October 24, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell…

Pop culture reference. Haven’t done one of those in ages…

I’ve blathered on about different genres a bunch of times. It seemed like this might be a good time in the year to revisit one in particular that I haven’t talked about in a while. On the off chance you haven’t noticed the sudden rise of bats, pumpkins, and scarecrows in your neighborhood, we’re going to be talking about horror.
Maybe it’s just the particular bubble I’m in, but it feels like horror’s finally, truly inching its way out into the mainstream. Even just ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of folks still viewed horror as this big, general bin filled with Satanists, slashers, and screaming people. And, let’s be honest, anyone who wrote horror clearly was just working through tons of childhood issues, right? Probably didn’t help that for years there were some folks who loudly insisted you could only write horror if you’d gone through something traumatic…
Simple truth is, just like sci-fi or comedy or romance, horror stories get broken down into many different sub-genres.  Us is horror, sure, but that doesn’t mean we immediately lump it in with the new Halloween reboot. Cherie Priest’s The Toll is horror, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s doing the same things as Wesley Chu’s Walking Dead tie-in book, Typhoon. And none of these are like my story Dead Moon.

I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that sometimes things get the wrong genre label hung on them, and it creates a clash of expectations. We went in told we were getting a story that would do this and this, but got one that did that by using that. And, personally, I think this is true with sub-genres, too. If I tell readers they’re getting a slasher story and it turns out to be much more of a monster story, there’s a good chance a lot of the story is just going to feel off balance to them. It won’t hit a lot of the “correct” benchmarks my audience is expecting.

That said, I wanted to toss out a couple different sub-genres of horror to think about. Some of them are well established and have been discussed (and debated) to death.  Others are just things I’ve noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning. I’ve brought up a lot of them before.

Supernatural stories
This one’s easy. It’s pretty much the classic spooky story. The pale woman out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The awful-smelling thing down in the lower berth. That creepy guy in the elevator letting you know there’s room for one more…
There are a few key things about these stories.  One of the biggies is that our protagonist usually doesn’t suffer any physical harm. Their underwear needs to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years, but overall they tend to come out okay. If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it’s usually the bad guy or a supporting character. Also, these stories tend not to have explanations– they just are. There aren’t any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  This is just the kind of stuff that happens in a supernatural world.
Thrillers stand a bit away from the pack ‘cause they tend to be more grounded than most horror stories. Very few vampires, no demons, not a lot of machete-killers. Even if they have a supernatural element, the horror rarely comes from that element. They’re very real-world horror stories, for the most part.
The key thing is that a thriller’s all about right now.  It’s about the ticking clock, the killer hiding behind the drapes, or the foot that’s just inches from the lethal booby trap. There’s a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on them for the run of my story.  A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge for almost the whole story.
Giant Evil stories
These are the tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, every object they find, everything they do–it all serves some greater, awful evil. It’s just so big and overwhelming. You may have heard the terms “Lovecraftian horror” or “cosmic horror” too.
I think a lot, if not most, post-apocalyptic stories fall here. The ones that lean towards horror over sci-fi, anyway. The entire world now belongs to the zombie hordes, the cannibal gangs, the killer virus, whatever. I’d probably toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, too, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  There’s nothing else for us or for the characters to interact with. 1408, The Shining, and Event Horizon could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.
Slasher stories
When you get right down to it, these stories are just about body count. How many men, women, and teenagers can the killer reduce to cold meat? Point to note–almost never children.
One of the big things with slasher stories is there’s usually a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it’s important to note it’s rarely deliberate or malicious. It’s just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job. They’re pretty much a parkour of death. The original Friday the 13th franchise pretty much became the standard for slasher stories, and it’s what most people tend to think of first when  the term comes up.
A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-elementto them, trying to figure out who the killer was. Then it kind of morphed into being a (usually) weak twist. Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on using insanity as their only motivation and got stereotyped as “psycho-killer” movies. Which is a shame ’cause some of them are very clever and creepy.
Torture porn
I’m not sure if Stephen King actually coined the term “torture porn” in his old Entertainment Weekly column (does he still do that?), but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader squirm.  If I can make them physically ill, that’s a big win. 
The characters in torture porn are almost always underdeveloped, going with the idea that we’ll just relate to them and what they’re going through on a basic human level. More than any other form of horror, torture porn isn’t about characters—it’s about the visceral things being done to the characters.  They’re getting skinned, scalped, boiled, slowly impaled, vivisected… and we’re getting every gory detail of it.  Somebody I used to work with once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really leaves nothing to the imagination.
A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless. They’re bound, drugged, completely alone, or vastly outnumbered. Unlike a slasher film– where there’s always that sense that Phoebe might escape if she just ran a little faster or make a bit less noise– there is no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn’t here, because that’s not what these stories are about.
Worth noting there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story, and one of the big ones is the sheer number of people killed. Slashers are about the body count, but (as the name implies) torture porn is about how long single deaths can be drawn out.
Monster stories

The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm. Monsters are rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming tendency to be nigh-invulnerable. The emphasis here is that there’s nothing my heroes (or anyone else) do can that’ll stop this thing’s rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.

I just talked about monsters a few months back, so I won’t rehash a lot of that here. You can just go read my birthday post.
Adventure Horror stories
To paraphrase from the original Hellboy movie (which fits nicely in this category), adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While they may use a lot of tropes from some of the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the heroes are fighting back. Not in a desperate, flailing way, but in a trained, well-equipped, locked-and-loaded way.
I’m not saying it won’t go exceptionally bad for them (and it often does), but there stories are about protagonists who get to inflict a bit of damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway.  To quote an even wiser man… even monsters have nightmares.
So there’s a couple of subgenres we could break horror down into.  And like I said before, there’s many more.  It’s not a complete list, and you can probably think of some others we could talk about. Feel free to add ‘em down in the comments.
Also, why are we talking about this?
When most of us start off as writers, we flail a bit. We attempt to copy stories even though we don’t quite understand all the mechanics of them.  We’re not sure where our own stories fit under that big horror umbrella (or sci-fi, or fantasy, or…).  We’ll begin a tale in one sub-genre, then move into a plot more fitting a different one, wrap up with an ending that belongs on a third, and have the overall tone of yet another. 
Y’see, Timmy, it’s important to know what I’m writing for two different reasons.  One is so I’ll be true to it and don’t end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere.  Two is that I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is. If I tell the editor it’s not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected. My readers may toss it aside.
At the worst, they’ll all remember me as “that idiot” the next time they see something of mine.
Next time… well, next time it’s actually Halloween. But it’s also the day before November begins. And for a lot of writers November means NaNoWriMo. So I wanted to toss out a few quick thoughts about that.
Until then, go write.
August 24, 2017 / 4 Comments

The Genre-Device Mnemonic Caper

            Very sorry I missed the last two weeks. Lots going on, which I’ll get to in a minute 
            I wanted to toss out a couple of quick, easy genre/device mnemonics for you.  These are a couple of things I’ve heard over the years.  Sometimes—when I’m struggling with something in a story—I’ve found them helpful for getting my head wrapped around things.
            So, what is it you’re working on right now. Maybe keep in mind…
            Suspense is about what’s going to happen
            A thriller’s about what is happening
            A mystery is about something that already happened
            Granted, these are kind of broad definitions, and there’s always going to be an exception or two. But I’ve mentioned once or thrice before the problems that can crop up when I try to push this kind of story into thatframework.  And if I’m trying to write a thriller that’s about events that already happened… well, there’s probably a reason I’m having problems with it.  Or maybe my readers are having problems with it.
            It’s not a bad thing to double check what I’m writing about and what I think I’m writing about.
            Now, let’s flip this and talk about devices.

            A mysteryis when my characters are actively searching for a piece of information they don’t know.
            Suspenseis when my readers—or the audience, in a larger sense—knows a piece of information that my characters need to know but don’t.
            A twist, is when we’re talking about a piece of information that nobody even suspects exists (readers or characters), but once we learn it, it’ll change how we view a lot of what’s already happened in the story.
            I think we all mess these up a lot when we’re starting out. We’re trying to use a device or write in a specific genre, but we fall into the patterns of another one.  Or we’re so focused on having, for example, a cool mystery that we don’t realize we’ve actually set up a twist.  And it’s kind of a weak twist because… well, we’re still trying for a mystery.
            Worse yet, sometimes we learn these mistakes.  They become that thing we’re convinced is right because we never learned anything different. And so we stick with these mistakes for years, focusing on other things instead fo the one clearly-wrong thing.
            Make sense?
            That’s why I like a lot of these little mnemonics.  They’re easy things to keep in the back of my mind and check my work, so to speak, every now and then. Good for starting out, good for later on, too.
            Next time…
            Okay, truth is, I had surgery last Tuesday.  Nothing super-serious, don’t worry, but it was pretty intense and the painkillers have really knocked me for a loop (and really messed with my sleep). Heck, this post was mostly done last week and I couldn’t pull it together long enough to get this up on the site.  Barely got that cartoon up the other day.
            Long story short—no idea if I’ll have a coherent post done for next week.  August might be my lame month.
            At the least, I’ll put up another cartoon. At the best… well, we’ll see how close I am to reality at the given moment.
            As always, please feel free to toss any requests or suggestions in the comments below. Or any handy mnemonics of your own.
            Until then, no matter what… go write.

Our three secret weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…

So, a few years back I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference and got to listen to a gentleman named Esmund Harmsworth. Look him up. Nowadays he’s an agent at ZSH Literary.

He caught my attention one year when I attended a Q&A panel with a bunch of agents. The panel had been running for about half an hour when one fellow stood up and asked a question about his sci-fi novel. One agent immediately told him to throw it away and two others joined in. The trio of battleaxes berated the poor questioner and loudly declared genre as the absolute worst thing to write. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy—it was all garbage. Each of them stressed that they would never, ever look at a genre writer as a potential client.

After a few minutes of them going on and on, Mr. Harmsworth (on the far side of the platform) cleared his throat into his microphone. It tripped them up for a moment, and in the pause he pointed out to the questioner (who had, at this point, shrunk to a height of about two feet and was crying quietly to himself) that if you write something good any agent is going to want to see it. That’s their job, after all, and every agent on the panel was secretly hoping to find the next Stephen King. He sat back in his chair and the battleaxe brigade immediately backpedaled and agreed that quality writing was what mattered over everything else.

Needless to say, when I saw Harmsworth’s name on a seminar list the following year, I made a point of being there. Yeah, it was about mysteries, his chosen field, but I figured there’d be something to glean out of it. And there was, even though Harmsworth admitted halfway through that he’d really only had eight rules but the conference folks said ten looks a lot better on the seminar listings so he made up a couple to round out his list.

That being said—I’m not repeating his entire ten points. If you were in the room that day or have heard him give this little lecture since, don’t try posting an “AHA!!!” because I misnumbered something or left something out. I’m telling you now—things are probably misnumbered and left out.

Also, I can’t understand all the notes I wrote to myself seven years ago…

First Rule – There are no rules. Despite everything I’m about to recount, there is no “A-B-C-Done!” when it comes to writing. I’ve mentioned this here before. You can’t point to any rule of writing without acknowledging there are at least twenty examples of violating that rule. So if people are telling you “you must absolutely, always do this!”—especially when this relates to things like page counts or turning points or redemptive moments– it’s a sure sign they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now, that being said… Agents sell books (and movies) by comparing them to books that have already sold. Makes sense—that’s how most of us buy books. So saying “it’s not like anything else” makes your manuscript very hard to sell. Your book needs to follow those rules you keep hearing about to some extent.

However… following all of the rules makes you a formula writer. Nothing wrong with that. Lots of people make a decent living writing formula books and formula television shows. Just be clear that no one’s going to sing the praises of such a thing or offer mega-millions for it. Formula manuscripts are the junk food of publishing and Hollywood. They sell steadily, no one pays a lot for them, and most folks forget them half an hour after they’re gone.

Second Rule – Know the difference between mysteries and thrillers. Agents sell your manuscript to publishers and producers, but you need to sell it to an agent. One of the key elements, of course, is to know what you’re selling. It can be a pain in the ass these days with some of the sub-sub-genres out there, but you should have a solid idea which one of them your story fits into. This is when you need be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you wanted to write a historical drama—if you’ve ended up with a low fantasy story that’s what it is and you need to admit it.

Different genres also tend to have different lengths. You can sell a horror novel that’s 115,000 words, but mystery novels should be topping out around 90,000.

Also, you should know who your audience is. Most mysteries are bought by women (they’re 80% of the sales), most thrillers are bought by men. If you’ve written a kick-ass thriller aimed solidly at a female audience, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Not an impossible one, mind you, but be aware of what you’re up against.

Third Rule – Have a real mystery. One telling thing that came up in this seminar—editors will reject a mystery if they can solve “whodunnit” before the hero does. The story needs to have real clues, red herrings, antagonists, foils—a good mystery isn’t just withheld information. It should involve a lot of thought by the reader—thoughts that a good writer will be guiding down the wrong paths.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, mysteries also depend on strong characters. I need to care about Wakko or his finding clues and working out answers isn’t going to mean anything to me. Plus, if you think about it, most mysteries tend to be mystery series, and no one’s going to want to follow multiple adventures of a character who’s just not interesting or likeable.

Fourth Rule – Location is key to mysteries. Harmsworth summed this up in one neat line. Most mysteries take place somewhere people would go on a dream vacation. People read mysteries set in Las Vegas and Hawaii and New Orleans. These are places most people will read about regardless, and will love to see a clever story set there.

Keep in mind this dream setting can be manipulated a bit and can be represented by some industries or careers. Hollywood is a dream job for a lot of people, so it makes a great setting for mysteries. So is Washington, because we’re all curious about those hallways of power.

Make sure your story is set somewhere inherently interesting—and not just interesting to you.

Fifth Rule – The idea is key to thrillers. I’ve mentioned the term “high concept” here before. It’s when you can sum up the whole idea of a story in just one or two sentences. A great high concept idea doesn’t even need that much, which is how you end up with pitches like “big lizard, big apple,” “Jurassic Shark,” or “it’s like Die Hard in a building.”

A good thriller depends on a central idea that can be summed up in one or two lines. If it can’t, then the whole thing needs work. Because of this, thrillers tend to be very linear and don’t rely on a lot of subplots or a vast array of supporting characters. They’re driven by suspense and the mounting threat that was mentioned in that two-line pitch..

Sixth Rule – Be patient. You can write an amazing novel or clever screenplay and still have the bad luck of finishing it just as interest in said topic has dropped to an all-time low. Some people tried to jump on the supernatural romance boat just as Buffy and Angel were coming to a close, and… well, that ship got dry-docked for a couple of years. Then there was Twilight and suddenly that ship wasn’t just crewing up, it was press-ganging people.

If someone tells you that your book won’t sell, just put it away, go work on something else, and try submitting it again in four or five months. If it’s a good book it will sell eventually. Honest.

If it’s a good book.

And there you have it. Ten (more or less) tips on how to write better mysteries, many of which can be applied to almost any manuscript.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

Until then, go write.