Writing Advice

Need New Monsters? Look Within.

This month, Nightmare Magazine contains a wonderful article by Kate Jonez on horror’s need for new monsters.

Monsters, whether they are metaphors for human fears or failings or the manifestation of external evil, are the most fascinating element of horror fiction. Western horror fiction, if authors take appropriate care to respect the culture from which the monster was borrowed, can only grow richer by embracing a wider tradition.

She introduces us to a splendid panoply of creatures from other cultures (including my new favorite, the Busaw).

I fully agree with Ms. Jonez’s statement that the basis of our monsters lie in the things we fear. In my mind, however, the best way to find a new monster is not in the folklore of others, but in a deeper introspection.

Smarter people than I have spent much more time examining and reviewing the notion of monsters in our basic human fears (Death, the other, and the wilderness).

The same is true of cultural fears (Grendel vs. Anglo-Saxon hospitality, Frankenstein’s Adam vs. Victorian English faith).

These universal or cultural fears can get you started; but to create a truly new monster, you must look within.

What brings you awake, screaming? What lurks in your shadow?

Yes, I fear starvation, and its most extreme answer, cannibalism – the obvious roots of the FAMISHED series.

I also fear blind adherence to tradition, self-righteousness, and a faith that cannot question. All of these can be seen in my Gentleman Ghouls.

I fear isolation and the tendency toward self-harm. I fear, not violence per se; but the extent of our capacity for violence.

I fear an inner, existential emptiness that seeks to be filled, and accepts the simplest answer at hand.

If you’ve read FAMISHED: THE FARM, none of this should be a surprise.

In FAMISHED: THE COMMONS, new and different fears give rise to new and different monsters.

All of them are deeply personal. Many are universal. They are unusual, if not unique.

Go now. Call your monsters forth.

Editing Famished: The Commons

When I wrote Famished: The Farm, I was lucky enough to work with the inestimable Lillian Cohen-Moore as an editor. She took the draft, and she truly made it work – in ways I didn’t understand, and in ways I didn’t see.

She fixed my grammar without comment or complaint. I wouldn’t have been published without Lily.

As I said, however, she did work I didn’t see.

I often thought of editing as the second cousin to writing. Fiddly and mechanical, neat and precise; words which are rarely applied to any part of my life.

Still, I was willing to do the work on The Farm once Jennifer had her final read-through.

Hardly anything was left to be done. I was surprised, but pleasantly so, and I didn’t question it.

With Famished: The Commons, Lily’s work schedule had picked up; and I wasn’t able to reach out to her for assistance. My alpha and beta readers included smart, clever people, and other writers; but their feedback was not on the mechanical precision of the work. It was on the themes, the characters, the plot holes. Things I could fix … not easily, but fixes I was comfortable with.

Jennifer Brozek’s first words after her editing pass were, “Don’t panic.”

The three biggest issues – or, perhaps, the issues I would struggle with most – were the use of passive voice, mangled tenses, and pacing. In my long-passed English classes I could tell the difference between voice and tense well enough to pass a written test, but there are years of age and whiskey between those classes and today.

Jennifer recommended I get a copy of The Ten Percent Solution: Self-Editing for the Modern Writer and review it before starting to work. I did so, and found it a remarkably helpful book. Between its advice, Jennifer’s editorial notes, and a few executive decisions, I got the tense and voice issues resolved.

I also tightened the prose. I tended to write meandering, aimless, dreamy scenes.

(Words which are often applied to many parts of my life.)

That tightening, along with losing one main character to the edits, probably cost me a third of the written book. Over 20,000 words down the drain.

From the standpoint of someone who no longer views editing as a second cousin, but as a stern but fair parent? It’s a godsend.

The book has been delayed by this work, but has been improved by it.

I, too, have been delayed and improved by this work.

In the next Editing post: pacing issues and conventions.


I’m lucky to have publishers like Apocalypse Ink Productions.

My editorial notes came through last week. Here’s their header:


It’s possible they know me too well.

Jokes aside, we’ve had follow-up conversations around what I need to do in the next draft. I am looking forward to the challenge – and challenge is the proper word.

I’m sharing those for any other fresh authors who might be tempted to panic on receipt of such a list. These are in the order I plan to tackle them, for reasons described below.

  1. Writing out a character and his chapters. One of my alpha readers commented that a private investigator character took over the protagonist’s role halfway through the book. Other readers mentioned that his relationship with another character seemed “schizophrenic*.” In the end, we decided that the best thing to do would be to write the PI out completely. I’ve not had to do that before for a story of this length
  2. Tense and Voice. On THE FARM, I was lucky to have the indomitable spooky wizard Lillian Cohen-Moore as an editor before Apocalypse Ink saw the draft. I suspect she did a lot of cleanup on my tense and voice issues. This time around, she was only in my corner in spirit. As such, I’m going back to school. At Jennifer Brozek’s suggestion, I picked up and read The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. I’m applying his notes to this blog post, and all future writing. I don’t think this is going to be hard for THE COMMONS. I do think it’s going to take some time. I want to do this early on, so that my re-writes use the same voice and rules.
  3. Firm up motivations and relationships. I mentioned the relationship issue in point one. My editor also felt there were other places where character wants and needs were shaky, unclear, or unstable. As such, I’m going back to my character bibles to redo some foundations. That’s step three, since it will impact many future choices.
  4. Revamp the final four chapters. Between losing a character and re-framing motivations, I’ll need to focus on the ending more than ever. I can’t do that until I manage the above tasks.
  5. Review pacing. My point of view shifts are off from the editorial expectations. As such, I need to add a few chapters and rearrange others.
  6. More of Character X. There is a minor character in THE COMMONS who is a big part of Gordon’s story. As such, she needs more screen time. I’ll be adding snippets and scenes with her.
  7. Chapter intros and headings. My editor would like me to try adding a bit of the antagonist’s POV to the top of each chapter. I will also be heading each chapter with the date, as we did in THE FARM. This helps ground and solidify the telling.
  8. Various cleanup tasks. There are notes in each chapter than need to be reviewed. I’ll be tackling those at the same time as the previous task.
  9. Remove and rewrite the prelude. The prelude as written doesn’t belong in the main book. Instead, I’ll be re-writing it as a stand-alone story. This story will be made available as a download for readers prior to publication of THE COMMONS. Depending on time, more such pieces may come as well.

So … that’s my next month’s evenings planned out in advance. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them.

Especially tips on time management.

– Ivan

* – I do not use the word to denigrate those with this condition, but am quoting a reviewer.

The Final (First) Round of Edits

FAMISHED: THE COMMONS, the second book in the Gentleman Ghouls series, has been delivered to my editors at Apocalypse Ink Productions as of Saturday, June 22.

One day after the Summer Solstice, for those who find such things appealing to contemplate; and on deadline, for those to whom such things are more important.

Well, adjusted deadline. The principle is the same. The deadline had to be adjusted to leave more room for my Alpha Readers to respond and comment.

An Alpha Reader is someone you turn to once the first draft is done to the author’s satisfaction, who then goes through the book to tell said author where his or her blind spots are. They’re generally looking for plot holes and massive inconsistencies, as well as any stylistic or genre-based issues the author might want to consider.

I’ve got a great group of people, both other writers, editors, and lovers of fiction in general, who are kind enough to take on this role for me. One of the biggest suggestions that hadn’t occurred to me was around familiarity with the series. I hadn’t thought to ask anyone who hadn’t read FAMISHED: THE FARM, to make sure the sequel was understandable on its own.

We addressed that (and luckily, the divine Mmes. J & S found no problems following along). Once this is done, I like to comb through the manuscript for two final pieces of polish before turning it in.

  1. Voices.I’ll go through the manuscript and read only the lines assigned to an individual character – Protagonist, antagonist, allies and villains – to make sure they’re using dialogue in a consistent manner. If my peasant farmer is talking about manure in one chapter and waxing eloquent on the divine firmament of the world in another, I’ve got an issue to clear up. Assuming he’s not possessed. This includes things such as:
    1. Manner of speech (do they ramble or are they taciturn?)
    2. Choice of words (are they sesquipedalians or monosyllabic?)
    3. Formality of address (do they sir and ma’am, or shout “hey, buddy?”)
    4. Regionalisms (a big part of the Gentleman Ghoul series, and a pitfall of mine – having traveled so little)
  2. Overused words or phrases.I know myself. I know my writing habits.This means I know that I overuse some very general words and phrases in my drafts, which can make the work feel amateurish and lazy, no matter how much time and effort was actually put into it.

    For kicks and giggles, I decided to capture the counts this time around, and how I edited them out:

    1. -ly words (Adverbs): Over 170 in the rough draft! Ye stars and little fishes.
    2. Nodded (rough draft: 43, including one instance of four nods on a single page! Brought down to 17.
    3. Shook his/her head: 37, brought down to 13.
    4. Smiled: 19, brought down to 9.
    5. Grinned 9, brought down to 6.
    6. Closed his/her eyes: 4, brought down to 2.

 That’s my final polish before turning the manuscript over to the beta readers and editors at Apocalypse Ink – I think of it as a final wipe-down of the counters and bathrooms before in-laws come to visit.

Lovely, wonderful, polite in-laws, of course …

Not A Practice, But A Game

(This post was inspired by Rachel Aaron’s ‘The Reason I Write Every Day‘. Thank you, Rachel, for an insightful post!)

In her post, Rachel talks about being forced to practice violin every day, and how that forced practice failed to translate into any kind of real progress. I get that.

For me it was trumpet practice. I had picked up the trumpet because it was loud, and noisy, and didn’t require as much physical activity as drumming. Drummers stood for God’s sake, waving those damn sticks around in both hands, mind you, and sometimes they even joined marching band and carried the damn things.

I remember a day when mom busted in (after thirty minutes of listening to chords) to realize I had propped an X-Men comic on my music stand and was reading that instead of the music, assuming nobody would notice half an hour of A-B-F SHARP.

I digress.

My point here is that I did not pick up the trumpet because of some deep animal desire to learn the trumpet or trumpet music. I picked it up because music was something I was expected to do, and the trumpet seemed most likely to annoy the largest number of people, and any idiot could figure out how to breathe in here and push buttons there, so it should be pretty simple to fake.

Music isn’t like that. Neither is writing. Creativity isn’t like that.

Very few people – if any – have the talent to simply sit down and fake it convincingly. it takes time, and effort, and a willingness to learn. And, as Rachel points out, it helps immensely if you really enjoy what you’re doing.

Unlike her, though, I still don’t write every day. I was able to when I was young and unemployed, when all I had to do with my day was write or cook or do the laundry. When I was living in my parents’ house and someone else was in charge of things like the rent and the electric bill. Writing, for a long time, has been work, something to approach seriously and on a routine basis.

What I’ve had to do is reclassify writing as relaxation.

Writing can be a lot of fun. Creation IS a lot of fun, in whatever path leads you there. Telling stories and making up words is a beautiful game that can make life simpler if you approach it with that mindset – and since, at the moment, my livelihood is not tied up in those words, I have that luxury afforded to me by the grind I loathe every day.

Turning it on its head is what’s got me writing more, and more, and more. Thinking of it as points in a game rather than a quota to be met.

Since that shift, I’ve written … not every day. But every day in which I used to watch television, or play games, or dawdle aimlessly on the internet.

Which is to  say, most of them.

How do you practice? What gives you the time to hone your craft in a way that isn’t work?

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