Neat Writing Tricks From “The Ruins” (If you are from Ireland and usually read this, you are my sole reader from Ireland. Thanks for reading!)

13 01 2022

While I had COVID, I took a gift card I had won at a work-place raffle and I ordered some books. The first to arrive (used from ThriftBooks) was “The Ruins” by Scott Smith. A movie had been made and is available for streaming. I had watched the movie and was really impressed. Over the years, many writers I respect had claimed that the novel itself was a compelling page-turner.

They weren’t kidding! It’s 500 pages and I tore through it in 24 hours. I hadn’t read a novel so eagerly since I was a kid. Despite knowing how the novel was going to end. Despite the characters being obvious redshirt/victims and the monster being a Pottsylvania Creeper that can do impressions.

SPOILERS

The plot: six generic white college age tourists in Mexico go off the beaten track, ignore multiple harbingers, and find themselves forced to stay in Mayan ruins covered with vines that are predatory, carnivorous, and intelligent. The natives know the vines are dangerous and will not let the kids leave the ruins, lest a tendril hitch a ride on them. Lacking resources or means to call for help, the six die rather quickly. You’d think that this plot couldn’t last longer than a Tales From The Crypt episode. But Smith makes it a compelling read over 500 pages.

How did Smith do this? I studied the book as I read and have some answers. Let’s look at style and structure first.

The POV shifts in third-person limited between the six characters. The language is contemporary with little artistic flourish. There are no chapter breaks. There is very little to break the narrative flow. I skimmed the prose easily. Jumping POVs kept scenes from being too long and gave moments where characters could assess a situation from different perspectives.

The plot is a basic Four Beat Structure. The McGuffin for going to The Ruins was to find a missing brother. That drew the plot up to Beat One about 20% in. The brother’s body is found literally when a character notices the vines seems crowding him. The plot questions shifts from “Where Is?” to “How?”. Within that 20%, all the plot elements have been established: a phone ringing in a deep pit, birdcalls from within the vines, and the vines’ peculiar growth.

The other three beats are Reveals Of Horror and the characters’ reactions. Beat Two is discovering the vines are acidic and grow quickly to eat any meat. Beat Three reveals the starving characters discovering the bird calls are actually coming from the vines’ blossoms, and that the vines are as fast as snakes. In Beat Four, the ringing phone is also a mimicry to lure them into the pit to be digested. Characters die on the way, of course, and after each horrid realization there is a POV change where the next character summarizes anew the whole dire situation.

Another group of tourists is supposed to come looking for the doomed, but even that isn’t taken seriously. That group shows up at the end much too late, only to climb The Ruins to presumably seal their own fate.

I noted the McGuffin handoff when the missing brother is found dead. That handoff is made into a “What Is Happening” through the world-building of The Ruins themselves. The brother is found amid the wreckage of an archeological dig. No other bodies are found. There are notebooks, though, and passports and other documents. I was waiting for them to try to piece together the clues. But Smith quite rightly made the paperwork a tease to keep my attention and concentrated on the character interaction. It was the same when the archeologists remains were found, when the natives (rendered in ways sympathetic and distinct) organized, and in examining The Ruins themselves. Just enough world-building to create believability, then moving on with the plot.

The most important aspect of the novel comes with establishing the six redshirt/victims themselves. We learn about them through description and behavior. There is almost no dialogue for the first forty pages. This perspective one step removed shows that this is “an ensemble” so to speak and there is no main character. What is vital is that it sets us up as watchers and not sympathizers. We are set up to watch flawed WASP college kids get drunk, make a lot of assumptions, and Get What’s Coming To Drunk Assuming WASP College Kids.

One could argue that what kills them is White Privilege and this is addressed in the book. It’s touched on only briefly, because deep sociological reflection would create sympathy and ruin plot momentum.

The first forty pages also set tone really well. From the first sentence, the characters spend their time with churning hangovers, sizzling sunburns, bleary from lack of sleep, resentful of another’s actions, menaced by snarling dogs, unsettled by disease and poverty. I’m going to pay more attention to using environment to create tone.

The horror I felt for their fate came through the sensory descriptions. Tendrils squirmed under skin. Acidic sap burned hands. Hopes dropped into chilled horror. Amputations cracked and snapped. I found myself thinking “these guys were dopes, but day-um they didn’t deserve all this.”

This is a good book. The movie has a better ending, in that it follows a Main Character out of the six who becomes the sensory touchstone for the viewer.





2022: In Which I Get My Career Up And Going Again (Hello to My Reader In India)

2 01 2022

Recently, one of my oldest friends looked at my bibliography.

“You have a lot of publishing credits! Good ones!”

They ended in 2014 and he knew why: my stab at self-publishing drove my self-defeating habits in way, way deep.

The last two years especially have been tough. I made huge progress with my counsellor and realized in full: I had grown up and grown old wanting to impress everyone, and I had been willing to destroy myself in the process.

People expect this from writers and comedians. Oddly enough, horror creators don’t seem to self-destruct. I can’t think of a horror creator who destroyed themselves aside from the old Universal actors and directors, and well, we can blame those bodies on Hollywood. Horror creators tend to live long lives.

That said, two years ago I had to rediscover what I liked. I had spent so many years pushing myself that I didn’t know how to just “like”.

I listened to music that made me angry. I watched movies to absorb ideas. I couldn’t read anymore because my ego said I should be reading The Great Books series while my gut wanted stuff like Liartown.

Have you read any Sean Tejaratchi? It is so funny!

Here is my usual Spotify playlist. Find a positive emotion. Find any emotion.

Now I am listening to 2nd Wave Ska and reminding myself that yeah, this is good. I like this.

Now, how did I get like this? Why did I stay like this for so long? My first impulse is to explain my need to share as a way to maybe help you. Maybe you do stuff like this too. Then I realize, what the hell, this is my page and I’m not embarrassed by this anymore.

Getting something out of your head makes room for new things.

My Dad was a terribly insecure man. He could not relax without alcohol. Mom grew up in a tense, phobic family. She felt overwhelmed by life. They found themselves in each other. Then they avoided their families by moving away, and taking a career where they might relocate hundreds of miles at any given time. It was an alcoholic family with all the markers, even if no one punched or screamed or missed a day of work.

It took thirty years of counseling to realize I had a lot of really bad personal habits. I could not make mistakes. I was irritable. I trusted no one. I took no risks. Catastrophe loomed everywhere. Most of all I forgave no one except my family. I marked my life not with joys, but with a trail of jaw-clenching regrets. I came to suspect all of this was interrelated, that there was a grand unification theory of all this.

I was the entire Adult Child of Alcoholics checklist. Every memory I had and I mean my earliest baby memory could be filtered through it. Even the things I liked about myself — my joking, my writing, drawing, creating — were in response to parents who just weren’t emotionally available.

Who am I? What should I want? I am almost sixty and I’m just learning to just say unexamined thoughts.

So why not jump start my career?

Writing fiction has helped me process all of this. Example: allowing myself to express my fixation with my high school bully (after thirty years) gave me a sellable story, with the additional benefit of seeing the true source of my fixation, and purge that fixation.

I really like the idea of Chaos Magick. If undirected writing could give me such benefit, what would methodical art provide?

So writing would help me. I do enjoy it. At this moment, it is one of about a dozen things I can say confidently that I enjoy.

Here’s to my career. I’m working on a sequel and I am enjoying that. I’d like to get back to short fiction, but time and energy are tricky. I just ordered a bunch of books (before, all books had to be writing related) to see if I like them.

Part of this includes reaching out and saying Hi! In this case, through the years, my WordPress stats have told me that my most reliable reader is some soul in India. I have no idea who you are, but if you get a moment’s kick out of what I share, okay. Thanks for reading for so long!

I’m going to post more regularly, if anything to vent like a lot of other bloggers do. I’ve some stuff to share later this week.





Horror Is What I Am Working On

12 12 2021

Its a sequel!

I think I’ve mentioned my novel “The Flesh Sutra” is currently out of print. I have been advised by Tom Monteleone that revising at least 10% of its content will help me find a new publisher.

“I have a 50 thousand word idea to add to it,” I replied.

He blanched. “You don’t need to do that.”

So guess what I’m doing?

I’m about halfway through the first draft and I’m on the right track. I tried writing a sequel before with the wrong mindset. Have you written with a bunch of disjointed images in mind and tried to make a plot? Don’t do that.

This time I went into writing asking “what would Olivia do if left alone for fifty years as a living mummy?” Then came “why” and “how” and “what then” and “who with” and there came a nice exciting plot. It has body horror, cosmic horror, possession, transcendence, occult knowledge, and more set in the here-and-now. I am enjoying this greatly. My writing groups are enjoying this greatly. No one knows what is coming next.

At present, I am writing the first draft. Next comes revision. Then comes pitching to small publishers. I am searching up horror conventions in my area with an eye toward networking. I am following the podcasts and Twitter of noteworthy small publishers.

I am greatly concerned I will die an untimely death. I am even more concerned that at my age, death isn’t actually untimely.

If you are interested in a pdf of my first novel, which was on the long ballot for the 2014 Stoker Awards, leave a comment and we’ll figure out how to get it to you.





Horror Podcast and How It Relates To Humor

12 12 2021

Try this podcast called “Wrong Station”. I’ve listened to a couple of episodes so far and the writing and directing are very good.

Here is Episode 88 “The Sea Provides”.

The podcast is written by three guys involved with the satirical site “The Beaverton”, which is also very good.

Are horror and humor closely related? Comedians and comic actors seem tor take on dark acting roles, at least in the US. Robin Williams played the disturbed villain in a few movies. Jordan Peele is creating horror satire. Michael McKean played evil characters in “Law and Order” and “ST:Voyager”. Scads more examples abound. Speaking for myself, I used jokes to avoid difficult emotions. Once I recognized that I started writing horror and that let me frame those emotions in a fictional context. I haven’t really turned back to humor even though I joke quite a lot in real life.

That reframing encourages me to look at the world through a “frame”. When I examine current events through that frame, I see foible and anguish everywhere. A timeless perspective; “A Modest Proposal” and so on. Humor and horror can be equally numbing. They can be equally useful tools for imagination.





I Didn’t Get Published Until…

5 07 2021

…I learned how to love my characters.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but seeing as you seem to like writing advice the most, then “loving your characters” strikes me as the most important advice I can give.

We all know that all characters should have arcs, even the antagonist, even a villain, even incidental side characters, and I’d argue even the setting deserves to show development.

About eight years into writing, I’d made some vague discoveries. Do not write just to express disdain for something. All characters need internal lives, that is, lives and interests implied outside the story. Give the characters values that live beyond the story.

These discoveries became a checklist of disconnected needs to tick off when I finished a first draft. You probably see the problem already, in that having any “checklist” kills spontaneity and serendipity; I’d latch onto the checklist instead of latching onto the darlings I mentioned in my last post.

How do you create living characters who surprise you? How do you accomplish a plot when a character “behaves” but does not “live”?

I wish I could remember where I first read this advice that gave me a leg up. Whatever, what it suggested was casting people I knew as characters in the story.

This helped my writing in a few ways. Casting friends made the writing more pleasant in that it wasn’t work, it was reminiscing about the funny, pleasant, aggravating things done by people I knew. It helped by using the traits of those people to create surprises in the dialogue and behavior. It got me more out of “what I wanted to accomplish” and more into “what was possible”.

As the draft progressed, sure, the plot would tailor my cast. I’d cast my friend Michael as a wizard, obviously he is not, but he would need the faculties associated with wizards. So I gave moments of rumination and calculation that wasn’t quite part of his personality, but still worked with his bookishness. Martin was a salesman, and I cast him as a salesman, but Martin was also widely read and spoke four languages. Martin’s personality allowed me to expand the salesman role and have scenes in ethnic neighborhoods where I wouldn’t have thought to go.

By there end of the first draft, well, the cast still resembled the people, but less so, and they still struck me as refreshing. If they struck me as refreshing, then chances were good they would strike editors as refreshing.

Of course in later drafts, if I felt the resemblance was still noticeable, I will discuss my casting with the original people. Always, my friends are flattered and give permission. Even the guy who insisted I have him torn apart by vampires. There are two risks, though.

There is the eternal risk of the “Mary Sue”. My temperament makes me hunt out and squash favoritism. Being a horror author, everyone suffers in my stories, at least a little. Part of avoiding “Mary Sue” is not idealizing the character. Remind yourself “how would my friend respond to being confronted by a vampire? I mean, re-e-eally?”

The other risk is casting people who you do not like in the story. I once set my coworkers in a toxic work environment (a faceless corporation that collected Evil, so yeah, real toxic). I liked only a few of my coworkers, but I did pity almost all of them, and that helped me keep their humanity. That story came out a little flat, I think. It certainly was draining to write.

If the plot needs characters not suited to your friends, only then do I suggest using characters from other sources. Once I needed a pair of men who fell together as friends; I used the singers Nick Cave and Tom Waits. Each man has distinctive physicality and helped bring my plot along.

Be careful that you do not cast within tropes. You could cast the maniacal boss with Captain Ahab, but haven’t we seen Captain Ahab bosses before? You could cast against type and cast the boss with Bob Newhart, but make allowances that Boss Bob is going to take your dialogue and maybe your plot in unexpected directions.

Frankly, Boss Maniac Bob is kind of like Lundberg from “Office Space” (“uh yeah…gonna chase him around Perdition’s flames this weekend. Need your help there. Yeah.”)

Keep all options open. Love your characters and give them permission to surprise you. This may be the best writing advice I have at this moment.





Borderlands Bootcamp and My Vacation Encounter With Kink

15 04 2021

I am slowly bringing my hopes back up regarding writing, and my first step on this new path is to go on a writers retreat. Throughout the years, I had been told I should attend Odyssey Writers Workshop, One Of The Clarion Workshops, or Taos Toolbox. The cost is prohibitive, sure ($4K, $6K, and who knows respectively), but the reason I did not go to these events is my Depression/Anxiety got in the way. These events are obvious advantages for networking and learning on a professional level.

The Borderlands Bootcamp is run by horror publisher Borderlands Books, managed by longtime horror author Tom Monteleone. He wrote a column for Cemetery Dance magazine a while back and I’ve seen anthologies he edited. The Bootcamp always had pretty big genre names teaching this weekend long session. The session is a series of lectures with breakout sessions where a pro critiques your submission along with others in your breakout group.

The price was right and my ego had been stripped of pretense this past year, so now was the time.

I’m critiquing my fellow breakout group member submissions. Reading strangers’ work is frustrating and also humbling, in that the problems with the work are obvious but also I remember having similar problems when I first started writing. The more experienced writers had problems I could identify with, say a stylish structure that works in theory, but lacks reason using the innovation.

Here are some of the critiques I noted (serial numbers filed off and edited to remove dissembling) which may prove useful to you:

  • The writer is creating a dream. Reminding the reader it is a dream jolts the reader from the dream. Reading attributions like “said” or “asked” jolts the reader. Attach dialogue to physicality for attribution.
  • Invent everything. Create your whole world and immerse us in it. Do not use Real Life names mixed in with invented names. Do not use gods from Real Life religions who are still being worshipped.
  • If you are using flashbacks, give the flashbacks a purpose. Shorten those scenes the reader already has seen, introduce new information in each flashback. Unify the flashback with the plot by giving the flashback a reason to have been prompted (seeing a memento, hearing someone telling a lie, etc.).
  • The story begins when someone does something to being the plot. Remove all world building or reminiscence or prologue.
  • All characters must want something. They must work toward that something. It is best to have the character state what they want. I heard that NK Jemison said there is no shame in making that statement blunt and obvious.
  • A Point Of View is sensation and emotion. What does it feel like to wear the beautiful dress? How does your character feel when wearing it?
  • Every event in a story must have an emotional reaction. Either characters react to it or the POV narrator selects the words to create tone.

I’ll you know how things go at this Bootcamp.

Here’s a little story from my only overseas vacation, Ireland in the mid-’90s. Ireland is a lovely country but overall it is Kentucky with a sexier accent. It is where I had an accidental encounter with someone’s kink.

I was taking a mid-afternoon tour of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. I followed the tour guide through the brewery, through the tunnels used to port the barrels to the trucks. In the museum, the sundry middle-aged crowd and I looked at the clay pipes used to carry the beer, and the nails driven into the pipes so that porters could drink from the pipes when they passed under. Posters of the Guinness toucan saying “My Goodness! My Guinness!” and such. We eagerly went to the gift shop, as getting Guinness gear was Goal Number One for any Irish vacation.

Once we were looking through the shirts and hats and such, a young woman hissed.

“Why are we here? I’m bored!”

The crowd seemed to part to reveal a couple. A tall man looked down at a young woman saying “Look at this stuff. This stuff is tacky!”

She was maybe five foot two and in her early twenties. Long black hair and dark eyes. She wore a teal velvet catsuit that would have been gauche on a casino floor. My brain seized up when I looked at her attire. How had I not noticed her? I mean she was hawt and fit and just this side of trashy. She stood out even in a crowd of American tourists.

“Who has even heard of this place?”

Silence fell on the crowd.

The guy was Long Island, New York personified. Maybe six foot tall wearing khakis, expensive sneakers, a Ralph Lauren sweater, all in earth tones, with wire rim glasses and a well-groomed receding hairline. He would have fit in at a dentist convention.

He looked at her with a blank helplessness.

I exchanged looks with a black guy wearing a Jameson’s sweatshirt. No one ever hearing about the Guinness brewery? She had to be kidding, right?

She continued berating him. He just looked down at her and took it. Everyone fidgeted in anticipation or confused disgust. I mean, what the hell dude?

She made it clear that she was not enjoying this vacation. That he needed to do something interesting this afternoon.

“She must be good in bed,” I muttered. The black guy raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The group moved on onto the street and went on with their lives.

I don’t remember when I realized this, but now I recognize that the woman was a domme. This guy had paid his domme to come on his vacation so he could be kink-shamed in public.

Looking back, I am annoyed that this dweeb pulled an unsuspecting tour group into his humiliation fantasy. Not cool at all. Let this learn ye! Keep your kinks thoroughly consensual.





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.





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.





NEW VIDEO: The Land Of Mystery

12 03 2020





MY OUIJA BOARD SPEAKS

27 02 2020

Could you give it a thumbs up? It would boost my confidence.

 








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