Caution: Tentacles May Deploy Without Warning (or, How Your Age Informs Your Fiction Writing Success)


When I was a teenager, I loved horses. I rode competitively briefly, showing other peoples’ hunters… and I desperately wanted one of my own.

Standing next to a fellow rider once, I was asked if I had my own horse. I replied, no…but I hoped to have one someday. The girl snorted, looking down her nose at me. “If you really wanted one,” she said, “You would have one by now.”

Little did I know, this was how the world would be looking at my writing forty years later.

If you were any good, you would be published by now…

To my Horror, I actually believed that for an ungodly long time.

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The Truth About Age in Fiction Writing

I have often wondered why no one ever discusses age (like race) as a contributor to Horror fiction.

I have often wondered why once we are ensconced (read trapped or buried) in other careers, relegated to merely dreaming about our writing, we stop believing publication is possible. Or viable. That we come to believe success in writing is only for the young among us.

Some of this is the fault of the marketing machinery of Big Publishers, who like to advertise new writers as “the next Stephen King”… implying that such a writer is a youthful puppy, a keeper, a long termer, a veritable gold mine of future works to be immortalized in film. And sometimes this is because Big Publishers NEED another Stephen King… because some day they will have to navigate our genre WITHOUT him…

But many times it is also because those of us who are right now the Old Writers struggling in the genre grew up with a totally different concept of success – actual examples of lives lived writing… even writing even mediocre Horror fiction. We grew up with the 1970’s Boom, and so to us, success means writing a novel or two in our twenties and transcending into being a Professional Writer. To us, success has been painted as being able to not only make a living off our work, but living well…

Yet if that scenario failed to play out, we start doing the math. After years of listening to the many criticisms and following the life-plans dictated by other people, we wonder: is there still time? Will we live long enough to woo Big Publishers into paying us Big Money contracts (the kind that don’t exist anymore), and didn’t we miss the boat already if we can’t be young and flaunt it? To do all of the things we wanted to do as rich, successful authors?

Old writers are often their own worst enemy…

But then we have had a lot of help in twisting our own self-images.

Because I have also wondered when it became okay to associate older, unpublished writers with failure…to make it an inside joke.

And why is it “proof” of talent or vision to not only get published, but to be young and rich and published? Only some of us are old enough to remember when that was even possible…

It’s not like editors know the ages of submitting authors either… So it must be coming from ourselves.

We have bought into the mythology that unless we are published when we are young, and are thereby a “Professional” (and rich) Writer well before we are thirty, we are simply not good enough…We didn’t want it badly enough. So now we don’t deserve to associate with Real Writers…

Suddenly there is an accompaniment of snorts and sideways, condescending glances… Suddenly we are out of the loop, out of style, and unable to gauge exactly when that moment of stellar success was supposed to have happened.

To make things worse, we keep moving that secret Age of Success, the one that marks the moment we should resign ourselves to other jobs and other careers… Whose idea is that?

Writers of our genre come in all genders, ages and colors, all geographic locations and climates, all political and religious bents. Yet time and again we are given a prepared profile of the Professional Writer… in our genre, typically still a Caucasian male, young enough to remember his youth and still writing about it and his own young adulthood.

Women writers of Horror, it seems, are more readily painted as Young Adult writers, or writers of fantasy. We are to be seen and not heard, demure… nurturers of young readers. We have, apparently, even lost our genre identities as the mistresses of the ghost story. We are not to be taken too seriously.

It gets worse the older we are…

Collectively, we have lost our voices as men and women unafraid to write as older men and women. It is kind of like being in Hollywood… as though we are being (in not-so-subtle ways) coached to disguise our ages (when not our genders) by writing about youth, as though the only ones interested in reading Horror are the very young people the Establishment tends to claim don’t read anymore…

These are all lies, I tell you…lies!

Not only is Stephen King the proof, but so are writers like Ramsay Campbell, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, and Robert R. McCammon… all of them “vintage” and still carrying our genre…even in backlist titles.

As a reader of many of them, I have watched a good many protagonists creep up in age… leaving behind that New Adult thing that has tried to insert itself between Young Adult and Real Adult fiction. Our own writers have tried to drag Horror back into the Adult arena, dancing with Literary values by writing stories which are in themselves proof that some of the best Horror gets written after we grow up. Everywhere there are signs being downplayed and ignored… Horror is growing up.

So why does the myth of youth persist when defining New Writer Success in our genre?

Who has commandeered the profile of writers to suggest that if a writer has not “made it” by the time they are in their twenties and “established” by their thirties, then Fate is telling you they are not worthy?

The truth about age in Horror fiction writing is this: youth is where we learn about what scares us the most; old age is where we learn about confronting that fear… So while we may have great scary ideas as young writers, and we might write boldly about those things, as older writers we know how to throw and receive a punch. We are, in fact, more likely to generate Horror fiction with Literary elements.

Why?

Because it takes some living to write what you know.

And it takes even more living to write what you believe.

The truth about old writers, published or not?

Writers, like fine wine, improve with age…

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Getting Past the Stereotypes

Like most Horror writers, I started writing pretty early – toying with ideas when I was a teenager, heavily influenced by the many writers of our second Golden Age of Horror and Science Fiction in the 1970’s Publishing Boom. This was the time of the paperback – what book peddlers call Mass Market paperbacks, and what was then bursting onto the scene as “Pocket Books” – those small paperbacks for under $5 that were on racks and spinners in every grocery store, hospital, drug store and airport.

This was when fiction was so mass-produced that the impression was left on many a young writing hopeful that there was a living to be made writing fiction and an unending world of story to be savored out there. Who would have thought it was a phase? Who would have thought that pulp stories would be pushed out of our immediate consciousness and that book prices would rise precariously, nearly putting fiction out of reach entirely, and severely limiting our choices both professionally and as readers?

Sadly, the demise of the age of the Mass Market paperback came with another price: the end of the Mid-List Author, the complete and utter destruction of writing careers, of publishing careers, of…writers.

Many of us were left adrift with our dreams. We had nowhere to go… And when former industry standards are being laid off, let go, and dicked over, when top editors are being unceremoniously dismissed… What hope is there for unknown writers?

Most of us were forced to abandon our dreams, to sell them out for “real” jobs, coerced into believing that because “anyone can write, writing is no worthy talent.”

So we spent decades writing stellar letters, correcting CEO’s bad grammar, creating easy to understand Standard Operation Manuals and Employee Handbooks. Later, we did some awesome presentation materials, edited scientific reports for style and grammar, we made the coffee, we cleaned the bathrooms.

And all the while Stephen King kept writing, kept being published, kept proving that it’s the story, dummy… it’s all about the story…

So pardon my generation if we took a little while to find our way back to sanity. It only took being sold out by every generation that went before and half of them coming after, by losing our alternate “careers” and retirement savings and being passed over for real jobs no matter how often we returned to schools and collected degrees, and maintained GPA’s our younger classmates seldom did.

It took realizing that we have been had… that we have been cheated and tricked and bribed out of our real purposes in life…

It took realizing we sold out…

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That means that yes, my generation is in the midst of an epiphany.

And no matter what other well-meaning folks or scheming cads intended by saying what they said to us… We did this to ourselves. We abdicated…

And we are all the more miserable for having done so.

I think if older writers have one message for the younger ones shyly coming up behind us it is this: stop listening to the “experts.” Especially today, the rules are being rewritten, flaunted, disposed of.

Make your own. Take your own life by the horns and don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t let go…

This means that just like this old Horror writing woman, you have to decide what will be important in your life: holding onto what makes you, you… Or pretending that “someday” will come before you die.

It means whether you are male or female, you cannot believe in stereotypes… like old people will only write fiction other old people will want to read (like filling a niche is a bad thing), or that old people can’t write fiction that relates to younger readers.

Pish tush.

It only means we really, really shouldn’t try to write in “modern” slang, to believe our own stereotypes about young people.

We Ancient Ones have had quite enough of the stereotypes, anyway. And if you are a woman, chances are you have been hearing them since you lost that 20-something baby fat and your front end alignment started needing annual adjustment.

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The Eldritch Uprising

You may not have noticed, but there is a movement afoot. A bunch of old folks have gone rogue and started looking for “second” careers… (I am on number 39, thank you, Silicon Valley.)

We have realized that we are NOT our jobs, but our jobs may in fact be US. Who we are at the end of the day comes down to what we believe about ourselves, about happiness.

So many of us who tried to be writers just in time to become other cogs caught in other machinery have begun to come home. Just in time, too… because now we don’t need the Mass Market boom, or the classy sassy editor, or the big New York publishing machinery – it would be nice, but we don’t need it.

Because the same technology that vampirized our savings accounts and fake careers, has also provided us with the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up opportunity: self-publishing.

And ironically, what we hear from traditional publishing is a whole lot of whining about quality.

For sure, the price of self-publishing sometimes comes at the sacrificial altar of quality… But if we apply what we learned working in all of those endless clerical jobs about editing and presentation and layout and marketing…

Come on. You fellow old folks know exactly what I am saying… we already ran companies, offices, projects…

And if we can do them for others we can darn well do them for ourselves.

We just have to keep ourselves from getting giddy – drunk with excitement and anticipation, blinded by the possible rose-colored glasses of delusion.

Sure maybe we are J.K. Rowling’s long lost Literary Twin, the New Stephen King…

But most likely not.

So our rebellion must be tempered with humility. Don’t rush to publication. Don’t assume your writing is “good enough” without having others (who don’t care about your feelings) read it. Pay people to judge it. And learn how to fix the things that are found to be wrong…

As Eldritch Ones, we must realize that we may indeed have missed the boat in the quest to have our work to be well-read and to die famous, to quit the day job and live adequately on Social Security.

But we have not missed anything of Life. We still have the capacity to break barriers, to create something new in the vacuum of modern genre writing, to be… rebels. Old rebels, but rebels nonetheless.

Maybe that’s especially true for older women…Maybe nobody ever suspected you had Horror stories tucked away in your cookie-baking apron, or that you’ve fed every co-worker who ever got you laid off to the most unspeakable of monsters…

The bottom line is this: when writers get old, they write what they think. It’s a miracle. We stop caring what other people think.

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Your writing is what you say it is, not what others say it is. It is also where you say it is… there is NO timeline, no age limit constructed by people with questionable motives and possible psychological issues of their own.

We also come to realize that by doggies we have opinions that do not have to conform, that we are as writers generally not conformists as a rule… that maybe, just maybe we should have been torching our own underwear with protest groups a long time ago instead of letting the Herd think for us.

Maybe that is how we turn it around. We realize maybe to our own perverse shock and joy that all of these years we really were feminists, or conservationists, or advocates for the unlikely and un-preferred.

And then things like Literature begin making sense… becoming even more mysterious, carrying codes and secret language we never before picked up on. And we realize with giddiness that we can write that way too…that it is the unwritten, unspoken challenge of the profession to do so…

Suddenly we realize we have actual opinions about the way things have played out in wars, in society, in the ways we treat each other right here in our own generational decades.

Suddenly our age informs our writing… and we cannot stop it.

And we begin to build monsters, looking for ways to say what we have by evolution come to realize: that we are where we are because we did not speak up when it counted, when it was for ourselves. We believed the mythology. And there is only one way to break out of our self-imposed misery…

We write. We are writers. That is what we do.

Don’t be surprised if there are tentacles.

We warned you.

 

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The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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In Search of the Interdimensional Beings of Horror: Where Are Our Writers of Color?


Most of the time, when we read Horror, we are simply looking to be spooked – to be creeped out, to be disturbed. That superficial-ism is largely the damage done by the 1970’s Horror Boom, when we rediscovered how very fun it was to turn out the lights and scare ourselves. I was there, reading and keeping myself awake nights by suspiciously regarding shadows that seemed to move when they should not.

It never occurred to me to look beyond the pages of the books I was reading to the race of the author, or to wonder why minorities – if they appeared at all – appeared primarily as characters in cameos, as early-plot monster-fodder, as the sinister representatives of secret, exotic societies of monster worshippers – but hardly ever as writers.

It simply never occurred to me to wonder why

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It is like minority voices and/or those of people of color belong to some Lovecraftian interdimensional place in undefined space, beings who we cannot see, do not engage with, and cannot relate to except when they reach through that thin veil of our reality to hurt or insult us.

But it also like we have fallen asleep in our own fairy tale.

Hmm…. Perhaps WE are the problem?

No, of course that couldn’t be it; after all, the Publishing Industry has long been telling us why things are inevitably the way things are – because the voices of color “simply aren’t telling stories The Market will bear…”

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“In terms of my own justifications, I find marketing interesting—that’s in Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. The marketing of culture—how we relate to it, how it finds us—is something that preoccupies me.” Colson Whitehead https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/colson-whitehead-on-zombies-zone-one-and-his-love-of-the-vcr/246855/

Oddly, when minority writers turn up writing Horror stories, they are inevitably consigned to the general fiction section, pitted against the whole of Literary Writing as though it has already been decided that minority writers don’t write Horror; therefore minority writers must be Literary instead. So minority-written Horror becomes all about “slumming it” in the genres.

Way to insult the both of us – genre writers and Literary writers. Are we supposed to be jealous or critical of these “outsiders” come to create in our genre? And why is anyone making it matter?

Rest assured, ‘Publishing has its reasons,’ we are informed; most of them dollar-informed reasons.

And indeed, in Publishing there are many arguments made and offered up for why minority writers are not as prominent. For example, we are often told not as many of them are writing. But isn’t that in defiance of where so many of our stories came from?

What are the odds, I wonder… that so many minorities do not produce published writers because the seed of storytelling is not in their genes…

Talk about your fairy tales.

And to brand all minority writers as Literary because they can’t help but write about minority experience which includes any number of fine Literary Theories, is – well – awfully racist sounding.

Are we revising minority voices out of our fiction?

Every culture in the world has stories. Every culture in the world has had them ripped off in some manner or other by modern-day published writers… From The One Thousand and One Nights, to the Aboriginal Dreamtime to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we have been ripping off campfire stories since Homo Erectus rubbed sticks together.

No, I cannot believe that there are not people of color telling stories meant to be heard, inspired as every writer is by older, traditional tales. Right now, as they always have been.

We are also told that minority writers tend to tell stories that are not-inclusive of the bulk of The Market… But isn’t that in itself the purpose of good writing – to write to and for an audience that is known? To educate the rest?

I mean it seems racist yet again to assume that I as The Market’s pristine representative want to be catered to, and see no merit in “Other” or “Ethnic” writing.

Aren’t writers supposed to speak to an audience they know firsthand and cherish? To provide them with a warm blanket of prose and poetry with which to endure and navigate the world? Pardon you for speaking for me… someone smart enough to recognize that the work in question was not written specifically for me, and here I am the Other, open to giving a story its own space to inhabit…

Furthermore, are Publishers really going to suggest that there aren’t enough minorities to support (at the very least) a healthy niche Market of publishing if They are not as The Market seeks to define Them?

And why is anything in today’s business environment a failure if it at least breaks even or makes a modest profit? And what about all of those sermons to writers about the quality of the work for the good of humanity if Publishers won’t stand behind it, loss accepted?

Then we are told that (just like with our own rejected writing) only the Best find publication – as though we should overlook but subordinate the implication that minority writers tend (like all of us currently rejected) to not be good writers.

But how many really good writers do you commonly encounter who cannot or will not fit the whimsical parameters of a fickle, one-trick-pony Market? Does artistic choice make a writer truly “bad” or “unmarketable”? Or just make The Market and its machinery lazy and unimaginative?

No More Excuses: Now We’re Talking Kids, Futures, and Dreams

We are too often told that their children do not read, and so they do not read as teens and then as adults… therefore, there is no real Market for any of their fiction which may surface, or it is too negligible to finance.

Now this really ticks me off.

And which summons the paradox: do minority children read less, or read less when they discover they are not being invited to participate as readers? And then would they read more if we gave them more relevant stories to read? Would that in turn lead to more adult readers? And fan the already hot teen market?

Clarifies Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Children the world over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence. What do little kids do? They do story.” (7) And eventually, they do us. So why are we processing writing through a filter of white culture that ignores all others?

And exactly why the heck do we always expect minority children to identify with white characters, and believe it either doesn’t happen or shouldn’t happen the other way around?

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Debbie Weldon/AP http://www.phillyvoice.com/boy-trying-trick-teacher-haircut-goes-viral

“In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, 5-year-olds Jax, left, and Reddy smile after Jax got a haircut similar to his friend’s at the Great Clips in Louisville, Ky. The story about the two boys and their racial harmony went viral online after Jax told his mother that he wanted to get his haircut like Reddy so that their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. “

Ah, don’t tell me children don’t get the real story…

But the rumors don’t stop there. They go on to sprout the theory that even if more minorities did write stories, the Market wouldn’t be able to interpret them – laced as they would be with cultural jargon and slang, and life-situations that The Rest of Us simply could not relate to… like Straight Outta Compton, the message would be lost on The Market, with no chance of Recognition or award; that the characters would not be identified with.

But at what point does something become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Wouldn’t it be truly amazing if we could learn something about each other through our art?

And that quickly, we are right back where we started…campfire myths.

Only this time, the Neanderthals are us.

Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.

The Publishing Industry is first an industry: it aims to protect itself by serving a market it perceives to want certain things.

It self-censors…

Maybe it even believes its own manufactured trends…

But it endlessly quotes what it refers to as “Market Demand” or “Public Interest.” Now, part of this is fairly and rightly rooted in a publisher’s need to make money, because making money allows for the payment of authors, artists, printers, editors, warehouse folk, transportation folk, bookstore folk, library folk, etc. But it is also rooted in a very dated idea of just who “The Public” and “The Market” really is….

For example, we hear how “people don’t read print books anymore” and that “people want certain types of books with certain types of heroes – read: stories about white heroes in white cultural situations…

My life has been so full of white people, I never noticed…Worse, I never noticed that people of color had little choice but to read the same…I’d like to think I was too busy reading, but the unavoidable truth is that somewhere in my own egocentrism, I chose to not-see.

And it is past time we started to realize that there is a whole universe of beings out there that we have been relegating to the fringes of our publishing dimension.

And some of them just might be…gods… Perhaps, crusty, cranky ones like Lovecraft’s versions…but perhaps ones whose voices we need to make us tremble in awe…

I look with the eyes of a white child raised in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose father fought in Vietnam, and who accidentally encountered a Vietnamese-American writer like Violet Kupersmith, only because someone left her book at the desk to be re-shelved… It was Horror – told the old-fashioned way, cloaked in traditional myth and storytelling.

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Her bio: “Her mother’s family fled the country by boat following the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975. Her parents met in Houston, Texas, where her father was a librarian and her mother was living in a convent… Violet attended Mount Holyoke College, where she injured herself many times playing rugby and began writing the ghost stories that would eventually become The Frangipani Hotel.”) http://www.violetkupersmith.com/violet/

I wonder what I am supposed to not-get as a representative of The Market. What was I supposed to resent? Why wasn’t she in my genre? We need voices like hers.

I get it.

I got it.

I loved it.

Like it or not, our world is changing. We are homogenizing, we are beginning to see enough value in each other that color is beginning to fill our families with rich, new cultural diversity. You can rejoice, or move to another planet.

The question becomes:

Are “people” not reading anymore because less people are exclusively living the white experience? Do today’s potential readers want to see themselves in books that are NOT being published?

One has to wonder. Even I wonder… And working in a bookstore, I can testify that yes, it appears that Publishers are right, and our customer base is largely white…

But then who wants to come into a 50,000 square foot bookstore and be directed to one tiny little section devoted to history, or sociology/cultural affairs, or psychicly deduce which writers of the rows of stacks are of a given color, and which of those were “allowed” to depict true characters and real experiences?

Listening to the Flutes and the Chanting

What is blatantly clear to me, nested all comfortable in my Horror genre, is that writers of color – especially in Horror – are excruciatingly hard to find.

From educational disparities, to vacuums of encouragement and mentoring, to “pressure” from the Ivory Tower (pun intended) to congratulate the self on “rising above and never looking back to save the drowning people who will surely overturn the boat,” people of color face unique challenges – additional challenges to being published that those of us in preferred shades of color do not.

And we don’t want to admit it because doing so makes us feel like that much more of a failure for having the advantage and still not getting the job done…

This is a tool our own race uses against us constantly to exploit our own sense of inadequacy, and to keep our heads turned, our noses to the altar stone. We are teased by an implied if not implicit wink and a nod… even as we are rejected. Always it is the fault of …The Market, the one god in this dimension whose whims select but a few for Eternal Fame.

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Daniel José Older photographed by Ashley Ford.

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/daniel-jose-older/

Says Daniel Jose Older in a wonderful essay on the matter titled, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”:

“The publishing industry looks a lot like one of those bestselling teenage dystopias: white, and full of people destroying one another to survive.” (238-239)

It’s true: look at how the acolytes of The Market, the would-be priests to the beast, rip apart and publicly dissect even the successes in our industry. Look at the sour grapes and the bitter envy.

Meanwhile, locked outside are writers and readers of color – a whole ‘nother Market…

I don’t tend to think that this is insidiously planned, although I could be wrong. I think we have become insidiously institutionalized to believe that this is the Way Things Are and that Nothing Has Changed. We have been asleep at the wheel , waiting for the kiss of the prince– even if not especially – at the wheel of the Horror Van.

Horror has long been a Literary tool for expressing dissent with the norm, with exposing the horrors of real life by the manufacture and exploitation of monsters. It has been the venue for feminism and civil rights, for truth-telling and condemnation of unacceptable social behaviors. So why have the most powerful voices of those issues been largely silenced or minimalized to the point of pulps and limited interest publications? Why do we label authors and not works? Why do we not trust readers to find the works designed to speak to them?

I can’t help but think this is a self-perpetuated problem inherent to the Publishing industry.

Older continues, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color. This is updated marketing code for ‘you people don’t read,’ and its used to justify any number of inexcusable problems in literature…” up to and including commentary such as “The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book…because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover – or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way…” (237)

Older further states that when agents and editors are typically asked what they might do to mend the lack of diversity in publishing, the conversation degrades into a blame-the-victim mentality, deftly managed with comments such as, “the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected” which as Older clarifies, “is the language of privilege – the audacity of standing at the top of the mountain you made on the backs of others and then yelling at people for being on the bottom.” (237-238)

Where publishing argues that people of color do not read, perhaps the substantiating argument is backward. Perhaps people of color would read if there was something out there that they could relate to.

More importantly, why isn’t it important to publishing to inspire people of color to read, to improve reading scores because reading stories that matter to them naturally leads to reading more, more often and better.

We must admit, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – more frightening to white privilege than an articulate, well-read person of color who can aim their vocabulary with laser precision at issues of social concern. But it seems sad to think that this is why “of 3,200 children’s books published in2013, just 93 were about black people according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center at the University of Wisconsin.” (236)

And yet if the question is occurring to me, I have to wonder what people of color are thinking…

So how do we fix this…really fix this?

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http://www.azquotes.com/author/44523-Judith_Ortiz_Cofer

Dimensions Are Right Next Door

Unfortunately, the editors and agents may be mostly right. Change will have to start with writers of color, and the motivations of their intended audience. But they are wrong to think it stops there.

It stops with US. It stops when we don’t see the potential rising right in front of us and give it a chance.

In an essay by Laura Tohe titled “The Stories From Which I Come,” we see how what we start in the classroom is framed by Publishing choices. Tohe states:

“In the early 1960’s I didn’t read indigenous writers; I didn’t know any existed. Every day at reading time, out came the further monotony of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot…Hearing and reading stories in English regularly, I thought only non-Indians were writers or could be, even though when I was twelve, I secretly longed to be a writer. What stories could I tell? Who would be interested in my stories? How does one become a writer? Instead I told my parents I wanted to be a pediatrician when I grew up.

I didn’t realize until much later that my writing life really began with my mother’s stories and the stories my relatives told as I was growing up. Not until I graduated from university with a degree in psychology did I stop writing ‘in secret.’“ (176)

Imagine how she might have soared being seen and nurtured as a young writer. And how many others just like her are in classrooms right now, or lost to other “professions” by hopeless default because their writing doesn’t “fit” a myopic, colorblind Market?

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http://www.sonorannews.com/archives/2015/151104/comm-laura-tohe.html

I love Horror. I don’t care who writes it, as long as it scares me. I love it when I learn something in addition. I cannot imagine that I am alone, and if even a percentage of The Market as currently defined agrees with me, then why aren’t we all worth courting?

Perhaps publishers are thinking that now is just not the time to take that kind of a chance… But I can’t help thinking maybe it is precisely the time. Here we are in the bonanza of all marginalist times since the 1800’s, with antagonism and horror being done to so many people of color and differing religions and cultures… when coincidentally and suddenly The Market isn’t buying much of anything at all…

Why not give the new majority something to read, to talk about, to inspire and educate the rest of us? And why not market to this Market?

So where are our writers of color? Right beside us… Where they have always been – pushed into an alternate dimension by our own desperate jostling for recognition. The question is more accurately not about where they are, but why isn’t their own voice, their own way of storytelling valued for what it can teach the rest of us?

Pucker up. I don’t know about you, but I feel horrified. And maybe even a little cheated.

References

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, c2012.

Older, Daniel Jose. “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” Manjula Martin, ed. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, c2017.

Tohe, Laura. “The Stories From Which I Come.” Janet Burroway, Ed. A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2014.

Unlearning the Craft of Failure (or, No One Talks About Real Revision Anymore)


I’ve often wondered why Revision is so difficult. But after attaining my degree I started wondering why everyone was making it so difficult.

It is almost like everyone wants you to fail. Books typically written on the subject of Revision (to put it mildly) suck. For every sentence of worth there are five pages of fluff and confusing flow-charts, diagrams, and pie charts. Terms go incompletely explained or undefined; they are haphazardly introduced, and the mystery of their useful application is left to our already flawed imaginations. They take writers who know something is “wrong” in their fiction and hint at a “well-known” recipe for success. They make you feel stupid… Like everybody else “gets” it except you.

What does this do for the average novice writer – the one without access to a university degree with its fiction writing program? Or an amateur writer who “gets it” sometimes? Or a hopeful young person exploring the very idea of what it takes to be a writer?

The answer is that it leaves us guessing about the true nature of our abilities. It creates the mythology of the Overnight Success and the woefully incorrect parallel that publication validates talent. It hides the hard fact of actual manual labor involved in the construction of story and it reinforces the bad habits of unlearned craft – it creates an unconscious template FOR failure and endless, meaningless Revision that we are helpless to stop…

Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on convoluted attempts at explaining it all: from the depths of our collective despair rides a writing coach. And if you don’t mind snuggling up against a bit of screenwriting wisdom, you might be able to end the mystery and all of its subsequent bad habits.

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Woe is I

There are two things you need to know if you are stressing out about Revision: one, you are not alone; and two, someone finally wrote something that you can use.

I’m going to give you a name: Larry Brooks. And I’m going to give you three book titles: Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix.

Get them and read them. Get them all.

Your first response is going to be feeling overwhelmed. You’re going to find out just how much fiction writing has not been talked about to you. And you are going to be very depressed – at first. The reason is because you are going to feel like writing is so technical it isn’t fun anymore. But bear with Brooks.

What he is teaching is craft and technique… and just like all Horror, you can’t unread it. This means that what you are doing is setting a subtext for your unconscious, a script running in the background that will kick in when the storytelling begins instead of having to unravel it afterward. This alone will reduce the amount of Revision you might have to do. But it will offer something else. It will allow you to be aware of choices that you are making as you write and as you revise.

This is powerful stuff. For those of us who experience writing like a bad game of Blind Man’s Bluff, it will be playing without the blindfold.

This blindness can tend to happen especially if you are what is referred to as an organic writer – that is, you do not start with an outline and construct a story, but prefer to give the Muse her head and let the whole thing unravel on the page. For organic writers, there is a love of the mystery of the process, an embracing of that creative element known as “flow” which carries you into a timeless realm for unnoticed hours and leaves you invigorated…a writer’s high.

The problem with this is that the Muse is a storyteller, but she is also high. And like a spider under the influence, the web she weaves can be beautiful and weirdly unusual at the same time it is fatally flawed.

If you fall under her spell every time you read the magic words, then you are not able to spot the weaknesses that will get you rejected time and again. So if you write like this, you have to realize that you cannot revise like this.

You have to learn to see what an editor sees. And it helps if it has names and definitions and an outline of its own.

Organic writers need know when to switch hats. And when to leave denial in the dust. This isn’t about aesthetics and editors who don’t like your style… You can wail about that all you want when you’ve mastered the elements of craft. Until then, you are just sabotaging yourself and wasting a lot of time. Trust me. Time is something you won’t get back. Don’t be wasting it on ego.

This is about Rejection – that of editors and your own: remember those stories in the back of your file drawers that you read and reread and continue to sigh over? It’s about knowing deep down that something is fundamentally wrong with your writing and not being able to name or fix it. The prose is lovely, the sentences are perfection, the grammar stellar, the character so perfect you could see him or her walking right into the room….yet. What is going on with the story? Is it even a story? Or a type of one? You know the story I’m talking about… the one you really like but can’t send anywhere.

Professionals will say you haven’t yet earned your stripes, that a real writer will figure it out: that is The Test…. And that Revision is part of the process and deserves decades of your gut-wrenching attention – such are the dues we all pay…blah, blah, blah.

But what if that just isn’t true? Or maybe not completely true?

Let’s face it; right now in our world, writing fiction is still not taught the way the rest of the Arts have been taught for centuries – well, except for screenwriters, who are ahead of the game in many cases. We fiction writers are having to rediscover the wheel as a profession using books, the MFA and workshops, and pretty much anything we can get our grubby hands on. Only now the Professionals want each individual writer to rediscover the wheel by themselves. As proof of their worthiness.

What is up with that?!

If writing has rules – known as criteria (not formula) –then it makes sense that not following fundamental writing rules will get you rejected. And let’s face it:  it doesn’t hurt to write knowing eventually what criteria will be on the list to be ticked off.

And while you may rightly rebel against what looks like yet another formula, Brooks clarifies, “What you are about to learn isn’t formulaic” but operates more like a structural blueprint that only dictates rough scaffolding. He gives the example of the human face, i.e., with nature’s strict palette of eleven biological variables to work with, asks Brooks, “how often [do] you see two people who look exactly alike?” What Brooks is giving us is bones and biological variables. Bones to hang any manner of genre flesh from. Because whether you are talking Mysteries, Thrillers, Romance, Adventure…they all share the same structural skeleton, the same biological blueprint he names “the core competencies.” (Engineering 6-7)

Starting out, you will have to fight the natural recoil – especially if you dislike clinical peeks at your writing. But if you don’t build it that way, if you wrote before you knew about and understood the core competencies or any of the rest of the architecture Brooks gives in his three books, you are probably facing some form of Revision. And a whole lot of emotionally laced confusion.

This is going to feel mechanical. Revision is a technical skill, not a creative one, and there are no two ways about it. But if you think Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, or Austen didn’t revise, you haven’t read their biographies. It’s time to accept that Revision is part of the process – just as it is time to accept that we’ve been making it far harder than we’ve needed to.

Revision, we are so constantly assured, can take years…(and this is especially true if you are feeling your way along.) What all we needed was someone with a technical writer’s flair for explanation, and the simple truth given simply. Larry Brooks is our man.

When you tire of rejections, when you tire of trying to revise a story you feel like you are –  in your ignorance of what is wrong –  just destroying…it’s time to get help. It’s time to get Brooks.

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Awakening the Real Writer Within

Sometimes breaking the fairy glamour of organic writing is tough. But just like when you happen to find a fairy stone and peek through the worn hole of it – when the spell shatters it is a bit jarring….absolutely necessary – but jarring.

You’re going to have to make some admissions. But fortunately, you can make them in private.

One of these is whether or not you can recognize a story as a story. Sounds obvious, but it isn’t, and it most often it is one of those creations in the back of your file cabinet that you love dearly but don’t know what the heck is. The reason is because it isn’t a story…it’s perhaps a scene, or a vignette, or a musing – and look hard at that word! In that much-loved piece there is no beginning, middle and end…just a collection of lovely constructed sentences that was fun to write.

This is what Brooks says on the subject: “Writers who don’t know what a story is tend to simply write about something. That’s a recipe for disaster. Rather, what they need to write is about something happening…A writer who doesn’t know the true definition of story can only hope to stumble upon, however intuitively, the complex sequence and forces of story in a way that really works…Begin with accepting the truth about your story and then be honest about how much of it is alive in your mind.” (Story Fix 173-174).

As an organic writer myself, the lesson is hard…the Muse is sometimes drunk on her own power. But what I have found reading Brooks, is that the very stories that do have profound flaws are falling apart exactly where he says they would, missing exactly what he says they are. That got my attention even as it irritates me, because I am obsessed with the idea of capturing that elusive thing known as craft, and have been convinced by many that the acquisition of this particular knowledge would save me and my writing.

But Brooks complicated that thought with this comment: “It’s all craft, craft, craft. And on one level that’s how it should be. But on another level, conceptual appeal is at least half of the whole ballgame.” (Fix 171).

This is another wake-up call. Because this is what all of those other books were hinting around at but just not saying. There is always this annoying darting from clinical diagrams to the magical mystery tour of related terms no one connects together in other books on Revision. In fact, increasingly books on Revision have become books on writing…An interestingly, many books on writing are looking a lot like the approach given by Brooks.

Take for example, a recent publication by author Gabriela Pereira titled DIY MFA…it mirrors what Brooks has done, installing its own terminology and processes…do you want to follow a story model (Brooks- Engineering  141) or a story map (Pereira 63)?  Do you want “decisions” (Pereira 110) or “parts” and “Pinch points”? (Brooks- Engineering  165, 200) Clearly there is something to this approach to understanding story construction…

And while I have been reluctant to look directly in the face of what I have incorrectly seen as a move toward commercialism and cookie-cutter creations, Brooks shows that concept is part of the story, not a buzzword for marketers or nefarious retail plans. Concept is not a dirty word – it is a term.

Brooks makes it clear that while this is about being published, it is only so because being published is one possible happy side-effect of good writing. And he admits writing these books came as a result of his own frustration with what he found in other books, in writing workshops, and conferences – in other words, what we have found…confusion.

Brooks takes his experience with studying screenwriting materials and his experience as a writing coach to marry the two disciplines of screen and fiction writing – why? Because screenwriters have honed the process down to the bare bones.

I admit there is a part of this that makes me bristle a bit…when I look at diagrams for structure and see a given thing should happen at a specific percentage of the way through a story, I feel uneasy…Like this is the very thing I have heard Critics cringe about… just a new kind of formula to make Hollywood happy, to churn out “bestsellers” that have little Literary value.

But despite the inferred connection some will derive between writing a salable story and having a film rights on a contract, I tend to think Brooks has done the right thing. We are not, after all obligated to do the things that lead away from Literature and toward Hollywood. But we are far better off to have learned at least one take on the structure of storytelling – with which we can embellish, mirror, or deviate from – than we are to sit in a dark room wondering what is wrong with our fiction. For years. Or forever, whichever comes first.

I think the truth is this: one can just learn the basic bones of craft and construct salable stories – and indeed sell them. Or one can continue to build on that foundation…experimenting with concepts and formula arrangements the way a jazz musician plays with the rules of music. That is where Literature will happen. But before Literature happens we need to understand how to construct a story… even a contrived one.

For example, at our core, in our very hearts, we know that when our writing fails there is a reason it is failing. I’m not talking about rejections. I’m talking about that moment alone when you are picking up a story you have let bake for a bit, and reading through it you suddenly find yourself unhorsed…that narrative thread you thought was so taunt suddenly causes you to stop and re-read a sentence… the “wait a minute – what?” moment.  This is an editorial sign that something is wrong. Very wrong.

Brooks says, “…effective stories need two separate dimensions of energy. Just two. Either (1) your story proposition isn’t strong enough, or (2) its execution isn’t effective enough.” (Fix 12-13)

You know that this is a truth. But what you need to do is be able to see which truth applies and then find out how to fix it…specifically fix it….not make use of empty advice like “make it sing.” You need advice like your first plot point comes too late and the second plot point is too weak. You need to hear that your story is boring unless you change the entire premise. You need to know what a plot point or a premise is.

And most importantly, you need to admit that no one ever taught you that… that you’ve been guessing up to this point.

Do you know what dramatic arc is? How to increase tension?

Says Brooks:

“Revision requires two focusses in terms of process, both of which applies to the story level and the execution level of viability:

  1. the identification and repair of that which is broken within a story, either at the story level or the narrative arc level
  2. the elevation of that which has yet to reach its highest dramatic strength and character potential.

In other words, we are looking at what’s broken and what’s just plain weak.” (Fix 144).

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Getting Started

The best thing you can do is to start at the beginning.

Start with the first book, Story Engineering: Mastering the 8 Core Competencies of Successful Writing.

Did you see that? When was the last time anybody mentioned anything about core competencies?

They are: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, writing voice, story development. They are not defined in a sentence; they are defined in chapters. Revisited and reinforced by other chapters.

Do you know what they mean or how to implement them? Do you think you know? And shouldn’t you be sure?

One of the most important reasons you need to get started is because these are complicated issues that you need to marry to your own creative process. They are craft issues. Fundamental craft issues…the ones you cannot skip or expect an editor not to notice are missing or mishandled.

The best thing about Brooks, is that he sounds like he is already in your head. Says Brooks, “without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up with a dream that never materializes.” (Engineering 4) And this is proved true time and again, with nonspecific comments made by Writers and experts of all ilk. I have mentioned this before – this pretense of knowledge everyone alludes to and no one defines. Myself, I have had enough. Where’s the beef?

The idea that everyone else is in The Know and you would do well to fake it until you, too, “get it” is stupid. The idea that when a writer is lucky enough or intuitive enough, or studied enough that they figure it out is some kind of validation of the modern “process” or in any way legitimizes who and what have gone before is also stupid.

Here’s an important statement made by Brooks on this subject: “…published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of Story architecture…” (Engineering 3) They don’t sit and guess, they know that there is a model and that model works for them, and they write with it embedded in their subconscious. You can spend years guessing at such templates, hope by osmosis to deduce them from classic Literature, or you can find a teacher of story architecture…

That would be Larry Brooks, for $17.99 or so per book, or a five or six figure college education…or years of rejections… or pure luck. It’s your choice.

But Rejection is the general tell that you need help. That, and tearing your own hair out.

Knowing what you are doing is what separates the Professional Writer from the Novice writer. It is what keeps some people looking down on your writing and minimizing the competition.

I say it’s time to up the game. Challenge yourself.

Go to your collection of stories. You know which one has been sticking out like a sore thumb, the one that has that part where it all seems to go awry. Copy it on your computer, print it out double-spaced, and sit down with Brooks. Read until you find the scenario of what you are seeing wrong in your story. Mark the printout with terms, and with structure points. Can you find your first plot point? Can you identify the very sentence in which everything changes? Is there really a mission for your protagonist? Can you see the arc from your front porch?

Are you lost when you read those words? Do you think you shouldn’t be, but you’re too embarrassed to say? Get Brooks. Turn beet red in the privacy of your own file cabinet. Then fix it. Fix it ALL. Or burn it.

I’m not going to kid you – Brooks scares me. He scares me because I already know he’s right. His books are full of terms and diagrams and – guess what? – DEFINITIONS. Explanations. Examples.

And I’m going to tell you the truth. I have to read and re-read Brooks. It’s not because he dazzles you with big words or concepts (he defines and gives excellent examples); rather, it’s because he is talking about applying something complicated, clinical and patently un-magical to your work, and there are a lot of emotionally-charged strings attaching you to your misbegotten prose.

Having created the spell, sometimes it is hard to divest yourself of its glamour. You start reading like a reader and not like a writer or editor. You fall into it and forget what you are supposed to be doing. You must stop that in order to fix it.

It is difficult not to fall into that murky pond of imagination lurking in your prose. And it is difficult to accept that the cold embrace of the Muse is her trying to drown you before you change anything. But if you want it published, and it is a technical flaw that is compromising the story – again, noticeable because you yourself become disoriented in the middle of things – then it has to be done. Something must change.

That’s why I encourage you to purchase all three books. Each one focuses on the different levels of story construction. And they feel deep, because you have to be willing to look back at stories you wrote that you thought we complete. When you start trying to apply his process to yours, you start realizing just how deep in the weeds you’ve been. And that you’re going to have to eventually come out…

There is a lot of emotional baggage that has to be sorted from writing that needs to be fixed. I am saying that I finally bought Brooks because his was about the only books left on the shelf I hadn’t bought. And I can honestly say that his may well be the only ones I actually needed.

Has it made a difference in publication for me? Not yet, although there is at least one newer story with Brooks’ influence out there that hasn’t come back yet… And I have begun to construct stories with a better awareness of what I need to create in there. For me it is too early to tell if it will all lead to success, but I have selected for Revision two victims from my drawers that have given me fits, and I willing to make changes to them as Brooks advises…so I am running them through the paradigm…slowly, because eviscerating your children is hard, even when they are flawed.

This is how it’s done.

It’s why writing is such hard work. And it means we cannot be squeamish. We have to take out the knives and carve up our children. It really is for the best. Because it’s time to start crafting success.

C’mon. Let’s scare some Professional Writers. It’ll be fun.

 

References

Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2011.

Brooks, Larry. Story Physics. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013.

Brooks, Larry, Story Fix. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2015.

Pereira, Gabriela. DIY MFA. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, c2016.