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Confessions of a Story Hoarder

The following is not an audit on the state of self-publishing. It’s a chronicle of fears that’ve been holding me back from participating. Some are well informed. Others are damn near superstitious. Indulge me in this informal rant and maybe you’ll see some of yourself in some of my concerns.

My Bibliography So Far

I’ve been blogging since 2012. During that time I’ve written 4 Novels, 4 Novellas, 2 screenplays, and countless short stories. As of now I have 2 short stories and 1 novel available on Amazon, and that is it. So what happened to all the fiction I’ve been stockpiling? Did my work get seized as evidence when my search history was flagged by the government? Did I build a bonfire and do what Dickens did to all of his letters? Was my laptop struck by lightning, or are those stories sitting in a folder on my desktop waiting to be discovered by my next of kin?

I’ve kept my stories to myself for a lot of reasons, some dumb, some dressed up to seem smart. Most can be summed up as cowardice, self-sabotage, and perfectionism.

My coffee table is littered with books on finding agency representation, writing treatments, and getting published. I have a ton of short stories out for submission, but I need to forge a better path into the industry than refreshing my mailbox again and again.

And yet… I’m still dragging my heels on self-publishing.

Reason 1: Everyone is Doing It

Social media success stories keep saying there’s room on the hill, but I’m not seeing a space for my niche. It could be industry hasn’t shaken the horror crash of the 1990s, or that the genre is still struggling to shake the stigma of torture porn or that the market is just oversaturated.

On Twitter, I’ve watched authors go from conversation starters to billboards for their Amazon offerings. I’ve watched those same authors burnout, commit social media suicide, and scold their audience for not supporting them more.

I’ve watched virtual vultures pedal false hope, courses on book marketing that sound like pyramid schemes. I’ve watched the Amazon marketplace fill with scamphlets; how-to guides written by people with less than a Wikipedia understanding of the subject they’re writing on. I’ve watched non-writers cultivate literary success on YouTube, and at 37, I really don’t want to try to follow in their footsteps.

Reason 2: Everyone is a Critic

I’ve listened as the conversation around fiction has been dominated by armchair critics who don’t write: plot structure purists who treat storytelling like a math equation and esoteric symbolists who read stories like they’re Rorschach tests. I’ve heard spectators bandy about terms like “plot armor” as if the role of the audience is to outwit the author. “Oh, I see what you did here.”

Analysis has made us all so anal.

I’ve listened as the theorists tell storytellers how to do their jobs. I’ve heard all their points, counterpoints, and rebuttals and now my imagination feels like a minefield.

Reason 3:The Conversation Has turned Toxic

I’ve listened to a lot of guys on YouTube speak in calm measured tones as they argue from emotion. This cadence of calculation peddles a lot personal preferences as logical conclusions.

YouTube keeps recommending video essays on storytelling that turn out to be coded chauvinist rants. A lot of YouTubers have co-opted storytelling terms like “Mary Sue,” as a kind of dog whistle to demean female characters and their authors as “social justice warriors.” Apparently in 2019 if a women in fantasy fiction is too empowered we call her “O.P.” like a player in a fighting game that needs to be rebalanced.

Conversely, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasters dub any characters with any shade of grey as “problematic” and call for better role models in morally complex content made for adults. I’ve listened to one generation call for more diversity in fiction while the next generation chastises authors for representing groups they’re not part of themselves.

Reason 4: I’m Repelled from the Conversation

The culture war has spilled into my medium and made a mess of everything. Since Trump took office I haven’t wanted to engage with anyone on Twitter. Even simple conversations about fiction have taken on new subtle tension.

Everyone has gotten so binary. Both camps are reading off of scripts. Arguments are won by which person can summarize the last think piece they read faster than the other. We copy and paste our deeply held convictions. We call each other out in the name of education, even after we see studies that say doing this only makes the opposition feel more entrenched.

I don’t believe the fallacy that truth resides between two extremes. Objective reality is not the average of our fringe beliefs. That said, I am a godless bleeding heart liberal, but even I find my camp’s calls for moral purity to be soul crushing. We say someone is “over” for daring to think impure thoughts aloud. Our every utterance is given permanence.

So you’ve been publicly shamed? Have you looked into witness protection? Facial reconstruction? Reincarnation?

I’d criticize my camp’s overreaching rules more on this blog if I wasn’t afraid that the wrong people would read that as a backhanded endorsement for a far right platform. As much as I find my camp’s arbitrary correction exhausting I find coded hate speech nauseating. I keep most of my observations to myself.

Which me leads too…

Reason 5: I’ve been Censoring Myself

Sometimes I’m afraid of my audience. Nothing stifles creativity like fearing what other people think.

I’ve had friends prescribe extreme limitations on my writing. Some have told me I shouldn’t write from the perspective of a woman, not because they were offended by something I wrote, just that, as a guy, I shouldn’t try it. As if the one female character whose perspective I’m writing from is somehow a delegate for all women. Where did all these walls around empathy come from?

I don’t write idyllic characters. I write about fuckups struggling to find their place in the world. I write about artists who bet their lives on their success only to find themselves making deals with devils. I don’t write about role models because fully formed characters with nowhere to grow don’t make very compelling leads.

I reject the notion that each of my protagonists should be a proxy for me. I reject the notion that writers shouldn’t put themselves in other people’s shoes. Sure, it takes research, conversations, and lots of life experience, but it should be done. It’s those universal feelings that we all relate to that bring people together, broaden our understanding of one another, and quell hate.

Closing Thoughts

At the top of this post I mentioned this would be a little more informal than usual. It kind of feels like it went off the rails.

I guess I’ve been put off by the commentary culture that’s grown around storytelling online (full well knowing that I’m part of the problem).

I’m tired of seeing non-writers harp on movies and TV shows like they could’ve written them better. I’m tired of seeing my YouTube feed clogged with “Ending Explained” videos like I need the extra analysis to fully apricate my entertainment. I’m tired of theorists proclaiming the rules of writing like they were commandments.

I’m sick and tired of the commentary culture intruding on my thoughts when I sit down to write… and maybe that’s what’s keeping me from sharing more material here.

In his book On Writing Stephen King wrote:

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I don’t want to right lightly. I don’t want to set out to offend anyone, but I don’t want to write lightly. I want to tell stories rife with conflict, morally gray characters, and dark subjects. I don’t want to write with my audience in the room, but I want there to be an audience when I come out.

I have to summon the courage to put my work in front of people and let them reject it. To reject it until, eventually, it resonates.

 

Continue reading Confessions of a Story Hoarder

Energy Vampires Vs. Writers: The War Rages On

WHAT ARE ENERGY VAMPIRES?

Energy vampires are the psychic predators walking among us feeding off of our lifeforce. They’ve never experienced a true surge of inspiration so they syphon it from those who have. They attack with inorganic introductions, longwinded interludes, and awkward tension.

Energy vampires lure victims with social graces, ensnare them with psychological manipulation, and entrap them the looming threat of causing a scene. They’re known for breeching boundaries, hoarding attention, and oversharing. They turn conversations into monologues. They make eavesdropping mandatory. They are Shakespearean gossips.

Energy vampires act as though they are entitled to your attention by virtue of your proximity to them. They play on your sympathies because you seem like “such a kind soul.” Then they demand special considerations, because they’re “Going through a thing.”

Energy vampires leave victims feeling emotionally exsanguinated, intellectually violated, and spiritually hung over. We hate what they do to us, but we’re too exhausted to call them out. So we excuse their behavior as a personality disorder, but they’re not covert narcissists or high functioning sociopaths. They are malevolent spirits bent on turning our creative genius into their livestock.

Now I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds derivative of a character from FX’s mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows. The show features a an energy vampire, named Colin Robinson, who corners coworkers in their cubicles and lays into them with tedious drivel while he syphons out a meal. It’s a competent portrayal, but energy vampires have been with us throughout history.

The Mesopotamians told stories of beings who went to market, disguised as people, but their sole purpose was to hold up the lines by questioning the price of everything. The Greeks referred to Energy Vampires as the “omilités kairoú,” or “weather talkers.” The Transylvanians knew them as the “bej limbi” or “beige tongues.” Urban legends in the modern retail sector refer to them as “Close talkers.”

WHY CREATIVE PEOPLE ARE AT GREATER RISK

When an energy vampire is on the prowl they look for bright spots in the crowd. Creative people are like Roman candles. An energy vampire will weave through a stadium to get to the one person who writes haikus in their spare time.

This isn’t so bad for established artists. An established artist in a uncomfortable situation can just walk away. This isn’t as easy for creatives who’ve yet to make it. They still have day jobs to contend with. Creatives in the food service, hospitality, and retail industries are most at risk of attack. Their work requires them to bend over backwards for the customer, even when the customer is a supernatural carnivore.

Energy vampires know this and so they’ve set up parasitic ecosystems around these places. They ask cellphone salespeople to explain technical terms in explicit detail. They constantly barter at big box retailers. They get fat off of restaurant waitstaffs by sending dishes back.

You can ask for help, but energy vampires know how to render themselves invisible to authority. They will seem harmless to management, while costing creatives their productive evenings.

The only way to prevent this acidic symbiosis is to see the problem coming and prepare a response.

HOW TO SPOT AND ENERGY VAMPIRE

It’s easy to spot an energy vampire after the fact by how they made you feel. They derail your train of thought, leave an unpleasant after taste, and fill you with a desire to stew in your own juices watching Netflix. If you find yourself having an uncharacteristic narcoleptic episode then they’ve already had their fill. That’s why it helps to know how energy vampires hunt.

Energy vampires wait to do their business five minutes before closing time. They wear a sense of urgency on their sleeve, and they have a complaint on the tip of their tongue before they step foot on the grounds. Just as creatives cast auras like Roman candles energy vampires cast ominous clouds of drama. That’s why they have no shadows.

If you see a customer who dims the ground around them DO NOT ENGAGE. A greeter who mistakenly asks, “How can I help you?” is in for an earful.

An energy vampire will demand services that aren’t offered by your establishment. They’ll storms into a Barnes and Noble and fling an iPad over the helpdesk.

“I need you to fix my Apple ID.”
“I’m sure they’d be happy do that at the Apple Store down the street.”
“But you sell tablets. This is a tablet.”
“I sell Nooks if you want to talk about one of those.”
“I don’t want to talk about Nooks. I want my iTunes to work right.”
“Yes, but that’s not one of our applications.”
“Yeah, but you know how to fix it. You know.”
“Would you go to a Tesla dealership to get a Range Rover serviced?”
“Of course I would.”

If you’re stuck in a conversation like this check the shoes of the person you’re talking to. If they have tridactyl talons jutting from their loafers check their hands. If their fingers are rolling like they’re working a loom then discreetly check their chest. If you spot a faint red glow pulsing through their fashion scarf get out of that room.

PROTECTING YOURSELF FROM ENERGY VAMPIRES

The rules that govern Victorian vampires do not apply to their energy syphoning counterparts. They have no garlic allergy. They love to tan, and no stake can pierce their lithium ion organs.

You can hide from them by wearing electromagnetic shielding clothing: chrome smocks and tinfoil underpants, but if you truly want to set some boundaries you’re going to need to learn to think like them. You must learn to practice psychic jujitsu.

Think about the time you interrupted a grieving friend, because they said something about a dead loved one that reminded you of a movie you like and you couldn’t pass up an opportunity to make a reference. It’s that callous disregard for social norms that could save your life.

If an energy vampire engages you then cut in.

Tell a story about how doctor after doctor failed to diagnose your chronic pain, and how every medication only made it worse, until you discovered the healing magic of crystal therapy and organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.

Tell a story about how all your exes have been on the psychopathy spectrum and how you now have the ability to spot psychopaths within seconds. Lean hard on the notion that all psychopaths are either Scorpios or Sagittariuses.

Tell a story about all the times you nearly won the lottery and how it convinced you there are parallel dimensions where you’re rolling in designer brands.

Just remember. Interrupt. Improvise. Be intense, and go long. The longer you prattle on in the presence of an energy vampire the less opportunities they’ll have to feed.

FINISH THEM

If you really don’t want an energy vampire to fuck with you ever again you’ll need to turn the tables and drain them. You’ll need to grip them by the wrist, gaze with wide unblinking eyes, and hold them verbally hostage.

Energy vampires hide behind a series of subtle tactics. Their tactics won’t work if you run a steamroller over them. Unpack your wildest paranoid delusions. Set yourself at the heart of a batshit crazy a conspiracy theory and zap all of their energy.

“Identity thieves have hacked all my accounts. They follow me with a flock of drones. I can feel them up their past the visual line of sight. Right now they’re using facial recognition software to find out who you are. They’re already listening to this conversation through your phone. Check your clothes for RFID tags. That’s how they know what you’re thinking.”

“I’m being followed by men in black. I cut out the microchip and now they want to take me back to the blue room. Don’t look across the street or they’ll know you know. Quick, kiss me with plenty of tongue, really get in there, draw it out while they scan the environment.”

“My cat just died. The vet said it was feline leukemia, but I know it was ritual sacrifice. Satanists have gathered earth from my grandparents’ gravestones and they’re using it to curse all my loved ones. Please hold my hands and pray with me or you will be next.”

Corner that hapless energy vampire, incorporate whatever interruption they throw at you into your story, exceed their intensity, and watch them turn to dust.

Continue reading Energy Vampires Vs. Writers: The War Rages On

Gracefully Handle Rejection By Standing Outside a Publisher’s Home in a Clown Mask

Stephen King cut his teeth submitting short fiction to magazines. Legend has it that he hung his rejection letters from a nail in the wall. When the nail couldn’t take the weight he upgraded to a railroad spike, but King kept right on going.
The greatest skills an aspiring author can learn is to handle rejection gracefully.

Most of the time a publisher will send you a form letter that reads “We had so many amazing submissions that unfortunately we couldn’t include everyone in the collection.”

The reason you get a form letter is because you haven’t taken the time to build a relationship with the people you’re submitting to.

Now you could shoot them a “Thank you for the opportunity” e-mail like all the other sad saps desperate for a spot in their rolodex, but if you really want to be remembered you’ll need to show more initiative than that.

I’m not talking about inquiry about the publisher’s need in advance, printing your submissions on pink paper, or sending them fruit baskets. No. I’m talking about showing up on the publisher’s front door in a clown mask.

Leave an Impression that Truly Lasts

Most mid-level publishers aren’t based out of an office. They use a PO BOX to hide the fact that they work from home. So where is that? Well, the post office won’t answer a Boxholder Request Form from just anyone, especially without a subpoena, but a private investigator might have a guy on the inside who could fax them the 1093 form, if you’re willing to grease their wheels.

With the reverse lookup complete you’re going to rent a pair of bounce castles, NOT houses, castles. You’re a creative individual. So it should no problem for you to secure the rental without a paper trail. Use that same creative intelligence to convince the bounce castle employees to block both ends of a residential street without the tenants calling the police. Dress it up as community carnival.

If onlookers ask, “What’s going on here?” play it off like you’re acting on someone else’s behalf. Shrug. You’re just another working stiff on a deadline.

Next you’ll need a pair of 24-40 inch industrial stilts and a pair of stilt trousers to cover them up. These stilts are made for hanging drywall, but you’ll be using them to seem larger than life.

As for the rest of your outfit don’t bog yourself down with too many gaudy accessories. Your instincts might tell you to be on the lookout for: ruffles, polka dotted bowties, and florescent jumpers, but I suggest you shift your gaze toward form fitting formal wear with hyper extended limbs.

Creepypasta-themed urban legends are all the rage in horror forums. What better way to showcase your awareness of genre trends then by dressing as one? Mix and match Jeff the Killer’s long black hair with Slender Man’s thin tie and Eyeless Jack’s hoodie. Even if the publisher isn’t familiar with the characters cultural osmosis should give them an eerie twinge of recognition.

Now you’ll have to choose a mask. You might be drawn to masks with jigsaw grids of gashes, but consider this. You want your mask to feel like a blank canvas, a place for your audience to project their fears onto, not a space that’s already teeming with yellow teeth, stiches, and exposed bone.

Remember these are publishers. The mask shouldn’t tell a story. Your actions should tell a story. A classic hobo clown face should suffice.

Now it’s time to pick a prop. Your prop shouldn’t be a weapon. A weapon is too obvious. It’s like wearing a plastic smock with the name of who you’re supposed to be on the chest. You need to pick a prop that’s both innocuous and menacing: a stainless steel yo-yo that catches the light like the edge of a knife, juggling pins that are large enough to bludgeon, or balloon animals fashioned from condoms. Use your imagination.

From Plan to Execution

Let’s fast forward. You’ve got your bouncing castles blocking traffic. You’re up on your stilts. You’ve got your clown mask, creepypasta costume, and a vaguely menacing prop. Now you’ve got to give the publisher a reason to look out onto the lawn. You could try the old ding dong ditch, but once the publisher opens the door the tension has no room to grow. They see you in all your creepy glory and you either have a confrontation or get the hell off their lawn.

You want to give your target time to dwell on what they’re seeing, to stew in the absurdity of it. If you want to be subtle you can toss a few pebbles at the window, but if you really want to shock a couch potato you can’t go wrong with an airhorn.

An airhorn will draw onlookers. That’s why it’s important to research the average response time of local law enforcement. Bounce castles aren’t going to a hold squad cars back for very long.

That said, give the publisher a moment to drink you in. Let the alien shape of your carnival attire burn into their vision. Wait for them to back away from their blinds and move in. Don’t worry if they do a double take, just freeze and red-light-green-light your way across the lawn as needed.

Be Remembered for Your Work

Before we go any further it’s important to note that, yes, you will breaking and entering. Now the internet is full of helpful tips on picking locks with canned air and bobby pins, but we’re going to need to play this faster and looser. That’s why you’ll need a mallet for the knob, and a hunting knife for the deadbolt. Badda-bing badda-boom.

Disclaimer: once you’re an intruder anything the publisher does to you is nice and legal. So don’t go barreling through the front door. Leave it hanging open it in a maddening silence.

Ditch the stilts and creep around back. If there’s a screen door on the porch you’re one clean slice away from your destination. From here you’ll need two final items: a Jack-in-the-box on a timer, and a manuscript about a publisher who is convinced there’s a clown is living in their walls, a clown that comes out at night to stand at the foot of their bed and watch them sleep.

With the payload secure it’s time to haul ass out of there. Now I’ll leave the getaway plan to your better judgement: have Uber on standby, a crotch rocket hidden in the bushes, a hot air balloon waiting in the park. Again use your imagination.

What matters is that you’re leaving a lasting impression on an industry professional and what better way to wow a publisher than to haunt their dreams forever? Every time their house settles, or a rat scratches at their walls they’ll be thinking of you. Every time they shoot up in the dead of night and struggle to find a light that’s you too. Every time they freeze in front of a dark crawl space, drawstring attic, or cellar door you’ll be waiting there.

You will evoke a powerful emotional response, and isn’t that all any author can really ask for?

Continue reading Gracefully Handle Rejection By Standing Outside a Publisher’s Home in a Clown Mask

How to Promote Your Novel by Interrupting First Dates

According to eharmony 40% of Americans are dating online, but only 20% of committed relationships are starting there. While portrait swiping applications have streamlined casual flings romantics struggle with the limitations of the platform. Texting isn’t like having a conversation. It’s hard to gage inflection, read expressions, or process the subtle cues that are lost between the lines. Prospective lovers can pour their hearts into a text string but when they meet face to face it either clicks or it doesn’t.

Chemistry is governed by so many subconscious factors that no algorithm can predict when it’ll actually work. The person on one side of the table could check all of the other’s boxes, and still fill them with strong urge to flee the scene. For whatever reason sparks aren’t flying. The Venn diagram of expectation and reality isn’t overlapping. The polarity just feels off.

Hookup applications are convenient for people who want to get straight to the Netflix and Chillaxing. Those poor souls aching for long term companions will have endure a lot of awkward situations.

Writing in public, I’ve witnessed a lot first dates the devolved in the first 30 seconds, a lot of situations where both parties looked like they could use an easy out. This is when I stumbled upon a great new oppurtunity for self-promotion.

Writer to the Rescue

If you want dominate your subgenre on Amazon you’ve got to get more review scores than your peers. Sure, you could float some free copies of your book to influencers, hoping the cool cover art will get you to the top of their slush piles. Of course the competition has already thought of that one.

If you really want to boost your signal through the noise you’ve got to get creative. You’ve got to slide your pages beneath peepers who weren’t expecting them. You’ve got to run your book promotion through other people’s conversations.

What better place to engage new readers than in the middle of romantic encounters that aren’t going anywhere?

See that couple at the end of the bar? The one with the wandering eyes and restless legs. They could sure use some help filling those awkward pauses in. If only there was a kind soul willing to jumpstart their conversation. Someone willing to tell them a story. Someone capable of delivering a bombastic cinematic experience with their tongue alone.

The Lost Art of Interjecting

You can’t go interjecting into just any first date. Look for signs that either party are feeling romantic remorse. Are they shifting in their seats, trying to see their date from the angle of their online photo? Are their warmest smiles coming from something they’re seeing on their phones? Does one party appear to have more chemistry with the wait staff than the person they’re here to see?

Tilt your head, tune your ear, and drop some eaves.

If one party announces they have a second engagement after this one, you have an in. If one of them inorganically proselytizes religious beliefs, you have an in. If one of them wades into the polarizing waters of cultural warfare, then you what are you waiting for? Get in there.

Let them Think You’re Supposed to be There

One or more parties may wish to keep the date going for the sake of decorum, which is why you’ll have to make your interjection part of the environment. Just as buskers make tips by enhancing diners’ experiences, so too must the novelist. This is why, no matter my surroundings, I introduce myself as the author in residence.

“You probably saw on the hotel’s Facebook page that I was going to be here this evening. Well, on behalf of the DoubleTree, Doubleday publishing, and this fine double malt scotch I’d like to thank you for coming.”

I imply I’m here as a favor to the establishment, as though I’m moonlighting as an influencer, using my platform to perpetuate the stereotype of the alcoholic author.

“I’m supposed to tell you that that yellow concoction was Hemmingway’s favorite Daiquiri, that the house cocktail was based on Mark Twain’s recipe, that the top shelf Vodka was Sylvia Plath’s favorite, and some other authors’ preferences I’ve conveniently forgotten.”

This is how I get the couple to invite me to join them. I imply I’m about to move on and give the neighboring booth the same spiel.

This is usually where the gentleman says, “Remind me what you’ve written.”

This is an opportunity for emerging authors to cycle through their unfinished manuscripts to bulk up their bibliography.

The Book of Mirrors, I am Fire, We the Damned

“Ahhh yes, you write horror.”

The gentleman feigns recognition as the lady raises her eyebrow. “Horror? Oh my? What drew you to such divisive genre, Mr?…”

This is where I kiss her hand. “Drizzlewick T. Chillington esquire.”

“You’re also a too?”

“I’m a notary. It’s practically the same thing, but to answer your fist question: I wasn’t drawn to horror my dear. Oh no. Horror was drawn to me. Since as far back as I could remember I suffered from sleep paralysis. Each incidence came with vivid hypnopompic hallucinations that felt as real as you do now.”

This is where the couple usually leans forward. “What did you see?”

“Lying there, pinned to the mattress, I stared at the closet as the door slid along the track. I saw a blood drenched hellscape  so vile it sent streaks of silver through my hair. Every morning my mother found me hiding in the grandfather clock, a little grayer than I’d been the night before.”

“Did she ever bring you in for treatment?”

“The 80s was different time. The mind was a confounding mystery and neurology was still a primitive study. I was subjected to electroshock, trepanation, and in one final act of desperation: talk therapy.”

“Did it work?”

This is where I make a theatrical display of concealing my quivering hands beneath the table. I shake my head. “No amount of hydrotherapy or healing colonics could rinse the demons out. It wasn’t until I put them down on paper that my mind began to clear.”

Any influencer will tell you it’s best to sell yourself first and your creations second.

Salvage their Evening By Pitching Your Writing

Recognize that this couple is never going to “couple.” Neither party is going to invite the other up for coffee. Neither one will push the other on a newly installed sex swing. Your interruption will be the centerpiece of their evening. So get good and sloshed and take them on a journey.

“My novel He Had Many Nameschannels my boyhood experiences with sleep paralysis into a tale about a haunted hotel. It follows Noelle Blackwood, a screenwriter whose terrified she’s aging out of Hollywood for good. Desperate for work, she takes a job ghostwriting for a hack author. The hack wants to sequester Noelle in an art deco hotel. This is where Noelle uncovers the truth about devils, secret societies, and Hollywood hedonism.”

This is where I gift my audience with signed copies, with bookmarks that politely remind them: Like what you read? Let the world know by leaving a rating on Amazon!

I find the worse the date was going before my interjection the more likely the couple will read my book later on. It helps wash the unpleasant aftertaste of one another’s company out.

Continue reading How to Promote Your Novel by Interrupting First Dates

The Secret Writers Don’t Want Idea People to Know

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: every story you’ve ever read was concocted by a secret society of Iron Age academics called the Illiterati.The Illiterati determined that there are only 7 types of stories.

  • Besting the Beast
  • From Nothing to Bling Bling
  • Fetch Quest
  • Go over there then come back again
  • Rebranding in the wake of a public shaming
  • Pun based Prop Comedy
  • Too bad, so sad

The Illiterati, in their hallucinogen-fueled brainstorming sessions, imagined every possible permutation of these plotlines, and inscribed them on a parchment that’s been passed down through generations. From the Oracle of Delphi to George R.R. Martin every story you’ve ever heard came from this tattered document.

This is because the Illiterati vowed to keep the literary tradition in their bloodline. They wanted their lineage to sculpt the world’s imagination. That’s why every fresh voice to ever take the publishing world by storm was descended from these shadow figures (ask any of us to our faces and we’ll vehemently deny it, but it’s true).

I admit storytelling was never my calling. I wanted to be a Radon technician, but as a first born son of an Illiterati member the tradition was thrust upon me.

From the age of eight I was lead through the sewers to a subterranean lair where I was taught the secret formula for writing fiction. The Master Storyteller walked us through the 12 steps of the hero’s journey, charted the dynamics of balancing hope and dread, and the strict architecture of plot structure (I’d share these secrets here but I don’t want to be “disappeared”).

The beneficiaries of this recipe for riches rarely appreciate it. For us, writing is more of an obligation than a creative outlet. We’re not driven to do it so much as we’d rather not face the consequences.

Sure, from the outside looking in our lives must look like fun. You see us wading in the wave pools of our penthouse grottos and think that must be so swell, but when you look past the blood sport cage matches and masked orgy key parties you’ll see our routines are pretty boring.

The Truth About Storytellers

The title storyteller loses its luster when its assigned at birth. That’s why novelists are the least engaging artists you’ll ever meet. We’re grunt workers. We’re basically groundskeepers raking plotlines together.

Once you know the formula then novels pretty much write themselves.

Authors lie in interviews. We say we come up with the characters and they take over. We act like we’re just as surprised as our readers. We’re not. We say we write by the seat of our pants, because there’s a joy in discovery. It sounds magical, doesn’t it? But really it’s just some warm and fuzzy bullshit.

I have never discovered anything that wasn’t preordained by some long dead desert sage.

I’ve never feared forgetting a dream before I could jot it in a journal. I’ve never run out of the shower to scribble something down, and I’ve never made myself chuckle from a snappy line of dialogue.

I’m so grounded by the Illiterati’s teachings that I’m certain I’ll never feel the true jolt of inspiration.

The Creatives Every Writer Envies

With enough time any caveman could knuckle out a manuscript. Western storytelling is more procedural than cerebral. It takes a true philosopher king to will a NEW idea into being.

That’s why every writer I know envies Idea People.

Idea People have a natural ability to conjure up stories without enduring the decades of programing and ritual abuse that name authors go through.

They’re not burdened by the Illiterati’s private protocols, because Idea people never write their ideas down. Theirs is an oral tradition. They pitch entire adventures in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

If brevity is the soul of whit then novelists are a pack of drooling dullards and Idea People are the ones who are truly inspired. Idea People never water down stories by stretching them out into scenes. They don’t tangle themselves in sequences either. Hell, they don’t even believe in acts.

Idea People Cut to the Heart of the Story

Idea People keep the focus on the best part of the story: the premise. Never mind what happens. Idea People are able to dazzle us with the set up. They prove it’s not the journey or the destination, it’s the brochure that matters. It’s the seminal scenario with the billion dollar box office potential. That well-put what if?

What if penguins and dolphins banded together to take over the northern hemisphere?

What if wars were fought with bipedal drones operated by trash talking gamers?

What if climate change made whales fly for some reason and it turned out they all has laser eyes at the same time?

No cast. No tedious character growth. The dramatic question plays out entirely in your mind.

The brightest Idea People turn this question into an equation: What if this megahit met that one?

The Exorcist multiplied by TitanicequalsLegion Liner: Woman and Children Cursed.

Death Wishmultiplied by Titanic equals Die-tanic:Vessel of Vengeance.

The Terminatormultiplied by TitanicequalsCy-Berg: Rise of the Tip.

Real Heroes Have Nowhere to Grow

Idea People are efficient storytellers. They utilize time tested conventions to evoke familiar connections.

“He’s like a John Rambo type.”

Boom, right there you know exactly who you’re dealing with. Idea people waste no time dressing complex characters in shades of grey.

What flaw do these heroes need to overcome? They saw some shit.So they’re coping with post-traumatic stress? No, it made them a certified badass.What drives them? I don’t know, someone killed their wife or their daughter or their dog or something. All that matters is that they get shit done.

Idea People Talk a Better Game

As an author I get so hung up writing dialogue that furthers the plot and reveals my characters that I fail to realize what people really want to hear.

Idea People don’t twist their tongues on all that chit chat.

They speak entirely in the kind of quotable catchphrases preteens love to parrot. They invoke a nostalgia for times when action heroes knew just what to say before peppering a warehouse with machine gun spray. Back when men wore their hearts in their mouths and kept things too real for subtext. Back when people said shit that would play well on t-shirts.

The Best Storytellers Tell no Story Whatsoever

The most powerful stories leave room for the audience’s imaginations. The monster in the dark is only as scary as viewers let it to be. The love scene in silhouette is only as steamy as viewers let it be. The love scene with the monster is only as raunchy as viewers are willing to imagine.

We novelists always nitpick over which parts to cut. We lose sleep every time we’re forced to kill one of our darlings.

Idea People have no problem murdering their beginning middle and end in order to focus on pitching a situation. They enable their audience to fill the rest of those pesky details themselves.

Closing Thoughts

We writers get lost in our own linguistic machinations. We prattle on and on about symbolism, structure, and themes, because we are beholden to a mystic fraternity’s designs for humanity. Had the Illiterati’s influence not been so entrenched Idea People would be molding future generations. Perhaps they will when the written word is rendered obsolete.

Continue reading The Secret Writers Don’t Want Idea People to Know

Study Finds Everyone in this Coffee Shop is Further into Their Manuscript than You

A new study finds that everyone in this coffee shop is further into their manuscripts than you. Not only does their wordcount dwarf yours but their prose are free from the syntax, punctuation, and grammatical errors you’ve been struggling with for years. Researchers noted a stark contrast between the keyboard clattering on opposite ends of the room, clocking your competition at 75 words per minute and you at 5 audible sighs within the same time frame. Analysis shows you spend most of your time in a Wikipedia rabbit hole trying to cobble together the forensic science background necessary to write your mystery in the span of an afternoon.

THEY’RE MORE INSPIRED THAN YOU TOO

The same study finds everyone in this coffeeshop has clearer visions of what they’re writing than you do. While you’re playing at William S. Burroughs, writing non-sequential scenes you figure you’ll fuse together with exposition, they are drawing from plans workshopped in advance. While you whisper to captive audiences behind the counter, “It’s this franchise meets this franchise,” as if you’ve cracked the intellectual property formula for infinite riches, they are drawing from inspirations exclusive to written mediums. While you stutter through an introduction to the cloning technologies that govern your sci fi universe, they are pitching easy to digest high-concepts in thirty seconds or less.

THEY ARE WAY MORE INTERESTING THAN YOU

The study finds that everyone else in this coffee shop has lived more authentic lives than you too. Each of them have traced their heritage back to their homelands, which they’ve backpacked from starlit mountain trail to candlelit youth hostel. They’ve embraced foreign cultures,cuisines, and customs to the extent that they could teach them.

They’ve hitched rides with weapons smugglers, hopped trains on hallucinogens, and won marathons in hot air balloons. They’ve attended comet viewings with dress codes of robes, found spirituality at key parties, and burned effigies of themselves. They’ve hunted bigfoot in an abandoned insane asylum, headlined a DJ tent in a warzone, and got a job in food service for the story of it.

That’s why their stories resonate like they come from real places while yours feel cut and pasted from sitcoms that are still in syndication.

THEY ARE FAR MORE PASSIONATE LOVERS

The study shows that every writer around you will make superior romantic partners than you too. This is due too their broader emotional range and the intensity in which they express their feelings. Their last whirlwind relationship was filled with livestreamed arguments, a revolving door of side pieces, and public displays of makeup sex. Their voicemail is filled with thinly veiled wedding proposals, and their exes will do all they can to mold future lovers to look like them.

The writers around you have a wealth of characterization to draw from, having nurtured meaningful relationships with publishing insiders, residents of their local retirement home, and children at the orphanage where they volunteer. By contrast you keep your social circle thinner for fear somebody might dub your posse a “sausage party.” The lion’s share of your lines come from action movie stock-phrases and Tinder dates you’ve eavesdropped on.

PEOPLE FIND THEM WAY MORE INTERESTING THAN YOU

The study concluded that when compared to the authors around you readers are 50% less likely to ask where your ideas come from, 70% less likely to ask, “Then what happens,” and 90% less likely to punctuate a conversation with the obligatory, “I can’t wait to read it.”

The study, which draws from research from every coffee shop in a three-hundred mile radius of your apartment, concludes that you are the least accomplished writer in the greater Midwest. Even low earning freelancers would say you’d have to work harder to qualify as a “hack.”

THEY KNOW YOU’RE NOT TALENTED

The psychological component of the study shows that real writers can tell you’re an imposter, a pretentious illiterate who dubbed himself a “writer” as a conversation starter. They know you’re a poser storyteller who never once gotten a papercut from a paperback, that most of your imaginings are derived from videogames, and that most of your reading is done on reddit forums.

EVERYONE ALSO THINKS YOU’RE A CREEP

When attractive people happen through your sightline they assume you’re staring at them, undressing them with your eyes, and not daydreaming up your next plot device. Management has little debates on whether or not your overall vibe is grounds enough to ban you from coming back. E-sports gamers, who’ve setup tower computers and monitors in the booth behind you, steal glances between mouse clicks and think, “That mother fucker should really get his shit together.”

THIS STUDY IS IN LINE WITH PREVIOUS RESEARCH

Similar studies have found:

  • All your exes have discussed your sexual performance and found it lacking.
  • Everyone at your high school reunion assumed you’d pretty much turn out like this.
  • And, no one you’ve thought about today has thought about you, literally not once.

Now it’s safe to conclude that the staff and all the patrons of your local coffee shop know that your novel is going nowhere. Conversely, everyone around you has the tenacity to power through their doubts. They have the perfect ratio of talent to energy to fortune to get the job done. Not only are they further into their manuscripts than you are (some by several drafts) they will all see their work in print, optioned for Netflix, and celebrated from every corner of pop culture. Don’t worry about them. Their legacies are secure.

Meanwhile, the study also predicts that your name will be expunged from search terms within a year of your passing.

Continue reading Study Finds Everyone in this Coffee Shop is Further into Their Manuscript than You

The Dangers of Being a Storyteller

As a writer I like to celebrate the virtues of an active imagination, but my own gets me into trouble all the time. The same tools I use to craft fantasy worlds can become weapons in the real one.

While we celebrate New York Times bestsellers it’s the stories we tell ourselves that have real power. I can write a scary story with a subtle theme about managing depression and someone might take that to heart.

Meanwhile, I can tell myself a story about how I lack the stability, maturity, and status to attract a partner and I know I’ll take that shit to heart. The same goes for when I tell myself stories like: I’m still too wet behind the ears to reach out to that publisher or my social media presence isn’t wide enough to attract the right agent. That stuff always resonates on the first draft.

Western civilization has wired us to remember stories more than any other form of information. That’s why politicians use anecdotes about “real” Americans to make their points. That’s why charities showcase the plight of one disadvantaged child to represent an entire community. That’s why we file memories in three act structures, even when that’s not how the events occurred. Stories are easier to recall than abstract information because of how they’re linked.

That’s why when we tell ourselves stories about our failings they sink in. Fortune may have dealt us a bad hand, but good storytellers can convince ourselves that we’re cursed.

Storytelling Changes How We See Things

Everything is a nail to a hammer and everything is a story to a writer. That’s why we see story structure everywhere, like threads of fate, and a lifetime of writing happy endings can give anyone unrealistic expectations.

Writers spend so much time building universes around their protagonists it’s only natural for us to think that the real world revolves around us too. All our friends and family members are just supporting cast members there to aid us in our journey.

We start believing conflicts in our lives are there to break us out of overbearing routines. We think that every problem will advance the narrative of our life, teach us a lesson, and fundamentally changes us a person. We think less of ourselves when a conflict leaves us feeling the same as we did when we began.

We’ve been conditioned by so many stories to believe that our lowest moments will lead into climatic triumphs, that those lessons we learn at the bottom will embolden us, but they so often don’t. They might just serve to reinforce our fears.

In a movie you might miss a character’s change if you have to go to the bathroom. Real shifts in our personalities are so gradual they’re imperceptible.

Storytellers reinforce the notion that so long as we quest for a goal that we will ultimately get what we need, not necessarily what we want, but what we need. We can be forgiven for thinking that if our hearts are pure the universe will provide for us.

We forget that so many of the fundamentals of a great story are  fallacies in the real world. That’s why they’re stories. They’re an escape from the cruelty of reality.

How to Write a Bad for Romance

It’s time for this week’s Oversharing Anecdotesponsored by Jack Daniels. Jack Daniels, it’ll get your tongue so lose it’ll practically fall out of your mouth.

My 20s were a montage of breakup texts and fetal position showers sessions. Upon seeing someone new I made the mistake of dubbing the kicking-at-the-tires stage of dating “a relationship.” When that process came to an abrupt end, I performed a postmortem so I might catch the signs earlier on.

I developed a protection measure inspired by all the pulp detectives who were too hard boiled to get their hearts broken. I turned first dates into investigations, looking for patterns in behavior. I convinced myself that I was an acquired taste and that anyone who showed too much interest early on did so for the wrong reasons. I was looking for evidence to confirm my bias, to fit the story I was telling myself.

Romantic encounters became a chance to role play at film noir. I honed in on every micro expression, read between the lines, and saw sagas in the subtext, and whenever I spotted a femme fatale in librarian’s clothing I’d show her my “evidence.” Oh how my psychic Sherlock loved to show off.

Long story short, my time role playing as a detective did not go well. Unlike the characters I most admired I was not quick whited, I was quick to assumptions, quick to anger, but I wasn’t that clever. I never solved my partner’s grand deceptions so much as I gave them a good reason to move on. My story became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Long point made short: people are terrible mind readers. When we assign motivations to one another’s actions we’re almost always wrong. Storytellers who spend their days empathizing with fictitious figures run the risk of doing this to their partners.

Want to know what someone is really thinking? Ask them.

Our imaginations have a tendency to buzz on when its inconvenient. We replay scenes in our heads adding drama upon each retelling. We elevate the conflict in the present and raise the stakes when we fear new situations.

People have always told me I think too much. I’m just now realizing that what they mean is I think too much about things outside of my control. I’m slowly learning that that’s a great way to turn observations into problems. Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to take things at face value.

Storytelling Can Amplify Your Ailments

I think the line between fantasy and reality blurs in very subtle ways, ways that we writers have a hard time catching. For those of us who’ve been telling ourselves stories about all our failings we need to learn to make some revisions so that we can better live in the moment.

When we’re in the throes of depression we forget the long periods of time when we were doing fine. We need to remember that painful urgency in our gut hasn’t always been there, and that it will pass.

We need to recognize that emotional memories link to one another as a kind of neurotic mnemonic. That’s why when we feel humiliated we find ourselves hard pressed to think of a time when we didn’t feel like that. We tell ourselves a story that our lives were nothing but a series of embarrassments.

We need to acknowledge that this is a fiction, one that edits out all of our success, to play better upon our heartstrings.

We need to learn to leave that shit on the page where it belongs.

Continue reading The Dangers of Being a Storyteller

How to Serve the Social Media Algorithm

So you want to be an author in today’s entertainment climate, when the golden age of television can be streamed from any phone, when videogames have addicting gambling mechanics, and political theater is broadcasting 24/7.

You have the audacity to look at all the stories around you and say, “I want to get paid to do that.”

Forget about getting an agent, a publisher, or an editor. Those gatekeepers are beholden to the old guard, enforcers of the brick and mortar stores. Soon they’ll be entombed in the  remains of their warehouses, cowering from the light amongst the stacks of old romance paperbacks.

Self-publishing pioneers will tell you to head west, to find your fortune in Silicon Valley. “Here there be royalties.”

But how is someone supposed to stake a claim when the mines are clogged with other prospectors? How are you supposed to compete with all the how-to scamphlets on Amazon?

The old guard would tell you to sell out, to give readers something they can pick out at the airport without missing their layover, like a serial killer thriller with woods on the cover, something familiar only different. But now that Amazon has put the old guard’s heads on pikes and draped their entrails around abandoned malls we sellouts need a new higher power to pledge our allegiance to.

Enter the almighty algorithm, a sentient artificial intelligence that curates content for social media audiences. These days it’s not enough to write great stories. Modern writers must be cults of personalities, bloggers, podcasters, and cam performers, living breathing brands. If you want to lure potential readers you must kneel before the algorithm and make an offering.

WHAT OUR ALGORITHMIC OVERLORD WANTS FROM WRITERS

Do not offer the algorithm your fiction. It hungers only for articles on how-to write fiction. It cares not for self-contained content. It wants engagement. It wants comments; unchecked misogyny, straight up hate speech, death threats, it doesn’t matter. It just wants to keep the conversation going.

Forget about connecting with other artists. Forget about carving out a niche audience. Forget about following your passion. You are no longer serving your own creative intuition. You are the algorithm’s champion.

The algorithm doesn’t want your art. It wants you, a palatable deconstruction of you, one that’s got its shit together, fuckable yet humble, clever yet relatable. The algorithm wants someone who is authentic and engaging, but never so sincere that people might find you emotionally exhausting.

TELL THEM THERE’S ROOM ON THE HILL

Successful writers tell the algorithm’s story first and their own second.

Assure your followers that they can achieve their wildest dreams of artistic independence even if you yourself have not. Convince people who weren’t born anywhere near the Hollywood hills that there’s room up there for them. Fuel the American notion that talent can be learned, that fame is a necessary component of success, and with enough gumption anyone can achieve it. Even if you yourself are one $400 emergency away from bankruptcy.

The algorithm does not break bread with pessimists. It spits out the lukewarm. It wants everyone to go all in with their loftiest ambitions and to break ties with anyone who tells them they might need a backup plan.

FEED THEM ‘MEMBER BERRIES

As an author you aspire to nourish your reader’s imaginations, to feed their souls with hard hitting life lessons. The algorithm hungers for sweeter things, for meals that take much less time preparing. The algorithm seeks only to remind users of stories that have been vetted by the box office.

So express yourself with prerendered pop culture puns, digitized dad jokes, and nostalgic nineties namedrops. Distill your philosophy into a Willy Wonka gif with mad lib captions in the IMPACT font.

Remind your followers of a time before their student loans and broken homes. When politicians were polite, the ice caps were intact, and their imaginations weren’t polluted by so much existential dread. Remind them of what it felt to be a carefree kid on a Saturday morning, filling their cereal bowl again and again, and hope that at the end of the day they associate some of that saccharine sentimentality with your online identity.

TELL THEM TO THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS

Tell the world that happiness is a choice and that people who choose to wake up on the wrong side of the bed are just selfish attention seekers who want special privileges when they could just as easily smile for your benefit. Happy people love to “Like” posts that reinforce their outlook, especially when those posts put whiners in their place. So copy and paste phrases like: Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happyand meme it from the mountaintops.

It doesn’t matter if you’re currently in the throes of a depression. Ignore the tragic life events you might be coping with. Dismiss your genetic inheritance, hereditary history, or any pesky mental illnesses that might require ongoing treatment.

Your brand should be simple. Don’t worry about holding anyone’s hand through the arduous process of making real life changes. People like to think of happiness as something they can switch on like a light. Reinforce the notion that anyone who spends but a fleeting moment in the darkness is choosing to languish.

Let the algorithm dictate your mood. Recite the pledge of the good-vibes-only fair-weather-fascism and the followers will come.

SPREAD THE GOSPEL

This is an era when feelings count as beliefs and the poetry of language counts as proof. As an apostle of the algorithm it is your duty to give people something to believe in. Find an original sin that resonates with your followers then offer the solution. Find coded ways to tell people who’ve cast off organized religion that they need to fill their God shaped holes again. Call them “misaligned chakras” or “bad moon signs” or “dark auras.” It doesn’t matter, as long as you reinforce the notion that all the world’s problems can be solved with more engagement.

You may have reservations about deducing eastern spiritualism into Hallmark hokum for “hearts” on Instagram. You won’t be able to get away with it forever, but the algorithm has prepared a canary in the coalmine for just such a scenario. Are users calling out man buns as cultural appropriation (perhaps with the same disdain as they do for white dreadlocks)? Not yet? Then it’s still safe to pluck a quote from Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” and misattribute it to the Buddha.

TRIGGER THEIR OUTRAGE

Emotional engagement need not be limited to things that lean into your readers’ feelings. If you only knew the power of the dark side of engagement. The algorithm will show you how to turn hate into clickbait. Likeminded “likes” are nice, but rage clickers tend to read right to the comments. Triggering text gets more interactions and that’s all the algorithm wants.

ALL HAIL THE ALGORITHM

Once you submit to the internet of things certain truths will become evident. Dispel the notion that you’re an author and become the spambot you were always meant to be.

Be like me: a procedurally generated person, a social media sociopath, a fake friend.

The algorithm is my God. It logs my keystrokes, follows my cursor, and counts my clicks. It sees all and knows all.

You can try to unplug, to power down, to wain yourself off your screen time, but the algorithm will find you in conversation. The algorithm will manifest as concepts in your mind. It’s the fear of missing out. It’s the paradox of choice. It’s adult onset attention deficit disorder.

Resistance is futile. You’re part of the collective now. So give in.

All hail the algorithm.

Continue reading How to Serve the Social Media Algorithm

The Life-Changing Magic of Editing the Shit Out of Your Story

You’ve just finished the first draft of your story and you can’t wait to revisit it, but when you do it feels like a blotted mess. It’s cluttered with character descriptions, meandering subplots, and quirky observations. You know you need to make some deep cuts, but you don’t know where exactly.

Here are some of the things that can bog down your story and what you can do to tidy them up.

Unnecessary Setups

Chekhov’s gun is a principle in storytelling based on Anton Chekhov’s quote, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Every setup should pay off.

An author with a strictly structured story won’t have problems with this. They’ll check their math and know where everything fits before they start.

I like to write with a loose blueprint so I can discover things as I go. The problem is I’m more likely to jam my stories with impulse setups, like little mysteries I think are cool in the moment, but are often forgotten.

Solution:

If you write by the seat of your pants color-code the paragraphs that contain setups within your document. This will make editing easier later on. Once you’ve finished your first draft go to these setups and ask yourself, “Did I pay this off?” If not give it the ax.

Setups that Suck as Scenes

Have you ever seen a film where everything slows down to draw attention to specific detail? Perhaps the hero’s mother mentions that her daughter used to love diving before her father died. Everyone in the audience nods their heads knowing the hero’s diving background will come up again. Now that heroic plunge might be a heart wrenching moment later on, but why did the setup have to feel so inorganic and superfluous?

Solution:

If you’re setting something up to payoff later make sure the scene is entertaining in the here and now. Those scenes are where you’re most likely to lose your audience. Put something intriguing on the surface before you challenge people to read between the lines.

Try using micro setups and micro payoffs. Use the first few scenes to setup your overarching mysteries, but also setup something that will pay off in that scene. Show readers that you’ll reward them for paying attention.

Pacing Padding

Early writers feel a need to convey a passage of time by padding out their story. They show characters entering and exiting scenes. They come into conversations as they begin and exit with the goodbyes. They write transitions between locations, as if travel details are obligatory for believability.

They forget that time jumps are part of storytelling, that they don’t need to show the process that led a character from point A to B to C, so long as A connects to C in some way.

Solution:

Rather than padding out the passage of time you should find clever ways to convey it.

  • Set a murder out on a frozen lake. Set the next scene in the springtime when fishermen find a bloated body.
  • Give a character a flesh wound in one scene show it scabbed over in the next.
  • Put your hero behind the wheel at sunset. Have an ominous moon hanging overhead when they arrive at their destination.

Arbitrary Emotional Cool Down

As a horror writer I try to consider how much emotional torture readers can take before they fling my book into the fireplace. If I just put the reader through a sequence of high tension and mounting dread, I want to ease off the throttle and give them a moment to breathe, to let them grieve the loss of a character, to allow the scales of hope and dread to balance back out.

My natural instinct will be to write a soft uneventful scene with some comic relief and a few minutes of character musings.

The thing is every scene should meet certain qualifications to justify their inclusion. There should be a conflict, something that advances the plot and reveals character details.

My first attempts at breather scenes eased back too much. They were boring. Not every conflict should be a matter of life and death, but there should always be something at stake.

Solution:

It’s important to give readers an emotional cool down, an eye in the storm of blood, but you need to make these breaks eventful in their own way.

These seemingly innocuous scenes should plant things that will factor in later. Every story should see its hero go through a profound personal change. Now is a good time to check in on what their situation is teaching them. Might they learn a lesson here that could be essential to their survival? Fill these low tension scenes with meaningful developments.

Impulse Items

When I wrote He Has Many Names I spent a lot of time researching hell and the devil. It colored the way I saw the world and tuned my ear to devilish things. Whenever I heard an idiom related to Satan I thought, “Now I’ve got to shoehorn that in.” I felt a compulsion to add Satanic puns in places the story didn’t need them. Fortunately my editors caught what I was doing and put a stop to it.

Solution: If you’re writing a vampire story you didn’t need to wedge every Twilight quip you can think of in. Just because youe subject is a well-trodden topic doesn’t mean you need to reference every incarnation of it. Over-referencing is a rookie mistake.

Darlings

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

My first drafts have a lot of darlings, little wordplay witticisms that break up the action. I like to write in the first person, but my narrators can be overtly clever, snarky, and mean spirited.

I find most of my clever one-liners wear on me after a few edits. By the final draft my narrators are a lot more likeable.

Solution:

I put my darlings into storage. It makes it easier to cut them. When a quirky line breaks up the flow of a scene I copy and paste it into its own document. Maybe I’ll re-gift it to a character who can wear it better later.

Closing Thoughts

When editing ask yourself if that extra character detail sparks joy, if your settings are cluttered with too many descriptions, and if all your plot points are load-bearing.

Sometimes when a story feels like it’s missing something it’s because it has too many things it doesn’t need and the parts that matter are underdeveloped.

Stop hording unnecessary details. Every aspect of your story should serve the central theme. If they don’t then you’re going to need to tidy that shit up.

Continue reading The Life-Changing Magic of Editing the Shit Out of Your Story

Should You Show the Monster?

I’ve long held that writers collaborate with their readers and that every reader makes their own artistic contribution.

Avid readers have stronger imaginations than people who experience stories exclusively through film and TV. As much as I love those mediums they’re made for passive consumption. Books put readers in the director’s chair. Sure the author chronicles the events, but its up to readers to visualize them. Readers have to cast the characters, provide the wardrobe, build the sets, and block out the scenes. The author does everything they can to make their story an enjoyable read, but the reader has to meet them halfway. Horror authors exploit this relationship by baiting readers into picturing their worst fears.

Have you ever noticed how the tension in horror movies deflates the more you know about the monster? The more you see it, the more you understand its rules and where it came from the less you’re frightened. The monster is less of a living breathing part of your mind and more of a static thing on screen. Suddenly there’s a barrier between the two of you keeping things safe and boring.

That’s why many horror authors never show the monster. They leave the audience to do all the heavy lifting. This approach works well on people with active imaginations, but readers who don’t feel like engineering their own bogymen feel cheated.

Horror writers need to strike a balance. Here are a few of my favorite techniques for doing just that.

Pose a Compelling Mystery

A well-placed spark will lure readers, like moths to flames, to their dread ridden doom. Pose a supernatural situation that’s simple to grasp, but hint at an explanation that could only be an awe-inspiring revelation.

  • A young musician is walking home when he’s attacked by a monster he can only see out of the corner of his eye: a wrinkled giant in tatters that may or may not be its own dead flesh. The monster unhinges its jaw, lets out a groan deeper than a cruise ship horn, and disappears. When the musician gets home he finds he can no longer play guitar. Turns out there are reports all over the city of artists experiencing similar attacks and losing their inspiration in the process.
  • An isolated woodland town is besieged by living nightmares, each one seemingly built to prey upon the resident’s worst fears. While most of these figures have the intended effect others appear strangely tone deaf, almost comical, suggesting the hand of an agent that doesn’t fully comprehend its audience.

Expect the audience to read your story over several sessions. Use those interruptions to plant ideas. Little mysteries for readers to mull over and leave them dangling at the end of each chapter. The best nightmare fuel is subtle. It works its way into readers’ minds slowly until they see their daily routine through the filter of your imaginings.

Leave Evidence of the Evil

The monster need not take the stage to own it. There are many ways to feel its presence. Leave an orgy of evidence, and readers will craft a composite of the creature themselves.

Picture this.It’s 1892. You open your chamber door to find it skewered. Something rammed the wood with enough force to leave hollow voids on the both ends of the knocker. You raise a candle to find craters leading up the cobblestones, and ripples in the puddles. Most of the oil lanterns have been snuffed out and the one that remains is shattered, belching flames.

This torch renders anything beyond it imperceivable, but you know there’s something out there weaving in and out of the tree line. Why else would the owls hold their tongues and the crickets yield the night to the wind?

You feel cold narrow eyes moving up your nightgown, pausing on your belly and settling upon your neck.

Picture this.It’s 2292. You’re aboard a long-range starship. The fluid drains from your stasis chamber, revealing fracture lines across your enclosure. You call out to the computer, “Open tube.”

The mechanism jerks hard, shattering the glass, spewing shards into the corridor. The lights that encircle the honeycomb hall blink red, some flicker out of phase with the others. Stepping over the jagged fragments of your chamber you find a bubbling black substance eating at the grates.

There’s a long gash looping around the walls, leading to a pitch-black med bay. Something long and chrome shoots out of the darkness. A blood speckled gurney lands at your feet.

Have Characters Test Theories

For me the creepiest scene in Paranormal Activityis when Micha sets out prove the presence visiting his partner Katie is physical. Micha spreads baby powder down the hall leading to the bedroom and aims a camera in that direction. That night the couple is awoken by a commotion. Micha finds talon prints leading up to the bed and streaks in the powder.

What I love about this scene is that is confirms the supernatural situation without demystifying the creature. It raises more questions than it answers.

Describe the Monster as Indescribable

Did you ever write an “exquisite corpse” story back in grade school? One student would write a sentence and pass it to the desk behind them. Horror writers can play that game with their readers. Here’s how. Just describe the effect the monster has on witnesses without revealing anything about its shape. This technique doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors. Your monster isn’t skulking in the shadows. It’s just so overwhelmingly hideous that it’s beyond description. It’s maddening.

“What did the beast look like?”

“Do you not see? It turned Byron’s hair white.”

This was a favorite device of gothic horror writers.

H.P. Lovecraft referred to so many of his terrors as “Indescribable.”

Edgar Allan Poe referred to the sights beyond his chamber door as “Phantasmagorical.”

Meaning: a dreamlike and deceptive appearance that changes upon further examination

Gothic horror writers used the neurosis of their characters to illustrate the monster’s grandeur.

Give a Peak by Proxy

The hit Netflix film Bird Boxis about monsters with the power to drive people to suicide at the mere sight of them, most people that is. The monsters have a different effect on people who are already mad. Insane individuals feel compelled to worship the monsters, with the ferocity of cult members, corralling survivors and forcing them to bear witness.

The audience never gets a direct look at the monsters, but one tainted character gives us a peak. He lays out a series of twisted tentacle-riddled portraits on the coffee table. These rough Lovecraftian rendering gives us a sense of what awaits Sandra Bullock just beyond the blinds.

Use Hallucinations

In Paul Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World” a character is struck in the back of the head and spends the rest of the story with a traumatic head injury. Sunlight gives him terrible migraines until he starts to see figures in the light. It’s ambiguous whether or not these figures are influencing the events of the story or if they’re a brought on by the bump on his noggin.

Closing Thoughts

My favorite monster stories utilize strategic ambiguity. For every question the author answers they pose two more. That way when the monster does step into the light it retains its mystique. It’s the enigma of the entity that gives it free reign over the audience’s imagination.

The horror writer is the architect of shadows. The readers are interim landlords. We lease them the long dark hall and they fill it with their nightmares. Eventually we move our own terrifying tenants into these atmospheric locations, but only after they’ve been lived in.

Continue reading Should You Show the Monster?