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Old 30th Jun 2011, 1:18   #1
bill
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Default A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Part One

Whenever I tell someone that, among my many creative pursuits, I write horror fiction, the person who has just breathlessly received this knowledge invariably asks me the following question: "But how? I read horror fiction all the time, and I know I could never write it myself. I mean, vampires?? What the fuck? Who came up with that one? And can I have some of what they were smoking!? Ha ha ha!" I always share in the laughter, because it's a good joke, no matter how many times I've heard it. Vampires are pretty crazy.

After our laughter has subsided, however, I always gently take the person by the wrist, pull them close to me, and say: "You can write horror fiction! Anyone can do it! You only need to do three things: Believe in yourself, form a bond with the darkness in your soul, and follow my rules. Especially that last one. Did you know," I go on to say, "that one of my horror novels, The Coldness, contained a critical blurb on the front cover that read 'Bill R. out-John Sauls John Saul!'? So who better to teach you?" I then ask them to accompany me to my home, where our lessons will begin. This other person, who until that point always seemed terribly interested in what I had to say, will then suddenly act as though teaching them to write horror fiction was my idea, and will say, "Oh, no. No, why would I do that? I don't even know you. I've never even heard of you. The Coldness? Should I have heard of that?" I then say, yes, you should have heard of it, but it hasn't been published yet. "Then where'd the blurb come from?" they ask. Then I'm like, "Who are you, Michiko Kakutani?? Just come over to my house!" Then they say, "No! Let go of my wrist!" So I say, "Then who will teach you? Your mom??" Then he goes, "I will fucking punch your face, if you don't let me go." So I let him go, but not before adding, "You will never out-John Saul John Saul with that attitude. You probably think great horror fiction grows like mushrooms, and you can just put it on a pizza and call it day and sell a million copies. Horror fiction is not like mushrooms, I can assure you of that." "What?" the guy says. "I said that horror fiction and mushrooms are not analagous," I repeat, and he says, "No, I know that. I actually knew that before you told me. You know, I was just talking to you to be polite. The fact is that I don't care."

And then he leaves. Curiously, not one of those people with whom I've had such an encounter has ever published a successful horror story, let alone a novel. Or at least I assume that's the case, but to be honest I rarely, if ever, get their names, so who knows. But the point is that you don't want to be like those assholes, do you? You wouldn't even be reading this if you not only want to be a successful horror writer, but also believed that I was the correct person from whom to seek guidance. And guidance from me you shall have. Let us begin at the beginning.

Step 1: Thinking Up Ideas

The hardest thing about writing horror fiction is finding unique and scary ideas. Sometimes, it seems like it's all been done. Vampires? Been done. Zombies? Been done. Wolfmans? Been done. Your job as a fresh-faced, go-getting writer is to take an old idea and add a new twist to it, make it sing, make it happening, make it now. So how about a vampire rock star?? That's actually already been done, too, and more than once, but still, you're on the right track. Vampires have really been run into the ground (pun most toothsomely intended!), and outside of "vampires who investigate crimes on a moonbase" -- which is my thing, so hands off -- you'd do best to skip them entirely.

What I would recommend for you is to start with something more mysterious. Let's just spitball something here. Let's say your story takes place somewhere in the Midwest, some rural communty in Nebraska or something. Okay, now let's say that it's Halloween. And your teenage hero, Chip, has a tough family life, because his dad drinks all the time, and his mom got killed by a plane crash. Chip wants to go out trick-or-treating, just like a normal 17 year-old boy, and he's got his favorite costume, which is Dracula, because all teenagers thing Dracula is "cool beans", but his dad is all drunk, so instead of trick-or-treating, Chip has to go the local market store and buy his dad some alcohol medicine. Otherwise, he might die. So he's driving out to the market store, and an old homeless farmer jumps out into the road, and Chip runs right over him. Chip goes to him, and just before he dies, the farmer says, "In exactly one year you will all die!" Then the old man dies, and his body turns into thousands of ants which then fly away (Note: When you describe the ants flying away, be sure to put in something about them flying "into the night sky" or "into the night air". We're trying to set a mood, after all).

After that, I think you should be off an running.

Step 2: Creating Characters

I won't lie to you: this part is hard as balls. Fortunately for you, as you can see above, you're almost halfway there as far as Chip goes. You already know that Chip has a father who drinks nothing but alcohol, and that Chip wants to be Dracula for Halloween. If you flesh him out too much more than this, then you might be accused of "over-boiling the soup". But you still have to ask yourself: Who is Chip? Who does Chip want to be? What does Chip care about? What clothes does Chip wear?

You can get most of this out of the way in one paragraph, but remember, in horror fiction, as with all fiction, good writing is king. You have to be able to make your reader live your story, and see through the eyes of your characters, and the one tool you have is that wondrous and frightening old mistress we call Words. I just made up an old saying: "If you can't bring it, then you better not sing it." And that's exactly what I'm trying to tell you. Our language has all these words, just sitting there, waiting for you to use them, but you better choose them wisely. If you want to use the word "pentacle", but accidentally use "pendulum", then fuck you, because that's your problem, not mine.

So you're introducing Chip. Here's the wrong way to do that:

Chip loved school and wore nice clothes most times. He also like to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too. Do you know what kind of music he liked? Rock and roll! He loved to dance to it. His friends thought he was crazy! Another thing he liked was girls, but he was also sad because the one girl he liked was dating with the Football Quarterback. And remember from before that his dad drank booze.

Congratulations. You just made Chip a pussy. Now here's the right way to introduce him:

Chip hated school and his teachers. He wore jeans that matched his taste in rock and roll music. You would never catch him dancing though, because he thought it was for pussies, except if you danced, that was okay. Chip didn't judge people like everybody else in Nebraska. He liked girls but was sad because the one girl he liked, whose name was Tammy [Note: I gave the girl a name this time. You must always remember to name your characters], was in love with the Football Running Back [Note: I changed him to a running back. Making him a QB is too obvious, and you must always avoid cliche', or you should avoid it as often as it is practical to do so]. He liked to watch TV and eat hot dogs, too.

Voila. Clean, precise language, that nevertheless invokes for the reader a complete and living human being. Take the stage, Chip! The spotlight is ready for you!

Oh, shit, you should also give him a last name. Maybe "Mackey". Chip Mackey? Does that sound okay? Or "Macktin". Chip Macktin. Chip Macktin. That sounds pretty good. Chip Macktin.

All right, take the stage, Chip Macktin! The spotlight is ready for you!
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Old 30th Jun 2011, 1:19   #2
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Part Two

Before I teach you how to write dialogue, I have to make one change. In Part One of this guide, we settled on the name "Chip Macktin" for our teenage hero. I've been thinking about this, and I've decided that "Macktin" is a stupid name. Have any of you ever heard of that name before? That's not even real, is it? Anyway, I've been kicking around other options, and I thought about maybe "Chip McAfee". Are there two Cs in "McAfee"? Okay, how about "McGonigal"...oh, hell, that's too long. I'm not typing that shit out over and over again. Fuck it. His name's Chip Jones.

Step 3: Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is tricky. What you need to do is capture the blue-collar poetry of everyday human speech, while, at the same time, revealing character and advancing the story. Sounds easy, right? I'm being sarcastic, of course. Obviously, that sounds like a waking nightmare. But before you get too worked up and end up quitting on me, let me offer you a sample of dialogue from my novel The Coldness. The set-up, basically, is that our hero, Jake Struthers, is talking to Wendell Maples, the elderly caretaker of Blackgate Woods, the terrifying mansion Struthers has just inherited. Maples is greeting Jake for the first time.

"Good morning, Mr. Struthers," croaked Maples.

"Good morning, Mr. Maples," Struthers ejected, eyeing the old man with suspicion.

"How are you this morning?" Maples wondered. "I am fine."

"I'm also fine," Struthers agreed, squinting at the old man. "Is this my new home, Blackgate Woods?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Struthers. Behold it!"

Struthers did. It was big and old and gloomy, with gargoyles and cobwebs on it.

"What kind of a crazy place is this to live in?" he queried. "I work in Manhattan, New York, in a big firm. How am I supposed to drive all the way over here every night when I'm done working? This is crazy!"

Mr. Maples chuckled all weird.

"Ha ha ha," he bellowed. "Your Uncle Luke did not seem to mind it so much! He lived here until he was 88 years old, you know, and enjoyed every day. And every night, as well. Especially...night!"

"My uncle, Luke Seepher, was a crazy old man! He was all rich from buying paintings and then selling them, and also from secret things which I don't even know about. He never lived fast, like I do. I live in Manhattan. I need the juice! I need that wild city feel! When I stop working every day, I go out to bars and clubs. I buy sixty dollar glasses of alcohol and dance to crunk music. Who needs this dusty old place? You should bury this house with my Uncle Luke!"

"Bury it?" Maples asked, his crazy bat-eyebrows going up on his head. "With your uncle?? But your uncle wasn't buried!"

"He wasn't??" Struthers gasped.

"No," Maples grinned. "His body is still right inside Blackgate Wood. In bed. As though he were only...sleeping!!!!!!"

And, scene. When you get a chance, go back and deconstruct that conversation, and take note of how many little character details I've subtly revealed about Jake Struthers: about where he works, what his daily routine is like, what his lifestyle is. Then notice how, with every word, Maples seems to be pushing against Jake, pushing against Jake's very existence! That is dialogue, my friends. And don't think that just because I wrote it that this somehow explains my high praise. Even if I hadn't written that, I'd still think it was fucking awesome.

Also, "Luke Seepher" is supposed to sound like "Lucifer". If you didn't catch that, but felt a chill run through your veins when you read the name, a chill you were unable to explain, well, there's your answer.

Step 4: Scaring the Reader

How does one scare a reader? A reader is basically a big tub of nothing, sitting in a chair with glued-together paper in his hands. You can hardly expect someone like that to have enough blood coursing through them or nerves in their body to feel a headache, let alone the icy clutch of existential dread. So how do you, the horror writer, break through that slab of numbness, into the reader's primitive core?

Easy! You make things jump out from behind other things. Take this scene from The Coldness:

Jake Struthers was on a couch in Blackgate Woods. It was night outside and he was bored. Where was that hot city action?? He didn't know. Wait, no, it was in Manhattan! Not in Blackgate Woods! It was cold in the room and he had a fire going in the fireplace. It crackled like fires in Hell. He stared at the fire, and thought about Hell. Did he believe in Hell?? That was a crazy notion, if ever there was one! But what if?

He got up and went over to the fireplace. The fire danced like demons from Hell. Wait a minute! Demons...Hell...this was crazy! THEN A GHOST JUMPED OUT FROM BEHIND THE COUCH!!!!!!!

Whoa, settle down their, champ! Did something...startle you? Heh heh.

Listen, the point is, scaring the reader is tricky, but if you have the right tools in your toolcase, and then you take out the right tools at the right time and then use them correctly, constructing a solid edifice of fear over which your gentle readers mayn't climb...then you are a horror writer. You will have joined the ranks of Eddie Poe, Steve King, Howie Lovecraft, Art Machen, Clivey Barker, Bobby Aickman, and even...Bill Shakespeare! Also, Chuck Dickens.

So please...take my hand. There's a doorway opening before us! I see no light shining from within, do you? How very strange. It seems more like...darkness is pouring forth. Let us find out what lies beyond. Hold tight! Who knows what terrors we may face!

Behold!!!
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Old 30th Jun 2011, 1:21   #3
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

My big regret with this piece -- a regret I can't do anything about, as it's old, and was posted to my blog a long time ago -- is that between part one and two, I seem to have forgotten what I set up in part one. If I'd carried that structure through, it would have been much better.
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Old 2nd Jul 2011, 17:22   #4
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

NO! Let go of my wrist!

(runs)
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Old 2nd Jul 2011, 17:31   #5
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

Wait!!!! How will you learn????
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Old 5th Mar 2014, 23:22   #6
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

The best way to learn how to write weird fiction is to read it and write it. When I began writing, there were many small press journals that publish'd short stories, but they have almoft all died away in this Aeon of Internet. When young writers come to me for advice I no longer know whut to tell yem, as I have no clue concerning to-day's commercial markets. So many, perhaps a majority, of anthologies these days are "Invitation Only," meaning that the editor is familiar with your work and admires it enough to seek your submission for some new anthology--and this seems a bleak reality to those fresh new writers who have yet to gain any kind of reputation.

It is of vital importance to do the best work one can with whatever talent one possesses. I now regret so much of my early work, my early books being crammed with so much crappy writing. With my first few books I was my own editor, and I did things to be radical and ape eccentricities of style found in Lovecraft's fiction and personal correspondence. It was unprofessional behavior, but I didn't have a competent editor to tell me so, and I thought I was being so novel and audacious, when in fact I was being adolescent and dim-witted. Thankfully, with my first book for Hippocampus Press, I worked with S. T. Joshi as my editor, and he cured me of my bogus eccentricities and guided me toward ye production of narratives that were as professional as I cou'd make them and yet also retain my eccentricities of poetic style and motif. A good practice, when one is starting out, is to share one's work with other horror writers who are personal amigos, and thus get feedback.

There is nothing more rewarding than creativity--to hold that new manuscript in your hand and know that you have written a new work. To then hold your new book in that hand is overwhelming. To know that your work has been read and appreciated by others, that your work actually brings joy to those who enjoy works in your chosen genre, in the ultimate reward.
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Old 9th Mar 2014, 15:01   #7
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

Nowadays, young writers tend to blog their short stories, or submit them to one of the (usually non-paying or peanut-paying) magazines like Mythaxis. At least two of the authors in Mythaxis have subsequently sold stories that first appeared in the web mag. It's a very easy way to alert potential publishers to an author's work.

I also remove stories from earlier issues of Mythaxis if the author so requests, for whatever reason, usually copyright purposes.
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Old 10th Mar 2014, 1:39   #8
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

Plug plug...
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Old 10th Mar 2014, 19:46   #9
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Default Re: A Guide to Writing Horror Fiction - Parts 1 and 2

Subtle, though.
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