Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Geographical Location - Selene MacLeod - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     Character, plot, setting, atmosphere, these are all extremely important in creating the right mood to scare the pants off a reader. One way to accomplish this is by paying close attention to a story's geographical setting. Some horror subgenres--the Southern Gothic, for instance--are easily defined by their conventions. But did you know there's something called Southern Ontario Gothic? Neither did I, although once I read about it, I realized that it formed a framework for something I do as a writer--that is, I follow the "write what you know" guideline. 

     Unlike more "worldly" writers, I've never been anywhere farther than a couple of hours' drive from home. My stories are frequently set in the town where I grew up. Sarnia, Ontario is a working-class industrial town on the US (Michigan) border, and it has a culture, politics, and class structure that identify it very much as a character. It's got a beautiful landscape, on the edge of the St. Clair River and the southern tip of Lake Huron. Amateur hockey, bingo, and alcohol are pastimes. Too much education, or too far outside the "norm" (whether you're gay, fat, non-white, etc.) and you're regarded with suspicion. Unemployment is high and lots of people rely on the government for a monthly cheque, yet all the class politics that go with handouts are in play. In other words, it mirrors many small towns, and I hope this makes the place relatable to a reader. 

     The thing that makes Sarnia unique is its Chemical Valley, a steel mini-city that looks like a Giger fantasy, all vats and steel rigging and flaming towers that spew toxic chemicals. The sky at night is orange, and the last time I saw stars, I was a pre-teen. 

     My story "Home" (published by SNM Horror as "Born in a Dead World") is about an Indigenous woman suffering a miscarriage. She comes home to find her grandmother watching Stephen Harper's "apology" to the victims of the Indian Residential School program (Look it up on YouTube. Then watch the footage from survivors. I dare you not to cry). As they watch, her grandmother begins to tell her about the real horrors she and others endured at the schools. 

     Having grown up in Sarnia, in the shadow of the Chemical Valley and the threat of long-term health problems caused by pollution, I found that the town offered a strong backdrop for a horror story. The rate of two girls born for every boy and the high number of miscarriages among women on the Reserve is staggering. The juxtaposition of the Residential school system against the murder of people by the very air they breathe and water they drink created a strong emotional echo in me. As a Canadian with Metis heritage, I reacted with deep shame and impotent rage. And, of course, fear.

Bio: Selene is new enough to horror writing to still consider herself a hobbyist (that is, she thinks she can jump off the merry-go-round when she wants). Her work has appeared in anthologies from SNM Horror, Seven Archons Press, Static Movement, May-December Publications, and the upcoming Carnival anthology from NetBound Publishing.

You can read a story of her's here, or you can check her Facebook. You can read "Endymion" here. Lastly, you can find her blog here.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Horror Authors Shouldn't Pretend To Be Horror Characters - Matt Moore - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

      You've published some horror stories or maybe a novel. As a published author, it's time to make a name for yourself—set up a Facebook page, attend some conventions. You want to project a knowledgeable, successful image. Someone people will want to read and editors will want to publish.

      But you worry no one will take you seriously. Maybe you're a mild-mannered suburbanite. The "office drone" type. A matronly stay-at-home mom. You lack that horror "vibe".

      So you create one. You adopt a nom de plume like Vlad Slything or Mistress Darkly von Deathblack. You post angsty messages to Facebook. Attending your first convention, your outfit is heavy on black leather, black lace, black eyeliner and black nail polish. You project a sullen and brooding disposition. And this is easy since we create characters on the page all the time, why not in the real world?

      While some fans think it's cool, you're surprised when authors, publishers and editors don't take you seriously.

      The reason? Writers are not performers. Our showcase is the page. As an author, you'll be judged on your expertise and quality of work. A costume sends mixed messages, like you need it because your work can't stand on its own.

      Now, this is not to say you can't indulge in some cosplay or wear something elaborate. In fact, clothing should be part of your personal branding. (E.g., Neil Gaiman just walked into the room. What's he wearing?) But if you're on a panel about writing, the effort you put into your Lestat-esque outfit might eclipse your skills and experience as a writer in the minds of attendees.

      Costumes aside, there's your attitude. No one likes someone sullen and brooding. (Okay, maybe a few millions Team Edward fans.) It's stand-offish, rude and just plain anti-social. The writing community is a very social group and many horror authors I've met are funny, friendly people. The Morticia Addams wanna-be slinking in the corner, sipping her red wine and reciting Emily Dickinson when you try to talk to her, will find herself alone and missing out on opportunities to network.

      Consider this: if you write fiction, the real you comes through in your work. So don't pretend to be someone else when interacting with readers, writers or publishers. Hiding behind "Lord Slashen Byrn" will alienate people because they can tell you're not genuine.

       Now, if you're shy or somewhat insecure (like me), it's OK to adopt a persona and pretend to be someone else, but make sure it's a version of you, not some assumed personality. Bring certain elements of your personality—your humor, your intelligence, your ability to help connect people—to the fore. Wear clothing that represents who you are, not how you think you should be seen. Leave the horrific elements in the story; bring your best self out in public.

Matt Moore is a horror and science fiction writer who believes good speculative fiction can both thrill and make you think. His columns and short fiction have appeared in print, electronic and audio markets including On Spec, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Leading Edge, Cast Macabre, Torn Realities and the Tesseracts anthologies. His novelette Silverman's Game was published by Damnation Books in 2010. He's a two-time Aurora Award nominee, Friends of the Merrill finalist, frequent panelist and presenter, Communications Director for ChiZine Publications, and Chair of the Ottawa Chiaroscuro Reading Series.

He lives in Ottawa, Ontario. Find more here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Core Puzzle - David Oppegaard - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     Each novel I’ve written has contained its own core puzzle and my hope, as its author, is to successfully solve it before the novel dies on the operating table and cannot be resuscitated, no matter how many additional rewrites I slog through. Solving this core puzzle results in an “A-ha!” moment that can be profoundly satisfying, like removing a deep and painful splinter.

     Each core puzzle is unique to the particular story I’m trying to tell. The puzzle may be related to nuts and bolts craft components like plot or character motivation, or a loftier element such as theme, but whatever the core puzzle may be, it is inevitably hidden from sight until deep into the first draft or beyond. Sometimes well beyond. The trick is to remain patient, keep writing, and watch for it from the corner of your eye.

     The “A-ha!” moment for my first published novel The Suicide Collectors actually came in a late draft, so late my agent and I had already submitted the novel to a few editors and gotten their helpful feedback. They felt the novel’s tone was off, somehow, and I decided to kill off one of the novel’s main characters. This resulted in an extensive rewrite, but it produced a grittier world more suited to a story that involved a global suicide epidemic. By removing a beloved yet out-of-place character, I’d solved the novel’s core puzzle and could move on to refining the story.

David Oppegaard is the author of the Bram Stoker-nominated The Suicide Collectors (St. Martin’s Press), Wormwood, Nevada (St. Martin’s Press) and The Ragged Mountains (ebook). He lives in St. Paul, MN, and teaches the occasional fiction class at Hamline University.

You can visit his website here and his writing life blog here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I'm Not Ready - Draven Ames - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

John Cleese explained stupidity on Youtube. He quoted a researcher from Cornell University who said, 'In order for you to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that something." The basic point was that if you were not good at something, like writing, you would not have a high enough skill level to know you were not good at it. Peer reviews help here. One of the only ways to get good at something is to practice. There is, of course, observation as well (editing, reading writers I like (and don't)), or finding books and articles on writing.

The idea that someone who is not good at a skill does not know they are not good at that skill could be why there are so many bad self-published books, and why some look back at their past writing and cringe. At the time of writing some of my earlier work, I thought I understood writing. In retrospect, none of it is 'good' by my current standards. We've all heard the term 'learning book,' which is when a writer finishes that first and spends all their effort, sometimes years, trying to make that novel work. These are all good examples of not having had enough experience to know when we are not good at something.

Why would it be important to realize when not good at something? For starters, I don't burn bridges with bad work. Success rates when submitting increases with level of skill and exposure. Knowing I should improve might make me more apt to seek peer reviews, classes, articles, or any other form of education. Also, in the event that a story gets picked up, I won't be embarrassed by it down the road. With quality writing, a following is being built, whereas bad writing pushes readers away from any future sales. With quality stories, readers will seek out more.

Things changed when I realized I did not have every tool I needed in my belt. There are plenty of writers teaching writing classes (try Michael Knost). There are many books on writing (On Writing - King, Elements of Style - Strunk). We have countless authors to read and learn from, both good and bad. Spending so much extra time reading other books has brought back a love for fiction, too, and introduced many new authors. Knowing where I stand helps me see how far I have left to go. Thank you to all of you writers and readers who are helping me to learn along the way.

And if you want to see that John Cleese video on Youtube, look up 'John Cleese stupid people.'

Monday, July 22, 2013

Writing a Successful Query - Stacey Longo - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

One of my favorite steps in getting published is writing a query letter. This is the point at which you can put your story to the side and showcase who you are. I’ve often heard writers say they agonize over queries, and to them I say: you’re overthinking it. Be yourself. Have fun – but not too much fun; you must be respectful. Here’s a step-by-step guideline:

Always, always, find out who the editor or submission manager is and address him/her as Mr./Ms. I don’t care if you babysit his kids or are related to her. Use Mr./Ms. No exceptions.

Next, explain how you know the person, have heard of the person, or might have something in common with the person. Do your research. Is the editor a huge Yankees fan like you? Mention that. “As a fellow admirer of the Bronx Bombers, I ‘m hoping you enjoy this tale of a boy, a dog, and a baseball.” Be honest. If you’re a Red Sox fan, lead with something else.

“Dear Mr. Deal,
After hearing you speak at the October 31st event “Boo” at the Bushnell in Hartford, CT, I was inspired to put pen to paper and get my embalming—oops! Creative—juices flowing.  The end result was the attached manuscript, a 2250-word short story entitled “Down the Pike”, which I am pleased to offer to your magazine for publication.”

Describe your story, as briefly and succinctly as possible. Any story should be able to be reduced to a sentence or two. Gone With The Wind: “a Southern belle is thrown into the harsh realities of life during and after the Civil War, evolving into a cold, manipulative woman who survives and succeeds…but at what cost?” Anything can be reduced to a sentence or two.
My example: “This is a story of a 40-year-old woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who discovers that sometimes, good things happen without the pesky aftermath of a messy murder trial.”

 Describe yourself. Remember when I said this is a chance to be yourself? Give the editor an idea of who you are, and where you’ve been published.

“I am a horror enthusiast, comic book fan, wife, and writer whose work has been published in The Works and The Litchfield Literary Review.”

If you’ve never been published, that’s okay. Write a few words about why you’re starting now – for instance, “it was my love of Mad Magazine that inspired me to write comedy.” A word of caution: if you’ve been published in more than, say, six magazines or anthologies, don’t list all of them. Summarize. “My stories have appeared in over twenty publications, most recently in the January 2013 edition of Tin House, Issue #6 of Shock Totem, and in Jeff Strand’s new horror anthology, Crazy Chili Dog Horrors.”

Explain why your story is a good fit for the publication you are querying. It’s important to know whom you are submitting to, so be sure to pick up copies of the magazine or other books that the publisher has put out to get an idea of what they prefer.

 “I feel that “Down the Pike”, with its desolate setting and carnivorous fish, is well suited for Shroud Magazine.”

Close with an interesting fact or tidbit about the story, and be sure to list your contact information, including name, address, phone number, and email address. You don’t want to miss an opportunity because you didn’t tell them how to reach you!

“I can only hope that you will find my story as horrifying as my ex will when he reads it and realizes the grotesquely obese husband and his yappy little dog are very, very familiar to him.
Thank you for your time and consideration.  You may reach me any time by email at the address listed below. Sincerely…”

There you have it. Easy-peasy, right? The query I used as an example in this entry is actually one I sent to Tim Deal at Shroud back in 2010. This was his response:


BEST query letter yet!  We’re going to move this story forward in the process.  I’ll send out the generic email in a little while.


Stacey Longo is a horror writer and humor blogger. She won a Hiram Award in 2011 for one of her query letters. Visit her website at www.staceylongo.com for more information.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

On Editing - Nancy Kilpatrick - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     As every publisher will tell you, "Anthologies don't sell."  They do, of course, but what is required to garner sales is "names", well-known and best-selling authors, with a following. Not only are such people necessary to sell to the public, but they are also crucial in terms of an editor selling the anthology idea to a publisher.

     When David Morrell and I co-edited TESSERCTS THIRTEEN (2009), it was a wide-open anthology--the only completely open antho I've edited.  Over 200 stories came in and we both read all of them, some several times.  That's a lot of work.  The rest of my edited anthologies have been only partially open.  Once the "names" are locked in, I try to include a few new writers who have written a knock-out tale.

     One thing I've learned over my 20 years of editing is that most new writers overwrite.  As Anton Chekov said, "The art of writing is the art of abbreviation."  The great thing about what is written down in print or ebook is that it can be reread, so there's no need to say it twice.  The other weakness I notice in new writers is overdescription.  Don't describe what's obvious, normal, commonplace and understood by all--that puts the reader to sleep.  Save the wordage for the tension of the plot, where it's needed most.

Nancy Kilpatrick is an award-winning writer and editor.  As the latter, she's just handed in her 13th anthology, EXPIRATION DATE, to be release at WHC 2014.  Her newest published anthology DANSE MACABRE: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH THE REAPER features stories by Tanith Lee, Brian Lumley, Tom Piccirilli Nancy Holder and others, and has won the Paris Book Festival's award for best Anthology of 2012.  For a list of most of her anthologies, check her (sadly in need of updating) website here.

And please join her on Facebook.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Value of Broad Experience - India Drummond - Biggest 'Ah-Ha!' Moments in Writing

     My biggest ‘aha’ moment, the one that transformed me from an aspiring writer to an author, came after I’d written my third book and was preparing it for self-publication. (My first book will forever be unpublished and my second was picked up by a small press.)

     I started my first novel when I was about 22 or so. I worked on it off and on for years, more than a decade. I restructured, added bits, ripped other bits out, polished and processed. Turns out, it was my “learning book.” I never wanted to write a learning book. I wanted to write something amazing that would end up on bookshelves worldwide.

     Here’s what I discovered: writing is a craft, built on experience as much as talent. That first book was like a painting that had been overworked, a wonky table sanded into a stump by an overzealous novice carpenter. I didn’t know this then, but now I realise that a writer can’t get all the experience they need in one book.

     I spent so long on that book that I found it difficult to move on to the next. I had such a time investment, that I couldn’t bear to throw it out. But as soon as I let go and wrote my second novel, suddenly I discovered hints of nuance and subtlety that had been pounded out of that first book. By my third book, I’d learned to play with language.

     I could never have done that by continuing to torture that first book.

     In those early days, I used to get so annoyed when people would recommend that while I was submitting one book, I should write another. I couldn’t let go. I wanted to make that book perfect. I believed I could, given time.

     Now I realise my attitude was all wrong. Growth as a writer requires multiple projects, just as development as a painter requires multiple canvases.

     Currently, I’m writing the book that will end a six-book series. I am still proud of the first book in that series, the first one I self-published, but I can look back and see that I’ve developed considerably since then. That growth never would have happened if I hadn’t learned how to let go.

     My one regret as a writer is that I didn’t learn that lesson a decade sooner.

India Drummond writes fantasy novels. She knew from age nine that writing would be her passion. Since then she’s discovered many more, but none quite so fulfilling as creating a world, a character, or a moment and watching them evolve into something complex and compelling. She has lived in three countries and four American states, is a dual British and American citizen, and currently lives at the base of the Scottish Highlands in a village so small its main attraction is a red phone box. In other words: paradise. Find out more about her and her books at her website: http://www.indiadrummond.com