Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: how to write horror

Monday we brushed the surface of speculative fiction and why it can be such a powerful and world-changing genre when executed well. In my opinion (based on years of experience with new manuscripts) this genre shares a lot of the same pitfalls as literary/character-driven novels. If we aren’t careful, world-building—while vital—can take over and obscure the human story.

While literary authors don’t face the perils of too many dragons or spaceships, they can run into a similar world-building dilemma with prose and too much inner demon navel-gazing self-exploration. The world-building is “internal” and vital, but the key is to make sure this “inner world” is serving the story not smothering the life out of it.

Though what we are talking about today can be useful for virtually any genre, it plays a special importance in genres that come part and parcel with elements that can easily become distractions.

Lasers, spaceships, magic, demons, technology, kingdom rivalries, portals are necessary for spec fic and fantasy. Yet we are wise to appreciate that these elements, while potentially beautiful, can easily get of control.

Like the wisteria I planted that tried to eat my house.

Just like a mystery must come with a crime and a romance requires an HEA, spec fic and fantasy also possess ingredients fundamental to the very definition of the work. It would be weird to have a science fiction with no “science” or a fantasy with nothing “fantastical.” Our job as the author it to make sure everything harmonizes.

Yes, while we need superlative world-building, WB alone does not a story make. Readers don’t want to hang out on our personal holodeck (or in our Literary Barbie Dream House). They long to be invited along on an adventure, and to become part of that adventure.

Empathy is the mechanism (plug) that connects the readers’ consciousness into our characters (socket) where they experience the raw energy of the stories we tell. Insert plug into couch cushions, small houseplants or mini-blinds and nothing happens aside from looking like an idiot. A socket with no plug serves no purpose and vice versa.

Connect them together?

This is where characterization becomes a game-changer.

When reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, there were a couple of assertions King made that really opened my eyes as to what made the difference between the fun escapist fiction versus the books we read for generations.

Power vs. Resonance

All spec fic and fantasy are about power. Monday we mentioned there are different types of fiction to serve different needs. Some fiction is just mind candy, a place to escape and get away and get some mental R&R away from “adulting” and that is a good thing. We need books like that and readers enjoy them.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian books are a prime example. These are standard sword and sorcery tales and Howard wrote more than fifty of these himself. Other authors added to the trove of stories about Conan.

Yet Conan was a character who always had power, never lost it and only wielded it. In King’s words, these were “tales of power for the powerless” which explains why I loved books like these so much as a geeky teen (definition of “powerless”).

According to King (and I concur), the great fantasy fiction (and spec fic) revolves around those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically. This is the crossroad where tales of Conan and the legends of King Arthur part ways.

When we look at Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are given what they always longed for. They wanted adventure and they learned that the smallest of all can make the largest of difference. This quest reveals strengths and abilities they were unaware they possessed. They come to learn they can fight in battle, brave trolls and orcs and giant spiders and ride horseback while battling vast armies.

They learn they are smarter, braver, tougher and stronger than they dreamed possible. That of all the races, they alone could resist the temptation of Sauron’s Ring of Power, rendering them the only ones capable of destroying it and thus saving Middle Earth.

Yet there is a heavy price.

Innocence.

Yes, they save the Shire, but can never return to it. Not really.

We witness this in one of the final scenes of Return of the King. We see our band of Hobbits in the same pub and while the other Hobbits they saved are drinking and dancing and laughing, our party sits quiet, somber, broken and grieving far too much death and loss.

They’re sharing more than a round of pints. They share a dark suffering reflected back in each others eyes and wounds that never will fully heal. They will never be the same.

Great power has been granted…but at tremendous cost.

Same thing in horror. In Stephen King’s It the children (even as adults) refer to themselves as “The Losers Club” because they are the outcasts of Derry: the fat kid, the boy with the stutter, the geeky class clown, the “white trash” tomboy girl, the Jew, the black kid, and the mama’s boy hypochondriac. The least likely to destroy a creature as old as time are the ones who discover they’re the only ones who can defeat it.

But, again this power comes with tremendous sacrifice and at great cost. They didn’t ask to be heroes but rose to the call knowing what it would mean.

Did We Mention the Supers?

Spec fic also covers super heroes, super villains, etc. The comic world is all spec fic. Yet, if we look at all the great superhero comics and movies, we see a similar pattern. How many superheroes/super-villains have been created over the past several decades, yet of that number, how many endured? Or have been elevated to modern legends?

Arm Fall-Off Boy, Color Kid, Skateman, Vibe, and no I am not kidding Squirrel Girl all made it into the comic world only to exit just as readily. All of these superheroes failed for a number of reasons beyond being stupid ideas to begin with.

The creators became too fixated on a “different superpower” and so I guess that is how one comes up with a Vietnam veteran who fights crime on roller skates or an even more lame@$$ superpower of being able to…change the color of things.

*scratches head*

Super powers were not enough to make these characters into super heroes and thus they were quickly (and eagerly) forgotten.

As I hear it Arm Fall-Off Boy is serving time in Pensacola for disability fraud, Vibe was sued for sexual harassment, and Squirrel Girl lives in NYC near Central Park with her life partner Color Kid who found his true calling…interior design. Skateman was unavailable for comment.

All kidding aside, super powers alone were never enough to elevate these “characters” into the staple heroes/anti-heroes/villains we know and love even today. There had to be resonance and resonance comes from what King described…those who find power at great cost or who have power and lose it tragically.

Resonance is why we remember Batman, Spiderman, Mr. Freeze, Harley, Wonder Woman, Two Face, Joker, and Captain America and why they’ve been reinvented time and time again.

Resonance is why audiences cheer for anti-heroes like Deadpool, The Punisher and Spawn. Resonance is the difference between the mundane and the memorable and resonance comes only with creating dimensional characters with human flaws and emotions.

What are your thoughts? I always had a fondness for villains with tragic backstory. Mr. Freeze? *clutches chest* What resonates with you? What characters and stories connected to you? What stories, movies, television shows fell flat and why? I am no comic expert, but which ones were your favorites and why?

I love hearing from you! And I am not above bribery to hear your thoughts 😀 .

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Frederik Andreasson

Since we are coming up on Halloween, I’d like to take a moment to talk about my favorite genre—horror. I can’t get enough of it. It is a genre that fascinates me simply because I believe it is the most difficult genre to write. Sure it was probably easier back in the days that movie audiences ran screaming from the man in a really bad plastic ant outfit. But these days? As desensitized as we have become? Unsettling people is no simple task.

That’s why I’d like to talk about it today because no matter what type of fiction we write, we can learn a lot from what horror authors do well.

Powerful fiction mines the darkest, deepest, grittiest areas of the soul. GREAT fiction holds a mirror to man and society and offers messages that go beyond the plot.

Elisabeth Kubler Ros once stated:

There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.

This means, the more we understand fear, the deeper our writing becomes, the more meaningful, visceral, and profound. In love stories, fear might be of being alone, of never finding “the one” or even losing “the one.” In a literary, the fear can be of remaining the same, or of regressing, or of failing to evolve and learn the critical lesson provided by the story problem.

Fear is the lifeblood of fiction because conflict is always generated by fear. The protagonist wants something BUT THEN… The more intense the fear? The higher the stakes become? The faster the reader turns the pages.

What Horror Says About Conflict

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 7.00.56 AM

Here is where we need to be careful. There is a fine line between a bad situation versus authentic conflict. This line makes the difference between a meh novel and something people hold onto and read and reread. It is what makes the difference between a B horror movie that is utterly forgettable, versus a horror staple that endures for generations.

In horror, bad situations can be monsters or an ax-wielding psycho, but, without conflict added in, it quickly devolves into a sort of wash, rinse, repeat. Oh, he chopped up a teenager! Now two teenagers! Now he skinned them and danced in a woman suit made from their flesh! This is the basest form of horror, the horror that depends on shock value (gore).

And before anyone says, “But that is horror, it doesn’t apply to me!” Be careful. I get a lot of new fiction that it is simply bad situation after bad situation—and another car chase—and the reason this falls flat is that the “badness” is purely external. The characters are passively receiving “bad things happening” and the writer leaves it there.

So what makes it conflict and not just a bad situation?

Monsters & Men

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 8.39.51 AM

I liken humans to a tea cup. Whatever we are filled with is what will spill out when we are rattled.  When the heat is on (story problem) do we rise to the occasion or is our darker self revealed?

A great example of this is Stephen King’s The Mist. Sure it is a monster story. Scary strange mist, creatures in the mist, tentacles, blood, OMG! And if King had made the focus of the story the aliens, we would have a pretty forgettable movie.

Oooh a giant tentacle!

What now?

A BIGGER TENTACLE!

What now?

Have it eat someone!

Oooh! And now?

Have it eat MORE people!

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

You can clearly see how this would have become a seriously tedious story if it simply relied on a string of “worsening” situations. But King is too smart for that. No, he appreciated what I talked about a moment ago. Sure humans are a nice enough bunch so long as there is food and shelter and the power works. But take away the conveniences. Scare people, really scare them and we get to see who they really are.

We take that external problem and make it internal.

The source of conflict (and in this case horror) has far less to do with the aliens outside and much more to do with what that outside problem does to the people trapped in the grocery store. We see the characters fall all along the spectrum. The ordinary and unremarkable cashier risking his life to help others contrasted against the “good Christian” woman escalating to full scale cult leader (human sacrifice to appease the beasts outside included) in less than 24 hours.

The monsters inside become far scarier than whatever is outside.

If we think about it, this is what makes for a good ghost story, too. It is less about what the ghost is or isn’t doing and more about what it is revealing about those being tormented. A fantastic example of this is Prisoner of Hell Gate which I recommend any time, but especially for some really great Halloween reading.

Strand a boat full of college students on an island where Typhoid Mary died and sit back and watch the fireworks. Again, the horror is less to do with the island and more to do with what the peril brings out in the people.

I also recommend Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and Dean Koontz’s What the Night Knows.

This Applies to ALL Good Fiction

But as I mentioned, this “turning the external internal” is what makes ALL great fiction. Toss in a problem then watch what it does to the people around it. In Big, Little Lies (general fiction) a Kindergarten schoolyard rumor escalates to murder. The story really has nothing to do with the murder and more to do with how a simple little rumor has the power to undo lives. It is the rumor that brings out the best and the worst in people.

Fiction is about problems and then putting on the pressure. The story problem serves as a crucible. We can make our story forge so hot it rivals the surface of the sun, but unless we toss the character(s) in it? Doesn’t matter how hot it is. It is our job (no matter the genre) to poke and prod and expose that which people fear. Hone in on the pain points and THAT is what makes for dimensional writing from the fear of burying your own child (Steele Magnolias) to the fear of being invisible (Fried Green Tomatoes) to the fear of being powerless (The Labyrinth).

Writers are brokers of fear 😉 .

What are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite horror books/authors? I am a HUGE Koontz fan. For those who maybe eschew horror, can you at least see how these tools might enrich your fiction?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out the NEW Plotting for Dummies class below!

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes TOMORROW!

 

SATURDAY, October 22nd Blogging for Authors

Blogging is one of the most powerful forms of social media. Twitter could flitter and Facebook could fold but the blog will remain so long as we have an Internet. The blog has been going strong since the 90s and it’s one of the best ways to establish a brand and then harness the power of that brand to drive book sales.

The best part is, done properly, a blog plays to a writer’s strengths. Writers write.

The problem is too many writers don’t approach a blog properly and make all kinds of mistakes that eventually lead to blog abandonment. Many authors fail to understand that bloggers and author bloggers are two completely different creatures.

This class is going to cover:

  • How author blogs work. What’s the difference in a regular blog and an author blog?
  • What are the biggest mistakes/wastes of time?
  • How can you effectively harness the power of algorithms (no computer science degree required)
  • What do you blog about? What topics will engage readers and help create a following?
  • How can you harness your author voice using a blog?
  • How can a blog can help you write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner?
  • How do you keep energized years into your blogging journey?
  • How can a blog help you sell more books?
  • How can you cultivate a fan base of people who love your genre.

Blogging doesn’t have to be hard. This class will help you simplify your blog and make it one of the most enjoyable aspects of your writing career.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

 

~*~

Kait Nolan is stuck in an office all day, sometimes juggling all three of her jobs at once with the skill of a trained bear—sometimes with a similar temperament. After hours, she uses her powers for good, creating escapist fiction. This Mississippi native has something for everyone, from short and sweet to Southern contemporary romance to action-packed paranormal—all featuring heroes you’d want to sweep you off your feet and rescue you from work-day drudgery. When not working or writing, this reformed Pantser is hanging out in her kitchen cooking and wishing life were a Broadway musical.

Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone, WANA Commons
Debbie Johannson WANA Commons

Fear is the most important tool in any writer’s toolbox. Fear is the beating heart of conflict, no matter the genre. Fear of death. Fear of losing love, not finding love, not recognizing love. Fear of change. Fear of remaining the same. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novella The Road, the story was less about a fear of death and more about the fear of survival at the expense of one’s humanity. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan explores the fear of continuing generational curses.

In Winter’s Bone, Woodrell examines fear of family, what it takes to possibly betray family and risk death by turning on kin. In Virginia Woolf’s classic Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf probes the fear of being meaningless. Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World explores the fear of government, the tendency of the masses to devolve to mediocrity, and the dangers of society that only exists to seek empty pleasures and instant gratification.

Suffice this to say that I believe all great works (even outside of Horror) tap into our deepest primal fears, probe them, open them, expose them and maybe even (if we are fortunate) give us a glimpse of a cure.

Kevin continues today with a final word about horror.

****

We’ve discussed many things in the past few days about why the horror genre is important, why writing it is important and hard, but I’d like to offer this final thought: if we expand our definitions of horror past chainsaw wielding maniacs and human centipedes, we find that horror, at the root of it all, is often about a quest into the unknown.

As I’ll detail in one of my workshops at WanaCon, almost all the horror plots involve some level of discovery, penetrating the unknown. So horror exists not only because of mankind’s universal fears and a desire and NEED to deal with those fears, horror exists because there exist those special folks – horror writers – who are consumed with the desire to KNOW things, to ask questions that others would never think of asking, or, as the case may be, never dare ask.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, about why some of us blessed (cursed?) folks are drawn to writing horror:

“As you get ready to leave, think about this…or brood upon it:

Unknown.
Unknown.

The Story of “Little Miss Nobody”

On July 6th, 1944, the Ringling Brother and Barnum & Bailey Circus was giving a performance in Hartford, Connecticut, before 7,000 paid customers. A fire broke out; 168 persons died in the blaze and 487 were injured. One of the dead, a small girl thought to be six years old, was unidentified. Since no one came to claim her, and since her face was unmarred, a photograph was taken of her and distributed locally and then throughout the U. S. Days passed, weeks and months passed, but no relative, no playmate, no one in the nation came forward to identify her. She remains unknown to this day.

The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walls of the tunnel vision we develop as  adults, bust it wide for a little while, to provide a single powerful spectacle for the third eye (our imagination). The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, (the reader), for a little while, a child again.

And the horror writer himself/herself?

Someone else looks at that item about Little Miss Nobody – still unidentified – and says, “Jeez, you never can tell, can you?” and goes onto something else. But the fantasist begins to play with it as a child would, speculating about children from other dimensions, about doppelgangers, about God knows what else.

It’s a child’s toy, something bright and shiny and strange. Let us pull a lever and see what it does, let us push it across the floor and see if it goes rum-rum-rum or wacka-wacka-wacka. Let us turn it over and see if it will magically right itself again.

In short, let us have our Fortian rains of frogs and people who have mysteriously burned to death while sitting at home in their easy chairs; let us have our vampires and our werewolves. Let us have Little Miss Nobody, who perhaps slipped sideways through a crack in reality, only to be trampled to death in  a rush from a burning circus tent.

“It’s the best set of electric trains a boy ever had,” Orson Welles once said of making movies; the same can be said of making books and stories. Here is a chance to bust that tunnel vision wide open; bricks flying everywhere so that, for a moment at least, a dreamscape of wonders and horrors stands forth as clearly and with all the magical reality of the first Ferris wheel you ever saw as a kid, turning and turning against the sky.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Greg Koenig

“Someone’s dead son is on the late movie. Somewhere a foul man – bogeyman! – is slouching through the snowy night with shining yellow eyes. Boys are thundering through autumn leaves on their way past the library at four in the morning, and somewhere else, in some other world, even as I write this, Frodo and  Sam are making their way toward Mordor, where the shadows lie. I am quite sure of it.” ~Stephen King, Danse Macabe

This is the best way to end my series, I think. I’ve tried to say some very noble things about the importance of the horror genre, and how it’s just as valid as any other genre, and why writing good horror is just as difficult as writing the next Great American Novel.

But all those comments come from my critical, analytical side (where I live every day as an English teacher), and all my own noble and worthy writing goals have become very rooted in my subconscious. What really pushed me toward the horror genre to begin with was the eternal, burning question: Why? and its inevitable follow up: What if…?

And for me?

The horror genre, the genre of the fantastic and strangely beautiful wonders and horrors, simply offered me the most room to play in. I could write a story about a father mourning the loss of his son, and, gripped by guilt, how he goes and sits next to a pond to watch the ducks, and maybe somebody rides by on a bicycle, and then through some heavy exposition – or through the symbolism of a burning sunset – our grieving father works through some resolution, gaining closure as he finally forgives himself.

But that’s just not me.

Cause I really like the idea of his dead son being on the late night movie, reaching through a very special and strange television screen….

Somewhere deep in my own little Twilight Zone.

******

THANK YOU, KEVIN! *does cabbage patch dance* Cabbage Patch Dolls. Talk about creepy (and yes I had them anyway).

What are your thoughts? Do you find yourself holding back in your own writing? Afraid to go to the dark places? What other works (horror or not) do you think did a really fabulous job of exploring our fears? Why did they rattle you? What made you uncomfortable? Did you find relief at the end?

I LOVE hearing from you, and I know Kevin will, too. Ask him your questions. Tell him your fears. Comments for guests get double weight in the contest. Btw, I will announce September’s winner next week. Too slammed with WANACon right now to do it properly. Ah, the contest…

Which is…

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Horror Author Kevin Lucia
Horror Author Kevin Lucia

Kevin Lucia has worked as an Editor for Shroud Magazine and a Submissions Reader for Cemetery Dance Magazine, and is now an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror ChannelHis podcast “Horror 101” is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify and his short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English at Seton Catholic Central High School and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

WANACon is THIS WEEKEND!!! Day One and Day Two are for sale separately so you can choose if you only can fit part of the conference. Just a note: A LOT of major authors sacrificed time for no or little pay to pay it forward and offer an affordable and easily accessible conference for those who need one and WANA is extremely grateful to have them.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU–including the LEGEND Les Edgerton. 

AGAIN, THIS WEEKEND!!!! Get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE for $149 and all recordings for anything you miss or need to hear again. Sign up today, because seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.