Posts Tagged Stephen King

Why Writing Horror Is–SHOULD BE–Hard Part 1

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of normanack.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of normanack.

Whether one likes Horror or doesn’t, as artists, we can ALL learn to be better writers by studying what great Horror authors do well. Powerful fiction mines the darkest, deepest, grittiest areas of the soul. GREAT fiction holds a mirror to man and society and offers messages that go beyond the plot.

From the film, "I, Robot."

From the film, “I, Robot.”

Though not, per se, “Horror”, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is an excellent example. The Spawn recently fell in love with the movie and I’ve seen it 78 times in the past week (and am oddly okay with that). I, Robot isn’t just a story about a guy battling robots. There are so many messages about society—the costs of relinquishing personal responsibility/accountability, the dangers of blind faith, the real price of being totally “safe”, the ugly price of “convenience,” prejudice, and even the nature of the soul.

This story is SO GOOD because it is deeply, viscerally terrifying. Yet, it isn’t “Horror.”

And it could happen.

Stephen King is one of the most legendary authors of our time, and not just for scaring us. I feel King’s ability to see and relate the dark aspects of human nature and society is what makes him an author in his own league. The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemptionand even Stand By Me weren’t horror stories, and yet they are some of his finest works.

Author Stephen King

Author Stephen King

THIS is one of the main reasons I pursued a Horror expert to guest post and to teach at WANACon, because no matter which genre we write, the core tenets of good Horror are masterful guides to connecting to and affecting the souls of our readers.

Take it away, Kevin!

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In my last posts I shared why I think horror is one of the most important genres, because – maybe more than any other genre – it has the potential to comment deeply on the human experience. In the right hands, horror can hold up a very unflattering mirror and show us what we really are: broken, scared creatures flawed and cracked, a species tragically ruled by fear, prejudice, insecurity, pride, anger, selfishness and cruelty.

And in the right hands horror also shows our better selves rising above our flaws.

Horror plays out supernatural battles between good and evil in the flesh; horror serves as a litmus test for a society or a nation’s conscience. What we truly fear reveals so much about our character, our true natures; as well as how we face those fears and either rise to meet them, or succumb to them.

That is why horror is – or SHOULD BE – hard to write. Emotionally, as well as spiritually.

That’s not to say that writing horror shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable. By no means. I’m not one of those folks you’ll see lamenting on Facebook about the awful “burden of being a writer,” that I’m a “slave to the muse” or that I “wish I wasn’t compelled to write.”

No, I get a kick out of making things up; especially making up stories about ghosts and ghoulies and monsters and those who face them. I feel immensely blessed to have the opportunity to contribute whatever little I can to the horror genre.

What does it “mean” to write horror?

But more and more, as both a writer and an editor, I’ve come to ponder what it really means to write horror, and the difference between a story that invokes that emotion we call horror and a story that merely utilizes horror tropes.

A clarification, first: I am not an elitist. I love reading and stories of all kinds too much to be a “story snob.” And stories utilizing horror tropes can be just as well-written as anything else. Excellent craft – prose, dialogue, characterization and character development – should be present in ALL fiction, regardless of genre.

A paranormal romance or zombie thriller can be just as well written as a wrenching ghost story about a father mourning the loss of his only son.

And also, I truly feel we are called to write certain stories. I’ve always thought writers experience a form of socially-acceptable multiple-personality disorder. A multitude of voices clamor in our heads for attention, characters who want their stories told. Some of those stories are horror stories. Some of them are not.

Some of them are quiet, creeping tales of unnamable dread, others are highly-charged, emotional, personal stories and still others…well…go splat a little more than the rest.

Terror

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King makes the distinction between three types of stories – tales of terror, (which he calls the finest emotion), tales of horror and tales of revulsion. Tales of terror never really shows you that thing that’s on the other side of the door. 

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Our reaction to it and how our fears change us and rule us is far more important than the actual thing itself; our imagination doing all the work. Two excellent examples would be W. W. Jacob’s classic tale “The Monkey’s Paw” and Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel The Haunting.  A really wrenching, emotionally-charged modern version of “The Monkey’s Paw” is found in “Forever,” the 17th episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5.

Horror

The second tale Stephen King references are tales of horror. The only difference between the two, according to King, is that horror shows us what’s behind that door, and let’s be brutally honest, here. Sometimes we NEED to see what’s behind that door.

I adore Lovecraft’s work, but after awhile, I really need to see that unnamable horror, need to glimpse what that thing is.

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An excellent example of a novel that shows us without sacrificing its power is Hell House, by the late Richard Matheson. We are shown the horror in that book.  Boy, are we shown, and to devastating effect. Also, the movie “Se7en” – staring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman – has become a classic film that’s been poorly imitated for years, and it succeeds by showing just enough (though it’s ultimate triumph – where its imitators fail – is never showing us what’s IN THE BOX, but that’s okay, because we KNOW. And that’s worse than seeing.)

Revulsion

The final tale is that of revulsion. In this tale, almost everything is secondary to that revolting image, serving as a means to that end and nothing more. Stephen King references the old EC horror comics here; I’m going to reference The Human Centipede.

Almost everything in that film serves only to deliver us the image of three people sewn together, mouth to anus. Prepped by the trailers for this, the audience is waiting for that moment, and when it’s delivered halfway through the movie there’s nothing left to wait for, the rest of the film becoming more of endurance test than an actual story.

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However, revulsion still has its place and can be used effectively. In his treatise on the horror genre, The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll asserts that part of horror’s true power lies in its violation of the natural order as we know it.

Revulsion used well (think of that X-files episode with the cannibalistic, inbred redneck family whose sons keep impregnating the bed-ridden mother), confronts us with a violation of what we know to be the natural order of things. An EXCELLENT recent example of this type of revulsion can be found in Kealan Patrick Burke’s acclaimed novel, KIN.

Another good example: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Because sometimes grief pushes us over the age into violating the natural order of things. Let’s admit; it’s hard to let go of a loved one.

Even when they start to smell…

Another clarification: as a writer, I’m just like all of you – struggling toward that elusive goal of refining my craft. I’ve written my fair share horror trope stories, and I’d like to think they’re good, solid stories. AND, I believe that writing horror trope stories is part of a horror writer’s natural development. But more on that next time ;)….

****

Thanks, Kevin! What are your thoughts on all this? What stories (horror or not) have horrified, terrified or repulsed you? I know the recent Tom Cruise movie, Oblivion kept me up almost all night (and it’s sci-fi).

Why? Because I kept thinking, This could happen. And not necessarily from aliens. Technology-wise (I read Popular Science and Popular Mechanics) we are about 3-5 years from perfecting similar drones.

What if this technology landed in the wrong hands? With universal health care and the current trajectory of law enforcement, we could easily have a record of everyone’s DNA on file by 2020. What if our DNA could be programmed into a drone that could scan us and mark us friend or foe?

“Foes” get to be a red mist, btw *shivers*. As I said, TERRIFYING.

I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest.

Which is…

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror ChannelHis podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon now has Day One and Day Two for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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Why Is Horror So Important?–Part Two

Creepiest Twilight Zone Episode EVER!

Creepiest Twilight Zone Episode EVER!

Yesterday, we explored the often overlooked genre of Horror with Author Kevin Lucia. Why are we fascinated by being scared? What purpose does the genre of Horror serve? Why is Horror vital to the human condition? Today, Kevin continues as guide into the dark realms of the human condition.

No need for two gold coins for passage. We’re classy that way :D.

And remember, Kevin will be teaching BOTH DAYS at our virtual writing conference WANACon next weekend along with writing legends like Les Edgerton and David Corbett, so get your seat! All the benefits of a writing conference without the hassles.

Take it away, Kevin!

***

Three years ago, on our annual vacation to the Adirondacks, at Enchanted Forest’s Water Safari, I made an awful mistake that’s haunted me ever since. To make a long story short: my autistic son discovered the kiddie water tubes that summer and fell in love with them. Embolden by this, I took my son – too young to know better – down one of the big slides, Black River Falls. What I wasn’t counting on?

The all encompassing darkness.

The water, which rushed MUCH faster than in the kiddie tubes.

And my son’s screams.

Now, I held my boy in a death grip and we survived, and more than likely we were never in any real danger. But it haunted me (and honestly, it chills me even writing this) wondering what could’ve happened if I’d let him go, my two-year old autistic son who didn’t understand WHAT was going on, much less know how to swim. And of course the shame I felt at my foolish risk nearly overwhelmed me. I felt irresponsible, a horrible father.

Two summers later, Lamplight Magazine solicited me for a novella. I wrote about that incident, imagining a scenario in which my worst fears had come true, and the consquences. And to date, it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, and I think one of the best things I’ve ever written, because it hurt so much to write.

Perhaps one of the best reasons why horror is one of the most important genres is how it examines the human condition, by probing our worst nightmares and fears, as well as examining society and humanity – all our best and worst aspects – in close detail.

Good horror takes characters of depth and exposes them to their worst fears, watching closely how they either rise or fall…which speaks (no, SHOUTS) volumes about us as humans.

Though not strictly a horror series, this is why some of the best Twilight Zone episodes reverberate with a haunting resonance that simply won’t let us go. Episodes like Living DollThe MasksThe Shelter, I Am the Night Color Me Black – these aren’t just freaky, weird tales that leave us feeling chills down our spines for thrill’s sake alone.

No, these episodes in particular showed us the dark, ugly side of human nature…they held up mirrors that showed us all our most unsavory aspects.

Rod Sterling

Rod Sterling

The Twilight Zone has its flaws, but this is why the series endures today in endless syndication: Rod Serling found that horror (along with fantasy and science fiction) provided an excellent vehicle for stories about social consciousness, stories he might not have been able to tell on television otherwise; and like Sterling, scores of horror authors believe their genre allows them to ask questions about that which most of us would rather not even consider:

“What I see is pain and isolation that empowers not the sufferers, but that which afflicts them. I
want a reason for this. I want a reason for babies born with cancer, for the endless supply of thoughtless cruelties both little and large we inflict on one another on an everyday basis, for old folks who are abandoned to die alone and unwanted and unloved.

I want an explanation, please, for all of the soul-sick, broken-hearted people who become so hollowed by their aloneness that they turn on the gas, eat the business end of shotgun, or find a ceiling beam that can take their weight. I want sense made of this. I want to know the reason why…and since none is forthcoming, either from above or those around me, I’ve decided to try and find an answer on my own. So far, the best – the only – way for me to work toward this is through writing horror stories.”

- Gary Braunbeck, To Each Their Darkness (Apex Publications)

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Horror. One of our most important genres, because it comments on our fears and nightmares, on the things that makes us weak, holds up unflinching mirrors to show our inherent ugliness, and dares ask questions about things the rest of us would rather ignore. And, like any other genre, SO many want to write in it.

But writing GOOD horror is hard. SO hard. And even I’m still struggling, myself. But I think I’ve begun to understand the key elements to writing GOOD horror, and that’s what I’ll share next time….

***

Thanks so much, Kevin! Did you guys grow up watching Vincent Price and those old Edgar Allen Poe black-and-white movies? Did you cut your story teeth on Twilight Zone, too? To this DAY I hate dolls and clowns because of the ventriloquist episode (on top of “It” and “Poltergeist”).

Have you ever had a similar terrifying experience like Kevin? One you later mined for a work of fiction?

As a personal aside, I know my short story Dandelion was written winter of this past year and published in the spring. As a mother, after Sandy Brook, my mind had to give resolution and make some sense of the sheer random horror of the event (for some reason, when I write NF I am very light and funny and my fiction goes DARK and Dandelion I think qualifies as a version of horror, so READER BEWARE if you check it out).

Have you ever had a piece you HAD to write because the sheer terror or emotion of it demanded action? What books, movies, shows influenced you the most as an adult?

I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest.

Which is…

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror ChannelHis podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon now has Day One and Day Two for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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40 Comments

Writing Tip #3–Talent is Cheaper than Table Salt

Kristen Lamb, WANA, writing

Image via David Farmer WANA Commons

I’ve been working as a professional editor, writer, ferret-herder for twelve years now, and one thing I’ve learned is that talent is highly overrated (which is why this quote by Stephen King remains one of my all-time favorites). I constantly meet writers more talented than I am, but I know they won’t make it despite their superior abilities.

Why?

Because they’re lazy.

I once had a boyfriend with an IQ so high it couldn’t be accurately measured. I met him when I was teaching Ju-Jitsu part time while I attended college. This boyfriend showed every class he could for about three months. He’d arrive early and stay late and practice until we were so battered we couldn’t move from sparring…

…then the excuses started.

Boyfriend showed less and less.

After 6 months, he decided Kung Fu was more his style.

He’d earned a degree in Political Science and was halfway through a combination Masters-PhD program when he quit. Later, he wanted to be a detective. He made the police force, then gave up to go do underwater basket-weaving or paint grains of rice or something or other.

Boyfriend loved books and always said he wanted to write a novel…

…if he had the time, the money, the right desk lamp from Ikea, a sharper pencil, a faster computer, more free time, or a house by the sea, free from distractions.

I was young and dumb and tried to encourage his genius, because he was so stinkin’ smart it was spooky and that was what I loved about him.

Anyway, we parted ways, and, years later, I ran into him in a grocery store. He asked how I’d been and if I was still in sales, and I told him that I’d left the corporate world and now was a published author. At the word “author” he started down that same old road. He said, “I want to be an author, but I’m just so ADD. Maybe you can help me.”

This time, instead of trying to help or agreeing with his excuses or offering to be his support buddy to make him stay on task, I said, “No, you don’t have ADD. You lack maturity and discipline.”

There are few people more ADD in this world than I am, and I get more done than most people, because I’ve created a system that helps keep me on task and productive. Now, I “focus” very differently than other people who don’t have OOH! LET’S RIDE BIKES!

…ADD, but I still get things done, because I love writing THAT much.

If we want something badly enough, we find a way. Don’t believe me? Chat with Cody McCasland (pictured below). Learn more of his story here.

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What are your thoughts? Do you make excuses? Do you recognize them and then smite them? Do you still struggle? What are your thoughts about procrastination and excuses?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: December’s winner will be announced when I return from Seattle.

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of January I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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Little Darlings & Why They Must Die..for Real

Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.” Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian filing cabinet where they would come back as really bad novels. …oops, I digress.

Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot. To be great writers, we must learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot.

Today we will address two especially nefarious writing hazards that like to lurk below the wittiest dialogue and most breathtaking description:

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc).

That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them. Yes, kill them dead. No burying them in the Pet Semetary, also known as “revision.” Killing means killing….as in delete forever. Or at least cut them cleanly from the story and hide in a Word folder to give yourself time to grieve and move on with the real novel. Yet too many times we hang on to those favorite characters or bits of dialogue, reworking them and hoping we can make them fit…at the expense of the rest of the story.

Th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.

Let me explain why it is important to let go.

Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama

Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.

In a last ditch attempt to spare a darling, a writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way.

Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario.

We notice emergency lights ahead. The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now… You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.

I have had to pry many, many darlings like these away from desperate writers “parents” unwilling to take the scenes off of life support. They wrote opening scenes of car accidents and hospitals and death and child abduction so vivid they couldn’t read their own work without tearing up. I did the same thing early in my writing journey. The problem, however, was this…no one but us cared.

We hadn’t done enough development of the story to make the readers just as vested as we were. And, because we were so determined to keep these gut-wrenching scenes, we never dug in and did the real work that would have made the audience cry too.

Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict

Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. In fact, back in February at the DFW Writer’s Workshop Conference, I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of new and hopeful writers in between classes I was teaching. I would ask them what their book was about and the conversation would sound a bit like this:

What’s your book about?

Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…

Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?

*blank stare*

What is her goal?

Um. To find out who she is?

These conversations actually made me chuckle because now I know what Bob Mayer felt like the day he met me :D. My first novel was so complex, I don’t even think I fully understood it. But back to the conference. Most writers wanted to land an agent, yet, out of everyone I talked to, only two could state what their novel was about in three sentences or less.

The tragic part is that most of the novels did not have a genuine conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict. Great tactic taught by Bob Mayer in his Novel Writer’s Toolkit. It is my opinion that all these writers, deep down, knew they were missing the backbone to their story—CONFLICT. I think they sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why their plots grew more and more and more complicated.

They were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice. How do I know this? I used to own stock in Plot Bondo.

The problem is, complexity is not conflict. We can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict.

And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complex. We frequently get too complex when we are trying to b.s. our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out. Um, it won’t. Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we get complex to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.

I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death.

Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there. And then kill them dead and bury your pets for real.

You have rewritten me 14 times. You think I’m going to leave without a fight? Hssssssss.

So what do you do with your little darlings? What’s been your experience? Do you have any tips, tools or tactics to help us dispose of the bodies?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of May I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Important Announcements

This week’s winner of 5-page edit is Marilag Lubag. Please send your doc (1250 words) to kristen @ kristen lamb dot org.

Make sure you join our LOVE REVOLUTION over on Twitter by following and participating in the #MyWANA Twibe. Read this post to understand how this #MyWANA will totally transform your life and your author platform.

My book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media hit THREE best-seller lists on Kindle yesterday. #2 in Computers & Technology, #13 in Authorship and #17 in Advertising. THANK YOU!!!!! This book is recommended by some of the biggest authors AND agents in New York, so make sure you pick up a copy if you don’t have one already.

Also, if you want to learn how to blog or even how to take your blogging to a level you never dreamed possible…get your copy of Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer  today. This book hit #1 on the best-selling list in less than 48 hours thanks to all of YOU!!!!! Not only will this book help you learn to blog, but you will be having so much fun, you will forget you were supposed to be learning.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

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Introducing the Villain

All right. We are going to talk some more about the ever misunderstood antagonist today. As a side-note, I am going to actively work to make these posts shorter. I tend to get excited and pee on the rugs when the doorbell rings.

Wait, that’s not right. That’s my dog. I’m tired. It’s Monday.

Anyway, I do tend to get excited and try to teach you guys everything you ever wanted to know all at once. So I am working on brevity. See, we all have our weaknesses. Even me. Although mine are waaaay smaller than yours :P.

First, a quick review. Last week we talked about that Oh, but he is his own worst enemy. That isn’t an antagonist. That is arc. There must be an outside story that drives the inner arc. If your protagonist is up against alcoholism, then he doesn’t just one day decide to sober up. There must be an outside event that ignites the need to change and gives the protag stakes and a ticking clock.

For instance, the protag could lose his marrage if he doesn’t beat his addiction to alcohol, and thus his quest is to save his marriage. The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and plans on moving across the country with the protag’s children. The inner conflict is what drives the need to drink and that must be battled and conquered by the story’s end. The inner arc must be satisfied (demons conquered) in order to realize the outward story goal (marriage saved). 

We, as readers, must see what the end goal is (saving a marriage) or it will be almost impossible to generate dramatic tension. We must know what is at stake and what could be lost if the protag doesn’t get his act together. 

When our protagonist is up against a culture or a belief, there will be a representative that will be the “face.” In the 1984 hit movie Footloose the protagonist is a big city dancing boy who now is up against hellfire and brimstone fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the face of this culture that forbids dancing? Reverend Shaw Moore.

The plot is not that complex. Big city boy trying to find his place in a small town. The real story is in the characters and how they grow…but note the story goal that drives the changes. 

Have a dance. That’s it. But it creates more than enough conflict to make a great story.

Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.

But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.

A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.

Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.

Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to me more prone to this because:

1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.

2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations

3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.

Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Bob’s workshops are also a great place to learn great techniques for layering your characters.

Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.

In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining. What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions. Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?”

*shivers*

In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil. Chaotic evil is not easy to write, and yet, somehow great screenwriting and unparalleled acting merged and birthed a villain that will live on for generations to come.

Joker scares us. Why? Well, we normal folk generally have motives. We don’t go out of our way to hurt, torment and destroy others for no reason. We can’t wrap our mind around the idea of annihilation simply for the fun of it. Joker is chaotic and unpredictable, yet below this veneer of bedlam is a masterful planner who preys off the goodness driving those around him.

Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. Aside from the writing books I recommended, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.

John Douglas, the father of modern FBI profiling, has some great books. I recommend Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive. I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD.

To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds. Probably a good idea to read about real evil before putting pen to paper. Play BAU profiler. Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.

Same with great writers ;). We will talk more about villains next week.

So what are some of your favorite villains of all time? Who kept you up late at night with a light on? What villains scare you and why? What are some resources you might recommend?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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51 Comments

Why Pen Names Suck & Can Make Us Crazy

Yes, you heard me correctly. Pen names suck 50%….no 67%…no….okay, 99% of the time. Oh, don’t start whining. Don’t you think I would have like to have been something a tad more glamorous than Kristen Lamb? When I was 5 my father convinced me that he had legally changed my name to Mary Hannah. Get it? Mary Hannah Lamb? Yeah, I didn’t find it funny either.

I actually am on your side. When we are about to make a decision that is going to cost extra work, we need to make sure we are doing it for business purposes. Yet, in my five years experience with social media, most of the time, people want pen names for the wrong reasons. We will talk more on that in a moment.

Pen names can suck. They are old paradigm. Before you disagree, let me explain.

Novelists, historically, have had a staggering failure rate. It was actually statistically EASIER to be elected to Congress than to make the NY Times best-seller list.

Why? Because writers only had control over the book. Marketing and platform was handled by other people.

Note: I use the term “handled” very loosely, because even now, if you aren’t a heavy hitter, you can expect little to no marketing support. Is it because NY is evil and sitting up all night thinking of ways to sabotage the dreams of new writers? No. They are a business and have overhead and payroll. New writers are an untested commodity, thus money, time and effort gets sunk into proven players. Makes total business sense.

Unless you’re the new kid.

But, until now novelists had ZERO control over building a platform of people who knew them and supported them even before the book went to print. These days? Totally different story. There are unagented self-published writers now becoming millionaires because of their PLATFORM…but that’s another discussion for another day.

In the old days, an author had ONE way to build a platform….LOVE for their books.

Ahhh, but there is the sticky wicket. If I write a book and no one knows about it, then it is likely to fail because no one knew about it. So the only way to help a book succeed is to have fans, but if no one knows about my book, how do I get fans?

It’s like we need experience to get a job, but if we don’t get a job, how can we get experience? We need credit to get a credit card but how do we get credit if no one will give us a credit card?

Social media has changed everything. Our following now supports US. People liked and supported Kristen Lamb before I ever even had a finished book (THANKS, btw :D). Now I have fans of me and my book. How? I built a social media platform.

Unlike writers in the past, I do have control over writing a darn good book AND building a platform. It is double the work, but now I actually exercise some control over my future. It is already DOUBLE the work, why make even MORE?

We already have a full time day job and kids and pets and needy houseplants, why balance multiple identities when you don’t have to? Why make the marketing side an even BIGGER chore?

This is part of why pen names can suck. But let’s look into traditional reasons to have a pen name and why most of the time they are no longer valid.

Privacy—Okay, um privacy is an illusion. Unless we only use cash and live as a wandering hobo on the fringes of society, there is no such thing. Everything is electronic.

That grocery store card on our keychain that saves us money is recording everything we buy and how often. We are on camera everywhere we go. Nothing about our life is private…period. Believing that a pen name is somehow going to give us this magical anonymity is like thinking that hiding under a blanket makes us invisible.

 Whooooo…you can’t see me.

If we are wanting to build an entirely new identity for marketing purposes, that is great. But we cannot suffer any illusions that we can hide. It is a pen name, not witness protection. Yes, historically, the nom de plume was a safe haven. That is ancient history.

An example…

Say I write kid’s books under one name and hardcore bondage erotica under a pen name. Stop laughing.

All it takes is someone taking my picture at an event or a book signing then posting that on their Facebook page for everything I have spent years building to crumble. Someone surfing recognizes me as the same lady who read her new kid’s book at the mall.

Now I potentially have a huge problem. I tried to use my pen name to hide what I was doing.

I have friends who write erotica and they are fun and wild and carefree…and often like hanging around a bunch of 8th grade boys. But these women feel very confident in their work and their sexuality, and if they are using a pen name it is to make their writing sell more copies because their name sounds sexier. Their motivation is not to hide from the world what they are doing.

BIG difference.

Any 10 year old with basic computer skills can find out our real name. As search engines get faster and better and more and more people are contributing content? The problem only grows larger. It is a Brave New World. There are blessings…but they come at a price.

People at work will find out—This is the same scenario. Privacy is an illusion. And, like I said on Wednesday’s blog, the good news is that most normal people don’t spend their free time googling coworkers to see what they are up to when they leave the employee parking lot. That’s just weird…and kind of creepy.

Just write. If you become a best-selling author you won’t be working there anymore anyway. Why care?

I have a difficult last name—On social media we get to see people’s names over and over and over. We don’t have to be able to pronounce your last name in order to recognize it. In fact, that name you have hated since grade school actually can help you stand apart from all the other writers. Don’t take my word for it; ask Janet Evanovich.

If my name is Inga Skjold, all someone needs to remember is my name begins with “Skj…” and the Amazon search engines will deliver them right to my books.

Google has red slanty letters to correct people who misspell your name. Go type in “Author Janet Ewanoviche” and see what happens. Google will be right there with red slanty letters asking “Did you mean Author Janet Evanovich?”

My name is boring—Okay, our name is only half of the brand. NAME + CONTENT = BRAND.

Stephen King was a boring name shared by thousands of other young men. Then, the name was associated so many times with horror writing, that the name Stephen King is now synonymous with horror, and I really feel sorry for King’s male peers who share his name.

Our name only sells books because people recognize it, not because it is fancy. How many of you have ever said, “Wow, that author has a really snazzy name. I think I will buy her book.” We buy books because the title of the book sounds cool or the story sounds interesting. Dan Brown, Sandra Brown, Stephen King are not terribly exotic names.

The pen name is not the place to be glamorous. Earning fat royalty checks that let us go spend a weekend at a spa is the real place to get glamorous. If we don’t have time left over to write great books, then who cares what our name is?

I write more than one genre—For now? Yes, that might be necessary. My opinion? This practice is going extinct and will be dead before the end of the decade. I give it five years max.

Historically, publishing houses made authors use different names if they switched genre. Why? Because the only platform a novelist could grow was a platform of people who loved the writer’s books.

We were trapped under a traditional marketing paradigm. The general public wasn’t on-line interacting real time with their favorite authors. We needed multiple names to keep readers from getting confused.

I have a confession. Are you sitting down? I write thrillers too. How many of you just had your brains explode? No one? Did it rip the fabric of your reality that I do more than one thing?

This is the first time in history that authors had control over their platform. ONE NAME. If you must have a pen name, build it under the umbrella of YOUR NAME. Bob Mayer has his books listed on his site. We get that Bob Mayer writes thrillers, sci-fi, romance, NF, and now historical fiction…and yet we live to tell the tale.

If you want sci-fi, check out Bob Mayer as Robert Doherty. Still alive? Good. See how easy that was?

If we build our platform using our own name and then our agent wants us to have a pen name? No problem. Just keep business as usual then mention, “Oh and soon my romance under my pen name FiFi Fakename will be available for sale. I’ll let you know when.” Notice we don’t have to scurry off and build an entirely new platform with an entirely new identity.

I just found out Kristen writes fiction, too. Can I go on?

I am afraid of failure—Join the club. Some of you want to wait until the writing is successful to let friends and family know about the other half of your life. But it is coming at the cost of you spreading yourself too thinly to be effective. Hey, I have been there. I know!

Dreams come with risk. We don’t get a pass on risking failure. We all risk that. I have failed many, many times, and I have learned to take my lumps, laugh it off and keep going. Failure is part of life, and it is a core ingredient of the successful life. If we are spending so much time hedging against a fall, then you are planning for failure. Your focus is in the wrong spot. Focus on success.

Take the plunge!!!

When we use the name that all our friends and family, coworkers and people who knew us in school remember, we get an added advantage of activating our intimate networks. I have people who barely spoke to me in high school who are now some of my biggest cheerleaders. They are excited to get to support a writer they know.

Never underestimate the power of those close connections. The same family members rolling their eyes at you now will be the first to buy a book and tell all their friends and coworkers.

Are there good reasons to have a pen name? Certainly! But expect more work and plan accordingly. Make sure you are choosing that name for good reasons, not to hide, buttress against failure, or to masquerade fear.

That simple.

Can you have a pen name? Sure. I won’t stop you. But my job as a social media expert is to give you my honest opinion. Most of the time, pen names are a total time suck that take away valuable time doing more productive things like writing great books. If you still want a pen name, rock on. Make sure you get a copy of my book so you can do it in a way that won’t have you up on your roof with a shotgun and a stockpile of tequila.

All right. Questions? Comments? For those of you who have a pen name, any pointers for those who must have a nom de plume?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

This Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Laura Droege

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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167 Comments

What Writers Can Learn from the Masters of Horror

 

Here we are in October, my favorite time of year. I happen to like scary movies. Not slasher flicks, but stories that disturb the psyche and really rattle us down on a visceral level. There are different levels of fear—shock, revulsion, terror, etc. As a genre, horror seems to have more subgenres and classifications that any other. I don’t profess to be any kind of an expert, beyond the discerning taste of a consumer. I believe horror to be one of the most difficult genres to write. Modern-day audiences are far more sophisticated and tougher to rattle. I feel that those authors brave enough to endeavor to scare us out of our wits have their work cut out for them. Like horror writers, ALL authors would be wise to learn from the masters. So today we are going to explore three lessons all of us can take away from the Masters of Horror.

Like great horror authors, great writers must be masters of understanding human psychology.

One of the best horror novels I’ve ever read was The Shining by Stephen King. What makes this story so terrifying is that Jack Torrence starts out a normal, yet flawed guy. He battles a temper and has a history of alcoholism. We, the reader, are introduced to a man who is penitent and trying to make a new life for a family he loves. He genuinely is trying to be a good father and husband. Yet, at the very beginning King gives us a whisper of the darkness that will eventually eclipse this family until it can blot out their very existence, and the only power that can thwart the darkness is, of course, the light…appropriately called the Shining.

For me, though, what made this book so terrifying was the devolution of Jack. It was the steady unraveling of his mind and how he disintegrated over the course of the story that bothered me on a primal level. I genuinely related to Jack in the beginning, even liked him and saw in him a reflection of my own human weakness. King then exploits that weakness leaving me, the reader, well aware how vulnerable all of us are to the darkness.

I personally hated Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence in the Kubrick version of The Shining. To me Nicholson was a dreadful casting choice in that he seemed crazy as a bed bug in the first scenes and was utterly unlikable. By contrast, the beauty of the novel was that Jack Torrence was flawed, but most importantly, he was likable and sympathetic. What made the book so disturbing was Jack’s progressive descent into darkness as his mind spiraled toward madness. He began sane, and then changed. In the beginning, we see a loving father and husband. By the end, he is chasing that same family he loved with an ax. King had a deep appreciation for the human psyche and that was why he was so brilliantly able to torment our soft and tender parts.

This type of acute understanding of psychology, I feel, makes the different between caricatures and three-dimensional characters.

Like horror authors, we are wise to appreciate the power of the flawed character.

I feel that often King is called the Master of Horror because he is truly brilliant in depicting flawed characters. King then uses these flaws as a place that the darkness can gain a toe-hold so it can take over an inch at a time. For instance, in Duma Key, Edgar Freemantle survives a horrific crane accident where he loses an arm and incurs a terrible head injury which leaves him with brain damage, memory loss, depression, and mood swings. Through much of the book, the reader finds it hard to discern what is real and unreal, what is outward evil versus what is torment from Edgar’s own mind. Edgar goes into this battle damaged, broken in a way that could happen to any of us on an unlucky day. We are able to slip easily into Edgar’s place because he is imperfect, and we can relate. Because we can slip into Edgar’s place, we then share in his torment. Horror will only work if the writer can get the reader squarely into the protagonist’s shoes to experience the distress and anguish first-hand.

It is no mistake that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” from first-person POV.

Great horror authors know that less can be more. Sometimes the unknown is more terrifying.

Want to ramp up tension in your book? Don’t feel the need to explain everything. As humans we always like neat and tidy answers, so feel free to yank that away and watch us squirm. I think one of the strengths in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series was that he never fully explained this rip in the fabric of this dimension and the next. He made allusions, and never gave satisfying explanations. For me, at least, this unease of not knowing added to the tension. The religious aspects of the Cenobites, at least early on, seem to be relatively ambiguous. It is perhaps their shocking outward appearance—piercings, ghoulish disfigurement—that makes us, the observers, deem that they are “hellish.” But, in behavior, there is nothing discernably moral or immoral about them. Yet, we knew they had an agenda, and Barker never fully revealed it. I think the not knowing made the stories more terrifying.

The Exorcist is another great example. We never had a full, satisfactory explanation how the little girl became possessed and what happened after Father Karras’s nasty tumble down the stairs. Thus, the author, William Blatty, could capitalize on this unease to make the story sink in and scare our britches off.

Even if you aren’t writing horror, sometimes it is better to leave unanswered questions. Make the reader writhe. Recently I had one of the members of my novel writing workshop ask about a scene at the end of her book where the protagonist’s daughter is kidnapped. This author wanted to write scenes from the perspective of the girl being kidnapped. I asked, “Why?” Those last scenes in the book gearing up to the climax need to be saturated with tension. By writing from the POV of the kidnapped girl, this writer would allow the reader to be at least somewhat at ease. How? The reader would know the girl was at least not dead. Of course, such a tactic would have effectively ruined the tension.

In the end, horror authors have a lot to teach all of us. We all should strive to do at least these three things in our writing.

1)      Understand the psychology of our characters.

2)      Appreciate the power of the flawed character.

3)      Recognize that sometimes less is more.  

What are some of your favorite scary movies or novels? Why did they scare you? Share in the comments, :D.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

And now the shameless self-promo. We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is designed to be fun and effective. I am here to change your habits, not your personality. My method will help you grow your network in a way that will translate into sales. And the coolest part? My approach leaves time to write more books. Build a platform guaranteed to impress an agent. How do I know this? My book is recommended by agents.

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