Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading The Best Horror of the Year, Volume VIII, an anthology of horror short stories and novelettes compiled by one of horror’s premier editors, Ellen Datlow (I’ll be taking a break from it to read The Institute by Stephen King, though). As you’d expect from any anthology, some you like, some you don’t, and some you just don’t get. But of those that I like, I’ve been noticing a trend that I’m not sure I’ve noticed before.

These stories are not outright terrifying in a way that’ll leave you screaming or having nightmares for a week or so. But they do make you feel uneasy. Like a voice in the back of your mind is whispering, “Imagine if this scenario were real,” or “Imagine if this happened to you.” And then you shiver at the thought of what is occurring in the story occurring in real life. In your life.

That feeling upsets the zen in your soul, and can put you off your day. It can make you afraid to think of certain places or names because you associate them with something evil and horrible. It leaves you afraid to be in dark places, or alone, or with people, or even in well-lit areas. Because who knows what’s hidden in your blind spot? Who knows what evil is bubbling in your coworker’s heart?

What you are feeling is disquiet. And that feeling drives a lot of shorter horror stories. Understandable: short stories and novelettes don’t have the word-counts to build epic worlds or have intricate plots involving five or six mind-blowing revelations. They’re short for a reason, and meant to be digestible as a way to save time and money. Or to quote Stephen King, “A short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

I actually know what that’s like (don’t ask), and I’m not really surprised that King does, either. So I kind of get it: what the story does to you should be unexpected, but leave a powerful impression. The kind of impression where you look back years later and you’re like, “Wait, did that actually happen?” And in short stories, with horror, you do it with fear. You do it with disquiet.

So how does one create disquiet in their story? Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can answer that. It’s like how do you put horror in a story? You already know a monster is necessary, but what more is there? Not an easy question to answer. In fact, I’ve been writing horror since I was a tween, or trying to, and I’m still trying to figure it out. It doesn’t help that I’m better at novels and short stories are still something I’m figuring out how to do well (ironic, considering how many short story ideas I have lying around).

junji Ito will shake you every time.

In the end, all I can recommend is the old writer adage: read a lot and write a lot. In this case, read a ton of shorter works by a variety of different horror authors. Note how they make the story memorable, punchy, disturbing. Is it a specific twist? Is it in the scenario they set up? How do they set it up? Is it in a particular sentence or a paragraph? An element they included? The ending? Then try writing your own works and incorporating what you learned.

It seems obvious, but I guess we reiterate it for a reason.

Anyway, if you’re looking for recommendations, any of the volumes in the Best Horror of the Year series should work, as well as collections by most horror writers. I also recommend story collections from manga artist Junji Ito, if you want a more visual medium. And while it’s not literary, The Twilight Zone is usually pretty good at telling disquieting stories (or so I’ve heard. I really have to get on watching that show).

But tell me, how do you make your short stories memorable and disquieting? What are your thoughts on the subject? Let’s discuss.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Happy Friday the 13th, and if you see  guy wearing an old-fashioned goalie mask, RUN THE OTHER FUCKING WAY!!!

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So today marks the 13th anniversary of my bnei mitzvah, when my sister Adi and I were called to the Torah in official recognition of reaching adulthood in Judaism.* According to the Gregorian calendar, anyway: August 19th, 2006. The anniversary date on the Hebrew calendar falls on August 26th this year, and the Torah portion my sister and I read from, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), will be read in synagogues on August 31st. It’s a whole lot of complicated, I know.

The point is, the date I pay attention to, August 19th, 2006, has its anniversary today. Thirteen years ago. A full half of my lifetime ago, and close to half my own sister’s life ago.

I’m not doing anything to mark the occasion. The thirteen-year anniversary isn’t really that significant in Judaism, and I’m not in the mood to do anything special beyond maybe some ice cream and wine (the celebratory foods of the exhausted working grown ups). I barely remember that weekend’s festivities, truth be told, beyond going off-script and laughing like a lunatic during my speech (but it was poorly written, so it was probably an improvement). Still, I thought I’d at least talk about it.

Because honestly, I feel more like an adult now than I ever did at thirteen.

I don’t know when it happened. Becoming an adult became a gradual process, not just something that happened overnight. It started in college, while I was paying rent and bills while also balancing homework and trying not to stress out about my grades. And then I started looking for a job, had an internship abroad (which gave new lessons to the art of budgeting), came back and had the existential dread of living on my dad’s couch for eight months looking for a job. I found a job, started paying rent again, paid more bills, worked forty hours a week. I got a license and a car, I learned to balance fun and asserting my independence with work and learning to submit when necessary.

And I began to understand how the world works. How insane and nasty it can be, and how much we have to do to make it seem pleasant for more than a millisecond or two.

What did I know at thirteen? I was still wrapping my head around the idea that other people will never like horror or anime no matter how much I talked about it. I was sure I would be a famous author by age twenty and living in Beverly Hills by twenty-five. And I was sure the world was a mostly-good place where good eventually triumphs over evil, and the nastiness I saw everyday would eventually balance itself out.

Look how well that turned out.

Not to say I was completely clueless or naive back then. I did know one thing back then, and that I wasn’t an adult, no matter how well I read from the Torah or what my rabbis (aka my parents) said. I knew I couldn’t survive on my own. I had only so much understanding of my own finances, of how to take care of myself. I knew I would be dependent on my parents and others for at least the next five years. No matter what, I wasn’t ready for adulthood (though, like every teen, I couldn’t wait for the freedoms of adulthood).

I guess I can sum this up by saying I’m glad it took as long as it did for me to reach adulthood. I was able to enjoy being young while it lasted, and I wouldn’t be anywhere near as competent as I am now without all those years to learn and mature. At the same time, that slow change from kid to adult helps me be a better writer, and understand those younger than me (even if I have no idea what the kids are listening to these days or what video games are popular).

So I guess it took another thirteen years, but I can finally say, I’m a grown up now. And I think I’m doing alright.

*Just a note for those not familiar with Judaism and/or the Hebrew language: a bar mitzvah is for a single 13-year-old boy. A bat mtzvah is for a single 12-year-old girl. A bnei mitzvah is for multiple boys or a mixed-gender group. And a b’not mitzvah is for multiple girls. Also, many adults have bnei mitzvahs, especially if they converted in adulthood or otherwise were unable to have a ceremony in their teens. Just thought I’d mention it.

A sketch of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft, and an embodiment of cosmic horror.

Earlier today, I read a very interesting article about how cosmic horror is evolving from the state it was in when HP Lovecraft pioneered the genre, courtesy of Bloody Disgusting (you can read the article here). To sum the article up, the author states that cosmic horror originally had little room for emotions other than fear. The idea was to explore a vast cosmos filled with powerful entities and secrets that humanity can’t begin to grasp. Humanity, and our ideas and emotions, are inconsequential to these beings, and they are too much for us to fathom. However, lately the genre has been used to explore emotional themes such as closure of grief or to overcome childhood schisms and trauma.

I thought it was an interesting article, so I shared it among my fellow horror writers (as well as reserved some of the films mentioned in the article from my local library). And the responses I’ve gotten so far have been rather telling. One author I’m friends with mentioned that horror, including cosmic horror, has always been used to explore themes of emotions and the human experience. Sure, that sometimes involves things so outside the human experience our mind can’t comprehend them, but in the end, they deal with every day human fears of how much we matter, whether we’re alone in the universe.

Look at IT, for example (and yes, I am excited for Chapter Two. My sister and I are even trying to arrange to see it opening weekend). While it is about a shape-shifting being fond of the form of a clown and the people who stand up to him, it’s also about dealing with the change from childhood to adulthood, how reality hardens you and destroys your sense of wonderment. Very relevant to the human experience, underneath the clown make-up.

Another person in that discussion also mentioned how, in the age of the Internet, Twitter, and all the human-made horrors, some people doubted the need for cosmic horror. I mean, isn’t everyday news bad enough? Who needs alien gods with tentacles when you have mass shootings and human rights violations?

Well, not necessarily. Think about how, despite all the “connections,” we live more hermit-like and isolated existences these days. We live very much alone. And seeing all these awful things in the world, one can feel powerless. The world is just too much to handle, it seems, let alone take on.

And that’s cosmic horror in a nutshell. Humanity feeling small, our lives not ours to control, but at the mercy of forces that don’t care one way or the other about our well-being. It was a common enough feeling for many after WWI when HP Lovecraft was building the genre, having experienced the trenches, the gas, and the flamethrowers. And it’s still a common feeling today.

And so long as that feeling of hopelessness and isolation in the face of a seemingly senseless, uncaring world is part of people’s lives, there will be an audience for cosmic horror. The genre will evolve and change, but the swirling darkness that birthed Cthulhu and other monstrosities will always be at its core.

But what do you think? Is cosmic horror evolving? What direction do you think the genre will head? Are you, like me, actually an entity from beyond this planet or realm whose true form induces all who see it to madness? Let’s discuss.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear, goodnight and pleasant nightmares.

Quite recently, Rose received its sixteenth review on Amazon’s US site. This is a big deal for me, because the only other book I’ve published with that many reviews is the first book I ever published, The Quiet Game: Five Tales to Chill Your Bones. Guess how long it took for that one to get that many reviews?

Six years.

Why did it take so long for The Quiet Game to get that many reviews, when Rose was able to do it in less than two months? There are a number of factors at play, in my opinion. My writing has vastly improved since 2013, and my audience across different platforms has grown as well. But the big difference, if I’m being honest, is my marketing plan. Unlike my previous works, I had an actual marketing plan in place when I published Rose. And it seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Given that, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from having an actual plan in place. And given all the lessons to impart, it’ll probably take a few posts (hence the “Part 1” in the post’s title). Hell, sponsoring a YouTube video will probably take up its own post. But if it helps a promising author with a new book coming out from making the same mistakes as I did, then it’ll be worth it.

So without further ado, let’s go over some essentials for having a marketing plan.

Rose wouldn’t be doing as well as it is without a marketing plan.

First, don’t expect your book to just take off without putting in any work. I know it’s tempting, after all the writing and editing and either finding a publisher to work with or putting in the time, effort and even cash, to just sit back and hope that word of mouth will be enough. You may do a couple of blog posts, some boosted Facebook ads, and a friend’s podcast, but in your mind, the reviews and good word of your friends, family and some blog followers will be enough. Eventually, more and more people will discover your story and things will snowball from there and your book is doing a steady business with a few new reviews on your month and you suddenly have a little extra spending money.

In my experience, that doesn’t work. I used that approach for the first four of my books, and three of those still have less than ten reviews on Amazon. Books rarely, if ever, snowball like we dream. These days, you need a detailed plan to get people interested in your book, and that requires work. It requires research, identifying places to send your book for reviews or promotion, talking to people and places (e.g. bookstores) that might be interested in what you’re published, maybe even making new business cards or bookmarks. Anything that can get your book noticed and get reades interested.

In other words, expect the work to keep on going long after your book is released to the public. If you want the public to give a damn about your book, that is.

Second, know your niche. Companies like Coca-Cola, no matter how they market, can afford to market it to thousands of random people. They’re Coca-Cola, they can afford it. You, however, can’t afford it. After all, your book is a particular type of story. So what do you do? You figure what audience you’re aiming to get reading your books, and you try to stick to that. Know what language in an ad or in a description would entice for them. What kind of mood are you trying to convey? Are they more likely to be pulled in by mentions of the grotesque and macabre, or by descriptions of beautiful men and women and scenic locales?

This seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget. More than once I’ve tried to interest people in my stories who are more fans of Parks & Rec or Ten Things I Hate About You than serial killers or the demonic. Sure, occasionally you find people who step out of their comfort zones and will read your story, but they’re a minority.

So, identify your niche and what’s likely to get them interested. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble (and a few business cards) if you do.

And third, talk to your network. I’m not saying ask every Facebook friend to read your book. That doesn’t work, believe me. But most likely you know other authors whom you can ask for tips. They probably know quite a bit about finding your audience and getting them interested, or where to send your book for a possible review, or a hundred other ways to market your story.

And even if you don’t know other authors, there’s likely someone in your circle who knows a bit about business or marketing. After Rose was accepted for publication, I actually called up and met with a friend who’s been involved with a number of successful start-ups. He gave me some solid advice for reaching readers which I tried to keep in mind when I started the marketing machine for Rose.

No matter who you work with though, make sure to take down notes so you can refer back to them later. After all, it may take a long time between when you ask and when the book gets out there. Believe me, I know (fifteen months between acceptance and release).

Write advice down, or there’s a chance what you’ll learn will be forgotten later on.

So now this post is getting a bit long, I think I’ll cut it off here. Suffice to say, before you even start the marketing, there’s a lot of things to keep in mind and to work on. However, they’re part of a successful start to getting your book noticed by more people than your mother and a few friends. And once you have those down, you’ll have the start to your marketing plan.

That’s all for Part 1 of this series. Next time I’ll talk about more concrete tactics. In the meantime, you have until October 16th to submit questions to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com for an AMA in honor of this blog’s eighth anniversary. Ask me (almost) anything about writing, horror, Rose, or myself and if I get enough responses, I’ll be happy to answer them in a special blog post.

And if any of this gets you interested in reading Rose, I’ll include the links below. And if you do read the book, let me know what you think. Positive or negative, I love reviews and it helps me in the long run.

Until next time, Followers of Fear, pleasant nightmares!

Rose: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada

Happy Birthday to the blog.
Happy Birthday to the blog.

Happy Birthday to Rami Ungar the Writer.
Happy Birthday to the blog.

So as you can probably tell by now, today’s a special day. About eight years ago, in a library near my mother’s house, an eighteen-year-old me eager to build an audience before his first book came out created a WordPress blog on a public computer. Since then, a lot has happened. Hell, in the past year alone, a lot has happened. I got my first car; Rose went through several more drafts; I wrote a bunch of new stories, some of which may see the light of day; Rose got a release date; I went on my first vacation where I drove everywhere and had more independence and freedom to explore than ever before; I did an overnight ghost hunt at the Ohio State Reformatory; Rose got published, and started getting reviews; and so much more. It’s been an interesting time.

Oh, and stuff happened at the office that were cool, but at times also stressful. I won’t go into that stuff.

I’m grateful for this blog. So many people have followed this blog. Many have become regular readers of my work, including my published work, and have even become good friends. I’ve learned from other writers and bloggers, and their stories have inspired me as well. Plus, it’s nice to get my thoughts out to such a great audience sometimes. A lot of you have told me over the years that my reviews have been helpful or spot-on and you trust my opinion. And on the occasion where I need to write an essay on storytelling or the rare rant about problems in the world, you all listen respectfully, and even help add to the conversation.

And when I’ve suffered from anxiety, or when I expressed my fears regarding the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the US and abroad, you’ve all been there to comfort me. I can’t thank you enough for that. It’s a great kindness, what you’ve done for me.

So what’s up for me and for this blog in the next year? I honestly don’t know. I think the blog will continue to grow and find people who want to have conversations with me about horror and writing. I can promise that since I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, I’ll be posting about that pretty regularly once we get to November. And I’ll of course let you know what I think about the latest horror releases or if I have any thoughts or good news worth sharing.

As for me, I would like to continue writing and finishing stories. I might even figure out how to finish them in a timely manner without getting distracted or bored. And of course I would like to publish more stories. Hopefully, with Rose out and a couple of short stories coming out soon, that will happen. I want to have more amazing ideas for stories, and I want to see and read amazing stories by other creators. And I’d like to have some amazing experiences in the future, like traveling to a place I’ve never been, or meeting/impressing someone whom I’ve admired for a long time, or doing more ghost hunts.

I don’t know how much of that will happen, but I’ll try to make it happen.

In the meantime, in honor of the eighth anniversary of Rami Ungar the Writer, I thought it would be nice to have a Q&A. From today, August 2nd to Friday, August 16th, you can send any questions you have for me to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com. Depending on how many questions I get, I’ll post them and the answers. Of course, any questions I deem out of bounds won’t be answered, so no asking me what my address is or for dirty stuff. But other stuff–daily life, writing, Rose, horror, etc–are free for the picking.

Anyway, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I look forward to receiving your questions in the near future, and hopefully having enough to post an answer. I’ll write again soon.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Writers deal with a lot of tenses, and I don’t mean the ones associated when we hunch over our computers so we can better bang out stories.* No, I mean tenses like past tense and present tense, the tenses authors use to tell a story. Like first and third person POV, the use of either can vary from story to story (future tense and second person POV are rare, for reasons I’m sure people reading this blog can understand). And although I feel like I know plenty on the subject of using tenses sometimes, occasionally I find I still have something to learn.

Earlier today, I received an email from a magazine I submitted a short story to a couple months back. They rejected it. Which, honestly, I wasn’t broken up about. I figured out there were changes to this particular story while it was in consideration at the publication, so I thought this was for the best. However, they did include some notes on what worked and didn’t work with the story. Among those was one that really struck me.

They said that narrating in past tense, while giving the narration strength, also made it clear that the story took place in the past, and therefore made the story overall weaker, as it kind of gave away the ending. Namely, that the protagonist survives.

Now sometimes in a horror story, that’s fine. Part of the thrill is seeing how things turn out when you already have some idea of the ending. Interview with the Vampire is framed just as its title suggests, a vampire getting interviewed about his life. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is told by the narrator when he’s an adult remembering his childhood traumas (still the scariest novel I’ve ever read). And Salem’s Lot by Stephen King begins with two of the main cast in Mexico after escaping the town, then rewinds to the beginning of the events, and then afterwards shows those two characters burning the town down.

But apparently, with this story, that should not have been the case, as it took away some of the tension. And a horror story without tension is like a hamburger without a bun. It’s missing something essential.

Food metaphors aside, this shows an issue not only with the story, but a lesson I can learn from. With stories, it often seems instinctual, at least to me, about what tense to write in. Perhaps in future, I should weigh options and think about what the pros and cons of writing a story in past versus present tense. Perhaps then I’ll be able to write my stories and make them more effective in scaring the pants out of people.

And that goes especially with the story I got the rejection for today. I feel like this one could be one of my best if I can polish it a bit more and maybe get some more feedback on it. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens when I try changing the tense (and maybe the POV. I feel like that could also be an effective strategy for this story).

At least I know there’s still room for me to improve and become a better writer. I hear perfection gets boring pretty quickly.

Well, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’m off to do battle with some exorcists who believe I’m an ancient entity here to usher in the end of the world (they’re right on one count, at least), and then do some writing. Thankfully with this story I’m working on now, I’m sure I have the right tense and POV for what I’m trying to do. That should make things easier further down the line.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

*In all seriousness though, take care of your backs, fellow writers. That will come back to haunt you if you don’t practice better posture. Believe me, I know. Brought to you by a writer giving a shit.

As much as we make jokes about it, young adult fiction, or YA, is a massive and popular genre. Over ten-thousand YA books were released in 2012, read by both the targeted demographic, teens, and by an increasing number of adults. And among horror, there are writers who specialize in YA horror. But that leaves a question: when is a horror story a YA horror story? Does it have to star a teen or teens? Or is there something more to it?

I ask this because I have a project for National Novel Writing Month in November where nearly the whole cast are teenagers. And while I have nothing against YA or those who write/enjoy it (the amount of anime and manga I consume is primarily aimed at teens, which says something), it’s not a label I think this story should be given.

If you ask most authors and fans (and believe me, I have), YA fiction is usually defined as having teen protagonists and including themes prevalent around the teen years: first love, friendship, identity, and growing up. By that definition, many horror novels could be considered YA, even though they’ve traditionally been aimed at adults. A good example is Carrie by Stephen King. It fits both requirements–teens are prominent in the novel, and themes such as bullying and inclusion, first love, and becoming an adult are all present in the novel.

I even asked in one of my Facebook groups if other authors considered Carrie YA. I got over fifty responses in the course of a week, and it was divided almost evenly down the line. And while the opinion was split, many people admitted they or their children read it as teenagers. I myself read Carrie as a teen. So is it YA fiction then, like the Cirque du Freak books and last year’s bestseller The Sawkill Girls? And are other novels with teens in the lead role to be considered YA?

Well, here’s the thing: the above definition doesn’t include something very important that has to come into consideration. What is that? Marketing. Who is the book being marketed to? Marketing has always played a part in categorizing what is called YA and what isn’t. In fact, the demographic of YA fiction (it’s not a genre, no matter how much we think of it as one), was first defined by librarians in the early half of the 20th century who wanted to know which books were being read by the newly-defined teen demographic and why. It was later picked up by publishers when they realized how they could increase their sales by marketing certain stories to the 12-18 age group.*

So while Carrie has always been popular among teens, it was and has always been marketed at adults, as have all of King’s books. And that’s because King wrote it for adults, not for teens. Meanwhile, books like the Cirque du Freak series were always aimed at the teen demographic, from early writing stages to their eventual publication and marketing.

And that’s what we need to answer my earlier question: if my NaNoWriMo project has a teen cast and incorporates certain themes relevant to teens, is it YA? While I’m sure, if it gets published, some will categorize it as YA horror, I write for an adult audience. Everything from what I include in the story (including possible sex scenes) to just the word choices and the explorations of characters’ thoughts and feelings is through an adult lens.  YA, it is not.

So while a story may include teens prominently in the cast and feature themes and content relevant to teenagers, unless it’s written and later marketed for teens, it can’t necessarily be called YA fiction. Many may still slap the label “YA” on a story given its content, and they have every right to do so, if they feel that story fits their definition of YA fiction. But the intention of the story’s author will be the ultimate decisive requirement, whether in horror or any other genre.

Well, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Thanks for reading this little piece I wrote just to get my thoughts out on this subject before I started writing in November. But tell me, what are you thoughts on the subject? What makes a story, horror or otherwise, YA? Let’s discuss.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

And look, I went an entire post without once mentioning Rose. I consider that an accomplishment–oh dammit!

*Thank you Lindsay Ellis for helping me research this article with a great YouTube video.