Writing Advice

Am I Writing the Right Story?

Springboarding today off an excellent post by Janice Hardy at diymfa: Are You Writing the Right Story?

I’m not going to parrot her advice, just answer the questions and prompts she provides.

  1. What kind of novels am I drawn to?

    Lately I’m drawn to crime thrillers and mysteries, in addition to my staple fantasy novels. I enjoy historical fiction, though I haven’t read much recently.

    A list of my favorite books, Lord. Um. I can’t name any crime-wise, aside from Black Lizard Pulp Collections. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless wove a period of history I’m interested in into a setting of legend and fantasy. Tim Powers’ Last Call provides grime-stained high weirdness. Fritz Lieber and Robert E. Howard give me grim heroism. I don’t enjoy the grimdark trend in fantasy, but looking at my favorites, I suppose it’s closer to what I’m drawn to than epic heroism.

  2. What kind of movies or tv shows am I drawn to?

    The only show I watch on a regular basis is Hell on Wheels, which is a Western full of difficult choices, complicated relationships, and a complete lack of status quo. I enjoyed Boardwalk Empire, which is similar in theme. In more formulaic shows, I loved Firefly for its dialogue and sharp characterizations. My favorite shows are actually nature documentaries – they’re not always story fodder, but visually they can be stunning.

  3. What similarities do you see? What common themes?

    They focus on an unstable world, where loyalties and priorities shift on a regular basis. They’ve all got protagonists who are competent though flawed. A few of them are straight-ahead bang-up action, more often they blend that action with introspection.

  4. Is there a recurring character type? 

    Competent but flawed protagonists. Slippery and powerful antagonists. Determined characters who may be at war with themselves, but who have chosen their path and will continue down it come what may.

  5. Are there recurring plots? 

    Ambition and determination.

This was a great exercise for anyone working to find their voice – I have some thinking to do.

(Thanks to Elizabeth S. Craig for the initial link to Janice’s post!)

Why Write Horror?

In my last post, I talk about why I read horror. I also admit it’s not my favorite genre to read.

So why write it?

The first answer is simple pragmatism. An editor makes an offer to pay me to write a horror story?

Horror it is!

I’m not, however, the kind of person who finds it easy to do something just for money. As I write about elsewhere, I have to care about the things I work on. During the first year of the Edge of Propinquity, I made a point of devouring more horror than I had in years, working to learn the genre, what I liked, what I disliked, where I could go.

What I enjoy:

  • A personal stake in the protagonist’s dilemma
  • Some sympathy for the antagonist’s plans
  • Speaking to a part of the human condition
  • Speaking to some element of society that has broken
  • A leavening of action and adventure

That last one is not necessary for me to enjoy a good read, mind you. However, I find it difficult at this stage of my development to write anything as clear and direct as Russell or Ballingrud – though I have made the effort in my story Splendid Isolation, appearing in 100 Doors to Madness, which is unencumbered by the trappings of high action.

Earlier posts talk about my creation of Gordon Velander and the Gentleman Ghouls. FAMISHED: THE COMMONS reveals more of the breadth and depth of the world of the Ghouls, and FAMISHED: THE RANCH will complete the arc at some time in the future.

As to the human condition, FAMISHED was praised by reviewers for its themes of isolation and family. I’ve made nods in different directions with other work, but it’s safe to say that exploring isolation and its effects on the human psyche takes up a good portion of my time.

As to society: See “family” above, as well as the effects of over-consumption and the human desire to establish control.

Others might find the same exploration of the human psyche in non-genre fiction, or in historical pieces. Many of the greatest science fiction writers and essayists of all time spent their lives focused on societal ills, real, imagined, or potential.

In short – establishing the things you enjoy reading allows you to write more effectively. What I enjoy has turned to the shadowy side of societal and psychological issues, and the fact that I find a personal catharsis in the darker elements of those explorations has made horror a good place for me today.

Only Half the Truth: III of III

In Part I, I discussed my mantra: “Write what you’re passionate to know more about.

In Part II, I explained how that impacted the writing of the FAMISHED series.

However, when I embraced this mantra, it also became clear that the flip side was true:

Don’t write about things you couldn’t care less about.

This caused problems for me in both books in one specific area: Modern law enforcement.

As I grew older, I came to respect the work of law enforcement agents more than in my youth, and developed an appreciation for the difficult jobs they do.

But the nuts and bolts of police procedure or detective work never grabbed me, as it has so many others.

I have never watched CSI, SVU, NYPD BLU. Grimm is as close as I ever came to an enjoyable police show.

I found more success studying private detectives. While they, too, are bound by codes, conventions and laws; their often solitary work intrigued me more than the team efforts of modern policing. (Film noir and pulp magazines such as Black Mask influenced me in my young adulthood, which played a part in this.) As such, I brought myself to study the modern methods and needs of real-world private detectives – but I never found a way to make a study of the official police agencies palatable to me.

However, the very first draft of THE COMMONS dealt with a public and fatal attack on a prominent American politician. That could never be kept a secret from law enforcement, and as I realized this limitation of my horizons, I scrapped that entire treatment.

The next draft of THE COMMONS introduced a private detective to investigate a disappearance, but alpha readers indicated his presence unbalanced the book and drew attention away from my true protagonist. He was cut from later drafts of the novel.

Realistic portrayal of situations, people, and procedures have always depended upon the author’s enthusiasm for the subject. A lack of enthusiasm for that knowledge inevitably led even famed authors to mistakes.

As a small example, in Lord of the Flies, William Golding described a thin crescent moon that rose just after sunset. A larger example: H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines featured a scene in which a total eclipse of the sun occurs on the day after a full moon. Astronomers – or even enthusiastic amateurs, passionate about the night sky – inevitably caught and published these blunders.

Those examples showed small details. How much worse might it have been if Golding or Haggard had made astronomy a main feature of their works?

Hence, my last statement on this theme: For accuracy, for excitement, for all good writing – if you didn’t care enough to research it, you should not have written it.

Only Half The Truth: II of III.

In my last post, I talked about my own motto: “Write what you’re passionate to know more about.”

I discussed the characters of my Idolwood series – but what happened when Apocalypse Ink approached me to turn Vorare into the FAMISHED novels?

First, I established the protagonist’s interests more fully. In my original concept, Gordon Velander was a teaching assistant focused on Medieval History, because at the time, that was what I knew most about. As I developed the dossiers for the character, I realized he was more of a Classical type. I had taken a Latin word as my original title, and Gordon would be embarking on an odyssey of his own – so I broke out my Homeric epics and took myself to task.

By the same token, I saw he’d be pushed to a practical path by his (absent) father. What practical careers was I interested in? Well … chef, which wouldn’t fly, for obvious reasons. And architecture, which I might have gone into were it not for a total lack of interest in the practicalities of mathematics and measurements. Architecture it was!

That’s where I first learned of Renzo Piano. Where I became more aware of Frank Gehry’s influence on my beloved hometown of Chicago. Where the full sweep of modern architecture became apparent to me.

I reached beyond his Catholic upbringing – for a man who lives with demons under his skin, he remains religious – and encountered the work of Rob Bell and Aruna Roy. And since he was a teacher living in Wisconsin in 2011, of course I learned more about Scott Walker’s anti-intellectual crusade.

In terms of FAMISHED: THE FARM, I had to do some further research for my antagonists, and place them in areas I remained interested in. I’m fortunate to have an elderly neighbor who grew up on a farm and spent most of his life as a short-haul trucker, and was able to interview him about daily life in both areas. The dynamics of cult behavior have always fascinated me, and I made use of that interest to develop the Gentleman Ghouls more fully, while learning more about the psychology of Jonestown and The Family.

While writing FAMISHED: THE COMMONS, there were other interests to consider. What is the state of elder care today? What does the world look like to a second-generation immigrant? How did the first American colonists survive and thrive? Is the hardcore punk scene still relevant?

All of these are questions that continued to interest me. In writing, I found a way to continue learning – at least, learning about those things I remained passionate about.

Find something you're passionate about, and stay tremendously interested in. - Julia Child

But what about the things you couldn’t care less about? (See mathematics and measurements, above.) How does a writer deal with those elements?

Part III of III will appear shortly.

Only Half The Truth: I of III.

Growing up a middle-class white suburban male to parents who wanted only the best for their children, I was sheltered.

I’ve never been proud of that, but it’s the truth.

As such, the standard advice to writers acted as a chain around my neck.

“Write what you know,” we are admonished. But what do I know about excitement?

I’ve never been in a fight. Never been in an accident. Never broken a law, only rarely disobeyed. Never been divorced, arrested, discriminated against.

As such, early in my career I focused on writing fantasy. Fantasy I knew. I loved the history and trappings of the European middle ages and Renaissance, the threadbare backdrop against which most fantasy is based.

None of my fantasy work got published. (Of course, none of it should have been.)

When I began writing horror set in the modern world, I realized “Write what you know” is only half the truth.

While writing the Idolwood series for The Edge of Propinquity, I knew I’d need main characters who were different from the protagonist of Vorare.

Gordon had a lot in common with me, naturally. It made him easier to write. But for Idolwood I’d need characters who were more worldly, less intellectual. The magic system of Idolwood required them to be obsessed by some routine or collection – to have something which pushed their buttons in a way that demanded their energy and time. Having three sheltered scholars who focused on books and fantasies would be … well, not unbearable in the right hands, but I’ve never claimed to be Umberto Eco.

So they had to have deep knowledge of things that drove them. I knew those things would have to be things I could push myself to learn more about. Things I was interested in, if not applying to my own life, at least theoretically of interest to me.

I developed my own saying then:

Write what you are passionate to know more about.

“Write what you’re passionate to know more about.”

For Idolwood, I picked three things: Bodybuilding, gardening, and the stock market. I pored over muscle magazines and horticultural websites. I wrote dozens of full workout schedules, the kind only hardcore muscleheads would love. I got my hands dirty with celery root and cilantro, studied the planting schedules for my region, spent hours weeding through the raised beds my wife had created. While I was on the treadmill I watched nothing but CNBC – Mad Money, Power Lunch, The Closing Bell.

Those three characters – Alexei Pajari, Edie Allaway, and Grey Jordan – were my most fully rounded creations yet.

My antagonists got the treatment, too. The art of doll-making, the tradition of “handles”, and the S&M subculture were things I could wrap my attention around with little difficulty. The Hanged Man and Gamine were not as well rounded as the protagonists – the blame for which lies on me – but they were still much more well-realized than any of my fantasy cutouts.

Next up: How this affected the writing of FAMISHED: THE FARM.

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