Learn To Write Horror From A New, Unexpected Text

21 06 2021

When I was starting out, I had problems with writing pastiches and using templates. I did not want to have derivative ideas or predictable structure. I admit now that this attitude slowed my progress by many years. Pastiches, fan fiction, formula, filling off the serial numbers are all valid ways to learn craft and I wish I had done that sooner.

It is difficult to find a book on how to write horror. There are essay collections from horror authors. There are “How To” books where one author describes a method of building character and scene. There are books of horror prompts. But there are no books that give a nuts-and-bolts template for horror, plus collect prompts together in one cover.

Now there is a comprehensive text for writing horror and it isn’t even for writing fiction.

I’m talking about the new “Ravenloft” rulebook from Wizards of the Coast.

The tables for character creation are, as usual, great starting points for prompts. However, there are also tables for motivations, settings, plot points, abilities that come with a curse; all of them have at least one cool idea. Some of the settings have analogs to gothic horror, dark folk tales, mythologies, cosmic terrors, ghost stories, and more. The descriptions rival TVTropes.com.

Best of all, it has an actual outline for an adventure with a haunted house, and that outline can be adapted for other horror templates.

How thorough are these tables? Under “Creating A Domain”, I discovered my central character is undergoing all six trauma types listed in “Endless Torment”.

All that and it brings back my favorite playable undead “Brain In A Jar”. Fans are called Jugheadz





I Didn’t Get Published Until I…

16 06 2021

…was honest.

I started submitting stories in August 1989. It took nine years for me to get a story in published in any market. What made the difference? What did I learn?

I stopped looking for the idea that impressed me and went with the feeling that challenged me.

Before, I wrote and rewrote ideas that had striking images. Ones that come to mind: a group of high school friends ditch the body of a police detective investigating their gun cult; a Luftwaffe pilot is washed ashore in his fighter; Romantic Love manifests as a kaiju to destroy civilization; and oh so many more.

Each idea presented a premise, but I did not realize that a premise is not a story. It’s the kernel of a story, sure, but the problem, I had was that I was in love with the inspiring image. Many times, the inspiration of a story does not make it to the final draft. A lot of times, the inspiring image stalls the plot.

The high school students had ditched the policeman on the way to shoot up their school. I had intended to make this scene the Rubicon for these friends, and also the climax of the story. But all they did “on screen” was ditch a body and encounter the ghost of their suicidal friend. I think we all see the story potential is in having the friends disagree about what they had done, up to and including the actual mass shooting. That would require character interaction which would have eclipsed the striking image I had loved.

The Luftwaffe story was the final image of the story. I thought out, well, what would have led to this? I imagined a pilot in 1941 about to crash in the Channel. Suddenly, he finds himself flying around in a fairyland. He panics and flies away with the fairies in chase. He crests through a shimmering light and ends up on the beach, decaying in his cockpit. As George Scithers put it, “both he and the story fall apart.” I did not give the pilot any agency, obviously. I knew something needed to happen in that fairyland, but all the ideas I had would have brought the short story to novella length and probably eclipsed the neat final image.

The Love Kaiju story was a mess. I wanted to write something that really stuck it to the idea of Romance, because hey I was bitter. I wanted to bring home that Romance Destroyed Us and have it happen in our world to bring home that Deep People’s Poet Point I wanted to make. So the Kaiju was in an alternate Earth and the protagonist escapes to our world, only to find the Kaiju was Society. Great Monstrous Image of a rose red kaiju with an immense heart shaped skull, smashing all in its path. But the protagonist had nothing to do but survive and activate whatever to get to our universe.

I had lots of ideas.

What I needed to do, and learned to do, was place a “me” in a real situation and let the situation spool out, and for “me” to react to. So my first story was “me” looking for an introverted friend last seen in a dance club. The club was home to a new craze that included Spooky Health Drinks. I described the puzzlement of finding the friend dancing with abandon. The concern that all in the club looked emaciated and diseased. The alarm that all of the dancers seemed to be one pulsing organism. The terror of discovering that yes, they were one pulsing organism.

I allowed my character to live their lives and I went along to document their feelings. The characters cared about each other. They experienced a range of emotions. The “pulsing organism” image that had inspired the story was still there, but I allowed the story to grow past it.

This became my first publication.

My point is that inspiration is just that: inspiration. The inspiration should not be the end-all of whatever story your characters reveal. “Reveal” is the important word, because it is active. They should work to get to the mind-blowing image, but also work to reveal something about their world and about themselves.





Good Movies Made By People At Home

8 05 2021

These movies have different comedy to horror ratios. If you can handle “X-Files” episodes, you’ll like these movies.

Murder Death Koreatown: This movie leans hard into its Found Footage premise in that there are no production credits at the end, nor any credits in its IMDB page. What looks like a True Crime story turns to Weird Horror.

The protagonist has been laid off from his job and is producing little video projects on his phone instead of looking for work. The townhouse he shares with his sullen girlfriend has an access street behind. One night there are gunshots. A neighbor shot her husband and instead of running for help, he staggers to die near a set of garages. Our protagonist is puzzled and records his investigation. The investigation does a neat trick in riding the edge between the protag’s dissolution and a realization of a Weird Horror. The filmmaker used elements of his neighborhood: bodegas, graffiti, anonymous storefront businesses, street corner preachers, to hint at otherworldly connections.

On Amazon Prime

Leaving DC: Why don’t White people leave their haunted house? “Leaving DC” comes up with an off-beat, elegant answer.

The protagonist is a tech engineer moving from Washington DC to a rather nice house in the West Virginia mountains. Ghostly stuff happens, etc. The man’s money is tied up in the house, but that reason to stay always came up short in other movies. Why doesn’t he leave? *Because he is chronically compulsive*. We first meet him in DC with his OCD Therapy group. We watch him move into his spotless house devoid of personal affects. We watch him crater his relations with a visitor, who then leaves because his house creeps her out. Does he leave? No, he will not be bullied. He will understand what is happening by buying cameras and microphones and scrutinizing the late night flute playing, the apparitions, and the Mysterious Signs In The Woods. Then he will formulate a detailed action plan. The end is inevitable, but like I said, elegant.

On Amazon Prime.

Creep: Movies with tiny casts work if the cast is compelling. This movie’s co-writer and lead Mark Duplass radiates charm.

When his character hires a videographer to come to his remote house and record sentimental messages, you pay attention. Mark’s character reveals traumas, only to admit he lied. He takes menacing objects and gives them absurd histories. The videographer is pulled between getting paid, politeness, and fleeing Mark’s increasing menace.

On Netflix along with its sequel Creep 2.

I guess I like these stories because they are efficient. As writers we are taught to write characters who are flawed with a recent tragedy highlighting those flaws. (Note that Duplass subverts this expectation by implying then denying any tragic backstory, which frustrates and adds to the unease). Writers are told to keep the motivations simple and relatable. Last, stories are to be economic in word and action.

A common criticism in the Amazon comments is that these movies lack strong endings. That makes sense, because none of the characters are given resources for a satisfying character transformation. “Murder Death Koreatown” and “Leaving DC” remains committed to their goals to their unfortunate endings. The time constraints keep the writer from introducing a secondary plot to give impetus to transformation. Changing their minds and fleeing would also bump up their budgets. That said, the videographer in “Creep” does flee and his arc is the more satisfying for it.

Or maybe I’m wrong. The movie “The VVitch” was shot with a cabin, a farm, and a bonfire. The parents each had a heartbreaking transformation. Certainly that movie was great and had few resources, but then it comes back around to character portrayals.

Strong character voice and motive. I’d been fixated on compelling images, but I need to work on characters more.

PS: Happy Birthday, Me!





Hey I’ve Done Artsy Things! Here’s Some Advice…

2 03 2021
I had Chili with Pancakes. This has placed me in an expansive mood. It could have been A Mistake.

As stated in my bio, I’ve been published professionally and have had a novel be received to some critical acclaim. I’ve produced two movies available on Netflix (DVD only) with a clip appearing on “Americas Funniest Home Videos”. Performed sketch and improv comedy on stage. Lived a life and had some struggles. The struggles include clinical depression and anxiety, which I think I’ll write about more as I become comfortable with sharing.

So! Advice about Art! Heed me!

Go Where No One Else Goes. Try music no one else listens to. Read things no one else is reading. Try an unusual movie. It’s not just being into something “before it was cool”. It means finding ideas, plotting, descriptions, moods, to expand your expression. Conversely, if you’ve seen it before, set it aside or find a personal analog. “Why play in someone else’s sandbox?” says Darryl Schweitzer. You could write a werewolf story, or you can sift and find what scares you about werewolves, then come up with your own creation. Use what is unique to you in your work. I watched way too much TV as a child then became a video producer. Readers say that I sequence action, block characters within space, and do dialogue really well. I owe that to my education outside of writing. What do you do well?

You Are Not The Idea. You are not learning to write to turn this one idea into a story. This idea may be a bad idea. You are learning to write storiesssss. You are on a journey of continual frustration which will never end.

The Best Symbolism Is Accidental. “Go deep for the big fish” says David Lynch. I take that to mean that you can tap into deeper emotion if you work with something personal, even idiosyncratic. Every story an editor ever liked was based on my personal experience. When I tried inventing a story from whole-cloth, the plot had no tension. When I tried forcing a moral onto a story, the characters would be flat. Just write a story.

Embarrass Your Mother. I don’t know who first said “write something that would embarrass your mother” but yes, allow yourself to express something unorthodox. Three things will happen: you will discover many others already expressing that same thing; you will clarify a belief you held; or you will make an ass of yourself. You will discover your vulnerabilities and prejudices and you will survive the embarrassment. Which brings me to…

Love Your Accidents. An accident can take you in unexplored directions. If a person looks at our writing and says “I love how you did this obscure thing”, do not say “what the hell are you talking about?”. Your proper response is “yes, I particularly love that obscure thing and you are ingeniously perceptive for having noticed.” This obscure thing has a whole universe of potential behind it. Explore its possibilities. It is a surprise to you, so it will be a surprise to your audience if you maybe explored the accident further.

Keep Your Editors Close, But Keep Your Beta Readers Closer. We write for ourselves, yes, because otherwise we write mush. But when we send the stories out, choose your publications well. Cultivate a relationship with your favorite publishers. Send to them as frequently as possible. Greet the editors at conventions, remind them that you met, tell them what you liked about their recent editions. Be sincere! Editors deal with liars every day and can sense meaningless flattery. As for beta readers…they are your greatest asset and your greatest vulnerability. I have been working with my writers group for almost 30 years. They may know more about me than my family or my counselor. They have allowed me to be base, dumb, disgusting, hostile, and have coached me into writing stories people enjoy. Be gracious to beta readers! Help them as they help you! Forgetting to mention them in an Acknowledgments may turn into a flame war on File 770.com.

Remember: we are always talking to the phantoms of our expectations.





Notes from today’s Noble Fusion Writers Group Meeting

6 12 2020

Notes from today’s Noble Fusion Writers Group meeting:

1) The mansion will become actual ruins to reflect scavenging by fifty years of fortune hunters.

2) The venomous Monarch butterflies will be changed to venomous locusts (good symbolism) or venomous grasshoppers (actually toxic).

3) Olivia will awaken to the devastated mansion when she senses Alecsi has disappeared, when she also discovers her keepsakes have been stolen.4) Olivia’s mummification plays very well, especially her eyes shrunken like raisins.

4) It is possible that mook/renfield Eric will now be Erica, who has a uterine tumor, which Olivia will possess and use to manipulate Erica.

5) Despite her 5’9″ frame in life, Olivia will fit into the small Victorian terrarium.

6) Allusions to formerly extinct animal species being rediscovered must be prominent in the story.

7) The difference between “thrall” and “student” must be prominent theme; “Better the God you don’t know than the Devil you do.”

8) What is Olivia’s long term goal? May include driving away with silk scarf flowing. An Audi?





Writers: Use Your Quirks and There Are Bad Ideas

24 11 2020

Been sick last year and only recently got to reading stuff again. Been noticing writers giving writing advice, and those writers having only like a few short story credits.

This is puzzling because I wouldn’t have had the temerity. Then I realized, hey, I’ve got lots of credits now and a novel that made the 2014 long list for Best Novel in the Stoker Awards.

So okay, maybe I’ve got something to say now. I’ll start with this:

Avoid what everyone else is doing. Lovecraft is now what “Cherry-Flavor” was in the ’90s: it will either be an overpowering flavor punch or not taste anything like the original cherry.

Pastiche? Create your own sandbox. (Granted, this attitude kept me from modeling on older stories, thus learning how to write using that long-accepted method). So, in thinking more about it, use pastiches as templates for your own quirks.

What is a “quirk”?

A quirk is something that affects you, even on an oddly personal level. What creeps you? What scares you? Make the list long. Let me try one:

Airports devoid of people. Only seeing the top of someone’s head behind a shop counter. Crabs, and the evidence that evolution prefers crab physiology. Rot within something otherwise healthy. Prostate or colon disease. Dementia. Not having control of yourself and cruelly rejecting a loved one. Watching a series of tragedies in someone’s life with them not knowing they are all related. Eye injuries. Home invasions (I won’t even watch home invasion movies), THIS FRIGGIN BITCH….

Look at your lists and see if anything is uncommon or even unique. Use your pastiche to add your own dismaying quirk.

Know that you have a story idea and not just a neat visual or a Revelation of Horror. A story idea will have a transformation. A story idea will have a conflict. A story idea will have someone to care about.

Most neat visuals and RoHs are the germ of a story idea. Ask “How did this happen?” Ask “What happens next?” Play with that germ. Add elements of other ideas. Add this idea to other ideas.

Push an idea beyond reasonable boundaries. Where does it become new? Where does it become horrific? When does it become ridiculous?

What would make it tragic? Of all the people you know personally, who would be the worst person to deal with this story idea?

Does the idea now give you a thrill? Write it. Someone will like it.

Can’t make the idea work? You may not be able to write the idea at this time. Or it could be a bad idea.

Something people told me: there is no such thing as a bad idea. YES THERE IS. I’ve had them. Cupid’s cousin and the Quiver of Dysfunctional Relationships is a great one-liner. I tried for years to make it work. It does not. Will it work in another story with other ideas? Been messing with it for almost thirty years, so I don’t think so. You want the idea? Take it, it’s yours.

Something people told me but I did not believe: You are in a lifelong learning process. Even if no one likes this story, it is written and out of your head so new stories can grow. Writing is like a hobby in that it is a lifelong process. Are you better than you were two years ago? Do others appreciate your work more than when you started? Those are the guideposts to use to measure your progress.

I passed my first million words after twenty years of writing, around in 2010. I have to admit that even though I got stuff published before 2010, I didn’t write anything interesting until a few years ago.





If I want to listen to a John Lennon album, I’ll drop it out a window: Overdue Concerns I’ve Been Too Polite To Mention

8 10 2020

Hello all,

I’ve been a bit bottled up. Thoughts clog up my creative pipes and some of them are controversial. With your indulgence, I’m making a stand and letting you know a little more about me with these somewhat overdue thoughts.

This may be best read in the voice of Lewis Black:

The chick from The Bugaloos was cuter than Susan Day, hands down.

People say the Krofft Brothers were on LSD, but have you watched any Irwin Allen shows? The man mainlined borscht and laudanum.

The company name “WHAMM-O” should have warned us re the safety of their toys.

If I want to listen to a John Lennon album, I’ll drop it out a window. If I want to listen to an Oasis album, I’ll drop a John Lennon album out the window.

Its not that I don’t like The Beatles. It’s that everyone is expected to love The Beatles.

How did I get into writing horror and humor? There was a penguin atop my telly.

Horror is Fantasy fiction for atheists and agnostics. Not my original thought here, but I like it.

Some Christian Apologists would be atheists if they could meet atheists who weren’t snotty.

Lincoln was wrong: you don’t need to fool all of the people all of the time. Just the right people at the right time. Never mind that about seven percent of the people believe in Q and The Storm.

Dungeon and Dragons, Sports, Politics, Fandoms, Religion all keep the same parts of the brain occupied. Trivia, statistics, ritual, dogma.

The Right is afraid of all the immigrants, but they don’t seem to consider those who come from Communist states. There are first generation immigrants equating Single Pay with marching to the gulags.

Yes, Ellen DeGeneris is abusive. Have you seen “Ellen’s Show Of Shows”? People have to win the chance to have water dumped on them. Or the bucket may contain loose bills which they have to pick from the wet floor. They Win The Chance To Do This.

The US network CBS went from “Shows Your Grandpa Watches” to “Shows Your Grandpa Watches While Cradling His Sig-Sauer”.

“SNL” is the show written by trust fund babies and only as good as the experienced artist hosting that week. All for an audience of Lorne Michaels. Michael Che is an exception and even he’s in over his head.

Fight me, if I’m in the mood.





8 Thrilling Horror Stories You Can Read Online Right Now

28 05 2020

via 8 Thrilling Horror Stories You Can Read Online Right Now





Make Your Characters Flawsome — A Writer’s Path

16 11 2018

by S.E. White As in: flawed, yet awesome. No one wants to read boring perfection. I’ll list my top two favorite female literary characters, straight off the top of my head, to start making my point:

via Make Your Characters Flawsome — A Writer’s Path





How Drew Carey Learned Comedy Writing from a Book (Back When He Waited Tables in Ohio) — Screenwriting from Iowa

29 10 2018

When comedian, actor, and game show host Drew Carey was starting out he tried doing standup “as a goof” while in college and it didn’t go well. After a few failed attempts, he was glad he gave it a shot and get it out of his system. After he dropped out of college, he joined […]

via How Drew Carey Learned Comedy Writing from a Book (Back When He Waited Tables in Ohio) — Screenwriting from Iowa








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