On Writing Horror

A serious misconception about horror suggests that it needs to be disgusting. No, not just disgusting, that it needs to be “splatterporn”. Now, I won’t lie to you. I’ve written my fair share of disgusting shit since I started writing. In 9th grade, I wrote a story for my free write assignment about a deranged serial killer student who tortures, mutilates, and eats a cheerleader. In 2013, I wrote a horror that takes place in Hell, where torturous things and disgusting visuals (might be) is commonplace. I never really went over the line just to disgust people, though. I’m talking about authors who go straight for the nasty stuff without regard to their plot or story. In the first story of mine that I mentioned, I explored the inner workings of a serial killer from the first person perspective, and in the second, well, I can’t say because it would ruin the story.

Anyway, I’ll avoid naming names, but I’ll point out that self-published authors are the worst offenders because they can pretty much publish whatever they want regardless if it’s good or not. I love reading new books by fresh writers and giving them honest feedback, and it always blows my mind when an author writes a horror novel like they just stepped out of a Saw movie.

So, how exactly are you supposed to write horror if you don’t go all James Wan on your book? Well, you approach it as you approach any horror. To scare the shit out of your reader.

First, let’s look at the definition of horror as Merriam-Webster defines it:

\ˈhȯr-ər, ˈhär-\: the quality of something that causes feelings of fear, dread, and shock : the horrible or shocking quality or character of something.

I know, I know. Some of you are shaking your heads and saying that disgusting stuff is shocking and dreadful! I know it is, but that’s not all horror is, either. There are many elements to it.

The first element you need is fear. In my opinion, without fear, you don’t have horror. If your main character is feeling fear, you need your reader to feel that fear, too. Maybe not to the point that they, too, are afraid (though big bonus points if you can scare the bajeezus out of them for realsies), but at least make them uncomfortable. Get them to a point where what’s happening in the story is so emotionally intense that if the reader were sitting in a dark room (presumably on their kindle or with a book light), then they’d start to sweat a little wondering what’s skulking around near them in the darkness.

The next element listed is dread. Have you ever thought about what dread is? It’s a fear that something may or may not happen. Dread should be normal business for most authors since you’ll always dread something in a story. Will the main character’s husband find out if she’s been cheating on his with Mr. Hunk? Will that monster smell the MC hiding inside the closet? Will the world collapse if the World-Destructor-Inator goes off before the Perry can stop it? Your reader should always be dreading that something will happen; it just depends on the situation that makes it horror.

The final element is shock. The closest definition of shock isn’t to electrify someone with high voltages but rather to disturb someone. What? Okay, okay, I know… I hear some of those marbles rolling around your heads as you shake them at me again. Yes, gross disgusting things disturb people, but they don’t disturb people on an intellectual level. There’s a huge difference.

When you write about character ‘A’ doing (insert nasty shit here) to character ‘B’, then you’re only scratching the surface of disturbing the reader. Yeah, it might be incredible disgusting, but to really disturb your reader and get under their skin, you have to really mess with their mind. You have to stick your hand right into their skull and start beating their brains around until they’re whimpering in the corner screaming for you to stop.

How do you do this? By carefully writing your horror to

  • make the reader feel uneasy about how things should progress,
  • take what they think they know and twist the hell out of it,
  • take the world of things that they know and twist them so they question their own reality, and
  • use all of that as a catalyst to reveal something they’ll be thinking about long after they close your book.

Once you’ve done those things, you can write about all the nastiness you want, assuming you have a plot that really requires it, that is. Never throw nasty in just to shock people, because although some people might like it, the vast majority of readers will see right through it as weak writing.

Do you write horror? How do you handle it differently? Let me know in the comments below or find me on Twitter or Facebook to scream at me about it!

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The California Chainsaw Massacre: Prose Edition

I recently offered some suggestions to another writer about ways to cut prose to make word count. Some of us have no problem writing short stories, while some of us write epic-length pieces that pretty much crush the word requirement and then they’re left struggling to reach that dreaded word-count. So, here are a few tips to help you get down to that elusive number!

The first thing you need to do is be able to distance yourself from your prose. I think that’s probably the single hardest thing for any writer to do. Let’s face it, we love our stories, and we love even more how we’ve written it. The reason for this is that we might love that one passage, but we also have to look at it and decide if it is even necessary.

That’s part of the ‘fun’ of editing. I use ‘fun’ sarcastically there, because who really likes editing? Seriously, though, it’s not really fun to “kill your darlings” as Stephen King (was it him that said it?) likes to put it, but you have to do it. The good news is that once you learn how to detach from your prose and know how to take out what you don’t need, anything you write in the future will be that much stronger. So, it’s a win-win!

How do you go about removing what you don’t need? I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I can’t tell you. Only you and anyone that has read your story can tell you that. Here are some solid guidelines, though:

  • Does it further the plot?
  • Does it aid in plot development?
  • Is it necessary character development?

Remember, what’s totally awesome, random, and cool for you probably isn’t so exciting for the reader. Think about them first, and then think about the prose. Are you writing for them or for you? (Trick question)

Have you gone through and decided that you needed every paragraph and sentence and that if you cut any of it out it would be like cutting out your soul? Oh, man. Okay. Then we’re going to have to work extra hard with you.

The next thing you want to check is if you are using too many ‘extra’ words. What are extra words? Erm, those are extra words. Heh-heh-heh. No, seriously. The following is a list of extra words:

  • A
    • The dog ate a pie.
    • The dog ate pie.
  • An
    • It was an historic event!
    • The event was historic!
  • Others to remove: The, That, Which

You can remove these and other words without affecting your story. Again, doing this will make you a better writer in the end because it will force you to think of innovative ways of getting around it. The more you do it, the more you’ll do it while you’re writing, and your prose will usually come out much cleaner.

Condensing words is another effective way to reduce the word count. Sometimes you may have three or four words strung together in a needless description when a single word will do perfectly fine in its place. For example:

“Hi,” he said in a soft voice.

vs.

“Hi,” he whispered.

Another good way (and I’m terribly guilty of not following this advice) is to remove redundancies. There are times where we writers just get wordy. I don’t know if it’s because we just like the sound of our own inner (or outer voice), but we tend to add extra things to obvious actions. For example:

She knelt down and set the roses on the headstone.

She knelt and set the roses on the headstone.

The crimson blood poured down the wall.

The blood poured down the wall.

The fan blew air, which caused a stack of papers to fly off my desk.

The fan caused paper to fly off my desk.

Killing adjective and adverbs is another great way to slim down your fatty manuscript. While it’s true we really like those pretty entanglement of words, often times we don’t need them. For example:

He moved incredibly fast down the hallway!

He sprinted down the hallway.

She quickly turned around to see no one there.

She whipped around to see no one there.

Finally, I think one of the most effective ways is to use contractions! There’s no reason to split them apart unless your character or narrator can’t use them for some reason. Otherwise, it smoothens the sentence, and saves you all kinds of words. Most people read right over contraction, and a lot of the time, the reader will stumble on them if they aren’t because it feels so completely unnatural. Natural is what you’re going for (unless you’re not, of course)!

There you have it. Some simple ways to get your word count down. Are there other things you use to slim your prose? Let me and others know in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to holler at me!

Shift Storm: On How to Keep Your Tense Clean

I am sat here yesterday, and I write an article for you to read tomorrow. (Hey… hey you… make sure you pronounce “read” as “red” to get the full effect of that stinky sentence. HSBK must have possessed my computer! Sorry!)

I know what you’re asking, and the answer is, “Yes, we do have to write articles about tenses, shifting tenses, and how to spot it in your writing.” The reason for this is because tense is part of the foundation of your story. Think of it like building a house. The tense you use is as important to building your story as nails, glue, and cement is for building a house. If you fuck it up, the house will fall apart, right? Okay, maybe the walls won’t come down and perhaps it’ll maintain its structure for years to come because you didn’t totally skimp when creating your house, but that doesn’t mean should try to get away with it, because you can’t. No one can, and no one should try.

Tense can either turn your story into a cohesive string of thoughts or a disaster waiting to happen. Do you remember reading the first line of this article? If you didn’t, did you just reread it? Do you have a headache now? Now you know how your reader will feel when you have an entire book that shoots all over the tense spectrum. Here are some useful tips to keep your tense in line.

Three most basic types of tense:

Present Tense

Present is a tense that tells a story as it unfolds. The main character(s) deal with the events as they happen right along with the reader.

Example:

The officer standing in front of me doesn’t look impressed. In fact, his face looks as though he’s suspicious of me. I suppose that’s true since I’m the one that robbed the bank, but can he know that? If he does, what am I going to say to throw him off the trail? Well, I don’t know, but I know I need to figure out some story otherwise me and my bro are heading for the clink.

Past Tense

Past is storytelling of events that already transpired. Think of the main character sitting outside a bank that someone just robbed and he’s telling an officer what happened.

Example:

“Well, officer,” I begin, and run my hand through my hair to play it cool. “We was in the bank just minding our own business when these ruffians came in and pulled out their guns. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘what kind of gun?’ Well, they was big ones. The kind of guns that’ll fuck you up. Me and Mort didn’t want nothin’ to do with that, so we dropped down and shut the hell up until it was over.”

Past Perfect Tense (Pluperfect)

This isn’t very tricky. Just think of it as the past of the past. Think of all the shit happens before the story that happened before what is happening now. Confused? Me too. No, I’m only kidding. Think of what the main character is telling the officer about how he was right in the action, but then he cuts away from that to tell the officer something he remembers before that point in the story. Rather than confusing the officer, he uses past perfect to clarify when that event happened. I underlined the important text to show the past of the past.

Example:

“You know, now that I think about it, Mort had told me before we left that we should stay home. I had made some rude remark that we was just goin’ to the bank, but he had warned me that it wasn’t a good idea. See, when we was younger, Mort got, like, the sixth sense or some shit. He don’t see dead people, but had had this since age twelve that told us when danger was about to happen. I guess lookin’ back, I should’ve listened to him.”

Which tense should I use?

I don’t personally know, but figuring it out is your first important step. What does the story tell you? When I write a story and I have to decide tense, I always figure out what the story needs. Most of the time, past tense works very well. You generally can’t go wrong with it. However, there is a good reason you might choose present tense over past.

First of all, it has nothing to do with the fact that Divergent Games: Catching the Allegiant Mockingjay uses it. I can’t tell you how many writers go with first person present tense simply because a book made millions using it. If you ask me, both of those series would work perfectly fine in either present or past tense. They are terrible examples of when you really should be using present tense.

So when should you? When you want the reader to bite their fingers down to the wrist about what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t really work in third person, but consider first person present tense. The main character tells his or her story as it unfolds, and shit gets crazier and crazier until you realize it’s first person present tense and you have no clue if he will die or not. That’s the huge difference.

With first person past tense, you can safely assume 99% of the time the character will live at the end. Otherwise, who the hell is writing the story? That’s not to say you should always write first person present tense just to mess with your readers, because most of the time, if your writing is strong enough, if doesn’t matter if it’s present or past because the story is that eff’n awesome. Sometimes, though, even when it is that awesome, you just want to add that much more fuel to the fire you lit under their booty.

Can I mix tenses?

Most of the time, no. Some people will argue that style dictates otherwise, but generally, you don’t want to mix tenses because you’ll just confuse the reader. You always want to avoid that like the plague. There are, however, times when you can use it safely, though. For instance, suppose I’m telling you a story about the girl I met, and how I am embarrassed to say I made a real ass of myself. See what I did there? I’m currently embarrassed about what I already did earlier. There, mixed tense. Use it wisely.

How do you handle your tenses? Do you shift tenses as if someone slipped you a laxative or do you carefully consider your tense with each sentence you write? Let me know in the comments below or find me on twitter/Facebook to tell me I’m completely wrong! Happy Writing!

On How to Survive @nycmidnight – Short Story Challenge Edition

Every year, hundreds of people come together to battle each other in a challenge of skill for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge (among other contests they host). The challenge isn’t easy (for some) because it forces fresh writers or writers who aren’t yet comfortable with the craft to write outside what they normally write.

If you’re not familiar with it, you can visit the official website, but I’ll give you a quick rundown for those that aren’t. Once you’ve paid your entrance fee (around $40-$55) and joined the contest, you wait until the challenge begins (usually January). When the first round (of three) begins, NYC breaks the writers up into several groups of about 30 per group, and gives each group a set of rules they must play by. Here’s an example from 2015:

Group 19:

  • Genre: Action / Adventure
  • Subject: An Invention
  • Character: A Flight Attendant

What this means is that each writer in group #19 (I was included in this group) must write a short story that adheres to these rules. The story must be action/adventure, the subject of the story must include an invention of some kind, and one of the characters in the story must be a flight attendant (or once was a flight attendant). It must be 2500 words or less, and stick to the formatting (or risk 10% penalty to your score, the other 90% is on style, how close you stuck to your subject, genre, etc).

The biggest complaint from writers I hear is that people are writing outside their “comfort zone” apparently. I don’t often agree with this terminology since what they really mean is they never wrote that subject before and don’t know how to do it (for some reason). In my opinion, all writers should be able to write all subjects. You don’t hear a long jumper complaining when he has to do triple or short jumps? Do you? Well, I don’t really know if you would… I didn’t when I was in Track & Field because jumping is jumping—you can do it, you just need to master the different style. Similarly, writers can write anything, they just need to master it. Remember, just because one hasn’t mastered a subject doesn’t mean they can’t write something that passes for that subject.

Your head is the biggest obstacle to completing a story.

If any of you are familiar with my books or stories, you know that I typically write horror or suspense. So, I could have said that getting Action/Adventure as my genre was “out of my comfort zone” as people like to say, but really, writing is well within my comfort zone and I set out to tackle it with that exact attitude.

Read my winning entry here.

My advice to anyone that joins this challenge is to think of all of it within your means as a writer, and tackle it as the long jumper will tackle triple jumping. It’s all the same thing. Go that way, and you can’t go wrong.

The next two rules aren’t a problem once you get passed that ugly three-headed genre. Now, all you have to do is think up a subject that involves an invention with a character who is a flight attendant. Even if you’ve only just started writing, you should still be able to come up with something. It’s all about imagination and making it work for you. If you don’t have an imagination, then you have no business writing creatively. That said, I’ll bet all of you reading this have an imagination, and therefore, you have the means to spend 2.5 minutes dreaming up a solid idea involving an invention and a flight attendant.

These are my ideas for my group:

  • Action/Adventure: Set in a pyramid, Indiana Jones style (What can I say? I’m nostalgic like that heh-heh-heh)
  • An Invention: The story centers around a stolen artifact that the ancient Egyptians invented called the Sun of Ra, which was a power source similar to a battery (which has a real world counterpart without the fancy name)
  • A Flight Attendant: My main character was a flight attendant, one that wanted to see the world, but like her father, couldn’t stay away from a more adventurous lifestyle.

That’s it! The rest is just filling the blanks up to a maximum of 2500 words, which is probably the hardest part for some writers. Sometime later, I’ll go over ways you can trim your story so you can come in under 2500 words and fit more of the necessary stuff into it to ensure you have everything fleshed out properly (like plot stuff).

Remember, the biggest thing that gets in the way of you completing your story is your head. If you’ll notice, I took elements of action and adventure and incorporated it into my typical style: horror. You can do that, too, as long as the judges feel like you hit the mark on your given genre.

What else can you do? Well, here are some DOs and DON’Ts:

DO use the forums and get some input from beta readers. Listen to them, and let them help you. Generally, you’ll find a nice group of people willing to give you honest feedback. You don’t have to listen, but it’s worth it to at least get a feeling of how your judges may receive your story.

DON’T spend all day worrying about what the judges tell you about your story. If for some reason you don’t pas one of the rounds (or even if you do) and you receive negative feedback that you don’t agree with, that’s okay. They’re judges. They aren’t Gods. Take what you want from them. Just remember, all feedback, whether good and agreeable or bad and disagreeable, it’s all going to lead you to becoming a better writer. In addition, learning to take good criticism turns you into a better person. You win more than you lose.

DO make sure you also help others as a beta reader. If you would like help, it isn’t necessary to beta read for other people, but it’s courtesy. It’s like that whole scratching someone’s back thing… (before the 20th century and they banned touching).

DON’T get angry if a beta reader doesn’t like your story. Like Stephen King said: you can’t please all readers all the time. You can’t even please some of the readers some of the time. You can however please at least a few readers once in a while. (Or something like that, don’t quote me.)

DO go easy on yourself. Relax. Enjoy the contest. Even if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter. If you use the beta readers and be a part of the community with an open mind, you’re guaranteed to come out a better writer. Maybe a fraction better… maybe you’ll come out a whole new person. Either way, you’ll come out all right.

DON’T cheat. Be original. The judges are readers, too. If you write a derivative story that so obviously stole from someone else’s work, you’re going to have a bad time with them. (Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, don’t do it.)

DO your research. If you’re going to write historical fiction, then learn about your subject. If you’re going to write horror, then by God take an hour to learn what makes a horror story so scary. It can only make you better. Just remember, stick to trusted sources. There’s tons of good information on the interwebs, but there’s also just as much shit out there. Be wary. :)

That’s all folks! Have fun, and feel free to head on over to my Facebook page or Twitter to yell at my face if you have other ways of doing it!