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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My AHA Moment Thirteen Years in the Making - Weston Ochse - Biggest Aha Moments in Writing

My Aha moment came 13 Years after I sold my first story to Mindmares Magazine for two cents a word. So there I was, it was 2010 and I was knee deep in hand grenade pins, sitting at my comic book cover covered desk, writing a horror novel with some pretty wickedly disgusting scenes, when I get an email from a NY editor. Essentially he posed the question, why aren’t you writing military fiction? In fact, why aren’t you writing military supernatural fiction? I shook my head, thought it was a stupid question and began to reply. Only, I didn’t have anything to say. It was a good question.

In 2010, I had 26 years of military service. I’d been to more than fifty countries, seen more things and done more things than the combined experiences of the students of most graduating high school classes. I spoke several languages, knew more than 8 silent ways to kill a man (nod to Joe Haldeman), have dangled from helicopters at two thousand feet and leapt out the backs of them over the skies of Bangladesh. I should have died a hundred times. I should have broken something a hundred more. Frankly, that I survived to write this short essay is a testament to sheer dumb luck and the vicissitudes of a comic god.

So then why hadn’t I taken that experience, distilled it, and produced quality fiction for the masses to consume? What was I waiting for? It seems like I used a character here and a character there. In fact, looking back, all of my novels and most of my successful short stories and novellas had central characters who served in the military. It had been there in front of me all along.

So I basically wrote back, “I don’t have any friggin’ idea.”

And SEAL Team 666 was born.

Since then, I’ve had a whole sale change in attitude. I think maybe I believed that no one would want to read about the military. It had been done before. Other people had written about it. But that was exactly the point. Other people had written about it, not me. My voice had yet to be added to the men marching in cadence. Who knows, maybe mine would provide a deep bass undertone, maybe it would be a brilliant tenor, soaring above all the other notes, or maybe my work would land in the middle of the crowd and add to the chorus.

Hey Hey Diddly Bop, I wished I was back on the block!

Whatever! I needed to do it.

In fact, I am doing it.

You know they say you’re supposed to write what you know. I knew that. I’ve taught that. So why did it take me so long to do it?

Stubborn, I guess. Or maybe I just didn’t listen close enough. Either way, watch out, world here I come, and as Ed Lee said about me more than13 years ago, with creative brawn, brains, and balls, the guy's locked, loaded, and switched to full-auto, blazing away with his unique and original brand of modern horror military (insert genre here) fiction. One of the few new writers, I'd say, who will help re-define the field for the future.

Yeah. That’s me.


Pleased to meet you.

Weston Ochse
Kabul, Afghanistan
On Deployment and
Living the Dream

Weston Ochse is pronounced ‘oaks,’ and when combined with his first name, according to Harlan Ellison, sounds like a nursing home or a trailer park at the end of the road. Weston is the author of ten novels, most recently SEAL Team 666 from St. Martin's Press (U.S.) and Titan Books (U.K.), which the NY Post called Required Reading. His work has been published in magazines such as the Tampa Review, Cemetery Dance Magazine and Soldier of Fortune Magazine. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award five time, and won the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel. When he’s not a traveling idea salesmen to places like Afghanistan, he lives in southern Arizona with his wife and three Great Danes.

He also has a great new novel out by the name of Babylon Smiles. Here’s the link--

Thank you for your service, Weston.