Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Think of every childhood monster you thought might be in your closet or under your bed or anywhere else a monster might hide during the day. What did your child-self know about the monster? Probably only that it was big, that it only came out at night and wanted to eat/kill you, and that maybe only the nightlight kept it away. Perhaps there were certain details, like fur or scales or whatever, but that was the extent of it. You didn’t know if the monster had any weaknesses, or where it came from, or why it chose your closet/bed/whatever. The monster just was, it wanted you, and you were only able to keep it away during the day. And it terrified you.

Now perhaps as a young child, you simply weren’t capable of thinking that any of that other stuff might exist for your monster. But if you confronted a creature like that as an adult, a monster where all you knew about it was its location, its active period, and its diet of humans, but nothing else, you’d be freaked. Because a monster is scary, but a monster that you don’t know how to fight is even scarier.

And that can be applied to nearly any antagonist in horror. The less is revealed about it, the scarier it is.

Case in point: vampires. When I first learned about vampires, my knowledge of what they were was limited to that they came out at night and didn’t like the sun, that they drank human blood (which could sometimes create other vampires), and that they could turn into bats. For a few years, that was all I knew about vampires, and they terrified me. If I ever came upon one, the only recourse I had was to try and survive till daylight, or I was dead! But when I found out that vampires were susceptible to stakes, garlic, crosses, and required invitations into private residences, they became a little less scary. Why? Because they were easier to deal with, and things that are easy to deal with are less terrifying than those that aren’t easy to deal with.

Contrast that with many of the works of the manga artist Junji Ito. I’ve had the opportunity to look at a bunch more of his work since reading his masterpiece Uzumaki (read my review of the manga here, as well as my review of the film adaptation here), and his works rarely tell us the hidden history or how to deal with the monsters featured within. He only gives us enough of a look to get the modus operandi of the monster, and then weaves the story around that. One of his works, Tomie, revolves around an immortal girl whose beauty often drives people to murder her/for her, and who keeps coming back to life no matter how much you kill her. We never get a full explanation of how she is able to do that. Is she some sort of genetic aberration? An undead creature brought back by a grudge? Ito doesn’t tell us, and forces the reader to wonder at the possibilities, as well as how much is being kept from us about these mysterious monsters.

Tomie, one of Junji Ito’s signature characters.

And that is terrifying. And Ito is well aware of that. He knows that the less you know about an antagonist, the more possibilities there are, and that makes the horror more effective. And not just Ito: HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Adan Ranie, and other horror authors, including me, are well aware that adding a bit more mystery to our horror stories, and not letting the readers see beneath the proverbial hood of the monster, heightens the fear the reader will feel.

And this is the main reason why I was disappointed with Alien: Covenant this past weekend, as well as the catalyst for this post. Granted, that movie had a number of problems, but one thing that Covenant and its predecessor Prometheus both do is try to give an origin story to the films’ real stars, the Xenomorphs. When it comes to antagonists in horror getting origin stories, it’s on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of the Xenomorphs, I’ve actually come to dislike the idea of giving them an origin story. Part of their power is that, even for man-eating monsters, they’re so divorced from what humans perceive as normal. In fact, the name Xenomorph means “strange form,” and it’s that strangeness that makes them so terrifying and iconic.

So when Prometheus and Covenant try to explain them to us in origin stories, they put them in contexts that we can understand, robbing Xenomorphs of what makes them so amazing. Granted, it’s a question everyone who’s seen the original films has asked at some point: “Where do the Xenomorphs come from?” But it’s not a question that has to be answered. The fact that they had such a shady origin to them was part of their mystique, causing our minds to wander and wonder if maybe, somewhere in that until origin story, there’s a dark truth out there waiting to make us wet our pants. And now, that sense of wonder is gone, because these movies have given us an origin that, rather than being dark and terrifying, is at times confusing and at other times lame.

What I’m trying to get at is that sometimes–not all the time, but a significant portion of the time–you don’t need to reveal everything about your monster. Sometimes, keeping some mystery around adds more to the story, and keeps the source of our terror effective. And in a horror story, keeping things terrifying is one of the most important aspects of horror storytelling.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, if you know me in real life, or you read the things I post on my personal Facebook page, you know that I can be a funny guy. I love a good pun, a funny story, or a well-done prank. Or all three, if it can be done. And I try to insert humor into many facets of my life, much to the enjoyment of some and the exasperation of most others. Where do I get this reverence for humor? I’ll tell you: when a mommy and a daddy really like each other, they–

I’m sorry, but my lawyers tell me I’m not supposed to go into that. Let’s just say it might be a family trait, and leave it at that.

But guess what aspect of my life doesn’t see that many laughs? Surprisingly, not my writing. I actually don’t tell a lot of jokes in my stories. Yeah, imagine that! I don’t put jokes in my horror stories. In fact, my funniest story so far may be Video Rage: it’s got protagonist Zahara making a jab at male lead Rip’s manhood, and at a later point, main cast member Kevlar makes some bondage jokes when speaking to a Native American healer. That’s it.

Okay, now some of you non-horror fans may be reading this and be like, “Isn’t that par for the course? It’s horror.” But that’s the thing: just like how not all horror authors are dark, pessimistic creeps, neither are all horror stories devoid of humor. Stephen King, one of my biggest influences, often finds way to insert humor into his work. Ever read his novel Needful Things? That book is chock-full of comedy! There’s even a plot thread where two housewives buy objects from the antagonist that they believe are connected to Elvis Presley, and they start having hallucinations that the objects let them have a sexual/romantic relationship with Elvis! It’s freaking hilarious! And that’s just one example out of many.

But not just King: a lot of other horror stories make use of humor. One of my favorite Dean Koontz novels makes use of witty observations and funny turns of dialogue to great effect, adding a bit of levity to a very dark thriller. Buffy the Vampire Slayer often has tons of jokes and funny lines. Many slasher films from the 80’s and 90’s have funny moments (hell, Nightmare on Elm Street is often as funny as it is dark). And there are so many more examples of horror stories which sprinkle comedy in to alleviate tension and fear for a few seconds before starting it up again.

So why doesn’t my work have more laughs? Well, there may be a couple of reasons for that. One, in almost Freudian fashion, may stem from a childhood incident. And by childhood, I mean high school, but at this point in my life, the only difference to me is height and hormones. Back before Twilight poisoned the vampire genre, I tried my hands at several vampire stories. One of them was an epic, multidimensional vampire story, which for a while I was getting help with from an English grad at OSU my dad put me in contact with. During one email session, he noted that the story had a lot of humor in it. Every other line was a joke, and he said as a wishful horror writer, it should be more serious. I took that to mean no jokes, and cut the humor from that story in a snap. You may be thinking, “That doesn’t sound like that big a deal!” But to me, it may have been a huge deal. In fact, that memory is what I keep coming to when I think of where humor stopped showing up so much in my writing. You could say it forever scarred me (cue dramatic music!).

Another reason why I might not write that much humor into my stories is because of the type of humor I excel at. You see, my humor tends to be at its best when it’s situational. It’s like I’m living in a sitcom, and every word spoken has the opportunity for a funny line if I know where to look. That’s my mindset. My favorite jokes to pull on people usually reflect that. You’d be surprised how many times people have asked me how I’m doing, and I tell them, “I’m pregnant.” The reactions! They look something like this:

“YOU’RE PREGNANT?!!”

That being said, being a situational humor guy doesn’t always translate well to my fiction. I’m a plotter, which means I plan out the entire story from beginning to end. Keeping such dark stories in mind, from beginning to end, you don’t have much room to think of funny moments to add. You’re more likely thinking of the sad past of the protagonist and the arc they’re going through with this horrifying story.

Or it could just be the old adage, “Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” and all the stuff in the last couple paragraphs is a bunch of bullshit. That’s always possible.

Whatever the reason, it’s not that big a deal. Every author is comfortable with different amounts of humor in their work, and I’m comfortable with minimal amounts in mine (though if I ever write for Doctor Who, that might change). Besides, there’s a good chance if I tried to force more humor into my work, it would suck. In fact, I’m sure it would suck. Last night, I tried writing a horror-comedy short story about a tour of hell. The first paragraph was kind of funny, and then everything after that…not so much. Hence why I’m writing this post.

In any case, I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at. That’s what people like, and that’s what I like, so no problem. I’m sure I can fulfill all my writing dreams by not forcing jokes into my serial killer stories.

Or I could just stay at my job for the rest of my life and never make a thousand bucks off my work, but I don’t like to think like that.

If you write, how much humor do you put in your stories? What do you even think of humor in non-comedy fiction, anyway?

As you guys know by now, I’m a pretty dedicated horror fan. I read a lot of horror novels and watch a lot of horror movies, I decorate my apartment with horror knick-knacks (just the other day, a Jason Voorhees mask and Funko doll arrived for me from Amazon), and of course, I write a ton of horror. Only thing is, lately I’ve been writing a lot of science fiction, and that’s getting a little old.

The hockey mask looks good on us.

I’ve been working on Full Circle, the final book in the Reborn City series I’ve been working on since high school, since November. And as of the completion of the latest chapter this morning (finished it in just a little over an hour. Do you know how rarely that happens?), I’m just under halfway through the first draft. And while I’m still dedicated to finishing the first draft and the series itself, I’m getting a little tired of the constant sci-fi. Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction. Doctor Who is one of my favorite shows, after all, and I get as geeky as anyone else when I think about The Last Jedi coming out this winter.

But check the About page of this blog. I’m a horror writer, and all this sci-fi gets a little wearisome. I want to dip back into the world of ghosts, ghouls, serial killers, and all other manner of monsters that go bump in the night.

Plus, I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to publish more horror short stories, as I’m trying the traditional route again and publishing short stories is a good way to do that. Can’t publish horror short stories if I’m constantly working on sci-fi.

So with that in mind, I’m taking a break from Full Circle to do a little short story writing. I’m going to first write a short story that I had the idea for a couple months back, and then I’m going to edit The Playroom, a short story I wrote back in late 2015 and have not touched since. I think it’s about time I took a look at that one again, and then see if I can get it in a magazine or an anthology. After those are both done, I should be good to get back to work on Full Circle (though if I need to, I’ll write another short story). I have a feeling that starting with the next chapter, it’s going to be hard to stop writing this one anyway, so this is a good time to take a break and slake my thirst for horror.

Until next time, Followers of Fear. And may the terror be with you…always.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m dividing my writing time between working on Full Circle* and working on short stories. And with my short stories, there’s been more of an emphasis lately to write them with the goal of getting them into magazines and/or anthologies. Why? Well, as many of you know, I’ve been trying the traditional publishing route again (though I will self-publish if I feel a story is better off getting published that way), and while getting published in magazines and anthologies isn’t absolutely necessary to getting an agent and/or publisher, they do help make you more appealing to them. Kind of like internships and volunteering on a resume during a job search, if you think about it a certain way.

That being said, getting your short stories in mags and anthologies is pretty difficult these days. Okay, the short story market has always been difficult (Stephen King said in his autobiography On Writing that he had railroad spikes full of rejection letters from mags/publishers/agents/etc. before he found success), but in an age where so much content is available for free, reading has to compete with movies, streaming, and video games, and even self-publishing is cutting into magazine’s readership,** magazines and anthologies are even choosier than they used to be. Especially the ones that pay. They only accept the best work out of all the submissions they receive.

So up against this market, how can an author increase their chances of getting their stories published? Well, keep writing, get other people to take a look at your work for feedback, and don’t take every rejection as the end of the world or as a reflection of your talents, of course. But is there anything beyond that to help one get editors’ attentions? Well, there are a few strategies, and I’d like to list them here:

  1. Research and target. In this strategy, an author should create stories geared towards a particular magazine or group of magazines. For example, if you find a magazine that prefers urban fantasy stories, write an urban fantasy story that the magazine would probably like. Look at the magazine’s website and/or in recent issues to get an even better idea of what sort of stories they prefer (maybe they prefer female protagonists, or they hate romances between humans and supernatural creatures). Once you have a good idea of what they prefer in their stories, write one in that vein and then submit it to them. Chances are that if the story is the kind the magazine specializes in and likes, they’ll publish it.
    I’ve actually used this strategy successfully before. My first published short story, Summers with Grandmother Fumika, is about a fox-spirit that takes part in a Japanese tea ceremony. It was written after I discovered a magazine that specializes in articles and fiction relating to tea! Earned $100 for that story, which to a high schooler who averaged about $28-$35 dollars selling tickets for basketball games, was a pretty big deal. And I recently wrote a short story that I wrote for a specific sub-genre of horror, so there’s a good chance that it could be published in any of the publications that like those stories (though time will tell, of course).
  2. Rely on your networks. We live in an age of social media, and that means we come across all sorts of people we might never have even known existed thirty, twenty, or even just ten years ago. That means if you have a blog, belong to writer’s groups on Facebook, or belong to an online critique circle, you potentially have dozens or hundreds of people who can help you find homes for your stories. For example, I asked one of my writers’ groups on Facebook if they had any suggestions for places I could submit another short story in a particular sub-genre of horror. Within a few hours, I had a couple of responses that I could follow up with.
    Sometimes your friends don’t even have to give you suggestions. Occasionally, they run magazines or anthologies! In the past three years, three short stories were published in anthologies where a friend of mine was one of the editors (you know who you are). Just from this, you can see what an amazing resource friends can be!
  3. Check your publications. There are a buttload of books out there that are meant to help the average writer write and publish their work. Most of them have sections full of listings for magazines, agencies etc, and a lot of them are updated yearly. The best part is, a lot of libraries carry copies of these great tomes with them. I highly recommend The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market from Writer’s Digest. They have great articles and listings (though never enough in the horror department, sadly).
  4. Google. I know, sounds like something that goes without saying, but you’d be surprised how often this doesn’t occur to people. Google is a remarkable resource, and if you’re careful with your search terms and what links you click on, it can open doors. In the past couple months, Google has led me to several magazines and anthologies that specialized in stories I could send them. At the moment, I’ve been rejected by one, but there’s a chance I could be accepted by two more. And if those don’t work out, there are all sorts of places I can still try out. All thanks to Google

Now, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get into a magazine or anthology, even with using these tips. That’s fine, many successful writers have rarely or even never been published in these sort of publications. But if you think it can help your career, or you prefer short to longer stories, these tips might just help you get into that collection of winter-themed romances or into that magazine that likes hopeful stories involving space exploration and interactions with alien species. And that is a joy that every writer relishes.

*Speaking of which, when I’m working on that, the general policy is “get a chapter done, then work on a short story or a blog post.” So if you see a post come out on this blog over the next couple of months, it’s either because something big happened worthy of blogging about, or I just got a chapter of FC done. Like I did right before I started writing this post (only 22 more to go!).

**Dammit self-publishing, why do you have to–wait, what am I saying?

Reborn City and Video Rage, side by side.

I’m writing this post on my phone, something I’ve never done before. I’m only doing it because I’m away from my laptop, and I wanted to get this post done before I lose any enthusiasm for the subject. If you notice a change in blog post quality, you know why.

So as many of you know, I’m currently working on Full Circle, the final book in my science fiction trilogy, the Reborn City series. And for a while now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with an issue in the story.

You see, when I first started writing this series back in high school, I intended for male lead Rip to be the hero, and Zahara Bakur, the female lead, to be the secondary protagonist. You can actually see this in the climax of Reborn City, where the final battle is centered around Rip.

Over time though, the roles reversed: Zahara became the story’s heroine, and Rip the secondary protagonist (this is a prime example of characters taking over the story, by the way). And this left me with a huge problem, because while the roles of the characters changed, I kept in some stuff that I’d come up with during the period where Rip was supposed to be hero.

Specifically, I had this whole reveal about Rip’s past prior to the events of the story that would reveal something hero-worthy in his heritage. And throughout the first two books, I was dropping hints here and there about that reveal so that dedicated readers (I’m sure some of you exist out there somewhere) could go back and say, “Oh, that’s pretty clever.”

It was only after I had actually begun the first draft, with the reveal written in the outline, that I started thinking to myself, “Is this reveal really right for Rip? It’s a little too grand for his role in the series.”

As usually happens with my stories when I know something’s off, my work slowed down. I still managed to get to the scene where the reveal takes place, but it took longer than it might have under different. circumstances. And the whole time, I was wondering what to do witht this plot reveal.

And then last night, after finishing my latest writing session and shutting down for the evening, I got up to get ready for bed, and a solution came to me. Just popped into my head, a way to use those same breadcrumbs I’d included in the first two books, have a reveal about Rip’s past, but not have it seem weird or out of place with the story. And it was obvious! So obvious, in fact, I think I hit my forehead for not seeing it earlier.

And the best part is, it only requires a few changes to the material I’ve already written. I won’t have to change too much to make this work. I can probably even get it done in a few quick minutes tonight if I have a chance.

You know, I like to think of myself as a very experienced writer, but the truth is, even if I do have experience, there are still plenty of things I need to improve upon. One is spotting these sort of issues before they become problematic. The other is seeing the obvious solutions when they do.

Remember when I blogged about being on the autism spectrum back in late January? Well, that post got a lot of positive feedback, both on the blogospphere and on other social media, particularly Facebook. One of the people who responded well to the post was my college disabilities counselor, Enjie Hall, who I became Facebook friends with…I think after graduation? I can’t remember. It’s been a while. Anyway, she reached out to me after that post came out, and asked if I wouldn’t mind doing a short audio and/or video presentation for a much longer presentation she was doing at the university she works at now. The subject was “Living in and Past College with a Disability,” and since I’m doing so well in that subject, she’d thought I’d be a natural at it.

I agreed to the project, and produced a short YouTube video about my experiences. Okay, maybe “short” isn’t the best term: I was asked to do a five-minute video, and somehow I ended up making it thirteen minutes! But hey, can you really put down all that experience and advice into a five-minute video? I’m not so sure.

It only occurred to me after I made, edited, and uploaded the video that I realized I’d just done my first vlog! Yeah, a vlog. Blogs I’m used to. Vlogs are entirely something new to me. I don’t regularly watch them, unless they’re full of unconventional humor (holler at my boy Thomas Sanders!). But me vlog? I never thought that would be something I’d do. I mean, I’ve considered doing a video of me reading from selected sections of my books, but I’ve never actually done it. Not sure why, maybe just because I’ve only used YouTube a couple of times to make and post videos, and they haven’t exactly gotten a lot of views.

But I made a vlog, and it was actually very nice. And it made me feel good that I made it. I put a positive message into the video, and from what Enjie tells me (her presentation was this morning), the portion of the video she used was received very positively by the people at her presentation. Because of all that, I thought I’d share the video with you guys, and see if maybe you find it as uplifting as others found it at the presentation. Enjoy:

How was that? Do you have any thoughts on what I had to say? Let me know in the comments below.

And as for whether I’ll actually try to make more videos in the future…I don”t know. Anything’s possible. At least I know I can and they can turn out half-decent. We’ll see what the future holds.

Well, I got another post scheduled for Saturday, so keep an eye out for it, folks. Until next time, my Followers of Fear.

I recently came across a very fun article from the AV Club, which talked about how any opening in a story could be improved by replacing the second (or in some cases, the third) line with the phrase “And then the murders began.” This idea was formulated by author Marc Laidlaw, which has since become known as Laidlaw’s Rule, and is based on some of the advice of author Elmore Leonard, who said you should start your stories with more action-based openings rather than more quiet stuff like describing the weather or doing some sort of backstory.

As you can imagine, Laidlaw’s Rule can make for a rather fun parlor game. I shared the AV Club article in one of my writing groups on Facebook, and we had a ball with this. Here’s my contribution to the game:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And then the murders began.

Charles Dickens has never been less boring.

And you find that this works with almost any story. Harry Potter, for example:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. And then the murders began.

Just as JK Rowling intended it, I’m sure. How about Alice in Wonderland?

Alice was beginning to get tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do. And then the murders began.

Well, in this LSD-inspired story, anything’s possible. What about Stephen King?

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. And then the murders began.

That’s Stephen King’s IT in a nutshell. New movie out September 8th! Check out the trailer that’ll be coming out some time tomorrow. Let’s see, what else? Oh, I know! How about Wuthering Heights?

1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. And then the murders began.

It’s already improved greatly. And even works on non-fiction works and speeches. For example, the Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And then the murders began.

America in a nutshell, everybody! Our nation is dangerous to your health.

How about my work? Let’s try Reborn City:

Zahara and her family had decided to eat out at a restaurant in North Reborn that served kosher meat, the closest they could get to halāl. And then the murders began.

Well, there are a few murders in this book (spoilers!). What about Video Rage?

The sunbaked concrete and metal in the hundred-plus degree heat, the many cars and trucks reflected light off their chrome bodies like blinding beasts zooming down the highway. And then the murders began.

Ooh, chilling! How about Snake?

Paul Sanonia had been touched by a nightmare, an unbelievable disaster that had manifested in reality where it shouldn’t belong. And then the murders began.

This novel in a nutshell (more spoilers!).

And the best part is, Laidlaw’s Rule works with pretty much any story. Usually it works best with third-person omniscient narrators, though other narrating styles can work. Take a look at To Kill a Mockingbird:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. And then the murders began.

Jeez, Atticus Finch’s job just got a lot tougher. I think he’s going to have to play detective as well as defense lawyer and dad.

Marc Laidlaw, the formulator of the Laidlaw Rule.

Yeah, Laidlaw’s Rule is a lot of fun. But it also could make for a fun writing exercise. How many stories have actually begun with “And then the murders began” as the second sentence? As a lot of these kinds of stories like a bit of mystery before you discover a body or two, I’d say not many. So it would be fun to start a story this way. Just come up with a random set up for the first sentence, do “And then the murders began” for the second, and see where it goes from there. We could call it the Laidlaw Exercise (coming to a high school or university writing class near you!). And if I wasn’t neck-deep in finishing a sci-fi trilogy, I might try this! God knows I could tell more than a few stories starting out this way.

Maybe I will when I have a bit of free time. Who knows? I might end up writing something totally awesome.

But what do you think of the Laidlaw Rule? And do you have any contributions you’d like to add? Author friends, I want to hear what your books sounds like when given the Laidlaw treatment! Let’s discuss in the comments below.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll have another post out later this week, so keep an eye out for it. Until next time!

…And then the murders began.