Tag Archives: writing advice

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Writing About Writers

A thought cloud forms overhead. Lightning flashes and you’re struck with the perfect premise, an eerie locale, and a clever twist. The idea is electric. You want to write it down before this thought cloud rescinds, but you’re convinced you need to write some quick character bios before you commit to draft.

Something tells you that your hero needs one of those jobs you’ve see on TV like a detective, or a lawyer, or doctor. Not because your premise demands it, but because it will feel familiar to readers. The only problem is writing about those careers requires knowledge you don’t possess.

You have no clue how to survey a crime scene. You have doubts about what the law considers a reasonable doubt, and you couldn’t do CPR to save your own life. Now before you move away from your inspiring thought cloud into a tunnel of endless research considering making your hero a writer.

Now I know, writers writing about writers is a cliché as old as writing itself, but there are a lot of benefits to centering your adventure on an author.

It’s What You Know

Writers write what they know, but all too often the subject we know most about is writing. This is why Stephen King has written so many stories about writers (I was going to count them all, but there are only so many hours in a day).

Writing is a subject you can talk about with authority. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published, if you’ve had meetings in New York, or pitched in Hollywood. You know what it’s like to wrack your brain over a single sentence that keeps giving you a hard time. You know what’s it like to draw inspiration from life events, from friends, and your surroundings. You know how writing makes you look at the world differently. You see stories in every anonymous interaction, scan your environment for hidden meanings, and see evidence of fate after the fact.

Writers are Sympathetic Characters

Writers are insufferable, grammar checking our friends. We’re longwinded, even though we know that brevity is the heart of wit, and we dominate conversation by turning them into impromptu pitch sessions. Writers may be jackasses, but we are sympathetic jackasses.

Why?

Most aspiring writers will fail. And… They… Know… It. Yup. Failure makes characters endearing. Even successful writers have a tall stack of rejection slips in their closet.  Audiences find driven characters endearing, and driven failures are sympathetic.

It’s also must be said the being a writer is a lonesome vocation. Everybody gets lonely, but a writer has to be. Chuck Palahniuk may, as he claims, write at parties, but the rest of us have to go into anti-social mode to get our two thousand words daily in. Even in public we have to tune out the noise in order transcribe our internal monologues.

How many Disney movies star solitary dreamers aspiring for something more? (I was going to count, but there are only so many hours in a day). Writers, even middle-aged ones struggling to get out from an unsatisfying career, are endearing, because they cling to the hope that somehow someday someone will read what they’re working on.

Writers Know A Little About A Lot

Well-read writers have a wealth of knowledge (surface level knowledge, but enough to be useful on trivia night). If your hero is a writer, and you’re writing in the first person, your hero can educate your audience directly. They can discuss story-telling mechanics as a foreshadowing technique, and explain plot devices moments before they happen.

If you ever have to explain how your hero knows something outside the field of their expertise, you can always say they picked it up researching a story.

“I picked up knife throwing skills when I wrote about an underground circus with life and death stakes.

“I learned how to count cards when I wrote about a back alley casino where players bet souls.”

“My lock picking skill came from that story I wrote about the stalker.”

Guillermo Del Toro’s life sized Edgar Allan Poe sculpture. Photo by me

Writers Have a Mixed Relationship With the rest of Humanity

Writers are fascinated with people. That fascination isn’t always full of childlike wonderment. We’re interested in people but we don’t necessarily love them. In fact we find them perplexing. They often act outside of their interest. They undercut their best efforts, and casually hurt one another with no consideration. Their capacity for empathy blinks off then roars back on. We want to understand people because we struggle to understand ourselves and that’s endearing.

As long as your curmudgeonly wordsmith is curious about the human condition readers will find them compelling.

Everyone Wants to be One

Everyone wants to be a writer or thinks they have one good novel in them if only they had the time to write it down. They may have even kicked at the tires of drafting something. That said they might have a pretty good idea what the writing process is like or yearn to read about the extremes another author’s methods require.

Just remember: the more extravagant your hero’s writing process is the more driven they’ll seem.

Writing about a Writer Opens the Door to Meta Storytelling If your hero is a writer they can explain what it means to be an unreliable narrator and then turn around and be one. They can backhandedly refer to scenes that they decided to cut. They can point to a plot hole and promise to fill it or suffer the wrath of the reader’s intellect. They can call out their own clichés before putting a fresh spin on them.

When your hero is a writer you get to play with storytelling mechanics, break the forth wall, and put the reader on the spot. A first person story staring a writer is a dangerous thing. At any moment the hero can go rogue and tell the reader that their theories about the twist are wrong.

Closing Thoughts

Making your hero a writer might feel like a cop out, but it will make your story feel authentic because you know what the job is like.

…and frankly don’t we have a enough stories about doctor, lawyers, and detectives already?

5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell

It’s said that there are many hells. Each specifically tailored to fit the damnation of the souls in question. Then it stands to reason there’s a subterranean superstore where rude people are put to work. Welcome to Retail Hell, a short story now available on Amazon.

Oppressive Situations Limit Character Development

When we meet Barbara she’s berating both a clerk behind a checkout counter and a call center representative. She’s a familiar Ebenezer Scrooge type character. She’s put through an ordeal. She has an aneurism and wakes up for her first shift in the literal Retail Hell. Just like Scrooge she’s taught empathy through supernatural means, but her journey doesn’t necessarily end with her gifting turkeys on Christmas morning.

My hell is so oppressive it leaves Barbara’s character with few places to go, other than with the flow.

I believe every story should have a change of some kind. Usually that change involves a character learning a lesson, being humbled then empowered, and rising to a challenge as a better person. BUT… Sometimes it’s the audience’s expectations of the hero that need to change. We go in thinking a toxic braggadocios brute is going to have a sense of modesty impressed upon them, and he does, but it doesn’t take. In those situations it’s the audience that goes through the change. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell

Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

Writers are always told our fiction should be informed by our experiences, because the best stories have a kernel of truth to them. With this in mind we smuggle our quote books into our characters’ mouths. We cast colleagues as our leads, and we misappropriate our memoirs into our material. We find and replace our own names and over-share under aliases. We launder tell off speeches through nom de plumes and reveal our truth through jest.

We write what we know until we write the fantastic elements of our story. Then we drop that mantra completely. Without the experiences to draw from we use other methods to ground our stories. We impose rules on the impossible.

A ghost can pester the living from the further, but will be weaker than a person who dares to go there. A magician can project a torch flame across the room, but the heat will diminish 60%. A Jedi can project his consciousness across the galaxy, but the journey will kill him.

We rely on western storytelling conventions to suspend our readers’ disbelief. We hope an internal logic will do the trick. For the most part it works, but what if there was a way to make our fantasies resonate with the same sense of authenticity as stories in our diaries? What if we had fantastic life experiences and we didn’t even know it?

Dreams are Experiences

Dreams are the only place (outside of drug fueled journeys, psychotic episodes, and virtual reality) where we experience true fantasy. Unlike daydreams, dreams push us out of the driver’s seat. When we ride through dream country we’re not creators, we’re experiencers. Our feelings aren’t manufactured, they’re reactive, and due to this delusion of perception, our observations are authentic.

I have friends who check out whenever I pitch them a story, but they lean in whenever I start talking about nightmares.

This is why I advocate the keeping of a nightmare journal, a Compendium of phantasms, an Atlas of the abyss, a Bestiary of bogeymen. You get the idea. Continue reading Why Every Horror Writer Needs A Nightmare Journal

On Writer’s Block and Maladaptive Daydreaming

Like most writers, I have a fantasy prone personality. This proves useful when I’m visualizing the layout of a haunted hotel, filling the art deco décor with pipe organ chandeliers, gargoyles, and mirrored elevators. It proves troublesome when I feel an urge to sit in total silence for several hours imagining what it would’ve been like had I become the rock star my high school self was certain I would, contemplating how I would’ve downplayed public breakups, circumvented beefs with other artists in the press, and teased out topical new material.

Some fantasies boost our imaginative powers while others just eat our hours. That brings us to one of the most insidious forms of writer’s block an aspiring author can face:Maladaptive Daydreaming. Continue reading On Writer’s Block and Maladaptive Daydreaming

5 Lessons I Learned Writing The Pigeon King

When an aspiring podcaster finds his balcony overrun with pigeons he learns that madness doesn’t migrate, some sounds cannot be suppressed,and that isolation can serve as an invocation entity known as The Pigeon King. Read the short story now on Amazon.

Everything The Writer Sets Up Must Payoff

I wanted to write a story about a man who had such an intense aversion to noise pollution that he goes totally insane. I chose pigeons as the source of his torment because they couldn’t be reasoned with and I made the hero a podcaster to make his dilemma all the more maddening.

I figured the hero’s podcast would be something like This American Life, human-interest audio essays, that sort of thing. It just needed to be something that he could record alone, because madness, as you know, is an intimate experience.

I decided to make the subject of his recordings the Japanese shut-ins known as the hikikomori. This would setup the theme of isolation and foreshadow the madness to come.

It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that my hero’s critical perception of the hikikomori would factor into the ending.

A few chapters in I’d decided a monster known as the Pigeon King monster would show up in the third act, but I had no clue what it would do when it got there. In a lesser story it would’ve pecked our hero’s eyes out and that would’ve been that, but I decided to go for a twist and have the Pigeon King challenge the premise of our hero’s podcast, bringing everything full circle.

There Are Legal Limits to Your Pop Culture References

So it turns out you can say your hero is an obsessive fan of Harry Potter. It’s okay to name drop famous characters so long as you’re not giving them staring roles, but the more you reference Wizarding World lore the closer you get to that blurry line. Once you quote dialogue from another source you’re over the line completely.

This may not be an issue when you’re posting on fan fiction forums, but it is when you’re selling things on Amazon. Having read the site’s terms and conditions I decided to gut the bulk of my hero’s references.

Hint at the Supernatural Before the 3rdAct

IfThe Pigeon Kingwas a movie I imagine a lot viewers in the audience going, “Wait, what?” during the 3rdact. I mentioned that there’s a monster, one that manifests in a way that defies all physical, and medical, logic. It’s pretty clear in the first chapter that something bizarre is afoot in our hero’s condo, just not thatbizarre.

The most rewarding twists give the audience just enough evidence to sense the possibility of a twist on the horizon while leaving them smacking their forearms saying, “Why didn’t I see that coming?”

Ultimately I think I kept too much of the mystery to myself.

A Clear Genre is More Important than Originality

When you’re pitching to a film producer the last thing you want to hear is, “That sounds complicated.”

That’s producer-speak for this story would be too tough to sell audiences.

I could tell you that The Pigeon Kingis a story about one man’s strugglers with a pigeon infestation, but that sounds more like a Looney Tunes cartoon than a short story.

When I shot a Twilight Zone-esque book trailer for The Pigeon King I made it a point to mention “something supernatural summons these squawking squatters” but I couldn’t commit to calling it a horror story. Sure, there’s a sense of looming dread that leads to a great big supernatural reveal, but most of it is played for laughs.

I like genre blurring stories but they are a tough sell, especially for a relative unknown like myself. If I really wanted to put my best foot forward on Amazon I should’ve lead with my next short Retail Hell, a story about a subterranean superstore that leans a lot harder on horror.

Closing Thoughts

I love The Pigeon Kingas it’s written. It’s just is one of those stories that’s tough to sell to people without spoiling the ending. The next batch of stories I’m putting on Amazon are more premise driven and their genre and tone are more evident by their titles. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing The Pigeon King

How to Build Your Own Inferno

Hell is an ever-changing landscape, a neighborhood every would-be master of the macabre wants to build real estate on. The bible says Hell is a lake of burning sulfur, a blazing furnace filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth yada-yada-yada. It’s actually a bit fuzzy on the details. There was a lot left for the likes of Dante and Milton to fill in. It’s from their foundations the blueprint got passed down for generations.

The Hell Loop

While hell has enjoyed many renovations since its inception several storytellers have settled on the one design. Let’s call it the hell loop. In a hell loop a sinner is forced to relive their worst memory for all eternity. It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray’s character couldn’t change the events he relived, learned nothing from them, and had less time before the loop came back around.

You’ll see examples of this in movies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey andConstantineand in TV shows like The Twilight Zone,American Horror Story, Preacher, and Lucifer.

I think the hell loop cheats the audience. Hell is one of those colorful settings where writers have license to go big, get weird, and revel in the absurd. Looping a real world event feels like a copout. It’s an easy scenario to film on a budget and it doesn’t require much imagination. The scenario provides a safe default when hell’s architect doesn’t feel like drawing up a plan.

While a hell loop would be a horrible thing to experience it isn’t all that poetic. Continue reading How to Build Your Own Inferno

How to Breathe New Life Into Old Scares

A few years back I wrote an article called Horror Clichés in Need of an Exorcism . My premise was that superstitions erode over time. Horror authors can’t just conjure up the same old scares as their forbearers and expect them to work. The things that haunted older generations turn into clichés in the light of reason. Fears like razor blades in Halloween candy, the Satanic panic, and alien abductions all came with expirations.

Among the clichés my article targeted were Ouija boards. I thought it was common knowledge that Ouija boards depended on the subconscious movements of their participants, something known as the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that’s been proven in lab conditions. I thought I spoke for the horror community when I asserted that spirit boards had no more scares left in them (of course I was wrong).

At the time I went to great lengths to design covers for my articles. That one featured me made up like the demon Pazuzu from The Exorcist. I couldn’t think of a great backdrop so I settled on a giant Ouija board.

Not long after I published the piece I got a DM from a Twitter user warning me to steer clear of those fabled Ouija boards. I told him to read the article to find out why he needn’t worry about me.

He DMed me back, “That’s funny and all, but seriously, don’t fuck around with those things.”

I didn’t know how to break it to him that I wasn’t playing the same role-playing game he was. The one he was playing required him to treat an alphabet on cardboard as a tool of the devil. Mine didn’t.

Here was a full-grown man who considered Ouija boards contraband. Part of me pitied him. Another more insidious part of me envied the hell out of him. Why? This man had retained a kind of childlike wonder that I’d never get back again. Maybe it wasn’t wonder but more of fear of some esoteric unknown. I wasn’t afraid of Ouija boards because I knew how the ideomotor effect worked. I’d seen it demonstrated and I’ve never been possessed. Continue reading How to Breathe New Life Into Old Scares

So You’ve Burned Yourself Out. Now What?

So you published something brilliant, filmed a book trailer, did the podcast circuit, the blog tour, local readings, and a slew of conventions. You’ve hand sold at outlet stores at a table fit for a three-card Monte hustler. You ran out onto a football field wearing nothing but a book banner. You did everything to promote your writing.

Now you’re out on parole, slouched on the couch, utterly spent. You never want to go through that process again.

Yet the shadow of Stephen King looms over you, a modern day Moses commanding, “Thou shalt write every day.”

So you dab your worn arthritic fingers upon the keyboard until autocorrect spits out some sentences and you find yourself questioning your own literacy. The spark of inspiration has fizzled to ash. What you once did for relief now feels like a chore. What should you do? Continue reading So You’ve Burned Yourself Out. Now What?

Are You A Social Media Sociopath?

Writers are always told to boost our presence online, to engage fans on social media and stake a claim on our respective genres, but these boosting bombardments eat into our writing regiments. Our manuscripts sit on the back burner while we argue with Reddit moderators. Our word counts diminish with every tweet we finish.

Writers only have so much creative energy. If we are always trying to lure readers to our blogs our energy drains fast. Our labor of love starts to feel laborious.

We’d rather use that stamina we spend on social media telling stories. So we ration our online interactions. We compose compelling questions so we can smuggle our spam onto public forums. We target influencers to reach new readers. We hijack hashtags.

The problem with rationing our involvement is that we tend to come across as inauthentic, intrusive, and inorganic.

“You say you’re struggling with depression, that it feels like no one will listen, and the walls are closing in? Sounds similar to a character I’ve written. I prescribe a double dose of my fiction. One copy for yourself and another for a friend.”

Not every writer on social media is stealth marketing to the unsteady, but thinking algorithmically does do something to your personality. Once the phrase “cultivate relationships” enters your vocabulary you lose some of your emotional intimacy. Your ability to empathize is diminished when you start seeing people as clicks. Continue reading Are You A Social Media Sociopath?

Eavesdropping Advisory: Vlog

A vlog on why you should never be rude around a writer. Continue reading Eavesdropping Advisory: Vlog