The Ingredients of Spooky on all NaNo’s Eve

First and foremost, Happy Halloween everyone! I hope it’s a safe and pleasant one. Especially for those of you on the East Coast. My entire family lives there and I know how bad it’s been, my heart goes out to all of you!

When I saw the blogging schedule weeks ago and realized I was lucky enough, as a horror writer, to have my post land on Halloween–well, I squealed. (It was very dignified, I promise.) I had a conversation with my mother not too long ago about Halloween and how it’s changed over the years. She isn’t a fan of the gory decorations like body parts and the like. She doesn’t find it to be ‘scary’ and instead feels it’s just excessive and unnecessary. She prefers the subtle spookiness, cobwebs and dark hallways, old gravestones and eerie sound effects. Two very different types of spooky, but each can be, and often are, effective.

The same goes for writing. A while back I did a post discussing ‘Gore Bags‘ or really, what does gore contribute to your horror works? Let’s take a broader look at the topic. When writing, how do you know whether to go with a bloody scene, bits and pieces flying everywhere or with growing suspense and a thick, creepy atmosphere? What about a blend of the two? There is no right or wrong way to go about it. You have to know your story as well as your audience. While you may have started out wanting to write a splatterpunk serial killer type mystery, how have the characters and setting evolved as the story progressed? Will they still make the same uneducated decisions they did at the beginning of the ordeal that led to mayhem and possible deaths, or have they wised up? If they have, the odds of someone falling into a gory trap decrease. Unless, of course, your antagonist grows with them.

Likewise, if you’re going for a strictly atmospheric spook-factor, these factors still apply. Say your characters have been trapped in a scary mansion, complete with secret passageways and a fog-heavy cemetary. The first few hours, or even days, are bound to be nerve-wracking, but the longer they’re there, will the setting have the same effect, or will the characters have grown desensitized to it? If they have, you may have to dial up the spook factor. Pull out that shambling figure or wailing ghost you’ve been saving.

The list of what frightens people varies drastically. I have a close friend that is terrified of spiders, and while zombies are gross and the gore is unsettling, they don’t frighten the ever-livin’ out of her. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I wouldn’t recommend relying on the ‘tried-and-true’ tactics in this situation. Gore may unsettle many, but it doesn’t necessarily frighten all. A darkened hallway with disconcerting soundeffects will unerve quite a few and bore others. It’s impossible to please everyone. As with many aspects of writing a novel, focus on pleasing yourself and staying true to your characters. Odds are, so long as you have real characters that a reader can identify with, what frightens the HeartyHeroine will frighten the reader.

Finally, while you’re stuffing your faces with obscene amounts of candy corn and chocolately goodness, NaNoWriMo lurks in the shadows. It watches you. It won’t strike just yet, not for a few hours at least, but when it does, it will have all month to watch you writhe in writing agony.

I won’t go too far into the joy, and terror, that is NaNoWriMo, I’ll save that for perhaps tomorrow’s post as well as my own blog. I will say that I am participating in it, and will be using this opportunity to step out of my comfort zone! Which is a frightening concept all on its own. I hope to see you there!

What frightens you in both reality and literature? Do you find gore in literature to be scary or trite? What about atmosphere and suspense? Do you intend to participate in NaNoWriMo? How about candy corn, got any you’d like to share with me?

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Give Them Just Enough to Want More

Joyce Alton blogged a few weeks ago about how much of your world building needs to be in the actual story.

This has been a fascination of mine.  I like to think I’ve a great imagination.  I have created a fantasy world.  The world has two moons.  So I have thought about duel moon phases, what would tides be like with two moons?  What about lights and shadows with double moons?    I’ve drawn maps, thought out the geology and climate, seas, trade routes, countries, and boarders.  I have the map at the start of the book.  I’ve envisioned so much in my mind’s eye I want to share it.  However it all needed, but it doesn’t need to be in the story.  Not all the detail I’ve worked out, but the effects of these things will be in the story.

I have two examples I want to share, and I know I may stir up controversy but both examples are from stories I like, but as I’ve learned more about writing I see the errors for what they are.

First I’ll go with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  I am a fan of Star Trek. (No I will not start the debate of Trekker vs Trekkie.)  However, I remember when the movie came out.  We were excited, Star Trek was coming to the big screen!  I enjoyed the movie.  But the nickname for the movie has been “The Motionless Picture.”  Special effects, cool new looking USS Enterprise, and we spent 10 Minutes of film time going around the ship in real time.  Later the Enterprise flies over Viger, and the movies spends more time with watching the ship fly over the bigger ship.  While it was nice to take a good look at the space ships, but it didn’t move the movie along, it didn’t help the story.

Another point I’d like to make is the Lord of the Rings.  Personally I didn’t like the chapters with The Old Forrest, Tom Bombadil.  The story takes a detour until the party arrives at the Prancing Pony.  A lot of story, a long story, and the Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories.  However, the point is the story is first, and while you’ve created a wonderful world, too much of the world gets in the way of the story and slows things down.  So true, share your world, but only show what helps the story go forward.

Contrivance and Connivance

Recently I’ve been working my way through my writer’s library. It’s something I do often, as I don’t trust memory any more than I do computers. Both have a tendency to screw up at the worst possible moment, and I suspect both were, at least in part, designed by Mr. Murphy to accommodate his laws.

As a result I tend to forget lessons read through once or twice, and commit the same faux pas I kicked myself in the rear for the last time I did them.

Here is one, taken from Alice Orr’s No More Rejections, which I think many Speculative Fiction writers tend to forget and do from time to time. I know I do, but not as often as I use to:

“If you always begin with character in situation rather than the other way around, You should never end up with a plot that has the feeling of being rigged to fit the author’s story needs. The editorial ear and eye are tuned to detecting that sort of thing. Your manuscript will come sailing back at you like a missile aimed point-blank at your publishing career. Never have your character behave in behest of your story needs rather than out of that character’s own nature and natural motivation… Plot must emerge from character. That’s the rule. Break it at your own peril.”

~Alice Orr; No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells

The only part I omitted in the above was her suggestion to return to the Writing Characters From the Inside Out exercise in her book. Since it’s too long to include in this blog, it’s not much help to you. But, perhaps I can explain a little.

Every so often we get so caught up in our plots, and their twists, that we have a habit of forgetting exactly how our characters would really behave in a given situation. However, since we really, really need our character to perform a certain action to move our plot forward, we jerk their strings like the puppet they are and make them do it anyway. Maybe it’s for the sake of prose, maybe it’s to get that marvelous description we worked soooo hard for down just right, maybe it’s because we can’t think of another way to get the story from point A to point B. Regardless of the reason, we trim the edges off that square peg and force it into the round hole, and consequently make the character to take a backseat to story.

Sounds a bit like we murdered the character to save the darling, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s because we have.

One of the biggest reasons we do this, besides trying to save our darlings, is that we often do not know our characters as well as we think we do. Oh sure, we know their vital statistics. We know their names, the color of their hair, the shape of their bodies, and probably where they were born, but we do not know their hearts. We do not know them as a living breathing person, (Even though they aren’t.), and if we don’t know them as a living entity, how can we expect the reader, agent, or editor to know them as such? If they don’t truly live for us, odds are they won’t for that group either. In short, if we treat them like a puppet, that is how the agent, editor, and worse, the reader will see them.

As hard as it is for us to get an empathy built up for our characters and convince the reader on some level that these are real people in real situations, I doubt we can achieve that if we bend them into any shape we like for the sake of story. Even if it is just a temporary thing to move the story forward.

For our stories to live, our characters must live and act in accordance with the nature we gave them. I think that is the gist of Alice’s advice. And that means all of our characters, not just the main ones.

Later, Gang!