There is a trend in most modern horror that turns me off faster than pretty much anything else. I say “most” because there are exceptions, but it is common enough to bother me. More than that, I think it is becoming more prevalent and that it has even started showing up in other genres.
I call it “The Psychopath Syndrome.”
Let me explain with an example.
I am currently reading The Troop by Nick Cutter. Besides having the perfect horror writer name, Cutter has also crafted an incredibly creepy story. The monster is terrifying, and Cutter’s writing is a study in how to make mundane things frightening, but he falls into a trap that destroys, or at least significantly damages, the story’s believability: All his characters are psychopaths.
To see why this is a problem, you have to understand that The Troop is about a Boy Scout troop that gets isolated on an island off the eastern coast of Canada when what amounts to a biological weapon is released on the island. I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t all Boy Scouts psychopaths?”
No. No they aren’t.
I spent a lot of time with the Boy Scouts growing up, and even still have regular contact with them. I admit that there is definitely a “Boy Scout Effect” that seems to neutralize the parts of their brains that keep them from doing stupid things, and I will also admit that there is the rare bully, but that’s not the same thing.
In Cutter’s Troop, one boy is a sociopathic bully who mercilessly locks up the Scoutmaster when he gets infected and treats everyone else like a punching bag, another boy has significant anger management issues, another is suffering from an identity crisis, and another is a full-on serial killer-in-the-making. Only one boy is what I would define as relatively normal (though the boy suffering an identity crisis will be familiar to the social outcasts of the world).
See the problem?
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop? That stretches believability to the breaking point.
I'm not saying boys like these do not exist, but in a single troop?
And that’s the problem. In modern horror (and spreading to other genres), everyone is a psychopath or suffering from extreme neurological disorders. And while I understand that the world of fiction is often meant to be a magnification of reality, the idea that decent, average people are in the vast minority of the population can often ruin a story for me. It’s why I don’t like reading Stephen King.
I am also currently reading a book about writing: Blake Snyder’s seminal Save the Cat! I will discuss Snyder’s work in more detail later, but for now, I want to focus on one concept: the idea of saving the cat.
For Snyder, it’s important that main characters be, at least to some degree, likable or relatable. Think of Ripley in Alien. Even though the ship is alien-infested and the self-destruct counter is ticking down, she goes back to save the cat (I’m not certain if this is where the phrase comes from, Snyder has yet to explain in the book). It is a moment, almost more than any other, that defines her as a hero (Aliens, the sequel, ups the ante by sending her back for a child). Snyder argues that every story needs a moment like that so that the readers can root for the characters.
I don’t know that a “save the cat” moment is necessary in fiction. I think a legitimate argument can be made to omit it, and I can certainly see a case for compelling, despicable characters (I’m looking at you Gillian Flynn), but I also think they should be in the minority, because the truth is: most people are pretty decent, and watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Watching decent people struggle against impossible odds makes for a better story.
Seriously, how many outright, evil villains have you met or known in your life? How many actual (not figurative or pseudo) psychopaths do you associate with on a regular basis?
Sure, your boss may be a jerk, and that guy who cut you off in traffic is darned lucky you don’t have a button that will vaporize the car in front of you, but are they really evil? Are they really psychopaths?
Again, I’m not saying those don’t exist, what I’m saying is that they aren’t the norm.
I’m also not saying all humans are wonder, kind-hearted, generous people. Humans today are just what they’ve always been: a flawed mix of good and bad, capable of great destruction and hate and incredible creativity and compassion. They are complex and difficult, they make mistakes and are capable of inflicting terrible pain, but few are outright deviant or psychotic. In fact, most are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories–even horror stories where characters are little more than monster chow–we cheapen them and we add to the darkness of a world already cast too much in shadow.
When we give into the Psychopath Syndrome, when we write nothing but terrible people into our stories, ... we cheapen them.
The solution is not to write characters that are so unbelievably good–so Pollyanna-ish–that they will be too sweet for even the darkest creature’s palette. The solution is write believable characters, complex characters that approximate reality. Give readers someone they recognize, someone they associate with on a regular basis, and they drive them hell and see how they come out on the other side. Your writing will be better for it.
Over the last two weekends, I attended 2 separate writing conferences: the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold conference in Denver, and the Arizona Night Writers Association conference in Gilbert, Arizona. I met awesome people at both, and also saw some really amazing panels and workshops. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share some of the things that I learned. Today, I am sharing my notes of the most useful presentations at the RMFW conference about editing.
The presentation, called "Coal to Diamonds: How to Edit Your Manuscript From First Draft to Final Polish," was given by bestselling ninja mystery author, Susan Spann (who also gave me invaluable advice about pitching my own novel!). In the presentation, she explained her writing/editing process in detail. That process, she explains, involves 7 individual drafts (she defines a draft a a full edit from beginning to end). Let's break them down one-by-one
1st: Word Vomit
Susan writes her first draft as word vomit. There is no filter. Everything goes on the page as quickly as possible. The goal is to get the story in some form onto the page. It will be rough, it may lack important details, but it is written down. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Three things are important for this draft:
1. No editing. Just write. Get it out.
2. Set a word limit that you will reach per day and stick to it. Susan's limit is 6,000 words (she writes her first draft in 10 days!). Most writers can't handle that, so she advises to pick a limit and stick to it until you've mastered it and then up it. She started with a limit of 250 words and built up.
3. If you get stuck, think of the most improbably thing that can happen in your world and shoot for it. Try killing off a main character (or almost doing so) or something along those lines. This will help spark your creativity, and you can get through it.
2nd: The Skeleton
3rd: Research and Detail
When Susan has questions that require research or discovers places that need more detail during the 1st and 2nd drafts, she notes them in her manuscript and moves on. Now is the time to go back, do the research, and add that detail.
Another focus of the 3rd draft is to bring in the emotional impact of the story. This is often found in the details in how characters move and speak. Dialogue and mannerisms start to become very important here.
4th: Chapters and Trim
5th: Annoy the Family
Susan reads her 5th draft out loud. When she finds a place that causes her to stumble, she fixes it. This is one of the best ways to ensure that the words flow.
The goal for this draft is to add your unique voice to your story. It is also to check for grammar, sentence structure, and echo words.
The book finally goes out for critiques. Most other writers would consider this the alpha and beta reader stage. I'm not certain whether Susan takes partial work to a critique group, but it didn't sound like it from her presentation. In her words, this is when the story is finally read by others.
Most authors find this stage very difficult. Susan's advice is to remember that there is nothing your critique partners can say that will be as mean as someone on Amazon. In other words, as a writer, you need to learn to take it.
There is nothing your critique partners can say that is as mean as someone on Amazon.
Once the critiques come back, Susan goes through them and incorporates comments she believes are useful into the book. While she doesn't use everything, she does think about each comment and asks herself what made the commenter say it.
7th: Spit and Polish
The final draft, a last pass through the story for spit and polish, and then it is off to the agent.
Writing is very personal. Every author must find their own process and their own voice. However, learning the processes that work for others can be very instructive. I was surprised to discover that my own process is similar to Susan's, but I learned some new things that I will try as well.
What is your process?
My head was pounding. My heart was thudding. My hands were sweating. My throat was dry. And that was just for the pitch coaching session.
Last week, I gave my first, honest-to-goodness author pitch to an agent. It was one of the most terrifying, anxiety-inducing experiences of my life. Two weeks earlier, I had no idea what a pitch WAS, much less how to write and deliver one. What I found online was contradictory, and in spite of the assurances of my critique group, I felt woefully unprepared.
Spoiler, the pitch went well. I didn't keel over dead, and the agent asked to read my manuscript. Woo!
Along the way, I learned a few things that I think will help other writers looking to pitch.
First: Your pitch needs to be short.
Everything I found online suggested that a pitch should be a couple of paragraphs. So that was what I prepared. I took it to my pitch coach the day before my pitch and she scrapped the whole thing.
"It's too much detail," she said.
She had me tell her about my story and wrote down details. Afterwards, she constructed a single sentence:
"A group of engineers in the Arizona desert loses contact with the outside world, only to discover that they are being hunted by a creature of animated stone who feeds on the blood of the living."
It was simple, straightforward, and incredibly accurate. It also highlighted the primary conflict (overcoming the creature) and the main characters (the engineering group). Even better, it focused on what makes my story different (a creature of animated stone). It was also easy to remember (a HUGE plus).
When I repeated this line to the agent, her eyebrows went up, she wrote some notes and asked for more.
Second: Be ready for a conversation.
After rewriting my pitch, my pitch coach (the awesome author Susan Spann) walked me through a conversation about my book. She helped me identify the key points I want to raise: where the creature comes from, why the engineering team is in the desert, what books/movies/TV shows are comparable to my book.
While not every one of these questions came up in the actual pitch session, some did. It also made me think about short, to-the-point summary sentences that helped me pitch better.
Third: Practice, practice, practice.
The night between my coaching session and my pitch, I practiced. A LOT. The morning of my pitch found me making laps through the conference hotel halls repeating my pitch line and reenacting potential conversations in my mind.
Another conference attendee saw this, recognized what I was doing, and stopped me to talk. She asked me for my pitch and engaged me in a conversation. It was awesome, because it helped me see that the pitch worked OK for others. I don't remember her name, but I am very grateful for her help.
Finally: Just do it
In the end, you just need to do it. The very next week, I found myself at another conference. I had a chance to talk to other writers and agents. I used the pitch. The result was some awesome conversations. More important, I will be better prepared the next time.
I'll probably still be terrified.
A few years ago, my very astute children coined the term: "Nervicited." It describes the state you are in when you are both very nervous and very excited about something. It also describes exactly how I've felt all week.
Late tomorrow, I'm off to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference (#RMFW2017) for the rest of the week. This will be my very first writers conference and I'm very, very excited to meet all the awesome people I'm certain will be there and to spend 3 days focusing on nothing but writing. While I'm there, I will be participating in a critique group with a real agent, pitching my book to another agent, and reading the first chapter to a ballroom full of strangers.
I. Am. Terrified.
I don't know if non-artists fully appreciate how difficult it is for artists to share their work with others who might criticize it. My writing is a part of me. If you don't like it, that can feel very personal, even if it isn't.
I know. I know. What's the worse that can happen? Probably nothing. I'm going to have a cool experience no matter what, but knowing that hasn't reduced my anxiety even a little bit.
Maybe I'm just overly dramatic.
Maybe I'm just nervicited.
Wish me luck!
It's fun to tell people you've written a 100,000 word novel. Their eyes grow huge and they stare at you like you are some kind of freak of nature.
"I could NEVER write that much," they say with an expression of awe usually reserved for rock stars or Deity. We can discuss my opinions of THAT statement another day, but in a way they are right: Stringing together 100K+ words into a coherent plot is a challenge, not to mention the difficulty of actually making said 100K+ words good. But even that is nothing compared to trying to write a pitch.
For those of you not in the know, a pitch is a 1-2 paragraph description of your book designed to hook an editor or agent. I will be pitching my book to an actual agent at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference next week (I'm very nervous), and so I've spent many hours over the past few weeks writing my pitch.
It is so hard!
How am I supposed to distill 350 pages of sweat and tears and ups and downs and life and death into a couple hundred words? And then, to top it all off, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO MEMORIZE IT!
I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like so many of my hopes and dreams are tied up in these 2 paragraphs. This feels like make-or-break time. Do or die. Fish or cut bait. Paper or plastic!
Okay. Maybe that's a bit much, but it is still amazingly hard.
Incidentally, I'd love to share my pitch with you, but I can't. An unfortunate reality is that, by its nature, it has to spoil the ending. So you'll just have to wait to read the book.
The last couple of weeks, I have been working on incorporating beta reader feedback into my book. It has been an amazing experience.
For those of you not in the know, beta readers are readers who get to read a manuscript before it is pitched to an agent or publishing house. They provide feedback to the author on what they liked, what they disliked, and any suggestions on improving it.
Handing your manuscript off to beta readers can be nerve wracking. Imagine handing off one of your children to someone else and asking them to tell you everything wrong with that child. Beta reading kind of feels like that. At the same time, it can be awesome.
If they like your book, you get some awesome praise. Authors love praise. Some of the praise I received included:
I really like the "monster". I read quite a bit of horror and this was unlike anything I've ever read. Really unique and creepy as hell!
Or how about my wife's comment after finishing the book for the first time:
Well, that was horrifying.
And one of my favorites:
This was one of the best horror books I have read and I would definitely recommend others to read it.
And then there is the ultimate compliment for any writer:
Yes, I would definitely read the next book in the series (and the next, and the next) and I would recommend it to everyone I know.
And then there's the part where they make your story better. My beta readers found a couple of small plot holes. Filling them has really improved the story, even if they weren't gaping craters.
So, even if they can be absolutely terrifying, they can also be one of the best parts of writing.
Last week's post got me thinking about genre again (it's surprising how many things do that). Specifically, I was thinking about the horror genre and the age old question: what makes something horrific?
I don't know that there is a real answer to that question, but my personal favorite is a quote I read somewhere that I can't appropriately attribute because I haven't found it since (though I think it was credited to either Alfred Hitchcock or Guillermo del Toro). It's a very simple definition that I also think accurately sums up what I find horrifying (please note, I'm paraphrasing because, as I said earlier, I can't find the actual quote):
Horror occurs when something is present that should not be there or when something should be there and isn't.
I LOVE this definition! Think about the most horrifying movie you've ever seen. Which parts were the most terrifying? Were they the moments when you fully saw the monster? No, usually, they are the parts you can't see.
Due to serendipitous technical difficulties, Steven Spielberg's Jaws became the masterpiece that it is because they couldn't show the freaking shark! While seeing a fin heading toward a boat would have been scary, it was far scarier to see the barrels pop up out of the water and head toward the boat. Or, even worse, when the barrels disappeared when that should be impossible! An amazing bit of horror.
An interesting example is the old miniseries of Stephen King's IT, which is appropriate given the upcoming movie. I saw this miniseries on VHS when I was in high school--probably a sophomore. I hadn't transitioned to my enjoying horror phase, yet, so watching with friends was an act of stupidity I lived to regret (going into gym locker rooms still gives me the shivers). In my opinion, the first two-thirds of that movie worked exceptionally well. True, you did see Pennywise (sometimes), but he was so out-of-place, so "something that is present that should not be" that he was absolutely terrifying. The same thing with the balloons. In-and-of-themselves, they are not scary, but put them in a sewer with the words "We all float down here" and suddenly your skin crawls. And yet... And yet the last third of that movie was a major disappointment. Why? Because we finally saw the monster and it just wasn't that terrifying. It felt in-place in the deep underground, and we were expecting it (sort of). So in the end, it just wasn't that scary.
The trick, I've found in writing, is how do you create that feeling of alienness about something normal. Even a jar of peanut butter in the right setting with the right description can be horrifying. If you can figure that out, poof, you're a horror writer!
To my amazing wife's chagrin and to my surprise, I'm a horror writer. Looking back, I can't really say how that happened or when. I remember, as a 6-year-old, being so terrified of the movie Poltergeist that I was scarred for life. Ghostbusters had me terrified to go into my parents' back bathroom for fear that the Library Ghost would be waiting for me (NOTE: I have also never figured out why I thought the Library Ghost would haunt my parents' bathroom). I can even remember, as a child, the first time the horror of death really struck me (it was while I was watching Superman II). So I was a pretty sensitive kid who pretty much avoided everything horror, and I'm not sure when things changed.
By the time I was in high school, I was working on a series about a kid who saw monsters everywhere and set out to kill them. The first book--the very first one I ever completed--was about him stalking a poor town doctor that had the misfortune of looking like a vampire (read the first chapter). The story was played for laughs, but looking back, there were elements of horror in it, so sometime around there I started delving into the darker side of things, but it wasn't until recently that I went full on horror.
The thing is that, even as a kid, the idea of horror fascinated me, even if it scared the crap out of me at the same time. There is something incredibly cathartic about facing fears and coming out victor in the end. There is something inspiring about watching people struggle against Hell. Whether they succeed or not seems less important than the fact that they struggle. In spite of all the odds and the dangers and the pressing darkness and the betrayals, they keep fighting.
And then there's just the fact that monsters are cool. But that's a topic for another day.