Thursday, November 7, 2013

Reading Out Loud - Kirstyn McDermott - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

We’ve all been to a public reading where, no matter how magical the words might be on the page, the author proves incapable of successfully delivering them aloud to an audience. From the chin-on-chest mumbler, to the atonal reciter of monologues, to the speed reader who blatantly disregards their own punctuation, a bad performance from an author can be painful to witness. Even worse, it can completely put off potential readers and book buyers.

The first time I was invited to do a reading, I was terrified of being one of those authors. A natural introvert, I decided to practise reading my chosen piece aloud several times over in the privacy of my office in order to get the cadence, speed and delivery just right. And I am so glad I did. Not only did my preparation make for an entertaining reading later on, but I ended up spotting several rough patches and making significant – if minor – tweaks to the language of the story. Unfortunately, that piece was already published, but since then I started to read everything I write back to myself before submission/publication. I now regard this as an essential part of my process, the final stage of polishing an otherwise finished draft, or proofing soon-to-be published pages.

Reading out loud is an utterly different experience to simply reading silently from a manuscript. Hearing the words spoken outside of your own head is the best way I’ve found to pick up annoying repetitions, unnecessary speech tags, stilted dialogue, awkward sentence constructions, unwanted tense changes, and a whole host of other linguistic problems that your work will be much better off without. Trust me, it’s a rare eye that will catch everything on the page, but a rare ear that won’t notice when something simply sounds wrong.

Of course, you do need to make allowances for styles and formats that were never intended to be read aloud and perhaps don’t lend themselves to oral performance, but for a basic linguistic once-over, this technique is invaluable. I even read the whole of my last novel aloud – all 120,000 words of it – as part of the copyediting process. It took the best part of three days and I had almost no voice left by the end, but the stumbles and missed beats that my ear was able to pick up and correct made it a much more polished book. So, if you’re not already in the habit of reading your work out loud, why not give it try? Chronic laryngitis notwithstanding, I can guarantee you will become a better writer for it.

 Kirstyn McDermott has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career, with many critically acclaimed and award-winning short stories under her authorial belt. Her two novels, *Madigan Mine* (Picador, 2010) and *Perfections* (Xoum, 2012) both won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel in their respective years, and a collection of short fiction, *Caution: Contains Small Parts* was just published by Twelfth Planet Press. While wearing her non-writing hats, Kirstyn co-edited the inaugural issue of *Midnight Echo*, served as Vice President of the Australian Horror Writers Association, and convened Continuum 3, the speculative fiction and pop culture convention. These days, when not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a monthly literary discussion podcast, *The Writer and the Critic*, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat with her husband and fellow scribbler, Jason Nahrung. 

She can be found online (usually far too often) at

Monday, November 4, 2013

Building Tension - Brad Hodson - Biggest 'Aha' Moments in Writing

Most of my Ah-Ha moments in writing came when reading either the Greats or the Trash. Now capital T Trash is not confined to genre, as some snobs might dictate, but can be found in everything from horror to the shelves so generically labelled "Literature" at your local big box store. But there was an epiphany that started to form in reading Hemingway and Le Carre and "`Salem's Lot," as much as it started to form reading bad gorefests and pretentious purple prose that sought more to obfuscate than to illuminate. You should read mostly good books, of course, but reading bad books can show how NOT to do it.

And it, in this case, is tension. The epiphany, which, to be honest, was less of a lightning strike than an electrical hum growing louder over time, was that tension was an art unto itself. It required a few major pieces, but the biggest seemed to be patience. To truly build tension, whether it's in an Elmore Leonard crime caper or a Geoffrey Euginedes story of family, required patience on the part of the writer. You had to be willing to dole out your brilliant story in small pieces that might, on the surface, seem inconsequential. But as they began to stack up, the reader got hooked. They had to know just what puzzle these little pieces they're being given came together to complete.

Sure, there are other components. A healthy dose of paranoia, for one. Mood and atmosphere for another. And character, let's not forget that. But where most of the Trash got it wrong was with pure impatience. The authors of those bad books had ideas they wanted to get across and couldn't wait to put them on the page. Thus, when the tension was non-existent, it was primarily because I had all the pieces to the puzzle too early. I don't care how phenomenal the climactic fight is or how horrible the monster is when confronted if the tension doesn't pull me along to those scenes.

It's a bit like sex without foreplay. Sure, it'll scratch the itch, but it isn't memorable.

You Like What??? - Roy Robbins - Biggest 'Aha' Moments in Writing

You Like What???

            I get a lot of strange looks at church-type events when I reveal that my favorite move of all time is “Silence of the Lambs”. It seems that to some of my Christian friends the love of the Lord and scary movies are mutually exclusive. Not so. I have actually found that my love of “all things scary” has opened up a new venue to evangelize as there are a lot of people just like me who happen to like things that make you crawl out of your own skin. 

            Sadly, I have also come to realize that our genre/business/niche is fraught with a whole lot of people who are just plain “God-Haters”. It seems as if they believe that one cannot write good horror fiction unless there is a disdain for the Lord and all things Christian. Obviously not everyone in our business shares my strong faith in Jesus Christ, but my experience is that I am definitely in a tiny minority in this regard. 

            Case in point. My acceptance speech at the 2012 (for the year 2011) Stoker Awards for Specialty Press of the Year, I opened up by thanking Jesus and the dining room was like a morgue with the exception of a “W00t” yelled out by my friend Roberta Lannes and broad grins from my wife, and friends Liz and Josh Scott. Perhaps a “Hail Satan!” would have elicited a much more robust response from the crowd of stunned onlookers. 

            In the midst of this, I just continue to share my faith at conventions and online, and to publish books, this is what I do best, in that order. Bottom line, if you love horror and are a Christian, know that it is OK and you don’t have to change who you are to fit someone else’s mold. I am also evolving in the way that I respond to others who believe differently than I do, nowadays I try to just “love them as they are”, but admittedly, it is not always easy. As I start seminary in the fall of this year, I may even meet more people who love the Lord but can’t wait for the remake of the latest horror classic, and remark AHA! when they find out I’m waiting too…

Roy Robbins
May 2013
Anaheim, CA.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wherever the Wind - and Your Characters - May Take You - Nicola Matthews - Biggest 'Aha' Moment in Writing

We’ve all been there. The character we painstakingly crafted to perfection through character biographies and outlines do a complete one-eighty after a few short chapters into the story. The proverbial bad-boy turns into a mushy pile of goo as soon as the leading lady hits the stage. The soulless monster learns to love after witnessing the heart-warming smile of a child. The greedy, selfish executive shows his softer side by giving his lunch to the stray dog that comes around from time to time.

One of the more important things that I have learned over the past thirty years of writing is that no matter how hard you try to keep your characters true to the way you have envisioned them, the characters and storylines will eventually develop their own voice. Your characters are going to show you sides of their personalities that you had not consciously decided to write into the storyline. Characters, even those that may not be homo-sapiens, are going to grow over the course of a story. They are just like humans, multi-faceted with many, many layers. The more human they act, the more they grow, the more realistic they become, not only to you, but to your readers as well. It is these characters that often endear themselves to us as readers. Learning to let them find their own voice throughout the course of a story can be hard to do. Writers are much like parents, guiding their creations along, nudging them back onto the right path from time to time. And like parents, it can be very hard to let your creations go to pursue their own lives.

Whatever challenges your characters may find themselves in, learn to take cues from what they are telling you. If you find that your character is behaving in a fashion that doesn't fit the personality that you first conceived for them, take a step back and reassess the situation and their response. Is the reaction one that you can really see them having, given the situation and the other characters involved? After all, it's not unusual for the vicious killer to get upset if the woman he loves is injured; it shows that he is, after all, human, even if his species isn't. Learning to listen to your characters and letting them find their own way and behave in a manner that is true to their own unique personality not only makes them well rounded, but it gives your story, and characters, a feeling of reality, whether you are writing that great American love story or the wildest sci-fi adventure ever seen in the universe.

To tell you a little more about Nicola Matthews, she offers this:

My love of literature started at the age of six with Dr. Seuss. Not happy to merely read about the wondrous tales and adventures that so captivated my imagination, I began jotting down stories to amuse myself. By the age of thirteen, I had penned my first novel and started my journey into the publication world. Over the next ten years, I would write two additional novels, eventually putting my writing career on hold as I raised a family. Eight years ago, finding myself unemployed and expecting my third child, I took back up the call of the pen and began writing short stories and posting them online to various social media pages. Within a year my stories were receiving thousands of hits a day. At the urging of a fellow author, I began researching the independent publishing option. In addition, I went back to college to finish my degree in business management and operations. Three years later, I created my own independent publishing label and published my first novel. The next five years would see another three novels to hit print, scores of short stories, and more than four million readers worldwide.

Find her at the following websites:

What Does it Take to be a Successful Short Story Writer? - Jeani Rector - Biggest 'Aha' Moments in Writing

As the editor of The Horror Zine, I receive many emails from people asking me, “What are you looking for? What will make my story stand out from the pack? What will get my story published?”

These are good questions, and I would like to take this time to answer them.

No one simply wakes up one day to find themselves a successful author. To get there is a process. Many famous writers received their start by submitting their work to magazines and small presses.

And as you know, these days the competition for writers is daunting because of online zines, ebooks, and other products of technology. Computers have created a glut: Anyone who wanted to be a writer but who used to be intimidated by the awkwardness of typewriters is now jumping in because of the ease that computer-writing can offer.

So what is a writer to do? How can you, as an author, get your work to stand out and therefore succeed in this highly competitive business? Because as talented and creative as you may be, it is still a business that takes a plan.

The first thing to do is to honestly ask yourself about your motivations to be a writer. Why do you want this?

John Shirley (author of “extreme” works such as Everything is Broken and co-writer of the movie The Crow starring Brandon Lee) says:

“Someone once said you shouldn’t try to be a writer unless you must be a writer. I think this is so, for most people anyway. Of course, if you have a day job and time on your hands between responsibilities, and you have some ideas, why not give it a shot. I’m just saying don’t try to make it career, your big goal, unless writing is a compulsion, is part of your very being and won’t let you alone, because writing is usually too difficult to do unless you must do it.”

I agree with John. For those for whom writing is a compulsion, there is no getting around it. You must do it because the choice is not yours to make. It was born into you. For others, writing is a lark, a hobby…something they will “eventually get around to doing.” For the latter category, I say to find an easier hobby…maybe stamp collecting.

But if you are one of those who must write no matter what, you know who you are, so please keep reading this article. Because for you, it is understood that this is a compulsion, so next we need to explore the how.

From where do you get your ideas? Some of the best writers simply look at their surroundings. The old saying write what you know is true. Authors like Ramsey Campbell and Bentley Little are masters at taking ordinary people and thrusting them into extraordinary situations. This creates the idea that “it could happen to you.” The reader relates to your character and feels personally involved. This is the result that good writers want to achieve.

For example, in Bentley Little’s book The Association, the protagonist is a regular, normal guy with a family who moves into a new home. The guy could be you or me. We have all moved, right? Slowly the character comes to the realization that his new home is involved in a conspiracy by the Homeowner’s Association to force its tenants into conforming to very undesirable things.

So you can see how Bentley took a normal, everyday situation and turned it upside down. The Association is a very effective story in what it sets out to do.

Other writers simply relax and let the ideas come to them. Simon Clark (British Fantasy Society award-winner for Humpty’s Bones and best-selling novelist of the Vampyrrhic series) likes to ask himself “What if” questions, as revealed here:

“…there are times when it’s best to let your mind coast along in a beautifully random way. You can do this by employing something that has been referred to as the Art of Wandering. Here you don’t search for ideas—you let them come to you. The way to do this is simply to walk or ride through the landscape in a relaxed way, and allow your imagination to engage with the sights you see. For example, imagine you find a strange old house on the hill—who lives there? Why do they live there? Why have they painted over the window panes?”

So now you have an idea. What next?

Writing takes work. Conrad Williams (British Fantasy Society award-winner for his novel One) states:

“Keep going. Write every day. It’s a muscle prone to wastage just like the muscles in your body. If you’re stuck, write something else: haiku, a letter to a dead rock star, a horoscope for the mysterious 13th constellation, a serial killer’s shopping list. Anything. It’s a tough job, racking up pages. You have to put the hours in. You have to get so many things right: character, plot, pace, narrative arc…it’s easy to give up. Thousands have.”

Conrad is saying that writing requires discipline. I used to write two pages one day, then the next day I would edit those two pages. Editing is best after a good night’s sleep away from your work, making you more objective. I recommend being ruthless: remove the bad or the excess that distracts from or bogs down the flow of your story. Stay crisp and concise. And then when you are finished editing those two pages, write two more.

Okay, so you must be a writer, you have your great idea for a story, and you are disciplined at your craft. Is that enough?

Absolutely not. Next you need to convince an editor to publish your work. This is where I jump into this article.

My name is Jeani Rector, and I am the editor of the ezine titled The Horror Zine. I founded this online magazine in July of 2009 as a response to the fact that, probably due to the economic crisis, many of the online magazines that new writers depended upon for exposure either went on hiatus or folded completely. That is why I stepped in to try to fill the void by creating The Horror Zine.

These are my credentials for writing this article for Suspense Magazine: I have over three years of experience working with both new and professional writers every day. The Horror Zine enjoys over 30,000 hits per week world-wide. We are an award-winning ezine that also produces anthology books containing the works of contributors. The Horror Zine consists of myself, Dean H. Wild as Assistant Editor, Christian A. Larsen as Media Director, Bruce Memblatt as Kindle Coordinator, and of course all of our contributors.

The Horror Zine is not just about horror; we welcome other genres such as mystery, suspense, thriller, “Twilight Zone,” and some sci-fi. We do not accept themes that include abuse of women or children, gore for gore’s sake, splatter-punk, erotica, or spree or serial killers.

We are a “4theluv” market, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t extremely choosy. We are. One of the reasons why we are choosy in the material we accept is, of course, because we demand quality content.

The other reason we are choosy is because we can afford to be. Did I mention there is a glut of writers out there? Of course I did.

Which means that you need all the advantages you can get to make your work stand out from the pack and get the attention of editors such as myself.

First things first. When getting ready to submit to an editor, remember that it is similar to a job interview. Appearances matter. Read the Submissions Guidelines carefully. If it says to single space at Times New Roman font 12, do what it says!

Never submit your work with typos or misspellings or grammatical errors. Have a second set of eyes read your work before you ever submit it to an editor. Right or wrong, if your work contains errors, the editor will assume you don’t care about your story, so why should she care either? All editors expect your best so give your best.

All stories need a “hook” in the first three paragraphs. That is usually the length of time a reader will “try out” your work. If he/she is not grabbed and absorbed within the first three paragraphs, he/she will simply stop reading and go elsewhere. Did I mention the glut in writers?

From there, I can only tell you what I look for personally when I receive submissions for possible publication. First and foremost, if the first paragraph is devoted to descriptions or (horrors!) a rambling account of history (the why the story is being told), I immediately reject it without reading any further.

I recommend starting the first paragraph smack in the middle of the story, in the middle of the action, and then gradually weave the descriptions and history into the body of the story. That sort of thing takes talent to achieve.

Here is what, in my opinion, makes for a successful short story:

      1)      start with action
2) familiarize the reader with your protagonist; make him/her likeable
3) provide an obstacle for your protagonist
4) describe how your protagonist overcomes, or at least deals with, the obstacle
5) provide an exciting chase scene
6) give the reader hints as to the ending
7) provide a completely different ending than your hints
It is also important to balance the amount of dialogue to the amount of action. Too much dialogue and you are “telling” the story instead of “showing” the story.

I automatically reject any story that is told in the form of a diary or someone recounting an event that occurred previously through lots of dialogue. That sort of story is told in a passive voice. There is no suspense to an event that has already occurred. I want stories that are “in the moment;” that are occurring as we speak.

Graham Masterton (Edgar award-winner and best-selling author of numerous novels since 1978) says:

“Don’t lecture—show, don’t tell. Even if you’ve done some really amazing research, don’t pound your readers’ ears about it. It’s enough that you know…you knowledge will come across in the confidence with which you tell your story.”

Now I will discuss “style.” What is your voice?

Joe R. Lansdale (Stoker award-winner for Lifetime Achievement and best-selling author of the Hap and Leonard series) tells us how southern writer Ardath Mayhar helped him find his own voice:

“I read a story of hers in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, and it took place in East Texas and was written in East Texas vernacular, and at that point my life changed. I was already writing, but I was trying to write like a New Yorker or someone from Los Angles, and in that moment, when I read [Ardath’s story] “Crawfish,” my brain switched and went South where I belonged. I’ve always thought career-wise that there were some major turning points for me, and my reading of “Crawfish” was in some ways the second most important.

“I had been trying to write about things I didn’t know and people who lived in places I had never been, and about things I had never experienced.

“And then I read that story, “Crawfish” by Ardath Mayhar, and things changed. Hers was an East Texas voice, at least in that story, and it was not too unlike my own real voice, and from then on, I knew what to do.

“So here is my advice for new and upcoming writers: write what you know, write what you are, and write where you are. The authenticity will come out, and the heart of your story will show.”

Now you are done with your story: you have a finished product that has been polished and is free from errors. You just know that all the editors to whom you submit will be thrilled to have it and your story will be automatically published.


Not always.

I try to stress to contributors that opinions are subjective. Different editors have different tastes.
What I suggest is that if you get a rejection, query the editor as to why. A real writer, the one with the compulsion to write, wants to do what it takes to better his/her craft. The goal is to produce the best product possible. And for that, the real writer needs to not only seek advice, but to listen to it.

Tim Lebbon (Stoker award-winner and screenwriter for the coming film The Secret Journeys of Jack London) tells us:

Everyone gets rejection letters. They should make you stronger––I wrote dozens of stories trying to get into the magazine The Third Alternative, and eventually got there, and I think I improved immensely doing so. Take positive comment from rejections, and don’t let them grind you down. They’re as much a part of the learning process as anything, and a good writer never stops learning.”

So there you have it. I will close this article with one more quote about the challenges of being a writer.

Joe McKinney (Stoker award-winner and author of the four-part Dead World series), says:

“Basically, being a writer, being a slave to that muse, can turn you into a mean son of a bitch. Doing this writing thing, on top of the day job and the family and all the other responsibilities, is stressful, and it takes a lot of hard work. There’s no way to varnish that truth.”

Are you up to it? If so, you might be a real writer!

By Jeani Rector, Editor of: 

While most people go to Disneyland while in Southern California, Jeani Rector went to the Fangoria Weekend of Horror there instead. She grew up watching the Bob Wilkins Creature Feature on television and lived in a house that had the walls covered with framed Universal Monsters posters. It is all in good fun and actually, most people who know Jeani personally are of the opinion that she is a very normal person. She just writes abnormal stories. Doesn’t everybody?

Jeani Rector is the founder and editor of The Horror Zine and has had her stories featured in Aphelion, Midnight Street, Strange Weird and Wonderful, Dark River Press, Macabre Cadaver, Ax Wound, Horrormasters, Morbid Outlook, Horror in Words, Black Petals, 63Channels, Death Head Grin, Hackwriters, Bewildering Stories, Ultraverse, and others. Her historical fiction full-length novel about the Salem Witch Trials titled Accused: A Tale of the Salem Witch Trials was released in 2013 from The Horror Zine Books.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Where to Start? Right in the Middle of the Action - John Peters - Biggest 'Aha' Moments in Writing

I've spent a fair bit of time over the years editing, proof reading and critiquing the work of others and I cannot tell you how many times I've had a writer say something along these lines: "My story really gets rolling on the third page," or "I know the first chapter is kind of slow, but it really picks up steam in chapter two."

My question is always the same – why in the world don't you start where the action begins, at the point where the story really gets rolling? Dispense with the "slow" part, hit the ground running and never let up.

I say this for two reasons.

First, from a simple marketing standpoint. Yes, as writers we're artists, we're creators, but if we're going to be successful, if we're going to be viable on some level, we have to market our work, too. Back in the day when H.P. Lovecraft was writing, or even further back during Poe's day or when Dickens was penning his work, a writer could take his time ambling into the story.

Today? If you can't grab your reader on the first page, maybe even in the first paragraph, you're history. There are far too many alternatives for a reader to expect one to wade through pages of slow set-up.

Second, aside from marketing concerns, it's just bad writing. As an artist, a writer, your aim is to tell a story. 

Yes, you want to write beautifully, you want folks to fall in love with your literary talent, but in our hearts we’re story tellers and the written word is our tool. Learn to use that tool by making beautiful, memorable prose – Douglas Clegg is one of the best at this (see The Hour Before Dark here or Nightmare House here for two fantastic examples)– without getting in the way of the story.

But what about back story? How will readers understand what's going on, who the characters are, if I jump right into the action?

Ever read Firestarter by Stephen King? (Check out a sample here)

That story starts right in the middle of action, yet King leaves hints and tips along the way at first, and later explores backstory.

What about Salem's Lot? (a sample can be viewed here). There isn't a lot, physically, going on in the beginning, but those first pages put you squarely in the middle of the story, of the action, planting questions and mysteries that keep you reading.

The same principle holds true in all writing, not just in horror. Absolute Power, the novel that launched the career of David Baldacci, starts right in the middle of a man about to break into a home and in so doing unwittingly uncovering a murder cover-up that goes all the way to the White House. The prose itself isn’t necessarily fast-pace, but Baldacci deposits you right in the middle of an ongoing story, rather than meandering along with backstory and introductions, (check out a sample here)

Want an example from the small or indie press? Check out the novel Lethal Obsession by an up-and-coming writer name Shandra Miller. This story will turn your preconceptions of what an erotica novel is upside down, and it starts right in the middle of the action – a woman thinking she's about to be killed. (A sample can be viewed here)

Check out one of the offerings by Cutting Block Press – Horror Library Vol. 3 (full disclosure, one of my pieces is in this Stoker-nominated anthology). Nearly every story there effectively starts right in the middle of the action (two fabulous examples are Them by Sunil Sadanand and The Station by Bentley Little) You can sample Horror Library Vol. 3 here)

My intent here wasn't to just hit you over the head repeatedly with writing samples, but what's the old adage – show, don’t tell? That's what I've tried to do here, show how some writers effectively draw you right in the story from the first page – even the first paragraph – and never let them go.

The best advice I can end with is to tell you to read those sample novels and collections I mentioned, see how those writers start in the middle of the action, then try to apply that to your own work.

John Peters is a fulltime award-winning journalist and newspaper editor. His short fiction has appeared in more than two dozen markets in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. His novella and short story collection, The Alchemist & Other Dark Tales, is an Top 100 best seller, and his debut novel, Claiming Moon, was published in 2012. To follow John or to learn more about him, visit his website here.