Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Stephen King

After the last post, we got in a rather spirited discussion in the comments regarding talent. Lora, an editor, was relaying a common malaise many editors feel (I’ve felt it myself plenty of times), which posits the eternal question.

Are there just some people who simply lack the talent to be novelists?

Good question.

A huge problem is that far too many people believe that a “clever” idea and command of the English language is all that is required to become a novelist, yet that is not the case. We’ve witnessed this with the rise of self-publishing. There are simply a lot of really BAD books out there.

Lora challenged me to write a post that might serve as some kind of a litmus test for talent, but in truth? Such a list is beyond the scope of my abilities because I don’t know if such a checklist exists.

Sales certainly are no indicator of talent. There are plenty of brilliant books that don’t sell or sell poorly and there are other works that sell a gazillion copies and show us clearly how taste has at least fifty shades.

Some emerging writers possess all the technical skills, yet their writing is uninspired, utterly lacking in the je ne sais quoi required to elevate the writing from the mundane to the magical.

Their “stories” are flat and functional, much like a DMV building. Sure, it has the right walls and fire escapes and passes inspection, but it isn’t a place we’d want to sit down and get comfortable.

Other writers are completely lacking in the technical skills, yet even with their wobbly first tries, one can see a spark of genius there.

Does Talent Matter?

Stephen King talks about talent in Danse Macabre (and other places as well) and I really love his view on it. He says:

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. ~Stephen King

I firmly believe that and we will get to that in a moment.

Yet, even though King is no huge fan of “talent” he does admit talent is necessary even if it isn’t quite the panacea people might imagine. He equates talent to a vein of gold in a mine. One has to do the hard work of digging for the ore, refining, etc. (the nasty work most people don’t want to do).

He says if you spend an hour and a half a day writing for ten years, at the end of ten years, you’ll be a pretty good writer. Just as if you spent an hour and a half a day digging, mining, and refining ore, you’d eventually have decent stockpile of gold.

Yet, spend ten years refining common earth? At the end of ten years all you’d have is common earth.

Sad to say that common earth writers do exist.

In my experience, I would have to say I have no good answer for how to spot a common earth writer. Most emerging writers who seem to completely lack talent actually lack something else.

Humility.

Remember at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that too many people believe this job is easy and that, in my estimation, this is the crux of the problem.

In the pre-digital paradigm, not everyone could be published. This meant that aspiring writers who failed to do the hard stuff—read prolifically, study, practice, take classes, go to conferences, get professional editing help when needed, etc.—languished in the slush pile.

One of two things happened.

Either the aspiring writer finally gave up after enough rejections OR he/she was forced to take a hard and critical look at the work and improve. Write more stories, and better stories. Creative crucibles were personal and private affairs.

The reason it used to be a really big deal to call oneself a “published author” was it was a title granted only to those who’d successfully endured the gauntlet and the title was the crown of olive leaves denoting the victor.

The writer had solved the labyrinth and emerged as author.

These days no such crown exists and we writers have been demoted to comparing rankings and royalty checks to discern “success” and if we are “good writers,” which can be demoralizing in itself. In the pre-digital paradigm, simply being published was met with awe from mere mortals because it represented a threshold few were ever able to cross. Even if we only sold a handful of books, we were still a success.

Now that “success” has been democratized? I’m not even sure the best writing is what makes the most money. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Pride Before the Fall

I get writing samples so bad I wonder if the writer has ever even read a book. It isn’t fiction, it’s self-indulgent navel-gazing. The characters sound like girls playing Barbie or a young boy fascinated on his personal holodeck. There is no understanding of POV, pacing, structure or even the essentials of good dialogue. I don’t have a novel, I have tropes mixed with cliches then slathered in purple prose.

****Hint: People don’t keep referring to one another by name when they talk in real life.

I can always tell the writers who won’t make it, and oddly it has really nothing to do with the writing.

Often I get a really nasty e-mail in reply that all their friends loved it and their writing group thought it was the best thing since kitten calendars. I’ve also gotten people who took my classes just to argue with me the entire time.

Then go blog about what an idiot I am.

It Really Isn’t All About the Writing

Yet? Some of the absolute worst writing I have ever encountered was not the end. Their creators went on to be successful and even damn fine authors. Why? Because they were teachable. 

When I shredded their pages to the point one couldn’t even see the original text, they cried, then got over it and took my offer of help. They were willing to spend hours on the phone with me showing them how to kill all their little darlings. They read the craft books I recommended, took the classes I offered, did the exercises I assigned. They slaved and wrote and rewrote and then? Voila! 

Sure, they sucked. But one day?

…they no longer sucked.

I had a winner of my first 20 pages back when I first ran the contest in 2011. Oh my GOD it was bad. But I offered help as I generally do. We spent hours on the phone and Kathy was struggling. She continued reading my blogs. She took my Hooked class….and got slayed again.

And again.

And yes, again.

Then something remarkable happened. She signed up for my Hooked class again last year. I didn’t see her name and just read pages and they were….brilliant. I didn’t want to stop. It was a REALLY excellent submission.

Then I saw the name and almost cried I was so proud.

Another emerging writer paid me for a full edit. The book was excellent to the midpoint then completely fell apart into a disaster. I explained how it went wrong and what needed fixing and how to fix it. Instead of insisting I was a moron with no taste? He listened. I just forwarded his final to a literary agent friend of mine. Two days after sending in his manuscript I got a breathless e-mail from the agent that she was simply stunned by his talent.

Was it talent? Really?

Every time I have run into what might be written off as a “common earth” writer I’ve seen a person who refused to grow. They brought pages every week for critique and despite help and suggestions? Never changed.

They refused to read books on craft because they didn’t want their writing to be “formulaic.” They didn’t read fiction in or even out of their genre because “NY only published crap.” And on and on and on. They just kept recycling the same dreadful writing and now that self-publishing has made it possible to skip gatekeepers?

These same writers greedily snatch up the title of “published author” but then gripe that their crappy book isn’t selling because they “don’t have the mega marketing budget of a NY published book.” In their minds, all that is lacking is the right marketing plan, ad campaign or newsletter list.

Back to the Mines

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of James St. John

When it comes to varying levels of talent (or lack thereof) I think we need to return to the mines. Some mines are easy. Gold dust and small nuggets all scattered about. Very little effort required to get at the good stuff. We all want this kind of mine and yet it, too is imperfect. This “gold” also requires refining. Also, gold scattered on the ground is no clear indication of the size of the overall vein. Maybe this writer has ONE good book in her.

There are those of us who dig through layer after layer with only a dream. Some vague indicators of gold. If we just keep pressing, we will find it. It is there, just an SOB to get to.

Then there are those who go digging for gold and find something else entirely. They strike oil, massive veins of salt, or a giant artesian spring. Still valuable, just not in the way planned. Some writers begin writing fiction and find they are far better bloggers or they excel at non-fiction. Some discover they are crazy good editors (more skilled at the refining process).

And lastly, there is common earth which I believe exists. These folks are almost “tone deaf” when it comes to storytelling. No matter how teachable, how many classes, the writing will just never be there. They are the person who can never quite deliver a punchline. This type of writer exists for sure, but may not be as common as we imagine.

In the end, I have no litmus test for talent, but I have a pretty good indicator of success. Are we teachable? Are we striving to grow, to get better, to actively seek tough critics to make us grow? Do we have rhino-skin? Can we take constructive criticism?

Are we sticking with this long enough to grow that talent? Are we reading enough craft books or taking enough classes to develop discernment so we know constructive criticism from sniping BS? Are we being brave enough to ask the hard questions and ready to endure the answers? Are we making the most of the editors we hire? Or are we defending and arguing? Are we writing? Yes take classes and read but we also need practice. Are we getting enough?

Are we humble?

To me? THAT is what separates the amateur hack from the pro, NOT necessarily skill level.

What are your thoughts?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 April 27th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 April 7th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 April 13th, 2017

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

 

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.46.46 AM

The Internet is overflowing with all kinds of “guidance.” Often, we have to learn by trial and error. What’s sound and what’s a shill? Being a Fort Worthian, I’ve learned that comedian Will Rogers nailed it when he said, “There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Assuming y’all can delay any plans for peeing on the literary electric fence, I’m here to (hopefully) shorten your learning curve in regards to going pro as an author.

Choose Company Wisely

Mirroring is built into the human brain. Great writers are exemplary at mirroring. This his how these authors can create characters so real they might just have a heartbeat. That’s the good news.

Maybe you find your mannerisms, body language, pace of speech or even your accent changes depending on the group you’re in. It takes all of three minutes in NYC for me to sound like I’m a native (Mom being from NY probably compounds this). Yet, put me on a plane to LA? Within the hour, I sound like I’m from Orange County.

While mirroring is great for socialization and writing, we must be careful. Attitudes, negativity, and belief systems can stick like a BP oil spill on a sea turtle.

Original image courtesy of NOAA via Flickr Creative Commons.
Original image courtesy of NOAA via Flickr Creative Commons.

I’m an extremely loyal person. For years, I refused to let go of certain childhood friends even though they consistently made epically DUMB life decisions. I kept believing I could “help.” What happened? EPIC STUPIDITY rubbed off on ME. I had to break away. I wouldn’t change them, they were changing ME (and not for the better).

If you’re a natural giver? Takers and users can smell generosity like blood in the water. This is why learning to set firm boundaries is vital. Ditch complainers. Lose the lazy. Psychic vampires will not stop until we are emotionally drained and dead. Avoid those who live off excuses.

Conversely, seek out excellence. Search for those who work more than talk about work. Choose friends who give generously with no strings attached.

Remember, character is contagious.

Be a Finisher

No unfinished book ever became a NYTBS. Finish first. Refine later. If we’re trying to shape facets into a diamond not yet dug out of the ground, we’re wasting valuable energy for no payoff. The more we projects we finish (even the crappy stuff) the more we learn, the faster and more efficiently we work. Confidence comes from work, from finishing.

Write What You Love

We can’t predict trends. My POV? I’m convinced a part of every writer’s soul dies every time someone mentions the awesomeness of Fifty Shades of Grey. But, thing is? The book was finished. Our writing can’t catch fire in the collective consciousness of our audience if NO ONE CAN READ IT.

Ann Rice was told time and time again that no one wanted to read a book from the perspective of a vampire. She ignored the naysayers and persisted because she was passionate. Interview With a Vampire became a super success and is largely responsible for creating the vampire craze of the past thirty years.

Tom Clancy invented the techno-thriller because he wrote what he loved.

These authors didn’t write to trends, they created them.

Slow and Steady

Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.
Original image courtesy of Flickr Creatinve Commons, courtesy of Ali Samieivafa.

There are no real “overnight successes.” Shortcuts are a lie and there are those who profit off selling them. WANA ways are not overnight tactics to build a strong platform. I believe in relationships and roots. Many author-bloggers give up after a couple months because they aren’t as big as Guy Kawasaki. I blogged a YEAR AND A HALF before anyone other than the man-part enlargement bots cared.

Then suddenly….

If we look to authors who seem to blaze in from nowhere like comet, it’s easy to believe the “instant success lie.” Yet, look closer and most of those writers were at it for years or decades and no one cared.

Stephen King wrote from the time he was a kid. He had so many rejections with Carrie that he finally tossed the manuscript in the trash. It was his wife who rescued it and told him to keep on. Carrie was the work that launched him out of obscurity and into the stratosphere. It’s how he became the legend we admire today.

This isn’t to discourage you. But if you’ve been at this a while and feel like you’re stuck? You probably aren’t. We grow roots before shoots 😉 .

Dreams are Still WORK

With greater success comes increased responsibility. When we’re new, we might think, “I’ll be happy when…” When I finish the book. When I land an agent. When I get a book deal. When my book is on Amazon and selling enough to write full time.

Yeah. Not reality.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.57.14 AM

Be happy during all of it, because a new level only means a new devil. This is why yesterday’s post emphasized ignoring feelings (because most are pathological liars). This is why learning self-discipline and how to be self-motivated is so crucial to becoming successful.

In the beginning, we don’t have a paycheck to validate our blood, sweat and hard work. We can’t point to a book on display. We can’t even count on friends and family to be supportive (and outside validation can be a dangerous addiction).

Yet, even when we DO get to the point where we’ve written and sold books or even made a best-seller list, each work is a brand new battle. We also have new jobs piled onto the writing like taxes, running a business, travel, branding, etc.

I’m blessed to know many NYTBSAs and while all are grateful for “making it”, each new book is nerve-shattering. Can this book do as well? Better? Will it tank? Expectations are much higher, so obscurity can have benefits.

Kids don’t want to go play and take a nap. They want to make their own decisions. Adults would sell a kidney for a nap, three months of vacation and a DAY of making NO decisions.

Same in writing 😉 .

What are your thoughts? Have you had to change friends or writing groups because they were affecting you negatively? Have you had to let go of friends or even family members? What ways do you seek inspiration? Are you getting better at working even when you don’t “feel” like it? Are toxic people contaminating the muse? Remember, it is better to be respected than popular.

I love hearing from you! And here is some fun for FRIDAY! Warning, it’s PG-13.

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 novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Back to School!

Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series

 Going Pro Craft is CLOSED, but with the bundle you will get the recoding and notes in On-Demand format, then Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding September 6th TOMORROW, Going Pro Business September 10th, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE). Use WANA15 for $15 off individual classes.

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

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of normanack.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of normanack.

Whether one likes Horror or doesn’t, as artists, we can ALL learn to be better writers by studying what great 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.

From the film, "I, Robot."
From the film, “I, Robot.”

Though not, per se, “Horror”, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is an excellent example. The Spawn recently fell in love with the movie and I’ve seen it 78 times in the past week (and am oddly okay with that). I, Robot isn’t just a story about a guy battling robots. There are so many messages about society—the costs of relinquishing personal responsibility/accountability, the dangers of blind faith, the real price of being totally “safe”, the ugly price of “convenience,” prejudice, and even the nature of the soul.

This story is SO GOOD because it is deeply, viscerally terrifying. Yet, it isn’t “Horror.”

And it could happen.

Stephen King is one of the most legendary authors of our time, and not just for scaring us. I feel King’s ability to see and relate the dark aspects of human nature and society is what makes him an author in his own league. The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemptionand even Stand By Me weren’t horror stories, and yet they are some of his finest works.

Author Stephen King
Author Stephen King

THIS is one of the main reasons I pursued a Horror expert to guest post and to teach at WANACon, because no matter which genre we write, the core tenets of good Horror are masterful guides to connecting to and affecting the souls of our readers.

Take it away, Kevin!

****

In my last posts I shared why I think horror is one of the most important genres, because – maybe more than any other genre – it has the potential to comment deeply on the human experience. In the right hands, horror can hold up a very unflattering mirror and show us what we really are: broken, scared creatures flawed and cracked, a species tragically ruled by fear, prejudice, insecurity, pride, anger, selfishness and cruelty.

And in the right hands horror also shows our better selves rising above our flaws.

Horror plays out supernatural battles between good and evil in the flesh; horror serves as a litmus test for a society or a nation’s conscience. What we truly fear reveals so much about our character, our true natures; as well as how we face those fears and either rise to meet them, or succumb to them.

That is why horror is – or SHOULD BE – hard to write. Emotionally, as well as spiritually.

That’s not to say that writing horror shouldn’t be fun or enjoyable. By no means. I’m not one of those folks you’ll see lamenting on Facebook about the awful “burden of being a writer,” that I’m a “slave to the muse” or that I “wish I wasn’t compelled to write.”

No, I get a kick out of making things up; especially making up stories about ghosts and ghoulies and monsters and those who face them. I feel immensely blessed to have the opportunity to contribute whatever little I can to the horror genre.

What does it “mean” to write horror?

But more and more, as both a writer and an editor, I’ve come to ponder what it really means to write horror, and the difference between a story that invokes that emotion we call horror and a story that merely utilizes horror tropes.

A clarification, first: I am not an elitist. I love reading and stories of all kinds too much to be a “story snob.” And stories utilizing horror tropes can be just as well-written as anything else. Excellent craft – prose, dialogue, characterization and character development – should be present in ALL fiction, regardless of genre.

A paranormal romance or zombie thriller can be just as well written as a wrenching ghost story about a father mourning the loss of his only son.

And also, I truly feel we are called to write certain stories. I’ve always thought writers experience a form of socially-acceptable multiple-personality disorder. A multitude of voices clamor in our heads for attention, characters who want their stories told. Some of those stories are horror stories. Some of them are not.

Some of them are quiet, creeping tales of unnamable dread, others are highly-charged, emotional, personal stories and still others…well…go splat a little more than the rest.

Terror

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King makes the distinction between three types of stories – tales of terror, (which he calls the finest emotion), tales of horror and tales of revulsion. Tales of terror never really shows you that thing that’s on the other side of the door. 

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.07.01 AM

Our reaction to it and how our fears change us and rule us is far more important than the actual thing itself; our imagination doing all the work. Two excellent examples would be W. W. Jacob’s classic tale “The Monkey’s Paw” and Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel The Haunting.  A really wrenching, emotionally-charged modern version of “The Monkey’s Paw” is found in “Forever,” the 17th episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5.

Horror

The second tale Stephen King references are tales of horror. The only difference between the two, according to King, is that horror shows us what’s behind that door, and let’s be brutally honest, here. Sometimes we NEED to see what’s behind that door.

I adore Lovecraft’s work, but after awhile, I really need to see that unnamable horror, need to glimpse what that thing is.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 10.13.48 AM

An excellent example of a novel that shows us without sacrificing its power is Hell House, by the late Richard Matheson. We are shown the horror in that book.  Boy, are we shown, and to devastating effect. Also, the movie “Se7en” – staring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman – has become a classic film that’s been poorly imitated for years, and it succeeds by showing just enough (though it’s ultimate triumph – where its imitators fail – is never showing us what’s IN THE BOX, but that’s okay, because we KNOW. And that’s worse than seeing.)

Revulsion

The final tale is that of revulsion. In this tale, almost everything is secondary to that revolting image, serving as a means to that end and nothing more. Stephen King references the old EC horror comics here; I’m going to reference The Human Centipede.

Almost everything in that film serves only to deliver us the image of three people sewn together, mouth to anus. Prepped by the trailers for this, the audience is waiting for that moment, and when it’s delivered halfway through the movie there’s nothing left to wait for, the rest of the film becoming more of endurance test than an actual story.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 10.20.07 AM

However, revulsion still has its place and can be used effectively. In his treatise on the horror genre, The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll asserts that part of horror’s true power lies in its violation of the natural order as we know it.

Revulsion used well (think of that X-files episode with the cannibalistic, inbred redneck family whose sons keep impregnating the bed-ridden mother), confronts us with a violation of what we know to be the natural order of things. An EXCELLENT recent example of this type of revulsion can be found in Kealan Patrick Burke’s acclaimed novel, KIN.

Another good example: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Because sometimes grief pushes us over the age into violating the natural order of things. Let’s admit; it’s hard to let go of a loved one.

Even when they start to smell…

Another clarification: as a writer, I’m just like all of you – struggling toward that elusive goal of refining my craft. I’ve written my fair share horror trope stories, and I’d like to think they’re good, solid stories. AND, I believe that writing horror trope stories is part of a horror writer’s natural development. But more on that next time ;)….

****

Thanks, Kevin! What are your thoughts on all this? What stories (horror or not) have horrified, terrified or repulsed you? I know the recent Tom Cruise movie, Oblivion kept me up almost all night (and it’s sci-fi).

Why? Because I kept thinking, This could happen. And not necessarily from aliens. Technology-wise (I read Popular Science and Popular Mechanics) we are about 3-5 years from perfecting similar drones.

What if this technology landed in the wrong hands? With universal health care and the current trajectory of law enforcement, we could easily have a record of everyone’s DNA on file by 2020. What if our DNA could be programmed into a drone that could scan us and mark us friend or foe?

“Foes” get to be a red mist, btw *shivers*. As I said, TERRIFYING.

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.

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 now has Day One and Day Two 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. 

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.

Creepiest Twilight Zone Episode EVER!
Creepiest Twilight Zone Episode EVER!

Yesterday, we explored the often overlooked genre of Horror with Author Kevin Lucia. Why are we fascinated by being scared? What purpose does the genre of Horror serve? Why is Horror vital to the human condition? Today, Kevin continues as guide into the dark realms of the human condition.

No need for two gold coins for passage. We’re classy that way :D.

And remember, Kevin will be teaching BOTH DAYS at our virtual writing conference WANACon next weekend along with writing legends like Les Edgerton and David Corbett, so get your seat! All the benefits of a writing conference without the hassles.

Take it away, Kevin!

***

Three years ago, on our annual vacation to the Adirondacks, at Enchanted Forest’s Water Safari, I made an awful mistake that’s haunted me ever since. To make a long story short: my autistic son discovered the kiddie water tubes that summer and fell in love with them. Embolden by this, I took my son – too young to know better – down one of the big slides, Black River Falls. What I wasn’t counting on?

The all encompassing darkness.

The water, which rushed MUCH faster than in the kiddie tubes.

And my son’s screams.

Now, I held my boy in a death grip and we survived, and more than likely we were never in any real danger. But it haunted me (and honestly, it chills me even writing this) wondering what could’ve happened if I’d let him go, my two-year old autistic son who didn’t understand WHAT was going on, much less know how to swim. And of course the shame I felt at my foolish risk nearly overwhelmed me. I felt irresponsible, a horrible father.

Two summers later, Lamplight Magazine solicited me for a novella. I wrote about that incident, imagining a scenario in which my worst fears had come true, and the consquences. And to date, it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written, and I think one of the best things I’ve ever written, because it hurt so much to write.

Perhaps one of the best reasons why horror is one of the most important genres is how it examines the human condition, by probing our worst nightmares and fears, as well as examining society and humanity – all our best and worst aspects – in close detail.

Good horror takes characters of depth and exposes them to their worst fears, watching closely how they either rise or fall…which speaks (no, SHOUTS) volumes about us as humans.

Though not strictly a horror series, this is why some of the best Twilight Zone episodes reverberate with a haunting resonance that simply won’t let us go. Episodes like Living DollThe MasksThe Shelter, I Am the Night Color Me Black – these aren’t just freaky, weird tales that leave us feeling chills down our spines for thrill’s sake alone.

No, these episodes in particular showed us the dark, ugly side of human nature…they held up mirrors that showed us all our most unsavory aspects.

Rod Sterling
Rod Sterling

The Twilight Zone has its flaws, but this is why the series endures today in endless syndication: Rod Serling found that horror (along with fantasy and science fiction) provided an excellent vehicle for stories about social consciousness, stories he might not have been able to tell on television otherwise; and like Sterling, scores of horror authors believe their genre allows them to ask questions about that which most of us would rather not even consider:

“What I see is pain and isolation that empowers not the sufferers, but that which afflicts them. I
want a reason for this. I want a reason for babies born with cancer, for the endless supply of thoughtless cruelties both little and large we inflict on one another on an everyday basis, for old folks who are abandoned to die alone and unwanted and unloved.

I want an explanation, please, for all of the soul-sick, broken-hearted people who become so hollowed by their aloneness that they turn on the gas, eat the business end of shotgun, or find a ceiling beam that can take their weight. I want sense made of this. I want to know the reason why…and since none is forthcoming, either from above or those around me, I’ve decided to try and find an answer on my own. So far, the best – the only – way for me to work toward this is through writing horror stories.”

– Gary Braunbeck, To Each Their Darkness (Apex Publications)

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.05.52 AM

Horror. One of our most important genres, because it comments on our fears and nightmares, on the things that makes us weak, holds up unflinching mirrors to show our inherent ugliness, and dares ask questions about things the rest of us would rather ignore. And, like any other genre, SO many want to write in it.

But writing GOOD horror is hard. SO hard. And even I’m still struggling, myself. But I think I’ve begun to understand the key elements to writing GOOD horror, and that’s what I’ll share next time….

***

Thanks so much, Kevin! Did you guys grow up watching Vincent Price and those old Edgar Allen Poe black-and-white movies? Did you cut your story teeth on Twilight Zone, too? To this DAY I hate dolls and clowns because of the ventriloquist episode (on top of “It” and “Poltergeist”).

Have you ever had a similar terrifying experience like Kevin? One you later mined for a work of fiction?

As a personal aside, I know my short story Dandelion was written winter of this past year and published in the spring. As a mother, after Sandy Brook, my mind had to give resolution and make some sense of the sheer random horror of the event (for some reason, when I write NF I am very light and funny and my fiction goes DARK and Dandelion I think qualifies as a version of horror, so READER BEWARE if you check it out).

Have you ever had a piece you HAD to write because the sheer terror or emotion of it demanded action? What books, movies, shows influenced you the most as an adult?

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.

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 now has Day One and Day Two 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. 

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.