Friday, July 17

Don’t Write, Bleed

Don’t Write, Bleed

I’ve been mulling over a pattern I’ve noticed: my work that has received the highest praise from readers is work in which I wrote about, if I may put it like this, the peculiar themes of my life. My hopes and fears, my hangups and triggers. My deep, dark, secrets.

Of course I didn’t just slap my traumas on the page and say: Here you go! No, I transformed them into the language of the story.

For example (and my apologies if I’ve mentioned this scene previously), in one of my scenes I had my protagonist sit down to coffee with her overbearing mother. To say that they didn’t get along is an understatement of staggering proportions. It’s like calling the Hindenburg disaster “unfortunate.” But the protagonist needed a favor, so she was trying to make nice. 

Well, as they sipped their coffees and chatted my protagonist came to an uncomfortable realization. She saw her mother not just as a parent but as a person, as a more-or-less ordinary human being. More than that, she realized her mother was suffering, that in fact she had been suffering for a while. She was being crushed by the weight of carrying, of safeguarding, her many secrets. Over the years these secrets had eaten away at the woman, at her sanity. My protagonist feels guilty and tries, in her stumbling inelegant way, to let her mother know she loved her and she didn’t need to be alone.

When I wrote this scene my own mother was in the hospital, slowly slipping away. In that scene ... I suppose it was a way for me to say things to my own mother that, due to her condition, she was beyond hearing.

Sorry for the melancholy post! My point is that readers were able to relate to my protagonist in that scene in a way that transcended the specific story I was telling and which, ultimately, helped bring it to life.

In connecting with my emotions concerning my mother, in channelling them into the scene, I made it better. Why? Because it brought to bear my specific experience of this universal human experience.

A Word of Warning

No doubt you’ve all heard the expression, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

The first time I read this quotation it resonated with me, but I didn’t realize that what I’ve been talking about – translating both the happiest and most painful experiences in life into one’s work – is how we bleed. 

At least, that’s my take on it. 

This kind of writing – writing with a kind of brutal emotional honesty – is uncomfortable because we feel a bit like we’re undressing in public. It’s a bit like living out one of those stress dreams we’ve all had where we walk into a crowded room, stark naked.

But, in a way, that’s what we’re doing. We’re revealing our essence, exposing our soul.

Yes, of course, we translate these experiences into the language of the story. Your dad coming home drunk and beating you becomes the protagonist’s betrayal by their best friend. It’s not the same thing, but that’s the point. We use the real emotions we have from the actual events of our lives but attach them to fictional events.

That’s how we bleed. 

That’s it! What do you think? Is this what the author of this quotation (“Writing is easy, just ...”) meant by opening a vein? Perhaps they were only trying to say that writing is a painful, exhausting experience.

Whatever the case, till next week, good writing!

Thursday, July 9

4 Tips For Finding Beta Readers Right For You

Lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of finding beta readers, readers who are right for you. 

For the most part I’ve had wonderful experiences with beta readers. They’ve been energizing to work with and have made my stories better: shorter, more interesting, twistier. Sure, I’ve had one or two bad experiences, but the good eclipses the bad.

For what it’s worth, here are four things I look for in beta readers:

1. They regularly read the genre you’ve written in.

I speak from experience, folks. Never, EVER, give a light, breezy paranormal romance to a fan of hard sci-fi. The conventions of the two genre are at odds (fact-based extrapolation versus flight of fanged fancy). Not only would the reader not know where to begin the critique, but they just might resent you personally for asking them to do it!

Let’s face it, many of us can tell when someone who disliked the book on a personal level tries to give a fair, even-handed critique. I’ve found it’s a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion – with me in one of the cars!

If I had one piece of advise I could pass off to new writers it would be this: Never ask for a critique from a person who doesn’t actively read the kind of book you’ve written. (Copy editing is different since the editor doesn’t comment on the content of the story. That said, if I knew my copy editor disliked the genre I’d written in, I wouldn’t want to inflict my story on her.)

2. They critique the work rather than the author of the work.

This may seem obvious, but saying, “It looks like a three year old wrote this,” or slightly less cutting, “I think this material may be too advanced for you,” is (generally speaking) not helpful. In my opinion, someone should never discourage anyone from writing. (Suggesting that a work isn’t ready to publish is another matter.) 

3. They are consistently consistent.

Everyone is biased. Which may be just another way of saying we each have our own taste, our own preferences. Sure, we try to be impartial but this is especially difficult when we don’t realize if or how we are biased.

So it’s no surprise that one beta reader will say they loved (for example) your protagonist’s tearful goodbye to her mother at the end of chapter one while another will think it extraneous and overwrought.

Such is life. Different strokes and all that.

I’ve found after I receive several critiques from someone that I get a feel for what that person likes, what they look for in a story. Which is to say that I begin to get a peek at their literary biases.

And that’s great! If I know someone disliked my tearful scene because they are constitutionally averse to tearful scenes, then I know what to make of their comments.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – folks are less than consistent.

What I’m talking about here are people who, if I might put it like this, are consistently inconsistent.

Thankfully I’ve only had one reader who was like this, and it was years ago, back when I first started writing. I suspect she didn’t read any of the stories she critiqued, but feeling the need to come up with a criticism, she picked a random paragraph and took issue with it!

Which brings us to ...

4. They are someone you won’t lose as a friend if you only ask them to read for you once, and never again.

This is just my advice, take it or leave it: Before you ask someone to read your work, think about what might happen if you never again ask this person for another critique.

When I was a teen (so, YEARS ago) I asked a close friend to look over my work. It was my first year of college and I loved everything about the english class I was taking, especially the teacher. She was awesome. I would go to her office hours and we would talk about literature and ideas and, well, life-in-general for hours. 

So, no surprise, when it was time for me to write my first essay for her course I wanted it to be perfect. (Cue ominous music.) Because I was especially nervous about my essay I asked my best friend to read it and give me her feedback.

And she did! She put a lot of time into reading my scribbles and composing her feedback. I still remember her handing the paper back to me, her look of hesitancy, the uncertainty (fear?) in her eyes.

“I think I may have gone a bit overboard,” she said.

“Nonsense!” I said, and pried my paper from her fingers.

I swear to you I do not exaggerate when I say there was more red ink on the paper than black!

My excitement took a nosedive, but I managed to hold my smile in place and thank her for the time she’d taken to look over the paper.

My friend, though brilliant on many levels, was neither a reader (of fiction) nor a writer. Her edits would have stripped my voice from the piece. It would have been more hers than mine!

Anyway, I handed my paper in sans the changes she had suggested and didn’t ask my friend to look over any other papers. I wasn’t upset at her – sure I was a little sad that she hadn’t ‘gotten’ what I was trying to say, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal. I recognized that her heart had bene in the right place and was touched by the amount of work she’d spent on my essay.

What I didn’t anticipate was that, because I didn’t give her another paper to read, she felt as though she’d failed. She thought I was upset with her and didn’t believe my claims to the contrary. It got to the point that my refusal to use her as a reader affected our relationship. Thankfully, we found a way to leave the incident in the past, but it has made me consider what might happen if I only use a reader once. 

Let’s face it, there are many reasons to only use a reader once, none of them negative. Perhaps one of your regular readers was busy so you needed someone to fill in, but just this once. Perhaps you experimented with a new genre and don’t write in it again. Perhaps the reader has a preference for stories of a certain length and you don’t normally write to that length. Whatever the case, before asking someone if they would read for you take a moment to consider how it will effect your relationship if you never ask them to read for you again.

Before I close I would like to thank all the beta readers out there. You’re terrific! You folks volunteer to read unpolished prose and give honest, heartfelt feedback. You rock!

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Thursday, July 2

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing

This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”


“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”


“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”


“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings ( Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”

Thursday, June 25

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

It’s said that, at the end of life, what haunts us ISN’T the things we did but the things we didn’t do. 

We can’t do everything in the time allotted to us, but we can do the important things. We can pursue our passions.

I think this is something that we, as writers, need to take to heart. (And by “writer” I mean just that--people who write. One does not need to be published to be a writer.)

For the past while I have deeply regretted letting fear rule me and NOT writing a particular story.

But please don’t misunderstand. There are many reasons to NOT write a story. (Stephen King talks about a few of these in “On Writing.”) Perhaps you’ve only got hold of a part of the story so you need to wait for the rest, for a complete idea. After all, it took Stephen King a few decades to finish the story we now know as “Under The Dome.” And so on.

There are good reasons to delay setting pen to paper. Fear, though, is NEVER a good reason. (Remember: just because you write a story doesn’t mean you have to publish it!)

My Story

Back at the beginning of my journey as a writer, back before I published anything, I had this idea for a story: From the first person perspective, have each of three characters tell the reader about an event that happened to all of them at the end of grade seven. They had been camping in the woods, camping with a fourth person, a person who died that night. Each of the first person accounts would differ and, through those differences, the reader would come to know the characters.

By the three-quarter point I wanted the reader to have formed certain conclusions about what happened that night. 

The last quarter of the story would be written in objective third person (fly on the wall perspective) and would be a recounting of the event itself. Further, the ending would introduce a twist, something that would shatter one of the reader’s fundamental assumptions, but in a way that made sense. 

At least, that was the plan!

Now, I’m not saying this story would have been any good, but I would have enjoyed writing it and, at the very least, it would have been good writing practice.

What Happened

I ended up never writing the story. Here’s what happened: 

A friend asked what the story was about. These days I have a rule: Never EVER discuss a WIP before the first draft is complete. At that time my story was still in the idea stage. Anyway, I told her. 

She said, “Oh no! You can’t do that. You can’t switch the POV from first to third at the end and you absolutely can’t have three different first person accounts.” 

And then she gave me a look that seemed to question my sanity!

Please don’t misunderstand. I now think my friend was correct, having three different first person narrators would have been extremely off-putting for readers (to say the least!). But that was in the days before I knew about free indirect voice. If I had written the story and put it away in a drawer I could have gone back to it as a more experienced writer and turned the first person accounts into third person accounts but without losing the sense of intimacy the story required.

As it was, my fear made me rethink the entire story. Where before I was excited and eager to begin now I questioned the whole enterprise. I spent so much time rethinking the story that I decided I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to attempt the project and put it to the side.

Here’s my advice: Even if you’ve gotten hold of an idea for a story you think you’ll never be able to publish, if it’s in your heart to write it, if you’re passionate about it, then go for it! Write it. 

Nowhere is it written, there is no commandment scrawled on stone tablets, that you have to publish every story you write.

Granted, you might NOT want to take months, or even years, out of your life writing a book length work you don’t think will be publishable. Point taken. But I believe that every longform story--the main plot line at least--can be condensed into a shortish story. Or at least a novella. 

Changing POV

The other day Adam Savage interviewed Andy Weir, author of runaway bestseller “The Martian,” for his podcast. It’s fascinating and I urge you to listen. Anyway, Adam mentions the book has a POV shift from first to third person halfway through!

When I heard that I sat in stunned silence. Now, I’m not saying that just because Andy Weir was able to pull off switching from first person to third that I would have been able to pull it off. I’m only saying that I should have tried. I should have written the story and THEN made the judgement call: Did it work?

As Stephen King says: It’s all on the table. Everything. Try it out. If it doesn’t work then don’t send the story out into the world. That one will just be for you. I’ve got a few stories like that and, honestly, they’re some of my favorites!

In Conclusion

The lesson I’ve learnt (or at least I hope I have!) is: Don’t let fear stop you from writing the story that’s in your heart to write.

I’ve decided I AM going to write that story and, in tandem with writing this blog post, have completed a (very rough!) first draft. Even if the story never sees the light of day, I’m putting this in the win column because I conquered my fear. And fear can lead to writers block--or at least it can if you’re me. (grin)

Don’t let fear get the upper hand. Write the story!

Talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good (fearless) writing!

Thursday, June 18

Getting Things Done: Reduce Your Stress Through Organization

Until recently I didn’t deal well with stress. Also, I wasn’t well-organized. (Stories, yes; life in general, no.)

Then I read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen and I realized there was a link between my lack of organization and my anxiety.

The following quotation (from the beginning of the book) nicely sums up Allen’s own view:

“Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.”
— David Kekich

I’m writing about this because, yesterday, I stumbled across the following in “Productivity 101: A Primer to the Getting Things Done (GTD) Philosophy”:

“At its core, GTD gives you a way to get everything you need to remember out of your head and into a system that can remember them for you, organize them, and break them down into pieces you can work with. That way, the next time you look at your to-do list, there should be no confusion over what you have time to tackle, or what's most important. You can spend less time thinking about what to do and how to work and more time actually working.” [2]

That’s a terrific summary. I wasn't going to write about GTD because it isn’t specifically about writing. Then I thought: Why not? If I’ve benefited from it, perhaps (if you aren't already using it) you will too. 

Besides, writing a book IS a project—and a pretty complex one at that. I've found Allen's principles of natural program design have helped me clarify my goals for my books. I'll talk more about that, below.

A Caveat

I know from personal experience that anxiety has many different causes. I’m not saying that folks with anxiety are poorly organized or that if a person with anxiety becomes better organized their anxiety will go away. 

BUT to the extent that anxiety is caused by a feeling of loss of control over the disparate bits of one’s life, then ... yes. I think that becoming more organized could help to lessen one’s anxiety. But who knows. All I can say for sure is that it lessened mine.

The System: Five Simple Steps That Create Order From Chaos

Part of the beauty of Getting Things Done (GTD) is its simplicity. There are only five basic steps. (To read more about this head over to David Allen’s site and look at Getting Started.)

Step 1: Capture

David Allen advises us to use whatever method is most convenient for you (notepad, voice recorder, etc.) to “capture 100% of everything that has your attention.”

The Capture step is something I’ve been doing for a while and chances are you have been too—jotting down ideas or reminders on whatever is at hand, be that a piece of paper, a stray grocery receipt, a notebook or writing journal.

What you use to record your ideas/reminders doesn’t matter. Any of the above would do, the key thing is that you must be confident you won’t lose it. I keep a notepad in my purse and another on my office desk. While I’ve found it easy to lose loose pieces of paper it’s a bit more difficult to lose an entire notebook! 

(That said, I’ve succeeded in doing so on more than one occasion. One time I left my writing notebook behind at the library. When I went to pick it up a hard-eyed security guard inquired about some of my writing ideas (It’s for a murder mystery, Officer. Honest!). He grudgingly gave it back to me.)  

In any case, at the beginning of every day I go through my journal and sift through all the tasks, ideas and ToDo items from the day before.

Step 2: Clarify

For each item you’ve recorded ask, Is it actionable?

If yes --> Decide what action should be taken. If that action will take less than, say, two minutes do it right then. If the action would require more than two minutes then delegate it to someone else or put it on a list to do later.

If no --> Discard it, incubate it (look at it again at some later date) or file it for reference. 

Step 3: Organize

At this point you’ll have a list of tasks that require more than two minutes. If (which is unlikely) you only have 20 or 30 of them then you might want to skip this step. If not, organize the tasks into lists however makes most sense to you. 

For example, I’ve broken my tasks up into a general list (Reminders), a WIP list (To Write), a TBR list (To Read), a TBR wish list of books I want to read one day but know I won’t have time in the foreseeable future (To Read One Day). I also have a list of stories matched with projected publishing dates (To Publish). I’ve embedded a link into this list, a link that opens up a Google Doc that has a record of all my published works (the title, when I published them, under what name, etc). 

When I discovered how few movies I’ve watched lately I added a list for movies I haven’t seen but want to (movies 2014 & 2015). I also have one for TV Shows (I’m looking forward to season two of True Detective!).

And so on.

Step 4: Reflect

The key to this system is to review each task at regular intervals. David Allen suggests folks do “a weekly review to clean up, update your lists, and clear your mind.”

Since you’ll be reviewing all these lists once a week, only record tasks you really do want accomplished. Otherwise the system will become bloated and, eventually, break down.

Step 5: Engage

As the folks at Nike say: Just do it. Go through your lists and do what needs to be done.

Here’s a handy organizational chart:

[embed graphic]

GTD & Writing

You’ve probably seen lists like this before—likely on this very blog! But here are three questions, questions David Allen raises in his book, that I like to apply to my WIP, especially if I’m stuck.

a) What is the purpose of this project/book?

As it happens I’m having some trouble on my WIP so I asked myself this question yesterday and here’s the answer I came up with:

To show that, no matter the odds, no matter what is stacked against you, you can make it through. You can succeed. You are stronger than you think.

b) What would a successful project/book would look like?

- It would be a manuscript of between 70,000 and 100,000 words with, among other things, one main overarching theme and goal. 
- It would be immediately recognizable from the first few paragraphs as urban fantasy.
- The protagonist would be introduced on the first page and in such a way that her essential personality, her strengths and weaknesses, are communicated clearly.

c) Potential steps.

If I’m having trouble with a manuscript I like to break it up into units made up of scenes and sequels. These units could be chapters or just elements of chapters.

For each unit I identify the protagonist’s goal, the final outcome and a sketch of how the main character influences the outcome. (But that’s only the beginning. To see more of this process see my article: Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel.)


If you want to keep your lists in your computer there are many choices available. One of the wonderful things about this method is that you can use whatever software works for you. 

A lot of folks swear by Evernote. 

Until recently I used two apps that came with my iMac: Reminders and Calendar. Now I use Fantastical 2 and absolutely love it.

I’m curious. What do you use to help organize your life? Are you old school and eschew everything but pen and paper or do you use one (or more) software programs? 


1. “David Allen on How to Fix Your Life,” by James Fallows in The Atlantic.

Wednesday, June 10

Popular Writing Themes: The Secrets We Keep

Secret Keeping And Patricia Highsmith

Last week I binged on Patricia Highsmith’s work. Specifically, “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” As I read, I recognized (or thought I did) a theme running through the two stories. If I had to put it into words, I would describe it like this: the secrets we keep destroy us by alienating us from the people we care about most. The-things-we-cannot-tell eventually transform us into dark twisted creatures our initial selves would have loathed.

Excellent books. (And excellent movies as well. Alfred Hitchcock adapted Strangers to the big screen in 1951 and The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted by Anthony Minghella in 1999.)

Secret Keeping In Supernatural

After reading Highsmith’s work I watched season nine of the TV show Supernatural. What do you think I saw? The writers were using the same theme: the destructive nature of secrets. But I guess that’s the way of things, once you notice something in one place you notice it everywhere.

Sure, there were differences. Highsmith uses the crime of murder as the secret which must be kept, but the secret itself could be anything. In Supernatural the secret was (spoiler alert) that Dean had tricked Sam into letting an angel possess him. Sure Dean’s motives were pure (he wanted to save Sam’s life) but he knew that wouldn’t matter to Sam. If Sam found out he would demand the angel leave and, since the angel was the only thing keeping him alive, Sam would die. 

It’s the same dynamic as in Highsmith’s work. 

Supernatural: If Dean doesn’t keep his secret he will lose the person closest to him. 
Strangers on a Train: Guy Haines is convinced that if he doesn’t keep his secret that his fiancee will leave him. (The secret was that a stranger he met on a train killed his wife and is threatening to frame him for the murder unless he kills that person’s stepfather.) And Guy is probably right, she would leave him if she knew.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (the movie): Ripley is a con artist who drifts into a career as a murderer. What sends him over the edge is the secret he is forced to keep. 

In all these stories, the secret-that-must-be-kept severs the protagonist from society; it sets him off as ‘other,’ as beyond the pale. It is their wound, the thing the protagonist must fix yet can’t.

The writers of Supernatural used a secret-that-must-be-kept to create distance between Sam and Dean, the two protagonists, to sow suspicion in Sam’s heart. Sam knew something was off, he knew that his brother wasn’t being honest with him. This created tension between the brothers, tension which built until the next crisis hit and shattered their already damaged relationship (of course they’ll patch things up, this is Sam and Dean!)

Writing Practice

Joe Bunting (The Write Practice) has a practice exercise at the end of his posts; I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m going to adopt that idea. I’m not sure I’ll have a writing practice section at the end of all my posts, but I’ll do it today and see where it goes.

Chuck Wendig publishes a writing exercise every Friday, sort of a mad lib exercise that injects a bit of randomness, of uniqueness, into a writing prompt. Here’s a suggestion, something I’ve done:

1. Head over to Chuck Wendig’s site and generate your own writing prompt (this week the story will be inspired by a randomly generated title). Here’s the link: The Random Title Jamboree. The title I came up with was: The Executioner’s Brains. Sounds like it’ll be a horror story. 

2. Write a story, inspired by the title generated in (1), that explores the destructive nature of secret keeping. (Or not! Pick your own theme.)

3. I encourage you to post your story on your web space and then leave a link in the comments on Chuck Wendig’s post (I’ve given the link, above). If you like, leave the link in the comments, here, as well. I’d love to read what you come up with. :-)

A Change In My Blogging Schedule

I’ve decided to focus more on writing fiction than writing about fiction, and on encouraging others to join me. I’m not suggesting you need my encouragement—I’m sure I need yours more than you need mine!—this is just where my muse is leading me. I’ll be cutting back my blog posts to once a week (on Wednesday) but I hope to begin publishing writing prompts again. Perhaps I’ll emulate Chuck Wendig and post a writing prompt every week, but perhaps on Monday rather than Friday.

That’s the plan at least. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. ;)

Until next time, good writing!

Friday, June 5

Writing And The Movies

Years ago I watched a reality TV show that chronicled Jamie Oliver’s (at times desperate) attempts to teach a group of unambitious youth the art and craft of cooking, the idea being that they would go on to culinary school and, in due course, become chefs themselves.

As I say, that was the idea. I’m not sure how it turned out, but one scene from the program has remained with me through the years. Let me try to set this up.

One thing I learnt from Food TV, and from Jamie Oliver’s shows in particular, is what I call the number one rule of cooking: One must taste the food one prepares. Does it need more seasoning? Is it undercooked? Overcooked? And so on. All these questions can only be answered by tasting the food

Obvious, right? But I hadn’t been doing it! This simple rule radically improved my cooking. 

Back to Jamie Oliver’s reality show. This dictum I’ve just shared, what I’ve called the number one rule of cooking, is of course something Jamie Oliver shared with his proteges. So you can imagine how surprised he was when one of the aspiring chefs categorically refused to taste seafood. She wasn’t allergic to shellfish and she wasn’t a vegetarian. Shrimp, she said, were “icky.”

How, he asked her, can you expect to prepare seafood if you’ve never tasted it? How could you hope to prepare a dish—and prepare it well—if you have no idea how you want the dish to taste? (There’s a difference between liking something, and knowing how it should taste.)

Perhaps you can see where this is going. Just as a cook must be familiar with how a certain dish should taste (how else could she be sure she'd gotten it right?), so a writer must read within her genre and so be familiar with the kind of stories she writes/tells. This goes back to the (often repeated) first rule of writing: To write, you must read.

Back to the movies ...

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would head down to the local theater every weekend. Every weekend. Sometimes we would even go on a weekday, though our parents (“You need to do your homework!”) tried to discourage this.

We ended up watching about 80% of the movies available in our area, and that includes art house pictures, though our little town didn’t have many of those.

Some movies we liked, a few we loved and there were what we called “the groaners,” movies so terrible we considered it our duty to warn others against them.

But, honestly, the true joy of going to see a movie had more to do with what happened after the movie. The group of us would head off to a restaurant to eat and discuss. It didn’t so much matter whether the movie was bad or good, what mattered was what we thought of it and why.

*  *  *

The members of our amorphous little group melted away over the years, drawn away by the demands of work or family.

And that was fine. In fact, I think we barely noticed as the group shrank and, eventually, died. Our lives had changed, we had drifted into adulthood, and the slow dissolving of the group seemed inevitable.

It’s only now, after a span of more years than I care to count, that I look back and feel it as the loss it was; and not just in terms of the strange, unconscious, camaraderie we shared, but in terms of ... well, in terms of the shared experience of story.

Until recently I had almost given up watching movies. After The Group had faded into memory I all but stopped going to movie theaters. I didn’t even watch many movies at home, though I hadn't realized this until the other day when I looked at a list of one hundred of the top rated movies of 2014 and realized I had watched four on the list. Four out of one hundred!

My mind plays the most devilish tricks on me. The moment I realized how few movies I’ve seen lately I remembered Jamie Oliver’s student, the one who refused to eat seafood. 

Then I had an epiphany: That was me! 

Yes, of course, I read, but story comes in many forms. I find that reading and watching a movie—even when both tell the same story—are different experiences. The point about the number one rule of writing—To write, you must read—is for writers to immerse themselves in story, which can only happen through a steady diet of all sorts of different stories by all sorts of different writers.

As I say, reading is essential for a writer, but I think it would be a mistake to neglect (as I have) movies.

First, there are practical considerations. Even a short book takes about three times as long to read as the longest movie takes to watch. Also, book clubs aside, I generally don’t read the same book at exactly the same time as my friends and there is something to be said for experiencing a story together. 

And, finally, there’s something magical about sitting in the dark, having one’s senses assaulted with sound and light, having one’s mind teased and entertained with new ideas, vicariously experiencing (as much as we are able) how it might be for someone else, learning to walk in the shoes of another.

So. The point—one of them at least—of this rambling and somewhat ramshackle post is that I have resolved to watch more movies. My goal is to watch at least 50 of the movies in the top 100 list for each year, beginning with 2014.

I don’t know if watching more movies will make me a better writer, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!

What about you? How many movies did you watch last year? What about this year? What were your favorites? Did you watch what I’ve called a ‘groaner,’ a movie so bad you feel obligated to warn others away from it? If so, do tell!

Till next time, happy writing (and watching)! 

Wednesday, May 27

Getting Motivated To Write

Let’s talk about getting motivated to write. That’s something I’m having trouble with at present.

That’s the bad news. The good news is I discovered an article that maybe—just maybe—will help me get back into gear. It’s called: This Fun Creative Writing Exercise Will Change Your Life.

With a title like that, I thought it was setting itself up for failure. But it is a wonderfully inspiring exercise.

I encourage you to read Joe Bunting’s article in its entirety, it’s great stuff, but for the tl;dr-ers among us, here are the essentials.

a. Write down the first thing that comes to mind.

The first thing that came to my mind was “boy.” Go figure. ;)

b. Think of something as different as possible from the thing you wrote down. 

I wrote: girl.

c. Repeat step (b) until you come to the end of the sentence.

Boy girl high fast slow will mow a bow to slowwww. 

That’s it! My example doesn’t mean anything, it’s gibberish, but it got me putting one word in front of the other and, after all, that is the essence of writing.

Joe Bunting advises:

“When you do this exercise, write with the sounds of words in mind, not their meaning. Try out movie/historical/song/literary references, mashing them up with gibberish rhymes (e.g. “Twain’s hammersaw is bringing me low slow like a long bow“). Make up new words. Pay attention to the sounds of words. Try to come up with the most random noun you can. Then, put it next to a list of five verbs. DON’T use punctation (unless that sounds fun to you, of course).”

So, play the writing game and have fun.

And if that doesn’t work (or even if it does!) think about giving your writing space a makeover (see: Create a Warm, Low Light Workspace to Boost Creativity).

Good writing!

Photo: Licensed as Public Domain. Tulips Isolated.

Friday, May 22

Video Games & Storytelling

Video Games & Storytelling

After The Accident I needed to get my mind off my (extremely minor) physical maladies so I re-subscribed to World of Warcraft (WoW) after an absence of about a year and a half.

BIG mistake. Games can be addictive.

Like stories.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a suspenseful book I honestly can’t put it down. Yes, it’s a figure of speech in that no one has a cocked gun to my temple saying, “Read if you know what’s good for you. Read.” I keep saying to myself, “Just one more page” or “I’ll just finish this chapter.”

Uh huh. I read till the story is complete and fall asleep as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Games—certain games—are every bit as compelling as a suspenseful tale. Baldur’s Gate repeatedly kept me up way past anything resembling a normal bedtime and, lately, World of Warcraft has done the same.

But this isn’t a post about gaming addiction. No. It’s a post about how certain games—the games that have the ability to captivate me—have a similar structure to certain kinds of stories. And thus, perhaps, their appeal.

Gaming Structure vs Story Structure

Just as in a story we have the Initial Problem, in a video game (or video game segment) we have the Initial Plight. 

The Initial Plight

A stranger (and future hero) wanders into an isolated farming community that has a problem. 

This problem could be anything from cattle rustling to zombies, but lets say that the town is overrun with gigantic ladybugs. They’ve eaten all the farmers crops and now brazenly wander the aisles of the supermarket.

The Mayor fears that after finishing off all the Pringles (you can’t eat just one) that the gargantuan ladybugs will begin chowing down on the townspeople. The town expects him to fix things, and if he doesn’t he’s never going to be reelected—the town will be gone!

The Story Goal

The Mayor gives the stranger some weapons, asks him to please take care of things, and the hero walks into the supermarket to kick some Coccinellidae butt.

I’ve found that the first few quests of a game are pretty easy. This is similar to a story. In the beginning, despite what the hero might think, things are not so bad for him or her. They have it relatively easy—at least, compared to what’s in store for them! 

This is where we set up the world—in a game we’re also letting the user get familiar with how to move around in it. In both a story and a game the hero wanders around doing minor tasks, making both friends and enemies.

This is the beginning, the ‘getting to know the world’ phase. Pretty soon, though, we come across ...

The Real Problem

Our hero rids the supermarket of ladybugs but the next day they’re back. And now it’s not just ladybugs, now worms the size of a Buick wiggle down the street pursued by and a chicken so big it could feed a family for a year.

The mayor calls the hero over. “This is no good!” the mayor says, gesticulating wildly. “We keep killing the monsters but they just come back! We need to get to the bottom of things, see what’s causing this. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’!”

At this point the hero will talk to various townspeople, gather clues, be ambushed a couple of times, get into innumerable fights, until he/she  develops ...

The Plan

The hero decides they know what’s going on and devise a plan to end things. Often, the plan goes horribly wrong. The reasons for this vary. It could be that someone the hero trusts has sold her out. It could be just that she guessed wrong. Whatever it is, the hero is led into one last, final, battle with the odds stacked against her.

In a game this is going to be the toughest fight, one that a gamer (at least, if they’re me!) will have to re-load and take several runs at. (In an online game like WoW this would mean failing the quest, abandoning it and picking it up again from the quest-giver.) 

For instance, lets say that our hero discovers that the real danger to the ladybug infested town is Division X, a super secret branch of the government whose mission is to develop a cure for a particularly insidious disease. As a result, though, Dr. Iam Squicky stumbles onto the secret of everlasting life.

Unfortunately, there were a few accidents at the lab. The lab’s containment was breeched and, somehow, a unsuccessful batch of the formula had been released into the towns water supply. The ladybugs (worms, etc) were the first effected because of their size. Eventually, unless something is done, the same thing will happen to the human population!

When the hero informs the mayor of the fate that awaits every eligible voter in the town the small man nearly has a meltdown. “You have to do something!” he yells. “Name your price. Whatever it takes.” And then the hero goes off and handles things, defeating the Big Bad. At the end, the townspeople apologize for initially misjudging the hero and decide the town needs a new mayor. The End.

Of course that’s oversimplified. Normally the hero would have at least two allies, one of whom would be a bit shady. And there would be at least one enemy other than the Big Bad. And all these secondary characters would have their own, overlapping, story arcs.

So ...

- Initial problem.
- Initial problem is solved. 
- Hero rewarded.
- Deeper problem revealed, hero asked to help out again. Perhaps the hero needs persuasion this time.
- Hero investigates, talks to people, makes friends and enemies.
- Hero takes an initial run at the problem but only makes things worse.
- Dark night  of the soul. The townspeople blame him for their troubles, etc.
- Hero solves the problem, figures things out. He knows how to set things right, he just needs a couple of gadgets/spells/etc. 
- Final fight/showdown.
- Aftermath/cashing out the stakes.

Or something like that. :-)

If you’re a gamer and would like to share your impressions of your favorite game, what made it addictive for you, please do!

Till next time, happy writing (and gaming). 

Wednesday, May 20

Killing Your Darlings

Killing Your Darlings

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. — Stephen King, On Writing

Let’s talk about murder: killing your darlings.

I’m editing my WIP. The first draft is written—it feels as though I’ve scrawled it in blood—and now I've started on the first, painful, edit.

 What do you think I’ve found right smack dab at the beginning of the second chapter? Yep, a darling.

Darlings are pieces of prose you’re inordinately fond of. Often, you think they constitute your best writing.  (And perhaps they do.) You just love them. But there’s a problem: they don’t further the story. To keep them you’d have to bend the story out of shape. (Or, as I like to think of it, “pretzelize it.”)

And that’s bad. That’s when I’ve got to go sharpen my knives.

To work me up to the task of cutting out this particular bit of prose, I went back to my writing bible. I think all writers have a writing bible. It’s not an actual bible of course, but it is a book that has helped me more than I could ever adequately express, it is a book that makes me glad I was (insane) lucky enough to want to be a writer.

I’m talking about Stephen King’s, “On Writing.” The book changed my life. Reading it, I felt as though some kindly master of the craft had taken time out of his day to sit down with me and pass along a few tips.

The Criterion

King believes that a writer “should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.” 

That’s the criterion: Does it work? That is, does the story or technique please “at least some of the readers some of the time.”

King writes: 

“If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.”

As is so often the case, it is good advice that is agonizing to apply. 

I guess I better trudge along now and do what needs to be done. Now, where did I put that scalpel ...

Happy writing!

Tuesday, May 19

Getting Back Into The Groove

Hi folks! It’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. Turns out that I’m having a bit of trouble getting back into the old groove. 

Tomorrow I want to chat about killing your darlings, because I’ve been having trouble doing just that. 

Till then, good writing! 

Wednesday, April 29

A Bicycle, A Recycling Bin And A Tree: Oh my!

Just a quick note: Yesterday I was involved in a MINOR accident involving a bicycle, a recycling bin and an amazingly sturdy tree. I picked myself up and walked away. No broken bones, nothing sprained, no property damage to speak of; in fact, the only injury was to a tooth. 

* Sigh *

I’ll omit the gory details, but I spent yesterday afternoon getting emergency dental surgery. Thanks to modern pharmacology I am in no pain but the mental fog is ... well, the phrase “could cut it with a knife” comes to mind.

SO. I’m going to take it easy for the next few days, but I’ll be back on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Till then, good writing! 

Sunday, April 26

Using Text-To-Voice Apps For Editing

I’ve been using a text-to-voice app for a few months now. When I load the dishwasher, dust, fold laundry, all the pesky little tasks of everyday life, tasks one can’t do while reading a story, I can now do while listening to one. It’s marvelous!

Lately, though, I’ve started to use a text-to-voice app for editing my first drafts and it has made me orders of magnitude more efficient. Why? Because I have a problem: I find it impossible to read my manuscript without diving in and changing it before I finish a complete read-through.

If you’re anything like me, that’s a mistake of mammoth proportions. 

I give myself (at least) a few months between completing a first draft and picking it up again for editing. That means—and this is the point of letting so much time pass—that I no longer hold the story in my head. Now I get to come back and, as much as possible, see it through the eyes of a stranger.

But it’s crucial for me to read the entire manuscript through before I begin making changes. Because, that’s right, chances are I’ve forgotten what exactly a particular scene is leading up to and if I cut it then I might very well just have to put it back in down the line. Which means I’ve wasted time and made the entire, painful, experience of editing that much more tedious.

The thing I love most about text-to-voice apps are that they let me listen to my story (I catch all manner of ticks and typos that way) and, at the same time, prevent me from changing the file. Because I can’t! The program I use doesn’t have that capability. Yes, I can take notes and highlight to my heart’s content, but I can’t edit the words.

That has been invaluable to me.

I thought I would mention my discovery here in case anyone else out there is like me and could benefit from 1) having their story read back to them while 2) being unable to change it.

Which is not to say that I don’t take copious pen and paper notes. I do! And that’s okay. After I finish listening to my first draft I’ll go through all my notes and type up the suggestions for changes I’m going to keep. 

And then the whole painful, wonderful, process of editing begins. But that’s a whole other post (I’ve written about editing here and here).

The Apps I Use

I’m sure there are many excellent text-to-voice programs out there. Here are a few I’ve used.


I used to use NaturalReader, and would recommend it. But I needed an app that read ePub files and, the last time I checked, NaturalReader didn’t. 

VoiceOver (Mac Only)

Have you ever heard a computer generated voice breathe? If not, give Alex a listen. It makes him seem much more real, more human-like. Also, depending where a sentence is in a paragraph, Alex will read it differently. Very cool. You can give him a listen here. I use VoiceOver every day and love it. 

Voice Dream Reader

This is the app I use most often. A while ago the company came out with Voice Dream Writer, but I haven’t tried it yet, though it looks as though it could come in handy.

Well, that’s it! If you have a text-to-voice program or app you’d like to recommend, please leave a comment!

Thursday, April 23

The Uncanny In Fiction

The uncanny “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror ...” 
—Sigmund Freud

Have you ever had the feeling, upon waking, that your dream had followed you? Perhaps you woke, but a small panicked voice deep within you screamed you hadn’t, that it was still a dream, that ‘they’ were still out there, still coming to get you. That deep confused uneasiness, that sense of unreality, is one of the aspects of the uncanny; a feeling, a presentiment, that straddles the line between reality and unreality. [1]

In what follows I want to examine the various aspects of the uncanny as well as how the feeling might be elicited in readers.

The Uncanny: A Definition

Our word, “uncanny” comes from the German word, “unheimlich,” which means, more or less, “the opposite of what is familiar.” Or, rather, “a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that is experienced as being peculiar.” (The Uncanny, Wikipedia)

I prefer Sigmund Freud’s definition. In “The Uncanny” he wrote, “[...] the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” [2] To put it another way, it is the familiar which is, for whatever reason, kept out of sight. Hidden.

The Circumstances Of The Uncanny

Freud asks: Why is the uncanny frightening? Is it because it is the opposite of what is known and familiar? He didn’t think so and pointed out that just because something is new or unfamiliar does not automatically mean it is frightening. Something in addition to this is at play.

The Uncanny And The Familiar

The uncanny depends upon something, in Freud’s words, “strangely familiar,” something “which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

The Familiar Evil

Another way of looking at the uncanny, another aspect of the feeling, is of something that ought to have remained hidden and secret but has, for whatever reason, become visible.

In this sense, the uncanny is the familiar evil. Freud writes: “on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.” It is that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” [1]

Tsvetan Todorov: The Circumstances of the Uncanny

Todorov writes,

“The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....” [3]

Let’s go through these conditions.

1. “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described.”

So ...

- The story world needs to be immersive.

- The story and story world must allow for two separate and opposite explanations, explanations which are equally plausible.

2. “this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.”

- The story needs to be told from the perspective of one of the characters in the story. This would seem to indicate either a close third person or first person point of view.

- The viewpoint character must not know whether what they experience is a dream or reality, whether they are mad or sane. In general, they must not know whether their experiences have a natural, or supernatural, explanation.

3. “the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations....”

- I’m not one hundred percent sure what Todorov means here, but I think this is another reference to the fact that the reader must be led to suspend disbelief. The story itself must have a sense of reality, of consistency. It must have its own logic, even though that logic might be extremely strange and twisted.

When I read (3) I was reminded of the third movie in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, “In the Mouth of Madness.” In this movie, an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, humans are driven insane when they either finish reading a book called, you guessed it, “In the Mouth of Madness” or watch the movie of the same name. The idea is to convince the audience that by watching the movie or reading the book that they, too, will go insane. Through the use of a twisted kind of self-reference, the story reaches out to the reader and attempts to draw him or her into the horrific dreamworld of the story.

This isn’t a new idea, Robert W. Chambers employed it when he wrote, “The King in Yellow,” first published in 1895 (it can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg here). This book is a collection of short stories, many of which include mention of a book called “The King in Yellow.” Reading this book (the book within the book) was guaranteed to drive a person mad. Of course, the implication—the way the story reached out beyond itself and involved the reader—is that the reader, due to her having read the volume, will be condemned to madness just as the characters were.

Really, this is an amazing and special kind of story—one which warns the reader not to finish the story! 

Examples Of The Uncanny


Doubt about whether a certain animate being is truly alive. (see: Uncanny Valley) Also, doubt about whether a certain inanimate being is truly not living.

Examples: Wax work figures, automatons, puppets, clowns.

The following passage has been often quoted in the literature. Freud writes:

“Jentsch says: ‘In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton; and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be urged to go into the matter and clear it up immediately, since that, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. [...]’”

Is this a dream? 

Doubt about whether one is dreaming or perhaps delirious, even insane, a doubt often brought on by a recurrence of “the same situations, things and events.”

Freud wrote:

“That factor which consists in a recurrence of the same situations, things and events, will perhaps not appeal to everyone as a source of uncanny feeling. From what I have observed, this phenomenon does undoubtedly [...] awaken an uncanny feeling, which recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams. Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself  back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.” [2]

The double

Freud wrote:

“These themes are all concerned with the idea of a “double” in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike; Hoffmann accentuates this relation by transferring mental processes from the one person to the other—what we should call telepathy—so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own—in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, or character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations.” [2]

When I read this I thought of the book, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Also the movie Pi, or The Number 23. 

Other instances of ‘the double’ are reflections in mirrors, shadows, guardian spirits and, arguably, the belief in the soul. [2]

That is a rather broad list, but it makes sense to me. Think of the many stories about staring into a mirror and repeating a name three times to summon an entity or of the myth that mirrors can be used as gateways. For example, Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”). 


3. Tsvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), via web page: The Uncanny and the Fantastic.

Tuesday, April 21

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

I’ve been reading and writing Gothic stories all my life, though I didn’t always know that’s what they were.

As a girl I tore through Mary Stewart’s Gothic Romances and most recently I’ve been ensnared by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s marvelous Pendergast series, an example of Southern Gothic.

I’m not going to lie, Gothic fiction is a big topic and perhaps I should start off with definitions and talk about how Gothic fiction differs from other sorts of fiction, and so on, but I’m not going to. Today I’m just going to dip my toe in the water and discuss what I think is an important and fruitful distinction in ANY kind of literature: terror vs horror.

Terror vs Horror: The Anticipated vs The Actual

In what follows I’m drawing from material I found on the university of Virginia’s servers. It came up in a Google search on “psychological overlay.” Here’s the link: Individual and Social Psychologies of the Gothic: Introduction.

Although terror and horror might appear superficially similar (terror is extreme fear and horror is defined as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust”) one could argue—as Ann Radcliffe did in an 1826 essay—that ...

“[...] terror is characterized by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.” [1]

One gets the feeling Radcliffe would NOT have appreciated the 2004 movie Saw.

Echoing Radcliffe, Devendra Varma characterized the difference between “terror and horror as the difference between ‘awful apprehension and sickening realization,’ [...]”. Of terror she writes: “Sounds unexplained, sights indistinctly caught, dim shadows endowed with motion by the flicker of the firelight or the shimmer of the moonbeam invoke superstitious fear.” [2]

Horror, on the other hand, depends upon seeing the physical objects our fertile imaginations cast in a thousand shades of darkness. As Radcliffe put it, "the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show." [3]

Summing up, Devendra P. Varma writes: 

“The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. [...] Terror thus creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural...” [2]

Another Perspective: Physical Ambiguity vs Moral And Psychological Ambiguity

While I’m personally convinced by the arguments put forward by Radcliffe and her modern ally, Varma, there is another way of looking at the distinction between the terrifying and the horrible. 

Robert Hume begins his critique by pointing out that Radcliffe’s technique, how she generates terror, is by using “dramatic suspension.” Which is another way of saying that Radcliffe “raises vague but unsettling possibilities and leaves them dangling for hundreds of pages.” (Where have I heard that technique used before? Lee Child.) Hume remarks that “Mrs. Radcliffe's easy manipulation of drawn-out suspense holds the reader's attention through long books with slight plots.” [4]

But, Hume says, terror isn’t the only game in town. Other writers hold the readers attention just as well and without aid of either suspense or dread, instead “they attack him frontally with events that shock or disturb him.” [4]

Rather than enumerating a labyrinth of possibilities that never materialize “they heap a succession of horrors upon the reader.” These sort of books gain much of their effect “from murder, torture, and rape.” [4]

Hume sums up his position: 

“The difference from terror-Gothic is considerable; Mrs. Radcliffe merely threatens these things, and Walpole uses violent death only at the beginning and end of his book. The reader is prepared for neither of these deaths, which serve only to catch the attention and to produce a climax, respectively.”

“[...] with the villain-heroes of horror-Gothic we enter the realm of the morally ambiguous. Ambrosio, Victor Frankenstein, and Melmoth are men of extraordinary capacity whom circumstance turns increasingly to evil purposes. They are not merely monsters [...]”

“To put the change from terror-Gothic to horror-Gothic in its simplest terms, the suspense of external circumstance is de- emphasized in favor of increasing psychological concern with moral ambiguity. The horror-Gothic writers [...] wrote for a reader who could say with Goethe that he had never heard of a crime which he could not imagine himself committing. The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound.” [4]

The Appeal of Moral Ambiguity

Think of “The Silence of the Lambs,” either the book or the movie. That story was one in which the protagonist’s mentor, Hannibal Lecter (aka Hannibal the Cannibal) was a brutal serial killer. And, strangely, he was kinda, sorta, a good guy. Why? Because he helped stop another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and because Hannibal only killed jerks. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, killed without regard to the intrinsic characteristics of the victim; what they were like as people. Buffalo Bill’s victims were simply a means to an end. He was only interested in their exterior, their skin. 

For myself, one of the fascinating things about the universe Thomas Harris created was that he not only crafted a complex character like Hannibal Lecter but that he made me genuinely care about him, even root for him.

To Sum Up

Although a particular story could eschew horror and rely only upon suspense in order to create narrative drive, or vice versa, they (of course) work best together. That said, I thought it was interesting and possibly instructive to try an conceptually tease the two apart so as to meditate upon what is unique to each as well as how such feelings might be generated in readers.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Sketch by Edward Gorey.


(All references are from “Terror and Horror.”)
1. Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," The New Monthly Magazine (1826): 145-52.
2. Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).
3. Ann Radcliffe, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”
4. Robert Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (1969): pp. 282-290.

Friday, April 17

Part 8 of 8: CHANGE The World

This is the last post in my Dan Harmon series. To read the series from the beginning head on over to the first post: Dan Harmon on Story Structure. I’ve placed an index at the bottom of the page.

Onward! Our protagonist is almost the master of two worlds. They have conquered the Special World of the Adventure and now they must complete the circle and bring that knowledge, that expertise (the prize) back to their community in the Ordinary World. 

Part 8 - Master of Both Worlds

Dan Harmon writes: “the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they're able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.” (Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details)

The Climactic Showdown

This is what the story has been building up to, the confrontation, the showdown, between the protagonist and antagonist. What occurs here will determine whether the protagonist achieves his goal or fails miserably. Dan Harmon writes:

“In an action film, you're guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession.”

Christopher Vogler echoes this when he writes that, “the showdown is a distinct dramatic form with its own rules and conventions. (The Writer’s Journey)” Vogler goes on to enumerate some of these for a Western, but more general guidelines are given by Jim Butcher in his excellent article, Climaxes

Jim Butcher on Climaxes

When I sketched the outline for this post I didn’t intend to talk about Jim Butcher’s take on the structure of story climaxes—I was just going to include a link to his article—but it’s too good NOT to discuss.

JB writes that the climax has much the same structure as a sequel: Isolation, Confrontation, Dark Moment, Choice, Dramatic Reversal and, of course, Resolution. The climax begins just as the Great Swampy Middle Ends. I’m not going to explain these terms, if they aren’t familiar, head on over to Jim Butcher’s Livejournal account. I’ve gone into this in great and gory detail here: Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax.

Mirroring: Completion

When the protagonist comes back to the ordinary world they often find their way back to the same bit of terra firma where the protagonist stood as he or she experienced a significant story transition—like, say, a cataclysmic setback. 

Mirroring can also be done with the use of sayings, some sort of tag line—or even a repeated behavior. Whatever is used, a familiar location or a character tag, now’s the time to put a twist on it. Now it has come to mean something else, something more.

Christopher Vogler writes:

“The most popular story design seems to be the circular or closed form, in which the narrative returns to its starting point. In this structure you might bring the hero literally full circle back to the location or world where she started. Perhaps the Return is circular in a visual or metaphoric way, with a replay of an initial image, or the repetition of a line of dialogue or situation from Act One. This is one way of tying up loose ends and making a story feel complete. The image or phrases may have acquired a new meaning now that the hero has completed the journey. The original statement of the theme may be re-evaluated at the Return. Many musical compositions return to an initial theme to rephrase it at the ending.” (The Writer’s Journey)

As Dan Harmon points out, “John McClane, who at step (1) was afraid of flying, now [in Part 7] wraps a fire hose around his waist and leaps off an exploding building, then shoots a giant window so he can kick through it with his bloody feet. / Strangely enough, he will soon [Part 8] find himself back in the same room where the Christmas party was being held.”

And so we’re brought full circle.

The Prize

Have you noticed that, often, the protagonist will receive something in Part 4—this could be an actual physical object or even just a realization, perhaps a profound one, about life and their place in it—and it is this very thing which will enable the protagonist to succeed in the final confrontation? Dan Harmon writes:

“One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his shit together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It's hack, but it's hack because it's worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn't seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It's all the same. [...] Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4)” (Story Structure 104)

And that’s it! I’ll close by mirroring something I said at the beginning of this series. If your story works, leave it alone! But if you feel there’s something the matter with it but you can’t figure out what, then it might be an idea to examine your story in the context of the hero’s journey. Bottom line: The hero’s journey is a tool. You can use it or not, but it’s a good thing to have in your toolbox. Just in case. 

Talk to you again next week, good writing!