Tag Archives: writing from experience

Guest Post: The Horror Show

October’s coming up, and as such the airwaves are full of Halloween themed ideas and the inevitable horror movie. And of course, with that sort of inspiration, some of us decide to try their hand at horror novels.

We all know what that means, really; naming our fears and writing about them in such a way that someone else can experience what someone would go through if they were afraid of such things.

But hang on a tick… most of our experience with horror is through movies, and novels don’t often relate well to this. A novel is something that has a different pacing, and is missing the visual element.

It is all too easy to make a horror novel about the same cliched tropes that we’ve seen before, in said movies, and then it’s less scary. It becomes expected. In theme. And it will lack the authenticity that a horror story needs to scare the reader.

I used to work in a haunted house; they no longer scare me. I’ve lost my suspenders of disbelief, so that I know that they’re just actors. I can be startled, but not scared. Not like when I was a child and the unknown darkness held menacing things.

Some horror authors use the terror that they felt in order to build up a story. But fear itself is often wordless; panic, fright, and the need to Get Away are things that defy easy description.

Impending Doom is a little easier to write; so is Pain, and Dread. Fear is an emotion, like anger; it just lends itself a little less easy to the mind.

Try this exercise. And it’s a tough one… write about a superstition, WITHOUT using the words ‘fear’, ‘afraid’, ‘terrified’, ‘avoid(ance)’, ‘scared’, and ‘phobia.’ Remember, a good author does a ‘show, don’t tell’, and using any of those words is telling.

Here’s my take:
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He couldn’t turn his back on the water, even though the sand sculpture demanded his focus. He could hear the sinister sound of the surf, rustling behind him like a beast in the bushes. The sculpture site he had been given was far too close to the sea for his liking, and he gritted his teeth as he had to lean down to add some detailing to the mermaid that he was creating out of damp sand.

Let others rely on doing runs to and from the surf to get more water for their works. He had a portable sand block press of his own design, and a wheeled dolly with plenty of purified water jugs on it, and an hour and a half to craft a winning entry. Plenty of time before the tide came in and erased it all.

The wind ruffled his hair; the sky was overcast, and it was a lousy day to be on the beach, but the event planners had set this up months in advance, and they couldn’t control the weather.

He tried not to think about the sign that he’d seen on the way to the beach: ‘Tsunami Warning.’ It had been there since the sixties; there had never been a tsunami off the Oregon coast in a hundred years.

But there always was a first time for everything. He’d seen the pictures of Indonesia and Japan; huge morasses of water, consuming everything in its wake. Cars and buses floating along in the water like some giant bathtub toys, houses collapsing under the unexpected deluge of water coming down the street.

He had been given one of the sites closest to the waterline. He hadn’t been given permission to change with someone else. The safety of the boardwalk was two hundred yards away, possibly closer to three.

He wanted to just quit the contest, because those clouds overhead and the sky had gotten darker. Wasn’t the first sign of a tsunami heavy clouds? He couldn’t remember.

Just the thought of being swept out to sea made him want to look over his shoulder instead of paying attention to the work in front of him.

Was the sea a little closer?

It was. It surely was.
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Balance the internal with the external. Fear is internal. Stimulus for fear is external. It’s something you see – or can’t see. It’s something heard which doesn’t match normalcy. It’s evidence of something Not Right. Or simply feelings of wrongness sometimes.

Think about something that makes you scared for a moment. You can feel your skin crawl, the tension, the want to hide somewhere where it’s safe, or at least lighted. Then try and put the character who is being scared in your own shoes. Can you make them feel that fear, in their own voice, in their own head, and in their own mind?

I think you can.

It’s uncertainty of their next moments. It’s worrying about what MIGHT happen before it does, and then what DOES happen is often unexpected anyway.

And it’s worse than they imagined.

Another element of horror is the fact that it’s drawn out. The inevitable chase scene. The character becomes the prey in a hunt. Trying to escape. Because as you well know, anyone who fights the beastie? Usually dies. Horribly.

In horror, the big bad nasty almost always has the upper hand. They make the protagonist feel mortal. Vulnerable. Weak. Because if they weren’t afraid of it, if they could outfight it, outrun it, or outthink it right off the bat? It’s not scary enough. Their confidence and skill will carry them through.

Of course, there’s always the reversal — the misplaced bravado route, where they think they’ve got it covered – and then they don’t.

Now that is the source of even bigger fear. Maybe they escaped with their life after being foolish enough to brace the proverbial tiger in its lair. And they are scarred by the near-death experience. (Possibly literally.)

That’s a key: any fear a character has is not something they can easily shrug off. Any horror that a character faces has to be something that they are already afraid of to begin with, or something that can apply that (un)healthy fear of that after that first encounter.

It doesn’t have to be blood and guts, or supernatural things thrashing people around, or demonic possession, or aliens, or zombies or vampires… I was rather surprised to see how many people are afraid of clowns.

But that doesn’t help you, does it?

What should be your horror vehicle? What should you make people afraid of?

Anything. You. Want.

A skilled enough writer can make anything menacing. Items can be cursed. Food can be poisoned – or worse. A normal person could turn out to have a hidden past. Or change right in front of their eyes. Sometimes the scariest things of all are things we take for granted to be harmless — until they aren’t.

The thing you want to keep in mind when writing horror is that the object of horror has to regularly keep pushing at the characters. It must continue to vex them, whether it starts eating them one by one or keeps them from leaving the proverbial island (or both), it’s got to be something that they can’t get around or away from that easily.

Just like things we’ve been afraid for for years.

You can be afraid of anything, really — heck, just check out the List of Phobias on Wikipedia, or phobialist.com. Pick something you’ve never heard of before as a challenge, and start from there… and don’t be afraid to write about it.

Guest Post: Pain and Penning it Out

Some of the best writing of my life came from when I was in a lot of pain, and I didn’t want to write.   But I had a journal then, and sometimes from great pain came great inspiration.  It’s a lot easier to describe pain when you’re in it — it’s kinda like method acting in that you understand how it feels because you’re feeling it.

Now, I’m not condoning getting smashed out drunk, or taking drugs, or causing bodily harm to yourself or someone else to experience it first hand just so you can write about it, but rather, to take advantage of any pain you’re currently in to sort it out in words.
There’s a stress reduction method called ‘journaling the problem’ — it’s effectively writing out what’s bothering you so that way you quit internalizing it.

Write with the freedom of knowledge that you can delete anything you write at the end, though to be effective, you’ll want to keep it instead, so you can see where you’ve been and how you’ve fared since then.
Art sometimes imitates life.  In that sense, you can characterize a situation in a story by giving your characters the ability to handle a similar situation — do they do better or worse?   Do they take a different path with different choices?
Then there is the aspect of physical and emotional pain, and what it does to your ability to cope.    Heroes should not be able to hop out of bed hours after being shot, and a sprained ankle doesn’t just impair running away from zombie hordes, but often prevents you from even standing on it.   It can last for days, too.
Then there are moods; high and low, angry and sad, happy and excited, confused and contrite.   Using the idea of ‘show don’t tell’ in another form, how do you describe feeling blue?
“Inherently, I didn’t give a damn what happened to her.   She was having one of her patented meltdowns, the kind that made her unpleasant to be around, because she would make these unreasonable demands on you, your time, and your efforts, and then treat you like you were the crappiest friend a girl could have.
Today wasn’t a day I could deal with that sort of crisis.   I was having one of those days where I just wanted to go back to bed, even though I wasn’t tired, and the idea of pulling the pillows up on top of me and blocking out anything but their comforting weight and semi-concealment sounded really appealing.
But that would require energy and effort, and braving the wrath of my boss, who frowned on ‘taking mental health days’ because Sally, down the hall, used that as an excuse to take a trip to Cancun.”
Realize that your mind and mood are like a place in a way; and so is your physical “state”, to turn a phrase.    The next time you get down, or really high up, don’t just visit.  Write a journal entry about the experience,  take mental pictures, that sort of thing — and start your library of experiential learning ideas that can form a ready-made reference for the next time you put your characters through a similar situation.  Treat anything you can experience outside of your  normal baseline as a possibility, even something as ordinary as working up a sweat:
Ira shambled back to his chair, letting gravity drag him back into it as he felt the blood still pounding in his ears.   He grabbed clumsily at the sports bottle full of tepid water from the water cooler and chugged it;  his face felt hot and his shirt was soaked in several places.   He peeled it away from his chest and swiped underneath with the gym towel in an attempt to get dry; it didn’t work very well, since his body just produced sweat faster than he could blot it up.
“Next time… walk.”  he told himself as sweat dripped down his nose.   “Running in this weather is a good way to get yourself in the ER.”
Good notes form the beginnings of an outline checklist item.    The written word has more power when it comes to telling a story if you do the homework to relate what it felt like to you when it happened to you, instead of just expressing a condition in a few words.   It also makes you think of alternatives to reusing tropes and trope expressions:
Before: “He labored at the giant novel through blood, sweat, and tears.”    (Me: “I’ve worked on novels.   It’s not like that at all!”)
After:  He labored at the giant novel late into the night, until his fingers were aching from all the typing, and he was having trouble focusing on the screen.   His mind kept wandering off, as if to tell him he ought to have been in bed hours ago, and he’d retyped the same typo four times in a row.
Bottom line:  Make the pain fit the deed.   Take notes on anything that you might find interesting to write about later.   You never know when you’ll be able to use it.