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Miscellaneous

As I go about my daily life, I see things through my own lens. When I write, everything has to be stained with the colours of my own personal taste. That’s as it should be – if you were a chef, you’d be a fool not to cook your favourite food. That’s where the passion lies, I think, at the source of your original love for your art.

One of the best things you can do as a writer is to keep your senses wide open to the world. You don’t even have to analyse things – just be as aware as possible of everything. You’ll soon find that you, like everyone else, have your own unique way of interpreting what goes on around you.

Sometimes when I ride the early morning train into the heart of the city, I imagine I’m heading to some smoky metropolis akin to Frank Miller’s Sin City. It might be an unpleasant place for someone else, but I love to write about these environments (A novella of mine, soon to be published, is set in just such a place), and the idea of living in one holds a certain romanticism that appeals to me. It’s also cool because it allows me to imagine myself as one of those tough private eye characters that inevitably inhabit the noir universe – Marv or Rorschach or Harry Angel.

What I’ve only just recently come to appreciate is how much this kind of awareness helps my writing. I start not only to see the world in unexpected ways, but to become aware of details I took for granted before. And details, my friends, are very important in good fiction.

I might notice a message spray-painted in bright colours on the tunnel wall: JESUS KILLS. Or maybe as I step off the train the first thing I notice is the smell of congealing oil from a nearby restaurant dumpster. Whatever catches your eye, nose, ear, mouth, or skin. The trick is to notice things and remember them, pleasant or unpleasant, and to frame everything so that it informs your writing later.

Hell, even if it doesn’t improve your writing, it sure makes the morning commute a lot more interesting…

 

Last night I had a dream I was being eaten by blind dogs.

This is good.

It’s the type of thing that usually happens when I reach the 70,000 word mark of my novel in progress. The current status of the plot is right before the mad rush to the climax. All the balls are up in the air, and it’s my job to catch them in a neat little row.

I am trialling a new method of editing, for which I start going over the book from the beginning as soon as I reach 40,000 words, the approximate halfway mark. I find that by then I’ve already got so many important things to fix that if I don’t start knocking some of them into place I risk becoming overwhelmed with the task ahead by the time I reach the end.

This way, as I blaze through first draft in a chaotic caffeine fuelled frenzy like Hunter S. Thompson on a crack binge, the Editor version of myself can comb through in the wake and mop up the mess. I think of it as my personal Clean Up Crew, the first to arrive after a natural disaster, moving aside the debris and putting mercy kill-shots in the heads of the surviving adverbs so that when the real help gets there the way is at least clear.

Already I can see how bad it’s going to be: useless adjectives lie screaming in the vacant streets of pointless scenes; characters wonder, shell shocked, through giant plot holes, looking for their arcs and finding nothing; a blues band is playing somewhere, but it doesn’t advance the story at all…

All told, I’m optimistic. There may be work to do, but there is also plenty to see that brings a light to my eye. After twenty failed novels, I’ve got a thousand yard stare: I’ve seen some shit, man, some real shit. And this book? Well, it’s not the worst I’ve seen. There may just be something here, yet.

14/8/18

Minimalism in Writing

“Of all that is written I love only what a man has written in his own blood” – Friedrich Nietzsche

 

There is something I love about the Hemingway approach to writing: that bare bones, tip of the iceberg idea. It reminds me of the saying ‘There are writers, and then there are typists.’ After all, anyone can write a million words without really saying anything, but it takes a special kind of skill to hit someone in the gut in the space of a sentence or even a few words.

When I’ve gone back to read the lines or scenes in other books which got to me the most what I found is that the words themselves are never responsible. It’s all about the context of the story. The writer goes to extreme lengths to construct a roller coaster of ups and downs and character relations, so that when that pivotal scene arrives they can deliver immense emotional power with a simple line.

The philosophy of minimalism is essentially this: if you remove everything superfluous, then what remains is more valuable, useful, and available to you. What good is a beautiful painting if it is buried under a mountain of junk? Do you have a good friend, but waste your time meeting with a hundred acquaintances for the sake of expedience?

In Strunk and White’s immortal The Elements of Style, rule 13 is ‘Omit Needless Words.’ That’s minimalism. If you want to give your work power, eliminate every word except those which absolutely must be there. If you have a story in which every word serves a purpose (or more than one) and is undeniably essential, then you’ve got something strong. Even if it’s not a good story, necessarily, at least it will be clear – and make no mistake, clarity is the ultimate goal.

Like all things, however, it’s a tool that can be misused. The way you misuse the tool of minimalism is by thinking certain words or paragraphs aren’t important when they actually are. I have written good stories and subsequently ruined them by over-editing. I killed too many darlings, ruthlessly eliminated ‘wordy’ scenes, and erased too many colourful metaphors, characters and adjectives. Not every adverb is a sin, and not every descriptive passage is indulgent.

These days, I strive for minimalism more carefully. The first rule of editing is: do no harm. There is a certain charm to the roughness of a first draft, and you can kill a story just as easily by eliminating the passion as you can by leaving in too much fluff. I find I can eliminate about ten percent of what I write without worrying that I’m deleting anything important. However I can usually reduce the story by another five to ten percent by removing things which are not obviously superfluous on first reading, or by rewriting them to more efficiently serve their purpose.

That latter point is important. When you write first draft, you don’t always know what you’re getting at. Often you write around a subject as you try to get to the heart of it, like a shark circling prey. One you get to it, though, you can dispense with the circling and go straight for it. Ah, you will think on the third or fourth reading of a scene – that’s what the point of this was supposed to be. Boom! rewrite and reduce. This is the reason you can often remove the first one or two paragraphs of any story – these are words you’re often spending as the writer flailing in the dark, looking for a place to begin. Once you find it, the initial flailing is just a waste. Get rid of it.

So, like all the tools, it’s a difficult balancing act. The benefit of taking a minimalist approach to your writing, however, is great: more clarity, more power, and less room for the reader to get lost in a blizzard of words. I know you’ve read books like this: thousand page tomes with eight adjectives trailing every noun and paragraphs that stretch for country miles.

Don’t be that guy. Write as if every word you put down cost you a dollar. It’s not, after all, your words the readers are paying for: it’s what you’re actually saying.

31/7/18

The Month in Reading

I hit my quota of two thousand pages again this month, so I’ve got plenty to talk about. I’ve finally settled on a good system of arranging my reading list, which I’ll summarise quickly before I get into the books… I aim for about 25 books every three months. Of the 25, I try to get through: 13 fiction (6 horror, 6 non-horror and 1 collection of short stories), 3 Nonfiction, 3 On Writing, 3 Philosophy/Self Help, and 3 Classics.

Anyway, here’s what I finished this July…

 

Ratings Key: 1: The heat provided by burning as kindling is more enjoyable than the book.

2: Couldn’t finish it. Wouldn’t recommend it to someone I liked.

3: A decent way to kill time. I don’t regret finishing it.

4: Good book. Telling my friends about it and lending it out.

5: I wish I could liquify this book and inject it directly into my heart like that scene in Pulp Fiction.

 

  1. The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle (NF)

Rundown: An analysis of the nature of talent, and an investigation into the phenomenon of talent hubs – schools or training institutions that seem to reliably produce world class tennis players, singers, violinists, and various other high achievers.

Writing: Solid journalism, well researched and insightful. Reminded me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell, and the subject matter was similar to Outliers.

Final Word: Fascinating book. Definitely read if you are interested in how people get really good at shit. SPOILER: It’s practice, but only a specific type of practice, accompanied by excellent coaches and a certain approach to learning. Innate talent for an art or craft is basically a myth: these things are learned.

Rating: 4

 

  1. The Fireman – Joe Hill (F)

Rundown: The world is going to hell because a new disease (spread in the form of spores) causes people to burst into flames randomly. The story follows Harper, an infected nurse who escapes from her abusive boyfriend to join a community of others infected with the spore who have found a way to keep from turning to charcoal, and one man – the fireman – who’s even learned to use the fire to his advantage. Unfortunately, the uninfected are sweeping the country straight up massacring infected people, and the leader of the community is starting to get awful dictarory, the way cult leaders do. Oh, and Harper is pregnant, too, which is kind’ve a big deal when you could burn to death at any minute. It’s original, I’ll give it that!

Writing: It is not, in my opinion, Joe Hill’s best work (that would be NOS4R2), and I think he could have got to the point a couple hundred pages quicker and trimmed it down. That said, the man knows how to weave a good tale, and I went happily along for the ride.

Final Word: If you like anything else he’s done, you’ll like this. I probably wouldn’t rave about it to anyone, but others have raved about it to me and I can see why. The characters were probably the best thing about the book, and you’ll be keen to return to them, regardless of the book’s few failings.

Rating: 3

 

  1. The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas (OW)

Rundown: What is it that makes readers feel some emotions so strongly when they read, and how can you, as an author, make deliberate choices to capitalize on this and create emotional punch in your fiction?

Writing: I was sold on this book within the first few chapters, and intend to read all of Donald Maas’s ‘On Writing’ Stuff. The guy knows what he’s talking about. And I know he knows, because my own writing greatly improved when I started following his advice. He reminds me a bit of Sol Stein.

Final Word: Another good practical book, not unlike Stein on Writing but more concerned with the emotional side of the reading experience.

Rating: 4

 

  1. The Rape of Nanking – Iris Chang (NF)

Rundown: At the beginning of the second world war Japan took over Nanking – China’s capital city at the time – and proceeded to massacre large numbers of the Chinese civilians in the most brutal ways imaginable. The book is a documentation of both the darkest aspect of humanity and, in its description of the heroes who rose up to defend the Chinese, the brightest. It was on the whole, the most horrific thing I’ve ever read – and I spend much of my time seeking this type of thing out.

Writing: Extremely well written and researched and everything you’d want from such a book in terms of actual construction. Iris Chang was a passionate, intelligent and capable journalist – but god damn, she sure as hell didn’t pull any punches; she plumbs these depths with the precision of a surgeon extracting and analysing a deadly cancer. Not for the faint of heart. Read it if you would like to see the blackest horrors human beings are capable of.

Final Word: I’d recommend it to anyone: to shock them, to shatter their naivety, to strip away their innocence, to traumatise them, to make them question their own goodness – so easily assumed – and most of all to terrify them. You won’t see the world the same way after reading this book, that’s for sure.

Rating: 5

 

  1. Nowhere Man – Gregg Hurwitz (F)

Rundown: The second in the Orphan X series. Evan Smoak gets captured by a maniac after his bank account halfway through a mission to save a couple of innocent trafficking victims. Meanwhile, the other Orphans are hunting him down and closing in.

Writing: No doubt about it, this man knows how to tell a good story. He may not be lyrical or literary or anything like that, but it doesn’t matter. Think Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne, only with better story: the scenes are tight, the characters are interesting and three dimensional, and few words are wasted.

Final Word: If fast paced thrillers are your gravy, I guarantee you will devour the Orphan X books like a bloody steak fresh from the grill.

Rating: 4

 

  1. Tribe – Sebastian Junger (NF)

Rundown: War Journalist Sebastian Junger investigates the social evolution of human beings. Not only to people seem to cope well under times of high stress, it appears we thrive. Why do so many soldiers long to return to battle? Why did Londoners miss the blitz? Why is it that in times of disaster and danger, suicide rates and depression plummet to near zero? It’s an interesting book, people, is what I’m trying to say.

Writing: He’s an interesting dude, Junger, having been out there on the front lines himself along with the soldiers in intense conflict. His personal experience lends fascinating insight into the psychology of that extreme existence.

Final Word: This book gave me a completely new perspective on human beings and something I’d never considered before: the social side of our evolution as a species.

Rating: 4

 

21/7/18

On the Darkness of the Human Soul

I’ve been reading some dark shit lately. Among others: The Rape of Nanking, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Panzram… as well as listening to podcasts: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History on World War 1, Ghengis Khan, and the nature of torture for entertainment (Painfotainment), and Daniele Bolleli’s History on Fire about the Sand Creek and My Lai Massacres. Plus I’ve been falling down some internet rabbit holes concerning murders, tortures, massacres, genocides and all kinds of different real life horror.

There are a few things I’ve learned from this (so far) brief trip to the underworld. The first is this: that Solzhenitzyn’s statement: ‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’, is true. To use the participants in the My Lai massacre, those involved in committing the atrocities could not be more normal. Some of the letters sent home to parents before the massacre occurred described their unit as a bunch of everyday normal American boys.

This seems to be the case in a lot of these horrific events. The people involved are not innately monsters. They aren’t psychopaths or emotionless robots. A combination of circumstances, experiences, and most insidious of all – ideas – have unlocked within them the innate savagery of the human soul. The appetite, capacity, and tendency for evil is as much a part of the human condition as eating and having sex.

If you doubt this, read Jane Goodall’s experiences living with the chimpanzees, and her documentation of just how brutally sadistic they could be to each other. Cruelty is not the aberration but the rule of nature.

People like to categorize perpetrators of true acts of evil as the ‘other’ – as villains and antagonists and psychopaths, people with no empathy and no remorse and no soul. People who are, in other words, fundamentally different.

But the evidence is to the contrary – the fact that the war criminals, the psychos, the sadists, the executioners and torturers of history were fundamentally no different than you or I. Maybe this is why people enjoy reading tales of horror in the first place – to explore the dark side of ourselves that society has endeavoured justifiably to suppress. I wonder if the most peaceful societies have the greatest appetite for horror in their entertainment?

Just a thought.

10/7/18

My take on the Classics.

Soon after determining to be a writer – or at least one who writes seriously – I made a list of the necessary requirements. The standards I’d have to live up to so I could confidently say I was on the path and slinging words with the best of them. I’d have to write over a thousand words a day, read two thousand pages a month, edit extensively, finish and send out all of my stories, study the art and craft of fiction any way I could…. And read the classics. Yeah, you know – The Classics. Just all those famous books you hear smart people talking about, like Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest. What? It can’t be that hard, can it?

After fighting my way through Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, Ulysses, and God knows how many other dense (but let’s not forget, world changing) novels, I realised I was on a fool’s errand. Don Quixote is a thousand pages long, and it’s only one of hundreds of books that could be considered ‘Classics’.  I found myself climbing endless walls like a Navy Seal at boot camp, only mine were made of words instead of bricks – though they were no less taxing.

I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wasn’t learning much, either. I wanted to learn. That was, after all, the whole point. I wanted to soak in the transcendent words of these revered authors, discover the timeless truths and human emotions they evoked. In some cases, I succeeded: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, Vonnegut. But in too many others, I fought to consume the prose, struggling to discover whatever lessons and meaning might be concealed within. It was like forcing dry chicken down my throat. At the time, I told people how much I enjoyed Lovecraft. But the truth is? I thought ‘In the Mountains of Madness’ sucked. I know at the time he wrote it, it was special. But reading it objectively from my modern day perspective, it just wasn’t good. It’s like watching a famous movie from the 1960s and saying it’s corny. Of course it is. Corny is something that happens when you make something so good that it gets copied to the point of nausea and cringing. Like clichés. The first guy who wrote the words: ‘He fought like a lion’ was way ahead of his time.

But the point is, I was forcing myself to read things I wasn’t enjoying and wasn’t learning anything from just because I thought I should. It wasn’t a good investment. I know you’re supposed to love the classics. You’re supposed to be literature educated, and appreciate what they did and why and how. But that’s bullshit.

Listen. A book is a big investment in your time and concentration. It better do at least one of two things very well, or it isn’t worth either: 1. Entertain you 2. Inform you

That’s it. These are the only purposes books serve. If you’re not entertained, and you’re not learning, then give it up.

In light of this, I developed a system for reading classics that both keeps me from getting bogged down in swamps of words I don’t have an interest in reading and educates me at the same time.

When I read a ‘Classic’ book, I have the following rules:

  1. Read 100 pages. If a book doesn’t interest you in the first hundred pages, it never will, classic or not.
  2. If it interests you enough to keep reading, finish it. If not, stop. Life is too short to read things you don’t like, and there are more classics than you could get through even if you only commit yourself to a hundred pages of each – or fifty for that matter.
  3. If you do stop reading, skip to the last ten pages and read them. Then go to the Wikipedia page or an equivalent and find out everything you can about it. Find out why it became a classic in the first place. Who was the author? What was going on in his or her life and in the world at the time? Why did he write the book? Why did it have such a great affect on society and become a classic?

 

That’s it. If you’ve read 100 pages of a book, then you know the style, tone, and voice of the author, and you know the direction and pace and form of the book. Combined with the knowledge about the author, the context of the time, and the reasons for the books enduring success, you have a pretty holistic and complete idea of whatever book you chose. You could probably achieve the same reading only fifty pages, even.

So that’s what I do. Occasionally I come across a classic novel I like or even love, and read it all the way through and study it and marvel at it.

Often, though, reading a classic feels like chewing dried fish. It’s probably good for you, but is it really worth it?

That said, I’ve also discovered some Earth shatteringly good books through my determination to read classics: The Old Man and the Sea, for example; Dracula, The Grapes of Wrath, and too many others to list here. So don’t dismiss the daunting classic – reach out and taste, and whether or not you like what you find, recognize that there is value there independent of you. If it isn’t your style, leave if and try something new. But I can guarantee you’ll learn something, and that the ones you don’t toss aside, yawning, just might change your life.

Happy reading.

6/6/18

On Voice and Originality

There is the view, and there is the window. The view is the story: the events as they are, plain as day. The window is the language, the lens through which you see the story. There is some argument as to which one should emphasise and to what degree, but I think we can all agree that the story itself has to be more important. I mean, I don’t care how ornate and decorative your window pane is, if it just looks out onto a brick wall I’m not interested.

Then again, it’s just as wrong to discount the language completely in favour of story. Plenty of writers do this, seeking to remove themselves utterly from the story they’re telling, trying to create the most unimposing window pane with crystal clear glass through which we can take in the grand view unimpeded. To do anything but that, they argue, is merely egotism and accomplishes nothing other than to get in the way of what’s really important: the story.

I sympathise with this view. I’m a lover of stories and storytelling and I, like them, believe that the actual story is the most important thing – the whole reason anyone really sits down to read in the first place. No one opens a book with the desire to read beautiful words or be captivated by delivery – it’s the story they really want, even if they may say otherwise.

But to say that the story is the be all and end all is not right. For one thing, if you remove yourself utterly from your books, then what are you selling that any old fool with a pen and paper couldn’t write? Your skill? Your cleverness at weaving complex plotlines together in a neat little package? Unless you’re a one in a million individual, there are already a bunch of people doing this way better than you probably ever will. Original ideas? No such thing – at least not in any meaningful sense. Quantity? Maybe, if you also have all of the above and are willing to churn out millions of words a year of technically correct, well structured story in language that isn’t awful.

No, the only real selling point you have – the only thing that will truly put you in a league of your own – is what Steven Pressfield calls the ‘Authentic Swing’ (Great book, by the way, go read it.). It is your voice, your worldview and your personality – the very things the die-hard story only people would have you erase from your work.

No one can write a Stephen King book but Stephen King. Anyone can write a Mills and Boone romance. No one can write a Harper Lee book but Harper Lee. She only had to write two books in her entire life – meanwhile ghost writers at institutionalised book factories like Mills and Boone flood the market to scrape a living. They have to flood the market. Because what they’re creating is the equivalent of a cheeseburger meal from Mcdonalds.

Don’t get me wrong: I eat cheeseburgers all the time. I like them, they taste good and fill me up. But do you want to be the scrawny guy at the window slapping together a thousand burgers a day as fast as his acne scarred hands can manage, or do you want to be the master chef, sizzling sirloin steaks to perfection and glazing them in his secret sauce, the stuff people will drive to taste from miles around because damn it the steak everywhere else just doesn’t taste the same

So by all means, prioritize the view: the structure, the characters, the twists and turns – the story. But never forget about the frame: the language, the style, the brush that colours all and belongs to you and you alone – your voice.

Don’t be a hack. Don’t even be an accomplished, prolific, successful hack. It’s not as fulfilling, not as personal, and not as fun. Be yourself.

18/6/18

The importance of Shipping.

To ship is to submit – to send your story out into the world as it is and accept whatever repercussions or rewards there may be.

The typical writer reacts to the idea of shipping with the horror of a vampire facing a sunrise. And rightly so: after all, what if it’s shit? What if the story amounts to nothing more than pretentious garbage heaped on top of clichés? What if it – and by extension you – is boring, drawn out, amateur, or worst of all, unoriginal?

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes that your art is somehow you. That the thing you created and your own identity are inseparable, one an extension of the other. After all, if you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, it is hard to separate yourself from it. I imagine it’s the same dynamic that exists between some parents and their children. Especially the type of parents you might see on reality TV coaching their sons and daughters to be successful models or athletes. They see their children as nothing more than a perpetuation of their own identities, and push them to achieve dreams that belong not to the child but to the parent… But I digress.

You are not your art.

And, just as importantly, no one really cares if you’re shit. What happens if you create bad art? No one reads/looks at/listens to it. No one tells their friends about it. They only do that if they like what you made, and they can’t like something if you didn’t send it out.

Now, sending out an unfinished product, or something which is broken in a fundamental way, is different. If your story doesn’t function as a story, if the ending doesn’t make sense or if there is a plot hole too glaring to ignore, that’s different. That’s not making a shitty car, it’s making a car that doesn’t drive.

If, however, it does function as a story and you just don’t like it? Send it out. The worst that can happen is nothing. You’re just another critic, after all. If you don’t like your story – well you’re only one person. It’s better, in my experience, to try to judge your work as objectively as you would judge the beauty of a rock formation or a star constellation. It is what it is.

Don’t be a helicopter parent. Let your babies go.

 

25/5/18 – On Not Knowing What the Hell You’re Doing

It is a strange thing, the writer’s inability to know the quality of their own work. I might write a story I love, only to have it shot down by those whose opinions I value. Other works I’ve detested personally, only to have others heap praise upon them. I’ve tried, over and over, to figure out what the hell I can do to predict, ahead of time, whether or not a story will be well received by my beta readers or not.

The conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is this: if your readers all disagree about the good and bad points of your story, you win. Don’t change a thing. If everyone unanimously says it’s good, or that certain points are good – then that’s probably the truth, and likewise for if they all say it’s bad, or that specific parts of it are bad. In other words your opinion, as the writer, is meaningless. Your own taste, your own criticism, has already been exercised in the first and following drafts of the story. Once it is sent out into the world, it is no longer a part of you, and therefore beyond your judgement.

One of the reasons I think I am good at taking criticism is that I can separate my stories from myself. If you hate my story, you hate my story, but I don’t extend that criticism to mean that you hate me, even though I may have put a lot of my heart and soul into a certain project. Anyone that’s devoted a portion of their life to a project as intensive as a novel – or even a short story – knows how difficult this can be.

This is one of the reasons I’ve always liked Stephen King’s idea that stories are found objects, like fossils. I don’t believe in it, exactly, because I think the reality of the matter is that I created the story from nothing, not that I discovered a pre-existing thing. But sometimes it definitely feels like a story is something that you’re finding rather than making, and it can be very helpful to think of things this way. One of the reasons why is as I mentioned above: if a story is something you’ve found, you can be detached from it and therefore edit it more objectively and take criticism better. Instead of saying to people ‘Look at this piece of my soul which contains all my blood sweat and tears! What do you think of it?’ You can say ‘Hey look at this cool thing I found? Not sure about it myself, what do you reckon?’

The moral of the story, I think, can be summarised the following way: if you finish a story – and you should finish most of the stories you start, if not all – send it out.

It sounds obvious, but only to those who have not written many hundreds of thousands or millions of words. Anyone who’s created a significant body of work has created a significant body of shit. That is the truth.

Here’s the thing: if it is truly bad, it may be bad for reasons that you don’t anticipate, and having other people tell you those reasons can be really helpful. I have deleted dozens of stories on the basis that I thought they were unfit to see the light of day. I was on the brink of doing this with a recent thing I created, but I stubbornly gave it to my beta readers instead, only to receive an overwhelmingly positive response.

That’s good, but it would have been just as good to get a negative response and reasons for it that I hadn’t anticipated – then, you see, I would have learned something. But to throw a finished story away without any feedback at all? That’s a waste.

So, the lesson for today’s post is this: if you have a story that is finished, send it out.

After all, what do you have to lose?

 

21/5/18 – On Over Writing and Gin

Wrote nothing today, but I feel justified because yesterday I did 2200 words. I was on a roll – I wrote until 3am drinking gin, and the best part was when I read over the words this morning they weren’t even that bad. I have had bad experiences writing drunk in the past. It has always been a mystery to me how people like Stephen King and Hemingway and Hunter Thompson could drink so much and yet produce such good work consistently. Apparently, Stephen King wrote Cujo over the course of a 72 hour coke binge, and remembers little of it, yet the novel required little rewriting.

The idea of this appeals to me, because I’ve never been capable of such prolific production. Then again, I’ve also never had coke. If I write more than a couple of thousand words in one night, I feel drained the next day. I get a feeling that I’ve seen every sentence a hundred times. Every phrase is a cliché; every plot device is a trope.

On the other hand, if I don’t write for too long, say four or five days in a row, I sink into a terrible depression. My life ceases to have meaning, and everything else I do is leeched of joy. I become self destructive.

The best way to do it, in my experience, is to write just enough that you’re satisfied for the day, but no more. Like eating a big meal, but then stopping short of being completely full. That way, when you wake up in the morning you’re hungry again, instead of bloated and lethargic.

Right now, that means about one thousand to thirteen hundred words a day – though I should mention that that number has changed over time. The amount per day, and the number of days per week I typically write, has increased steadily across the years.

So today I did not write, but I’m okay with it because I’m still full from yesterday, and I’m not yet willing to take up cocaine.

 

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

 

I was listening to Pixar’s Andrew Stanton in a Ted Talk  about a concept of storytelling he called the ‘Two plus Two’ method. If you’re not aware, Pixar pretty much hits it out of the park for every movie they make. Their stories are solid and consistently entertaining, and I believe that the storytelling craft of people like Andrew Stanton is largely responsible for Pixar’s success (not to detract from the hundreds of other talented folks involved in the animation and production, of course).

I bring it up because when I heard him outline the concept of ‘Two Plus Two’ I realised I’d been using it for ages, only the name I had given it myself was The Spoon (I’ll explain in a second). It’s an important idea not just because of it’s value as a storytelling tool, but specifically because of how it applies to horror.

Here’s how it works. The way Stanton describes it in a nutshell is this: The audience wants to work for the story, but they don’t want to know they’re working. Therefore, for maximum impact, don’t give them four, give them two plus two and let them add it up.

That’s it. Those who are well versed in oft-given advice for fiction authors and the like will recognize this rule because it’s basically a re-wording of the old ‘Show, don’t Tell’ mantra. What the latter doesn’t explain, I think, is that there are actually times when you do tell. For example, you have to ‘tell’ two plus two. In the telling of these things, you are showing the four.

If that seems confusing or vague, here’s my Spoon Method for comparison…

Back in school I had a cool English Teacher – we’ll call her Liz. You know the type: wordy, thick glasses, excessively jolly and articulate – the Fun Aunt. She was one for games, Liz: she would make us speak for a minute on Bananas or the colour Yellow without repeating ourselves or saying ‘um’, or she would make us list as many uses for a brick as possible. One game which stuck with me was what she called the Spoon game.

A spoon is just an example – the game could be with any random object. She would pick the object and whisper it to someone, and that someone would have to describe it to the rest of the class until someone guessed what it was. The catch was that Liz would also give the person a list of words or phrases they weren’t allowed to use when describing the object. So, if Spoon was the object, the banned words might be: cutlery, concave, eating, metal, spoon, scoop… And hilarity ensued as people tried their hardest to guess what an excavating device for soft edibles might be.

So how does this apply to writing horror? Well, the spoon is the Terrible Thing, The Monster, and/or The Darkness. You, as the one in charge of getting the message across, already know everything about this Evil. But if you want the reader to be afraid, you can’t just give them all you know. That would be like the student just yelling out ‘It’s a spoon!’ Where’s the fun in that? So don’t show the monster; show the tracks in the mud. Don’t show the teeth; show the bite marks.

In Stephen King’s IT, before we really know anything about the monster, here are the parts King decides to show us: 1. A young boy, Georgie, getting his arm bitten off by a clown in a drain. 2. A series of incidents of little children going missing in a small town. 3. Six phone calls to the main characters, an old friend telling them that ‘It’ has returned and they must go back to the small town. In all cases the characters are terrified, and one even commits suicide rather than face the monster.

Note that in none of these cases are we told about the nature of IT or what it is or anything really about the monster itself. But we are terrified, because what the hell is so bad that someone would rather kill themselves than face it? There-in lies the rub: we have to ask a question, and not only that but it is a question to which we don’t know the answer, and all fear stems from the unknown.

As for how much to show, I think the answer can best be summarised in two words: ‘Just Enough’. First of all, give the reader credit – they can work out quite a lot from a small amount of information. Chances are, you can be more subtle than you think. Remember, the more they have to think, the further they have to reach, the greater the emotional impact when they finally get there.

The most effective things to show, as I mentioned earlier, are those which do not so much illicit a conclusion in the reader’s mind as a question. At it’s core, this question is always the same: ‘What is the horror?’ But it manifests itself in various ways, such as: ‘What kind of monster could do that to a human body?’ ‘What kind of thing would make those tracks in the mud?’ ‘What could someone have seen to make them gauge their own eyes out?’ etc.

So, to conclude: Two plus two equals a spoon. Show the reader just enough to make them ask questions. And finally: don’t show the killer, show the bodies.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  2. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  3. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  4. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  5. The Lord of The Rings Trilogy/The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. Sidhartha – Herman Hesse
  7. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  8. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  9. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. 1984 – George Orwell

Epilogue

 

After Dale’s funeral, Brian, Matt, Elyse and Steph met at the foot of the Westlake cliffs, where it all began. Brian came last, and he brought the Book of Worlds with him, held solemnly in both hands, like a priest with his bible. They were silent, sitting in an uncertain semicircle alongside the rock wall. They’d built a stack of kindling and Matt stooped and lit it with a match when he saw Brian approaching.

There were no greetings or smiles, everyone still sick from the funeral, the sight of Dale’s pale faced parents clear in their minds. Brian simply walked up to the sputtering fire, stood for a moment, and tossed the book onto it. A moment later, Steph leaned forward and tossed in the box which contained the ring of keys.

In silence, they watched the flames until there was nothing but ashes and glowing logs. Only then did Brian speak. ‘He was the best of all of us,’ he said. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked Jordan. He made himself the sacrifice.’

‘It should have been me,’ Matt said, watching the flames flash and lick at the wood.

‘It was him,’ Brian said simply. Matt said nothing, but put an arm around Steph and pulled her closer.

‘I thought it was a trick, at first,’ Steph said. ‘I thought he had some decoy or something that Jordan was attacking, and he was just screaming to make it realistic. I thought we were going to find some dummy with its stuffing ripped out, and Dale would step out from the bushes, smiling like he used to when he pulled off a really good magic trick.’

‘I remember that smile,’ Elyse said. ‘Like he already knew how good it was, and he would rather die than tell you how he did it.’

‘Yeah.’

They watched the fire burn down, and when it was nothing but cinders they hugged each other and parted ways, Matt and Steph walking back down the lane towards Wayward road, Brian and Elyse to Brian’s house. Before they’d left the park, Brian turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey.’

‘Uh. Hey?’ She said, smiling.

‘Um.’ He was remembering blades. Skin split, blood leaking from the wounds. Blisters rising from new burns. He was remembering her face lit in ecstasy as he worked a nail into a fresh cut. He forced the thoughts away. He hoped it would get easier with time.

‘Now it’s all over,’ he said, finally. ‘Will you, um, will you go out with me?’

She smiled at him, and the scars across her lips looked prettier than ever.

‘Of course I will, idiot.’

He stopped walking and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her in for a kiss and she hesitated. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heart thundering in his chest. ‘I won’t bite.’ She let out a sudden laugh, the first in a long time it seemed, and for a few moments he felt like it was all going to be alright. She kissed him then, hard – but not too hard – and it was good.

 

THE END

Epilogue

 

The Westlake Watcher: Peace Reigns?

 

After last month’s huge spike in violence in the usually peaceful suburb of Westlake, it seems that people have had enough. The unprecedented violence began with the assault on young Zane Blaire, and culminated in the torture and murder of Frank Silic by his son, Jordan Silic, who still has yet to be found (full story page 4).

Between these two crimes, hundreds of violent cases have been reported this summer, almost all of them apparently impulsive. According to the police (who were themselves accused of excessive force in over fifty percent of their criminal apprehensions during this period), many of the criminals claimed to have had no rational explanation or reason for their attacks. These were all crimes of passion, in other words.

So what was the cause, then, of this strange eruption of violence over the course of two months? Dina Silic, Jordan’s mother and a survivor of his brutal onslaught, claims her son had gone insane and ‘acted like someone I’d never met’. Similar sentiments were expressed by witnesses in Zaine’s attack, and an uncharacteristically large portion of the crimes committed were committed by citizens with no prior convictions. Many were described as normal, friendly people. ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was a common phrase. Those recently released from prison have apparently gone back to their ordinary lives. The crime rate in Westlake, since November, has dropped to below its long term average. And so the question remains: what are we to conclude?

Many interviewed seem to liken the event to a kind of natural disaster. As though a community can lose its collective mind for a period, cause great destruction, and return to normal, the same way a hurricane hits a town and then fades away. Ask an anthropologist, and it’s a case of over population coupled with a deteriorating economy. Ask a lawyer, and it’s a case of police corruption. Ask a Doctor, and it’s a case of drug and alcohol abuse. Everyone has their theories.

Whatever the cause, Westlake seems to have recovered, for now, and already the new year is looming and full of hope. The previous two months will, most likely, be swept under the rug and forgotten with time. Perhaps, that is how it should be, though Zane Blaire will doubtless remember his summer for the rest of his life, and so too will Dina Silic, both bearing scars that will never fade. Besides them, a staggering one hundred and sixty victims of assault, rape and attempted murder will no doubt be less eager to forgive and forget, and the families of Ray Deakin and Jimmy Lee, along with the relatives of ten other missing Westlake residents (including Jordan Silic), continue to search for answers.

For now, Westlake has very much the atmosphere of those rebuilding after an earthquake: families rally around each other to support those with lost loved ones, people can be seen tentatively stepping out into the streets once again to clean the wreckage left by mindless rioters, and others are beginning to get on with their lives once more. For better or worse, it seems Westlake has weathered the storm.

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