constantly having to rebuff him. The scene goes on like this for several more minutes, with Doug and Katie becoming ever more emotional, to the point where they are close to tears, as are a number of students watching. The atmosphere in the classroom is electric, the air crackling with tension. The scene keeps going -- remember, Dr. Huberman told Doug he can't leave without getting the raise his character so desperately needs, just as he told Katie she can't grant his request. There's no way for the scene to end, not unless one of the actors break the rules. And Doug and Katie refuse to do that. They keep going, keep battling, until they both begin to cry.

Dr. Huberman finally takes pity on them and tells them to stop. Everyone applauds our two emotionally drained classmates, and then Dr. Huberman tells us why what he have just witnessed was so powerful. The essence of good drama is a combination of strongly motivated characters who can not or will not abandon their goals and the conflict that results when those goals are diametrically opposed.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Every basic creative writing text says the same thing, but what I saw that day was that both characters were equally motivated, each just as strongly as the other. And by watching Doug and Katie continually try different approaches to meet their characters' goals, I'd seen an entire dramatic story spun out in front of me from two simple seeds. I learned several vital lessons about writing fiction that day.

  1. All characters in a story need to be strongly and clearly motivated -- not just the main character.

  2. These motivations should in some way conflict with each other.

  3. Characters should not be allowed to abandon their goals, whether because it's in their psychological make-up not to quit or because circumstance won't permit it.

  4. Characters don't believe they're good guys or bad guys. They all do what they do because they truly believe they have to.

  5. During the drafting stage, all fiction writing is improv. Given an initial situation and clear motivations, I could improv scenes and entire stories -- hell, even novels.

  6. Like actors, writers should stay in the moment. During the improv, Doug and Katie didn't know what either of them was going to do next. They had to stay in the moment because they couldn't do otherwise. Each moment of their scene was alive and vital, not rushed through or glossed over. I realized my scenes would be far stronger if I made my characters remain in the moment as well.

  7. Like actors, writers should play the emotion, not the words. Watching Doug and Katie, I realized that while they were speaking, the true scene was taking place beneath their words, in the emotions that they were feeling and struggling to control and conceal. Emotion is where both character and story live. So I decided that when I wrote, I would always consider what emotion underlies a character's every word and action, and I would make sure to "play" each emotion.

  8. It's not what you give characters that makes them interesting; it's what you take away from them. Dr. Huberman took away several options from Doug and Katie, and because of this, their characters couldn't take the easy way out of their situation. They couldn't quit, and they had to keep coming up with new tactics to try to achieve their goals. In addition, they each held on to secrets they wouldn't share. All of this forced their scene into ever more intense and powerful directions. I learned to use the power of "can't" when I write, and it's turned out to be one of the most powerful weapons in my creative arsenal.

So the next time you sit down to write, wait for the house lights to dim, for the curtain to rise, and let the show begin.

Department of Shameless Promotion

Ghost Trackers, the novel I wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the TV show Ghost Hunters, should be out in both trade and mass-market paperback any day now. My horror novel Like Death is going to be released from Apex Book Company in a new edition before too long. I recently wrote a three-part blog about writing Like Death, and you can find it at the Apex site: www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/blog. Just scroll down to find my posts.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Long Hard Road to Becoming Yourself

Let me tell you a story.

I was nineteen years old, a freshman in college. I'd started out as an acting major, but by this time I'd switched to theatre education. I'd already decided that I was going to devote my life to writing, but I figured I needed a job while I was cranking out those first million practice words. I was interested in teaching, and my degree included a concentration in English, so I figured I'd teach high school while I wrote on the side, until I became rich and famous and could retire from teaching to write full time. (However, when I finally did my student teaching my last quarter in college and saw what working in a high school was really like, I lost no time applying for graduate school so I could teach at the college level -- but I digress.)

The best teacher I ever had was Dr. Jeffrey Huberman, the professor who taught my acting class. We all hated him at first because he was strict and demanding, and we were lazy middle-class kids used to vegging out in front of the TV in those pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, pre-video game days (unless you count Space Invaders and Asteroids). But most of all, we hated Dr. Huberman because he refused to accept anything less than great work from us. He repeatedly told us that we all were capable of greatness. We just needed to believe it, reach down deep inside ourselves, and never give anything less than our absolute best. But he didn't do this in a rah-rah cheerleader kind of way. No, his way was absolutely terrifying. He acted as if our potential was a simple fact, no more remarkable than 1+1=2. Whenever we performed a scene in class, instead of saying, "Begin," Dr. Huberman repeated the famous challenge Sergei Diaghilev gave to Jean Cocteau: "Astonish me."

At first we resisted trying to live up to what he believed we could do, but then -- little by little --the scenes we performed in class became electric, alive with tension and passion. Drama in the truest, best sense of the word.

At the time I'd already written a couple unpublishable novels, a dozen or more unpublishable stories, and a couple unpublishable plays. Like a lot of college kids in Dayton, Ohio, I hung out at the weekly midnight Saturday showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Little Art Theatre, and since I'd loved horror all my life, I figured I'd try my hand at crafting a horror musical. So I wrote the script and lyrics for songs. No music, though. I figured I'd need a collaborator for that. You know, someone with actual musical ability. And when I was finished writing, I took everything to Dr. Huberman and -- nervously -- asked him to read it and tell me what he thought. I honestly didn't expect him to do it, figured he was too busy, but he agreed, and a week later he told me to come to his office to talk about my play.

The first thing he did was point to portion of a scenery description I'd written that said " . . . standard horror shit." It had only been a note to myself, and I was embarrassed that I'd forgotten to change it to more professional language. I started to explain that I wouldn't use the word "shit" in the final product, but Dr. Huberman cut me off. It wasn't the expletive that bothered him. It was the word "standard." He said that while there was some fun stuff in my play, most of it was nothing but a rehash of well-worn horror tropes. Why would I choose to write standard anything? After all, I was capable of so much more. He knew it. And, after having been in his acting class for a while at that point, so did I.

So I trashed that version of the play -- though I kept the awful title, Dementia Praecox -- and wrote a brand-new, much more original, and far better version. Which of course still wasn't good enough to be produced, but it was a hell of lot closer.

Dr. Huberman taught me never to settle. Unfortunately, it's a hard lesson to pass on to beginning writers. We all live in a world where the lowest common denominator is king, and mass media is about serving the audience whatever will bring in the most profit as quickly as possible . We watch TV shows and movies that are copies of copies of copies, and just like a degraded Xerox image, resolution is lost with each succeeding generation until the image becomes a meaningless blob. We learn that imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it's one of our culture's most cherished values. And what happens when an original work of art finally comes along? If it becomes popular and makes money -- let the copying and mass production begin!

But the coin of the realm isn't always money. Sometimes it's praise or critical approval. Literary writers are just as capable and guilty of playing the copying game as entertainment-focused writers, even if they often only get paid in exposure (and if they're academics, having something to put on their tenure applications). How many clones of Raymond Carver have their been over the last thirty years? How many short stories dealt with AIDs in the eighties? With cancer in the nineties? With middle-aged children struggling to take care of infirm parents now? Want to write a serious, important literary story? You have to tackle whatever serious subject matter is currently in vogue.

So, whether you write genre fiction or literary fiction, or some blend of both, how do you go about becoming original? Here are some tips.

  1. Read a hell of a lot. You'd think this would be a no-brainer, but far too many beginners want to write without having done much reading. (How and why this occurs is unfathomable to me, and o every other professional writer I've ever spoken with about it. My theory is these beginners would rather be making movies, but that's too much work, involves too many other people , and requires wads of cash, equipment, and technical training, so they settle for trying to write fiction.) The more you read, in and out of your chosen genre, the more you'll come to realize that maybe the world doesn't need any more stories like "The last man and woman to survive the nuclear holocaust are really Adam and Eve!" or "Oh my gosh! The narrator dies in the end and he's really a ghost!" Knowing what's come before will keep you from reinventing the wheel.

  2. Be careful of jumping on bandwagons. Like zombie stories? Want to write a zombie story because they're popular right now and you think you'll have a better chance of selling one? Maybe. But every other eager writer out there is thinking the same damned thing, and they're all writing the same zombie story you are. If you must write a zombie story, try to pursue an angle you haven't seen before. I once had a student write about a man whose dog had become a zombie, and how the man tried to deny what had happened and pretend the dog -- his only friend in the zombie-decimated world -- was still normal. Nothing standard about that.

  3. Don't go with your first idea. Or even your second. And be suspicious of your third one. No matter how hard we all try, the first ideas we come up with are often retreads of something we've seen or read before -- without our realizing it. Toss out your first few ideas or at least keep massaging them until they're no longer run-of-the-mill.

  4. Examine your idea from every angle. This goes back to the zombie dog story. Whenever I come up with an idea, I imagine it as a physical object that I can pick up and literally examine from all angles. Want to write about space explorers? Every heard of a little TV show called Star Trek? Try a different angle. What if instead of exploring, the space travelers in your story work to keep other races from inventing space travel -- perhaps for these races' own safety? Or what if, instead of finding all sorts of cool and interesting species and phenomena in space, your explorers -- maybe after centuries of searching -- haven't found anything of particular interest in the galactic void. Would would they do then? Quit? Or try to create a more interesting universe to explore? And then perhaps erase all knowledge that they did so from their minds, so that they would then have something unknown to encounter, something they would have no idea they were responsible for making.

  5. Begin with the end. Many beginners save their best idea for the end of their story. You should begin with your best idea and make the story even more awesome as you go. An example I always use is the horror story cliche of the disembodied hand. At the end of this story the (gasp!) living hand grabs hold of the throat of the person who killed the hand's owner and the rampaging appendage exacts righteous retribution. (Cue scary music, roll credits.) In "The Body Politic" Clive Barker begins with the notion that not only is one hand possessed of life separate from the body, but all of our hands possess separate intelligence, and they're sick of doing our constant bidding and being our slaves. They're waiting for a messiah to appear and lead them in a revolution, where they will finally escape the "tyranny the body" and be free to forge their own destiny. In this story, Barker takes the end of the cliched story -- the hand is alive! -- begins with it, expands it, then runs with it.

  6. Rub two ideas together and see what happens. Take two unconnected ideas -- say, a firefighter experiences panic attacks whenever he or she tries to enter a burning building, and a child has terrible nightmares each night about a clown that stands at the foot of the bed, giggling softly. How do you make a single story out of these ideas? Damned if I know. I just made them up a couple moments ago. But I'd begin by exploring connections between them. Are the firefighter and the child related? Is the firefighter the child all grown up? Could the clown be connected with fire somehow? Maybe the child, terrified, tried to burn the clown one night and ended up burning down the house? Maybe now the adult firefighter is starting to hear a clown giggling whenever he/she tries to enter a burning building. I could keep going from here. Maybe I'd change the clown into something else since scary clowns are a cliche. Or maybe I'd have the clown be an image the child projected over the reality of an abusive father. I don't know. I'm not getting paid to work on this story, so I'm dropping it here. Any of you who want to steal it and run with, feel free. If you do, just name the kid Timmy, okay?

  7. Write what you -- and only you -- know. Instead of drawing your ideas from the bottomless well of pop culture detritus we all have within us, try drawing ideas from your own experiences and observations. The more you can be aware of the things you see, think, and feel, the more you can develop stories only you can tell. For example, a year ago a group of workers from Florida moved into the apartment above mine for a (thankfully) temporary stay. Five very sketchy-looking guys who were drunk every night and who exhibited some, shall we say, less-than-normal behavior. Eventually they moved, but the experience of my wondering just what the hell they were doing up there every night, gave me the idea for my upcoming small-press novella The Men Upstairs. I know the story is original, because a good part of it really happened, and it happened to me and only me out of all the people on the planet. (Well, technically, most of it happened above me, I suppose, but you get the point.) And just as I turned that experience into a horror story, you can take your experiences and, with a little imagination, turn them into ideas for mystery, romance, thriller, fantasy, science fiction stories.

So, to wrap it up, don't settle, try to astonish us. And in the process, you just might end up astonishing yourself.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

My novel Ghost Trackers, written in collaboration with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show on the SyFy Channel, is out this month. Not only would it make a great read for Halloween, you can buy several dozen and hand them out to all the trick-or-treaters who knock on your door. But you might want to look through the peephole first before you open the door, just in case there's a clown standing on your porch, smelling faintly of smoke, and giggling softly. . .

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vivid Fiction

For those of you who don't know me, I'm horror and fantasy author Tim Waggoner. I've published over twenty novels and two short story collections, and my articles on writing have appeared in Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal, among others. I teach creative writing at Sinclair Community College, and I serve as a faculty mentor in Seton Hill University's Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program. You can find out more about me at http://www.timwaggoner.com/, friend me on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/3ml5cpb, and follow me on Twitter at @timwaggoner.

I intend to use this blog to pass along writing tips of all kinds, from how to write better to what you need to know about publishing. First up, one of the most common problems I see with beginner's stories: lack of vivid writing.

We live in a culture stepped in video imagery, and even those of us who read a lot still experience stories more often through moves, TV shows, and video games. The problem is that these media only stimulate two senses: sight and hearing. So when beginners sit down to write fiction, they depict action using primarily sight and sound, and they often write with a distant third person point of view, as if they were watching their characters on a screen. If you want to write effective, evocative fiction, you need to do more -- your need to make your fiction come alive for your readers. Here's how:

1. Evoke all five senses. Smell, touch, and taste can have a strong impact on your readers because they're more intimate senses than sight and hearing. Our eyes and ears can gather information at a distance, but we have to get up close and personal to smell, touch, and taste something. This intimacy creates stronger reactions for us in real life, and it can do the same for readers in your fiction if you take advantage of it.

2. Write with a close point of view. Whatever point of view you choose -- first, second, or third -- the more you get into your character's head, the more vivid your story will be. I'm not talking about complete immersion into a character's consciousness, but rather imagining that there's a video camera mounted to your character's shoulder with two wires running into the back of his or her head. This camera can allow readers to experience whatever your character sees and hears, but the first wire running into the character's head can also allow them to experience whatever the character physically senses, including inner bodily sensations such as muscles tensing or nausea roiling in the gut, etc. The second wire allows readers to dip into the character's thoughts, emotions, memories, and psychological comparisons ("Hey, that cloud looks like a bunny!").

3. Blend and alternate 1 and 2. In order to use these techniques effectively, you need to mix them up. We experience life as an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of outer input and inner reaction, and you want to create a similar experience in your fiction. Don't be repetitive, though. Use an action, a thought, a smell, an emotion, a bit of dialogue, a sound, another action, etc. Blend different details the way they blend in real life.

Here's an example from my short story "Blame it on the Moonlight." Bill is a werewolf running from a mysterious pursuer.

Bill ran through the nightwood, branches snagging his clothes, scratching his fur-covered face and hands. Light from the full moon filtered down from the branches, providing more than enough illumination for his lupine eyes to see by. The moonlight healed his cuts almost instantly, but each time he was wounded small amounts of blood were exposed to the air. Not for very long, but long enough. The sharp, coppery tang was strong in his nostrils, and if he could smell it . . .

From somewhere behind him in the woods, Bill's preternatural hearing picked up a rustling, followed by an excited insectine chittering. The sound hit him on a deeply instinctive level, stirring a feeling within him unlike any he had ever known before.

She was coming.

There's more emphasis on physical sensation here because it's an action/suspense scene, and I purposely avoided delving too deeply into Bill's thoughts to keep the identity of who -- or what -- is pursuing him a secret. But otherwise, it's a vivid little scene that demonstrates what I'm talking about. Go forth and do thou likewise.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

My urban fantasy novels featuring zombie private eye extraordinaire Matt Richter -- Nekropolis, Dead Streets, and Dark War -- are all still available. Next month sees the release of Ghost Trackers, the novel I wrote in collaboration with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters fame.