I’m still hung-up on the idea of my unwritten horror story. I’m now digging myself into an even deeper conundrum; do I actually want to write a horror story? I was talking about it with a friend the other night and I realised that I don’t think I want to write horror stories any more. So that begs the question, even if this story in my head is great, is there a point in writing it when I don’t want to have to follow it up with more?
Something that writers and (more to the point) publishers have gotten hung up on is branding. What do you as an author write? The thinking is that if someone buys your book and likes it, they will only buy your next book if they can be assured that it will deliver something similar to the previous experience. Hence the rise and rise of trilogies, quadrilogies and series outside of the fantasy genre where it has always been a given.
I really dislike this idea, one look at my reading list and you will see that I try to read as widely as possible; everything from chick lit to scientific theory, so it is annoying to me that as a writer I have to be limited to just one genre if I want to be published. Often I’ll like an author’s style, and I’m willing to follow them along any story they want to take me to. Stephen King is a classic example with his fantastic sci-fi, classic horror, poignant coming of age and contemporary fiction (I know he also writes fantasy buy I’ve only just purchased the dark tower and haven’t yet started reading it).
Of course I’ve said it before, Stephen King did not just get to say ‘I want to write a story set in a prison about a man who is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife’ and his publisher said ‘sure, easy sell’. He had to deliver a string of horror novels first, and even then he had to publish Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption in an omnibus with three other tales, and it was erroneously called a ‘tale of the supernatural’. So even back in the 70’s & 80’s branding was alive and well and impinging on the creativity of writers.
So this all comes back to my horror story conundrum. I finally decided not to write it. My horror story days were behind me and I had been working so hard to milk the one idea I had landed on that I thought I should just give it away. But just because my brain likes to surprise me on a regular basis on Thursday night I had a strong desire to pick up a pen and pad (I never write longhand) and in one sitting I wrote a full horror short story from start to finish. I didn’t even know it had been brewing.
Maybe it’s time for a pseudonym?
I know I’ve talked about this before, but I have encountered it a few times this week and I’m just stunned at the extent to which it is practiced out there. Of course I’m talking about reading the end of a book before you read the rest of the book.
My discussion about the Nook a few weeks ago prompted a friend to tell me that she also found it a bit more difficult the flip to the end to see if she liked how it all turned out. WHAT!?!?!? And she’s a writer!
This week I have been reading a book called ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ by an author I normally LOVE, and I think with this book he thought it would be funny to write the book without a plot. I got to page 121 and I could not with any confidence say what it was about –I was quickly losing interest. I bemoaned this loudly to my colleagues so one suggested I flip ahead and read the end to see if it was worth sticking it out. Then someone else piped up and said they would never read a book without looking at the end first to make sure they were going to like it.
So poor writers are out there desperately trying to set up red herrings, invested emotion, hopes, dreams and fears for their readers, yet for a big chunk of the population there is no element of surprise. Surely knowing a character is alive in the last chapter would have to diminish your concern when they get themselves into a tight scrape in chapter seven?
This got me thinking, would you ever write a book differently if you knew that the last chapter was going to be read before the first? Maybe that is why there are so many books out there with that kind of meaningless ‘tie-up’ chapter at the end where we see everyone acting relieved and conveniently tying up all the little lose ends.
I don’t think I’ll change my endings, but it is certainly something to consider. We always think, as writers, that you need to grab your reader in the first paragraph, often spending weeks on perfecting it. Maybe we need to think about putting a lot more work into that last paragraph as well!?!
I’ve recently read two fictional novels which had huge chunks of what I would call filler. Those chunks were clever (and in one case rather funny) but they didn’t really contribute to moving the story along at all. I’ve always been told that this is the stuff you need to cut out, kill your darlings and all that.
In one novel a whole third of the book was filler dressed up as a red herring, and after much fun and mayhem we ended up back at pretty much the same point in the story where we started following the red herring. While the mayhem was amusing, I was well aware that it had nothing to do with the story while I was reading it. Did that annoy me? Mostly not, but on reflection yes.
I understand the divide between filler and character/world building can be a bit fine sometimes, but I guess a good yard stick to use is only add your anecdote if it contributes to the reader’s understanding of the story, or of your character’s motivations. There is no point going into detail about a character’s former job of cleaning gutters unless they need to call on a skill or experience they picked up from that job later in the story.
Having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy some filler parts in one of the novels, and I would hate to see them cut out. So I guess like all rules in writing, breaking it can work, so long as you know what you are doing.
The Australian Horror Writers Association opened for entries to their short story competition in January. It doesn’t close until May. For the past 4 months I have been trying to write a horror story so I can enter, and despite a couple of enthusiastic starts, my stories have always descended into comedy. I’m wondering if my days as a horror writer are behind me?
In an effort to trigger my horror muse I read a book of horror short stories. While the stories were original and quite well written, none of them came close to scaring me (and I could see a few great comic angles they had missed). It was only later, when I was watching the news, that I realised what a tough task horror writers have today; how on earth can they compete with a real world that can be so terrifying?
When you see what a ‘normal’ person is capable of, then zombies, ghosts, vampires and werewolves seem almost childish. A more chilling story would be for a ‘normal’ person to believe they are one of these supernatural creatures, but again we only need to open the newspaper to see such a story.
Given I refuse to write psycho killer or splatter fiction, I think it may at last be time to hang up my horror writing pen. If I can’t scare myself with a story I won’t class it as horror, and I certainly won’t release it to the world.
So I’m going to have one last go at writing a horror story that came to me in the middle of the night (when apparently everything is scary). If that doesn’t work I think I’m going to have to settle for being a spec fic writer who focuses on sci-fi and fantasy. If only there were more markets for horror comedy
This week was writers group meeting week for me. My group is only small, but we meet once a month and all of us submit a story or chapter to be critiqued. This week I was reminded (yet again) or why it is so important to be a part of a writers group.
I submitted the third chapter of a story, which I know had a big info dump in it. I needed the info dump; there was stuff the reader needed to learn that had to be revealed in a very short period of time. So despite all my internal alarms to the contrary, I resorted to an ‘as you know Bob’.
My group called me on it, as I knew (or at least hoped) they would. They also saw the bind I was in because I needed this info out fast. So we did something that will only ever happen in a writers group (or I assume for those published authors, maybe with an editor) we brainstormed how I could get around the issue, and someone came up with a fantastic solution.
This generous little piece of my fellow writers group member’s time might one day be the difference between my story getting picked up, or getting passed on. Instead of falling into a novice’s trap, I’ve now got a way around it, and I am so grateful.
So to all those people who spurn writers groups, saying they are toxic or full of jealous writers who want to see you fail, I say that you are in the wrong writers group. I’ve been in two now, both have been fantastic and full of people who want to help you to succeed.
There are so many reasons why I love my groups, and I feel blessed to have been able to find two such wonderful groups. Thank you!
A friend of mine recommended a book to me that he was reading. Unfortunately my public library didn’t have it, and his only copy was on his Nook (an e-book reader). He was so adamant that he wanted me to read it that he has let me borrow his Nook.
This is my first ever experience with an e-reader, and even at page 258 I’m still not sure if I like it.
There is the anxiety of worrying about the Nook being hurt in my daily travels (I do most of my reading on public transport), but I guess I have to ignore this because I always have a bit of hyper-concern with the books of others anyway, and I’m sure if the e-reader was mine I’d quickly get over it.
One issue I have is not getting the visual cue of how far through the book I am. I know I can look down and see I’m on page 258 of 510, but I like to see that. I like to glance over at my book sitting on the table and see the bookmark sticking out indicating exactly how much more of it I have to go. But I know this is a stupid issue so I can’t really count that.
I also don’t like that it is not as easy to keep my finger in place and flip ahead to see how long the chapter is to know if I will be able to finish it before I get to my stop. I’m sure there probably is some technical way I can do this, but my impatience with the instruction manual rendered it a mystery to me.
I’m also very aware of the reflected glare I might be sending into the eyes of my fellow passengers as I’m reading, in the same way as I have been spotlighted on numerous trips by others. This has led to some awkward reading angles on the bus and might account for the sore back I’ve had this weekend.
But after all those negatives… I have accidentally done a few things, which if I knew how to do intentionally might be quite cool. I’ve slipped my finger on a word and the little Nook has defined it for me. The word was ‘was’ –so probably not one I needed help with, but not matter what angle I poked at other words I couldn’t replicate this handy little feature.
I’ve also accidentally highlighted stuff, not useful stuff, but there have been many times I would have liked to do that with books I’ve read in the past, but my ‘leave it as your received it’ policy on books has strictly forbidden any such vandalism.
Finally there is the benefit of being able to keep so many books in one tiny little machine. I could fit probably twenty of my personal libraries into this one little Nook. But having said that, I love my wall of books in the lounge room, and I can’t see a little Nook being able to replace that.
So I guess the one last downside which probably has sealed the fate of my purchase or not of an e-reader is that you can’t easily lend out your books. Fortunately for my Nook friend I am still old-fashioned, so he’s got one of my oft’ read paperbacks to keep him satisfied until I return his Nook.
I recently read a book called ‘The ethics of what we eat’ by Peter Singer & Jim Mason. As I was boiling up the carcass of my roasted free-range chicken (to make stock) and ensure I got every nutritional morsel the poor creature could offer me, I realised what a significant influence reading that book has had on my eating choices.
I have previously seen several documentaries which have showed me big slabs of what this book told me, as well as hearing others espouse the virtues of what this book shared. But until I read the book it just didn’t seem to stick. Now, every time I make a decision about what I’m going to eat, aspects of this book flicker through my thoughts.
I know a big part of this is a me thing; I really get into books. I’m sure for others a book will not have as much impact as seeing something on the screen, or hearing the story from the lips of someone who has seen and knows. But I’m sure there are many others out there who do gel more strongly with what they read.
It makes you realise, yet again, what power there is in the written word. If only more of us could use that power to do good
I’m really liking my new mantra; sit down, write something, and finish it. It has really helped to get me to… sit down, write something, and finish it. Only one problem. My characters don’t like it.
I made some very logical and scientific decisions about what I was going to focus on, based on how close I was to the end of the stories, what effort was left to finish them off, that sort of thing. As you can imagine it involved some spreadsheets and conditional formatting to make cells change colour, a few drop-down boxes and a meaningless pivot table just to show myself that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it.
So I’m focussing on ‘James’ (one day I’ll win an award for least imaginative working titles), I’m liking ‘James’, I making good inroads into ‘James’, but guess who starts visiting me in the shower, when I’m vaguing out on the bus, when I’m going for a long walk… It’s not ‘James’… It’s ‘Lore’.
‘Lore’ is only 6 chapters long and has at least another 15 to go. ‘Lore’ comes about 12th on my spreadsheet of stories to focus on. ‘Lore’ is meant to be ignored for at least the next 6 months and possibly put on the scrap heap. ‘Lore’ wants to be written.
I’m very aware that ‘inspiration if for amateurs’* so I am trying to resist ‘Lore’ –writing longhand what gets revealed to me, and even then only notating those parts that I have watched play out. But soon I think I’m going to have to give in and dive back into the story.
Maybe the mantra needs another tweak; sit down, write something and finish it, then sit down again and keep working on the things I want to work on as well. Not quite as punchy, but maybe it will put the phantoms to rest?
*quote from artist Chuck Close.
I had a good time at Adelaide Writers’ Week this year, though the 35 degree days did lead to a few headaches and a bit of heat exhaustion! I discovered a few new authors and was made both richer (in experience) and poorer (in book purchases) for having been there.
A funny thing that I noticed with a number of the authors was the concept of when they started to write. A lot of them did not start writing, or even think about becoming writers until their late twenties, thirties or even forties!
Having been writing books since I was in primary school, this shocked me at first. How can you just decide to write? Just knock out a book and get it published in a couple of years? I had been slogging away my whole life and still did not have a publishing contract to show for it.
Instead of drowning in my jealousy (I may have dog-paddled in it for a while) I kept listening, and a theme emerged, both in those who, like me, had always wanted to write, and those who came later to the idea; they all wrote a story.
Yes, it is a crazy idea; to be a writer one has to write a story and finish it. Sure, I have been writing most of my life, intensely over the past 10 years, and I have hundreds of thousands of word to show for it, but how many novels have I written to completion and put through at least one editing round? How many? One.
When you look at it like that it makes perfect sense, in fact the ONLY way you can become an author is to write a story, finish it, polish it and send it off. Everything else is just practice.
I may have seven novels on the go, but until I finish them, it can only ever be a hobby. That was my big take-away from Adelaide Writers’ Week. I’ve always laboured over the fact I need to write, but it is the finishing and polishing that I really need to focus on.
The streets are packed, everyone is running late for work and it is standing room only on the bus. Adelaide’s mad March is on again. It kicked off with the fringe a couple of weeks ago, then hit a bit of a low with the Clipsal 500 starting Friday morning, countered somewhat with the launch of the Arts Festival on Friday night, lifted again by Adelaide Writers’ Week starting on Saturday.
This year there are a lot of authors I have never heard of at Writers’ Week. There are also a lot of authors who specialise in areas I don’t read a lot of; poetry, biography, political commentary. At first, I must confess, I was a little disappointed with the line-up; there are very few speculative fiction writers, and very few commercially popular writers, but I guess a big part of what the festival offers is discovery.
A lot of people have asked me what I get out of it, and in truth not many of them know I write, so the appeal for me may not be obvious. But when they asked me this, it struck me as odd that I couldn’t really answer them with any great clarity.
I do find it fascinating to hear writers talk of their process for bringing a novel into the world, but would I change my process based on their experience? I doubt it. When authors tell of where they get their ideas, does it change my idea-harvesting technique? No, not at all.
All I can conclude is that I love to hear people talk about writing, whether it be well published authors with 50 publications to their name, or my writers group friends who are still trying to find a publishing house for their first novel.
Writing can be a very lonely pastime. Sure it is also wonderful and magical, but when you resurface into the real world, you realise it is just the cat there (or a human loved one) who doesn’t fully understand where you have been for the last three hours. Writers festivals are full of people who understand, and that is a nice place to be… At least for a little while.
The Adelaide Writers’ Week runs from March 2nd to March 7th (no, not a whole week, but Adelaide Writers’ Six Days doesn’t have the same ring to it).
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