Friday, January 15, 2010

New Blog!

I've re-started this blog thing, taking into consideration a web address and a blog title that is more appropriate to what I'm trying to do, and more focused specifically on writing.

It is:

Slushpile Avalanche

I'll be moving my writerly posts over there, as well as adding new ones (Adventures From the Slushpile) in which I'll discuss what I see as I swim through a sea of slush, all in an effort to improve the quality of the stories that come flowing over the transom and onto my desk. It'll be the musings and dreams of a slush editor/reader.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Writing Mechanics: Name Your Characters!


Someone, at some point, decided it would be clever to write a story without ever actually giving his main character a name. I don't know when it first happened. It may very well have been centuries ago.

At any rate, it's been done.

Too many times.

Writing fiction is all about decisions--choosing the first word, where to start the story, who to populate the story with, POV, tense, on and on.

A skilled writer will consciously make every one of those decisions with a specific purpose in mind. Therefore, a skilled writer will have done his homework, he'll have made writing a focus of study and practice, he will intimately understand the mechanics of writing so that he knows WHY he makes the decisions he does.

A skilled writer, for example, carefully chooses not only the point of view through which he will tell the story, but which character's point of view will work most effectively to tell the story.

A skilled writer will also carefully construct a character, will choose a name that fits the character and the story's setting and plot, and will use that named character to engage the reader in the story. That's what characters do.

Because we are human, we tend to like to be around other humans, but we tend to like to be around other humans we are familiar with.

Imagine you're going to a party tonight. You don't know anyone there, and you're not going with anyone you know. You're just going to this party alone.

Are you going to have a good time? Odds aren't good you will.

Are you going to waltz right in and strike up a delightful and witty conversation with the first person you see? Probably not. If you are brave enough to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger, you're most likely to look around the room a bit to find someone you think might have something in common with, or someone you think might be interesting to talk to. Still, what's the first thing you're going to do when you approach this person? You're going to say, "Hi. My name is So-and-so." And the person you're talking to will say "I'm Such-and-such." And you'll spend the next ten or fifteen minutes in small talk, looking for clues as to that person's character, seeking commonalities or topics that interest you both.

So is the opening of a story.

When a reader begins your story, he's walking into a party where he knows no one.

Are you going to leave him alone and lonely? Or are you going to give him a person of interest to which he can relate? At the very least a person whose name he knows?

A point of view character has a vitally important job to do in any story. That job is to take your reader's hand and walk him through the events of the story. A virtual trail buddy.

Some writers use more than one POV character. That's fine as long as the reader is introduced to each new trail buddy and clearly understands when he is being passed off to someone new.

For flash fiction, it's rare to change trail buddies. And for new writers it's advised that you intentionally stick with one POV character for the duration of the story. If nothing else, it's a good exercise in writing in POV.

As an editor, I see FAR too many stories that begin with an unnamed 'he' or 'she.' Sometimes the character is eventually named, sometimes not at all. Either way, it rarely works. VERY rarely works. I would MUCH rather see a story begin, FIRST WORD, first sentence, first paragraph at the least, with the main and/or POV character's name.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Horror: Building Suspense


Today I finished reading Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell.

The novel is not horror, but horror writers could learn a great deal about the buildup of tension, suspense, and the effectiveness of a masterfully handled climactic moment.

Beware! I'm about to give away the plot of this novel, so if you'd rather read it first, do so now.

Teodor, an immigrant from Ukraine trying to provide a life for his family, has had some hard breaks and struggles. As a convicted felon he is unable to obtain land through the homesteading program, so he makes a deal with his sister to acquire some homestead land under her name. She puts her name on the contract, he does the work, they both end up with land in the end.

Things go wrong when the sister's husband, a cruel lowlife of a man, returns form his most recent months-long foray away from his family and responsibilities, and begins to stir up resentment against Teodor. Bad blood runs thick, Teodor is betrayed by this brother-in-law and his emotionally impotent sister, and Teodor--again--loses everything. The story culminates in a horrific act of desperation and despair.

Ms. Mitchell beautifully intertwines the use of present tense (which gives the events a sense of immediacy) with a continually shifting POV (which I don't recommend a newer author attempt, but which Mitchell also masterfully handles, never leaving the reader confused as to POV, and giving the story an uncanny depth of understanding for the characters and their dilemmas), both of which add tremendously to the developing suspense. However, Mitchell (unlike, for example, Dan Brown) gives the reader time to breath, breaks at which to ponder what has occurred and what might occur after the next page turn.

So how does Mitchell successfully build her tension to the heartbreaking conclusion?

1. She lets us know immediately, on the first page of the book, that we should expect tension, heartache, death. Does that detract from the tension? Does it take away from the horrific revelation at the end? Not at all. It is a story UNFOLDED. The tension is provided in the reader finding out HOW it unfolds, NOT in the reader being suddenly surprised by things that come out of left field.

2. She gives us time to become deeply involved in the characters' lives. The reader weeps for them, rejoices with them, loves them, hates them, truly cares for them, because she has drawn them in such a way that the reader KNOWS them. She makes her characters believable, real, sympathetic. And by SYMPATHETIC I mean we can relate to them. Even the nasty brother-in-law is a sympathetic character. We don't have to feel sorry for him or like him to be able to relate to him, but we can relate to who he is, why he does what he does, because we can see something of him in ourselves or in someone we know. Because we can believably see some part of ourselves BEING him, or marrying him, or falling in love with the man he tries to show the world. Even at his most vile, I pitied him. When other more innocent characters made choices that brought the conflict to an explosive head, I cried for them, for their feelings of desperation and helplessness, because it's that helplessness that every human being most fears, and desperation that causes otherwise good people to do despicable things. If that isn't horror, I don't know what is.

3. Ms. Mitchell NEVER betrays her readers' confidence by withholding information. She lays it all out, bare as a newborn baby, for the reader to feel and experience along with the characters. Does it diminish the tension? Exactly the opposite. We know something's going to happen. It's a story, after all. Something always happens in stories. It's how it comes to happen that we love to read about. It's the middle of the story that we relish and savor with every turn of the page. The opening merely leads us in, the ending wraps it all up, but the middle comprises the overwhelming bulk of the story. It must never disappoint or mislead.

4. Ms. Mitchell masterfully engages her reader's imagination and never betrays it. Imaginative engagement is crucial to a well-told story, and it's a challenge to maintain it. It must be nurtured with accurate information and kept clear of any disruption. Disruption occurs when the information you give contradicts what the reader imagines. If your story gives clues that one of your main characters is, as a very simple example, a man but turns out to be a woman, you've betrayed your reader, disrupted his imaginative flow, and given him an opportunity to put your story down--and NOT pick it up again. If you give clues that one of your main characters is a powerful wizard, but then he is unable to actually DO anything to help resolve the story, you've betrayed your reader. If you set up one character as a favorite, as the hero, then you kill him halfway through the story, you've betrayed your reader. I know of one best-selling author who did this. I still feel betrayed more than a year after reading that book, and am much more wary of his work, which translates, quite frankly, to much less likely to buy.

You're a writer, so you should understand this metaphor. I call it the train metaphor:

When I'm writing, it's like I'm driving a train down the track. When I'm interrupted, the train stops dead, and it takes a considerable amount of mental effort to get it chugging again. This is why many authors choose a secluded nook somewhere to do their writing.

In relation to imaginative engagement, your reader is riding an imagination train. Every piece of information opens a visual image in the reader's mind that both emotionally and mentally involves the reader in the story. When the reader is misled his train stops until he is able to recallibrate his visual image before proceeding. Sometimes it takes only a second or two to recallibrate, but every time the reader has to do it, the likelihood of his continuing with the story diminishes. Sometimes I've been so confused by misinformation in a story that I'm completely unable to get the train going again and the story dies in my hands. A well-written story must engage me, and it must maintain that engagement with accurate and complete information to keep the train chugging along.

If you've been reading carefully, you've no doubt noticed that these four elements intertwine a great deal. Unfolding, characterization, reliability, imaginative engagement. They are so intricately woven together as to be a single thick rope, but the rope can't hold together if any one is missing. A well-written story needs them all.

And one last thing, I tend to think (and it may just be my opinion) that horror told in first person POV immediately loses a huge amount of potential tension because we know that the main character/narrator is going to live to tell the story. Peril is lost and the fear of its potential with it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bad Horror


Flash Fiction Online publishes all genres, so I read everything from westerns to romances, to historicals, to literary, to Tolkienesque fantasy, to space opera.

But of all the genres, the one in which I read the most really awful ficiton is in the horror genre.

Why is that?

Let me tell you.

The greatest error in wannabe horror writers is an overabundance of concern for the punchline at the expense of telling the story. So, what I end up reading is horror story after horror story in which superficial characters engage in superficial activities that end up leading to a totally unexpected ending. The old "SURPRISE!!" ending; an ending that was not set up for within the story. For example, some time ago I read a story in which the protagonist was hunting the monster. First of all, the story offered nothing hugely unique, nothing particularly interesting that made it stand out from the hundreds of other gritty-hero-chasing-monster stories out there. At least until the ending in which, SURPRISE!!--it turns out the protagonist is actually a VAMPIRE!! Gasp! Horrors! Oh, my! Punchline, no story.

This type or story shows that the author fails to realize that the suspense in a story is not provided by the surprise at the end. It's created by the events leading up to that ending. And the ending should never be a complete surprise. Never. Not even if you think it's clever. The ending should always be a logical conclusion drawn from the evidence given. It may be startling, it may be somewhat surprising, but it should never be nonsensical.

On the converse, the ending should never be too predictable.

It's a fine line that's challenging to walk, but mastering it is essential if publication is the goal.

Secondarily, wannabe horror writers often rely too much on violence. Horror, as a genre, is not about violence. It's about fear. It's about an emotion rather than an action. Violence doesn't always elicit the type of emotion that a good horror writer wants.

As Ramsey Campbell, author of The Influence, said: "In the worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute for imagination and just about everything else one might look for in fiction."

In other words, it's the lazy horror writer who relies on violence, blood, guts, and gore to create the fear and suspense.

Besides, it's not violence that's so frightening. What's REALLY frightening is the THREAT of violence. What's REALLY frightening is the capability of the human monster to create fear in his fellow humans. Thanks to Stephanie Meiers, vampires aren't scary anymore. Thanks to JK Rowling, werewolves are just our old friend, Professor Lupin. In reality, Mary Shelly's monster was never as frightening as the idea that man messing around with the powers of the gods creates things that we are unable to control. Thanks to the film, I Am Legend, zombies are still frightening, but only because they represent a loss of control over the circumstances of Legend's life--not the fear that they eat us, but the fear that they MIGHT.

Control. That's where horror lies--in the fear that circumstances are beyond our control.

Unfortunately, not many people read this blog, so it's unlikely I'll be reading fewer badly written horror stories because of it.


Good article on writing Horror:
How to Write Today's Horror