Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

I don't usually make "resolutions."  To me, they're most often promises that, no matter how well intended, are damned near impossible to keep.  However, 2009 was a rough year for many (me included) so I'm looking forward to the new year with a renewed sense of optimism.  So this year, I'm going to make a few, but I'm going to separate the list into two categories:  Things I know will happen (Resolutions), and Things I hope will happen (Goals).


  • Lose weight
  • Get another book published
  • Get my 4th degree black belt in Kajukenbo
  • Make better financial decisions
Easy list, right?  But here are the goals.  Feel free to help along with this list if you can...

  • Find an agent
  • Break into the larger publishers
  • Lose 50 pounds
  • Save enough money to have a good 2010 Christmas
  • Be a better person
  • Manage my stress
  • Make better episodes of Dreadtime Stories
  • Find Stanley Cooper a home
  • Be a better teacher
  • Read more
  • Exercise more
Much harder list.  As to the first two, if you know a good agent looking for clients, send me his or her e-mail address.  After that, it's a question of me improving myself.

On the whole, I hope everyone who reads this has a safe, happy, profitable and personally fulfilling 2010.  Keep your wits about you, and may your lives be enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seton Hill, Spring 2010

If you've ever applied to an MFA program, chances are you've been told that they only encourage litterary fiction.  They usually don't allow genre fiction, by which they mean the things that most people read.  Genres like Science Fiction (Sci-Fi), Romance, Fantasy and Horror do have a place, however, for the burgeoning novelist of the future.

By now, most folks know that, in addition to working for Texas State University-San Marcos as a computer nerd, writing, and teaching Kajukenbo, I also teach in the innovative Masters in Writing Popular Fiction MFA program at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania.  At this moment, I'm gearing up to fly there for a week to teach three modules, four workshops, and meet with my mentees (I'm a mentor...So what else do you call students of mentors?).  I'll also be teaching an online class on readings in the genre, specifically my favorite genre, HORROR.  So here's a list of the classes I'm teaching, and what the Reading in the Genres reading list looks like:

  • Critiquing and Clarity - How to help your fellow students and writers improve their work without coming off as a tool.
  • Evolution of the Species:  Creating Other Races - How to create other creatures, alien species, and monsters that don't suck.
  • The Language of Fear - How to create tension and scare the crap out of people with your writing. 
Readings in the Genre (Horror) Reading List
  • The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux
  • The Best of H.P. Lovecraft:  Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre - H.P. Lovecraft (Pickman's Model, The Music of Erich Zann, The Thing on the Doorstep, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Dreams in the Witch-House)
  • Hell House - Richard Matheson
  • Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin
  • The Shining - Stephen King
  • Cabal - Clive Barker
  • On Writing Horror - Mort Castle, Ed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Writing With or Without Music

Music is a big part of my life.  People like me wander around with our own private soundtracks in our heads, can't walk through a door without hearing some kind of theme-song, and generally find that there are few, if any, times when the inner monologue is silent.  As a former professional musician, music says so much about my mood and current disposition, that most folks who know me know how I'm feeling by what song I'm playing on the guitar.  But, unlike many writers that I know, I can't write with music.  It just doesn't work for me.  I know writers who can't feel the muse beat her little wings unless they have Motzart or Ozzy blaring in the background.  Nothing wrong with that, it just doesn't work so well for me.  For me to write, I need silence.  I'm too easily distracted by the beauty of stringed instruments or the angst of the vocals to try to work while its playing.  It's maddening, yes, but like I said, that's what works for me.

For others, however, there's a long list of musical masterpieces that bring out their inner Lovecraft.  Maybe it's right for you, and maybe it isn't, but you'll never know unless you try.  So here's what I suggest:  Get some really good music.  Most folks tend to focus on stuff without words, but that's really your preference. Get music that moves you.  For me, I love listening to the haunting melody of Tubular Bells (if you don't know what this is, slap yourself with a baggie full of split-pea soup), Ave Satani from The Omen, and just about anything Danny Elfman's ever written.  Then sit in front of your computer with your eyes closed (which doesn't work very well if you can't touch-type) and let the music wash over you.  Pictures will form in your head, scenes will play out as dictated to you by the music, then start typing.  Don't worry about misspellings or grammar at this point, just type.  Let the scene come through your fingertips.  When the song's over, look back over what you've written.  Sometimes it's good.  Sometimes, it's crap.  Either way, it's something new to try.  Experiment around with different music and different moods.  It doesn't work for me, but some writers swear by it.

Write on!

Friday, November 20, 2009

To Be Professional: The Harlequin Debacle

Okay, I know I already did one blog today, but this seriously needs to be addressed.  I know I'll ruffle a few feathers with this, but what I'm going to write here is the truth, plain and simple, and if you ask any professional writer, they'll agree. Here it is:


Simple statement, eh?  Here's the problem.  Say you're an aspiring writer.  You've just written your 400+ page opus, and you start sending it around.  And you get rejected.  Then along comes some company...Oh...Let's say Publish America, or Harlequin, who says "You too can be a real live author through our imprint, if you agree to pay for the publishing costs!"  You agree to fork over a boatload of cash and suddenly, you have a book!  You're a professional author, right?  Not so fast, Sparky...Not even close.

If I wanted to, I could put together a book consisting of 400 formatted pages of the words "Dog Excrement" over and over, design it myself and publish it myself.  Seriously, you could do that.  It's easy...and all it takes is money.  But if I did that, would I consider myself an author?  Who would edit my work?  Would would have the gonads to stand up to me and say "Hey, Scott, y'know that crap book?  It really is crap?"  Not only that, but what stores would carry it, and just who would buy the thing?  Sure, my mom would.  She buys all my books (and doesn't read them for some strange reason), but who else?  So now you have a print run of 2,000 books sitting in your garage.  Still feel like an author?

Folks, the point I'm trying to make here is this:  What separates the wannabes from the professionals?  Easy:  Being Professional.  I wouldn't trust an amateur surgeon, and I wouldn't trust an amateur writer.  The bottom line is this...Listen well and listen hard...Professional writers (with very few notable exceptions) do not self-publish.  Period.  End of story.  I can count the number of well-written and successful self-published writers on one hand, and I don't even need all my fingers.

So Harlequin has decided to go into the vanity-publishing business.  Dandy for them.  Glad to hear it.  They weren't high on my list of publishers in the first place, but what respect I had for the grand old house is now gone.  By becoming a "pay-for-play" site, they've joined the ranks of bottom-feeders like Publish America in the publishing game.  And that's really just sad.  A publisher I once worked with pulled this same "marketing move" and began to offer "co-publishing" contracts.  I quit sending them stuff.

Folks, I've had nine (count 'em) books published, and I've never paid a dime to do so.  I do not, nor shall I ever, pay to have my work published.  Why?  Because I'm a professional writer, that's why.  Just like it says on the brass plaque.  This is my job.  I don't pay you to do my job.  I get paid for my job.  There are safeguards for me to do my job.  Editors, designers, marketers...Those help my work be the best it can be.  Without them, you may as well find another line of work.

The Other Senses

Just pick up a book, any book, I don't care which, and flip through a few pages.  For many of them, what you read there is a running commentary of what the characters see and hear.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but the truly great writers don't stop there.  You've got five (or more, depending on whether or not your character is in some way psychic) senses to work with, so you, as a writer, should bloody-well use them.  And, as usual, Uncle Scott has an exercise or two to help you along the way.  But first, let's take a look at the five senses (the "standard set").

  • Sight - Easy, right?  This is what the character sees.  But there can be more to it than just what's right in front of them.  This also covers what the character doesn't see, things that are missing from the landscape, things that give off a hideous shadow (but turns out to be a hedgehog...Seriously, have you seen the shadows those little monsters give off?  Brrrr...).  
  • Hearing - The absence of sound can be just as, if not more, disturbing than the sound of breaking glass or screaming.  And again, what you hear makes strange pictures in your head.  How many times have you, a person, heard a "funny" noise that scared the crap out of you because you couldn't identify it?
  • Smell - One of my favorite senses, smell is one of the most often overlooked senses that we have.  If you don't believe me, go into an antique bookstore and just breathe.  Those old musty books give off one of my favorite scents.  Everything has its own particular odor, from poop to blood to steel.  Yes, steel.  Oddly, it smells metallic.  Plus, phantom scents (like the scent of almonds) can be a "tell" of when someone is going to have something traumatic (like a seizure) occur.  
  • Taste - I'm not saying your characters should run about licking everything (though that might be an interesting trait).  But think about the way the spit in your mouth tastes when you're afraid.  Or when you just ran a marathon.  Blood has a coppery taste, and some scents permeate the air so much that you can taste them. 
  • Touch - We take our skin for granted.  How many doorknobs have we turned or buttons have we pushed without really considering the texture under our skin?  What does the air feel like where you are?  Can you tell if someone brushes against your hair?  Yes, you can.  Your skin is the largest single organ in your body (or on your body, if you prefer), and it's very sensitive (in some places more than others).  
So writers can, and should, use all the senses to help paint the picture of what's going on in their novels.  I'm not telling you to get bogged down in the minute details of every moment, but for every moment, something, sensually, is important.  And many times, authors forget that.  Here are a couple of exercises to help you see what I'm talking about. 
  • Open Channel - Go to any random place.  It doesn't matter whether it's in your house, in a field, in a mall, just a place where you can sit.  Bring your notebook with you.  Now have a seat.  Make a grid on your notebook with all five senses listed, and start using yours.  Write down what you see, what you smell, what you taste, etc.  Be exhaustively detailed.  Trust me, I know you'll feel dopy doing this, but it really is a great way to get you to notice things that you wouldn't have otherwise.  See if you can get the scent of the place, the feel of it.  Visit the place several times to see if you can identify when something changes. 
  • The Notebook - Also referred to by its common name, the "I've-suddenly-become-obsessive-compulsive-and-my-family-wants-to-have-me-committed" exercise.  Take that notebook that you always have with you (you're a writer, remember?) and begin recording interesting tastes, scents, sounds, etc. in it.  With each new and interesting sensory treasure, try to describe it to the best of your ability.  Keep them for use later.  
Above all else, remember this:  You, as a writer, are trying to put your reader in the thick of things.  You are trying to emotionally involve your audience.  Take any of your scariest movies and cut the soundtrack off, and you'll get a pretty boring movie (with a few notable exceptions).  Cut the other senses out and you get an incomplete picture.  Also, remember that this doesn't mean that every frickin' scene has to be the grande tour of sensory perception.  Some of what we see and feel and taste and touch and smell is important.  Some isn't.  Leave out the miniscule things that aren't important, leave in the things that are.  Hint:  The coppery smell of blood?  Usually important. 

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Good...Bad...I'm the guy with the gun.

One of the more interesting conundrums that many writers face is the whole "good-guy/bad-guy" dynamic.  In many cases the writer feels compelled to have a hero and a villain, and they do everything in their power to make the good-guy likable enough that people actually want to see him win.  But then there's the "bad" guy.  The antagonist, if you will.  Nothing, in my opinion, is as boring as a bad guy who is just...well...bad.  "Why'd he blow up the orphanage?"  "Because he's evil!" shrieks the writer.  *snore*

Here's the thing...Everyone has motivation for something, and no one believes themselves to be evil.  Think about it...When you get up in the morning, have you ever said to yourself "I think I'll do something particularly evil today?  What a wonderful day for...*cue music*...EVIL!"  No.  Not really.  Not if you were being serious.  The thing is, every "bad guy" is pretty much doing what they believe is right for them.    Of course, there are a few exceptions, but they are the ones that prove the rule.  So lets look at situations in which an "evil" person is doing what he feels is right:

This man enters a small bare room where a person is laying strapped to a table.  He injects something into him, killing him.  Another person, after watching atrocities performed on his family, decides to exact revenge (which, Karmically speaking, is cool).  Still another finds himself disrespected by someone, and feels that, in order to protect his way of life and his family, must make an example of the person disrespecting him.  So what if the people above are a state-employed executioner, a vigilante-cum-serial-killer, or a street drug-lord?  From their point of view, what they're doing is right.  And that's the crux of the lesson.  Five simple words:

From their point of view...

As writers, we strive to create believable characters that the audience feels some way about.  Love them, hate them, nothing could be worse than have the audience not care about them at all.  In doing so, we have to take the character as a whole and put forth his or her point of view, no matter how messed up that point of view might be.  Look at the most "evil" men in history.  Dollars to doughnuts, none of them believed they were being evil.  They believed that what they were doing was the right thing, from their own twisted point of view.

So when you create your good guy or your bad guy, remember that no good character can be so one-dimensional as to say "he does bad things because he's evil."  He does what he thinks is right in his warped little world, and letting the reader glimpse that world will make him all the more real and all the more chilling.

Until next time...Write on!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The New Breed/The Standing Guard

Everyone knows who my influences are.  I've touted the works of Lovecraft, Matheson, and others for years, and I'll keep doing so forever.  But there's another side of that.  Sure, these guys made me want to become a writer, but who are the top names now?  And who are the names to watch in the future?  I know a few of these fellows personally, but their work stands above all else.  These are the current guard, and I say that instead of "old" guard because they consistently put out good gut-churning horror.

  • Gary Braunbeck - Reading Gary's work is like living the most frightening acid trip you can imagine.  Good stuff, especially his "Coffin County" series.  Good and scary.
  • Ray Garton - Let me just say this:  No one does werewolves better.
  • John Everson - John has a real sense of the macabre, and some really twisted storylines. 
  • Jonathan Maberry - I recently met Jonathan, but long before that, I read Ghost Road Blues and was hooked by his work.  A fantastic writer.
  • Scott Nicholson - Hauntings?  Check.  Vampires?  Check.  Carniverous demon-possessed goats? Check.  
  • Deborah LeBlanc - The heiress to the throne of Southern Gothic, Deborah LeBlanc is a first-class writer. 
  • Sarah Pinborough - I'm almost ashamed to admit that I only recently discovered Sarah's work.  I'll be reading the rest of it...Fantastic, gritty, visceral...She made the favorite list easily. 
  • Tim Waggoner - Do yourself a favor...Read Nekropolis.  In fact, read everything the man's written.
And who are the "New Breed?"  Who are the up-and-comers to whom all should pay attention?  There are a few...Good writers are a dying breed, but they haven't died out yet.  My pics for authors to watch are:
  • David Dunwoody - Consistently referred to as one of the burgeoning talents in horror.
  • Eric S. Brown - If for nothing else, sheer volume of work, this guy is a writing machine.
  • Rhiannon Frater - Her series "As the World Dies" is beautiful, and haunting. 
  • Mike Carey - His "Castor" novels are impressive.
  • Norman Prentiss - His debut Invisible Fences has received impressive notices.
  • Norman Partridge - While he's only got two books (that I know of) out right now, he's an impressive voice.
Of course, there are others.  If your name is not on the list, don't feel slighted.  These are the people who've impressed me the most.  Give them all a read.  Some of these guys are fans of mine, others don't know who I am.  I'm not pimping their work because I know them, but because I genuinely believe their work to be worthwhile.  

I save the blatant pimping for my own work. ;-)

See you next time!  Write on!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Top Nine Horror Books

In order to write, one must first read.  To write in any genre, one should read who they consider to be the masters of their craft.  But why nine, you ask?  Why not ten?  That tenth place is saved for the next book that wow's me.  Everyone has a list like the one that follows, and everyone's is different, but what follows are the top nine works of horror fiction that inspired, and continue to inspire, me to write.

  • Hell House, Richard Matheson - To me, the greatest haunted house book of all time.  This one managed to scare the hell out of me. 
  • Cabal, Clive Barker - the first book I read by Barker, and still one of my favorites.  Twisted and wonderful all at once, it's about a race of monsters. 
  • The Shining, Stephen King - Like I could leave him off the list...Scary as hell, the master of slow-burn horror, this book is, in my opinion, King at his finest.
  • The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty - If you haven't read this book, you're missing out.  The movie is scary, but the book is terrifying. 
  • The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux - Old-school horror where the phantom wasn't some bare-chested, half-mask wearing nancy-boy.  This Phantom was a psychotic menace. 
  • Psycho, Robert Bloch - Who doesn't love Norman Bates?  
  • Frankenstien, Mary Shelly - The first, the best, the truest form of horror.  Written by a teen-aged girl during a thunderstorm, this book captivated the world.  
  • The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft - Easily the Godfather of modern horror, the man who was Providence still resonates today because no one does dread better. 
  • Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, E.A. Poe - No list of horror greats would be complete without Poe.  Without him, none of us would be writing horror.  
So that's it...My top nine.  Tune in next time when I reveal who I believe to be the future of horror literature, and who to watch.  Until then...

Write on!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Top Ten Halloween Movies

Every year, people ask me what my favorite Halloween movies are.  And while my tastes in film do change from time to time, there are a few that I just can't do without.  So here (with links) are my favorite Halloween movies of all time.  Perfect for a dark night when the streets outside are filled with ghouls and goblins.  In no particular order:

  1. Trick 'r Treat - It just came out, I know, but I'm completely head-over-heels for this movie.  It makes no bones about it...This movie was designed to be a Halloween classic. 
  2. The Legend of Hell House - By now, everyone knows that Richard Matheson is, in my opinion, one of the greatest writers of the modern age.  The book upon which this movie is based made me want to be a writer.  The movie scared the hell out of me as a kid.  Brooding and atmospheric horror at its best. 
  3. The Exorcist  - Slow to start, but truly one of the most horrifying movies of all time. 
  4. An American Werewolf in London - One of the greatest horror-comedies of all time, with Academy Award-winning special effects by Rick Baker.  
  5. Ghost Story - Peter Straub wrote one of the great ghost stories of all time, and this is the movie upon which it is based.  
  6. Hellraiser - Like I could leave this one off.  C'mon, really?  Pinhead is one of my favorite movie monsters of all time!
  7. The House on Haunted Hill - First off, it's Vincent Price.  That's really all that needs to be said.  Second, the original, not the classic POS.  This movie rocked hard in the day.  Cheesy gothic goodness!
  8. The Haunting - Again, the original...Not the remake.  This movie is creepy as all hell. 
  9. Night of the Living Dead - The one that started it all.  George A. Romero's classic.  If  you haven't seen this, go stand in a corner and watch it.  
  10. Halloween - It had to be here.  I mean, c'mon...Look at the friggin' title!
There are lots of others, but this was my "Top Ten" list.  Other movies that just didn't quite make the cut-off point were Evil Dead, Candyman, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the ones listed above are my absolute favorites.  Feel free to list your own.  I'm always looking for good stuff to watch on my favorite night of the year!

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Happy Halloween!

It's the most wonderful time of the year.  It's the time when the air turns cooler, the leaves change colors (in places where such things actually happen), and the smile on my face gets bigger.  October has always been, and will always be, my favorite month of the year.  And why?  Because it contains my favorite holiday of all time:  Samhain, Sow-een, All Hallow's Eve, Hallow'een.  Or, as it's more commonly known, HALLOWEEN.  It is the one time of year when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, and when the dead can return to the land of the living.  Well, that's what people say now.  I've also heard a few ignorant people say it's the "devil's holiday" and call it "happy dead day..."  I've actually been called a Satanist because I decorate my house for Halloween.  Not true, I say.  My house looks like that year-round.  So what exactly is Halloween?  Sure, kids dress up and go begging for candy, but what was it originally?

Samhain was, as was most celebrations of the time, an agricultural festival.  It was the time of the last harvest, when the world "died" for the winter months.  Many Pagans still celebrate it this way.  But it became more than that.  It became a way to honor those who came before, a way to pay tribute to the dead, and to acknowledge their importance in our lives.  Now, granted, when the dead return, that means all sorts of other nasty things can return, which is why offerings of food were left out:  So these nasties could be placated into doing no harm (Trick or Treat, get it?).  In the meantime, children sought to confuse the long-legged beasties by dressing like them.  Hence the Halloween costumes.  The whole event became such a celebration in the pre-Christian communities that when the Christians encountered it, they knew it was one holiday they couldn't even hope to get rid of.  So they created a new one, All Saint's Day, for the day after All Hallows.

While you're out this Halloween, collecting your candy and driving yourself into a sugar-coma, take a few minutes to reflect on everyone who is no longer with us.  Think about how they touched your life, and remember them during this very special day.

And then go scare the hell out of someone. ;-)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fighting Writer's Block

You have a seriously wonderful idea, the kind to which Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes are attached, and you race to your keyboard to get it down before the muse leaves you without a word, page, or even so much as a muse-turd on your chair.  You begin to write, gleeful that your idea will be the greatest thing since Shakespeare wrote "MacBeth."  Then it happens.  You've written yourself into a corner, and you can't get out.  Or worse...You, as a writer, find yourself completely devoid of ideas.  Nothing perkolating in your brain, no little plot-bunnies...Nada.  What do you you?

Writer's block is the often-mocked but very real phenomenon that few people aside from writers can understand.  It's a need to write, a yearning to create, but the frustrating realization that you have no ideas or that ideas you've had have petered out.  I liken it to creative blue-balls.  As a writer, I've fallen victim to the dreaded brain-fart many times.  And yet, despite the cruelty of the muses, I still manage to write and get some decent work out there.  One of the most-often asked questions to professional writers is this:  How do you overcome writer's block?  The answer isn't simple, and it's different for everyone, but it's one I'm happy to share.

Writer's block, in my mind, comes when you're unable to focus or when you've got too much on your mind.  They sound like one in the same, but they're not really.  I'm a pretty focused guy, but I tend to  over focus on whatever happens to be going on in my life.  Bills, children, rabid were-chickens, it doesn't matter.  They're all things that distract your thought processes from what you really need to be doing, which is writing.  I have a great many things that I do to overcome writer's block, but they can all be boiled down into two categories.

  • Physical Activity - Let's face it, no matter what you're writing, you're still sitting on your butt typing somewhere.  There comes a time when your body demands activity, and your brain needs it too.  So find something physical to do.  Push away from your keyboard, peel your butt out of your chair, and walk away for a little while.  Even an hour.  Walk around the block, lift weights, jog, it doesn't matter.  Something that you can do to work the kinks out of your spine and "jog" your brain.  For me, there's nothing that pumps my creativity like Judo.  The martial art I study, Kajukenbo, incorporates Judo as a part of it.  So if I'm feeling stressed or blocked (mentally), I'll put on my gi and head to the dojo.  There's always someone there who wants to roll, and we'll take turns pounding each other until I can't breathe and I'm so exhausted that my body no longer wants movement.  In fact, it usually screams that it was sorry for wanting anything so silly to begin with.  But what comes out of it are plot points, dialogue, character development.  I don't know why it works, but it does.  Besides, I love the sounds of snapping cartelidge and screaming students.  For other people, a solitary jog is a good thing because the rhythmic beating of your feet as you run allows you to shut down most other functions and just concentrate on the story that's bugging you.  For others, it's deep meditation.  Find something, anything, physical to do to give yourself a break.
  • Write Something Else - But you're suffering from writer's block!  How can you write something else!?!  Easy.  You know how, when you're working on a story, you get that little giggling voice that throws all sorts of other ideas into your head?  Put your main story away and work on one of them.  Write an article on something you enjoy (or even that you loathe, thereby pounding your brain into submission), or even write a *gasp* blog entry.  You guessed it, that's what I'm doing right now.  Currently, I'm working on a story and I needed a break to get back to it.  Breaks are good...Trust me on this one. 
Above all, remember this:  Writer's block can only affect your productivity if you let it.  Don't be a slave to it.  Use it instead.  Find something to distract your distractions and, in the end, you'll discover that writer's block isn't something to be scared of. 

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Learn to Read...

Some of the greatest writers, I think, have a serious problem with reading.  Not that they're illiterate, mind you, but that, when called upon to do so, they can't read their own stuff.  Part of being a writer is promoting your work, and that means going to conventions and taking part in Q&A panel discussions and actually reading a snippet of your latest opus.  And while the story or section they're reading may be the best thing written since Richard Matheson put pen to page, they stand at the podium and stutter.  They read with all the emotional content of cardboard and stumble over their own words.  Now, keep in mind, I know award-winning poets whose work is of such a high caliber that it could bring tears to the eyes of the Sphinx, but when the time comes to actually read it aloud, they kill all the content.  Let me tell you about a few of the ways I've overcome this problem.

To me, it isn't so much reading your story as it is performing it.  The audience is there because they want to be entertained, want to hear your words, want to see if you have as much confidence in your own work.  So own it.  I've long said that everyone should, at some point in their lives, take at least a course on public speaking, or acting, or both.  My background is in theater, so getting into the heads of characters, especially those I've written, is easy for me.  When I'm on stage, at the podium, or wherever they have me, I don't just stand there and read the words.  I feel compelled to vocally act them out.  It draws the reader further into your work, and, as an added bonus, the feedback the convention promoters get will ensure they'll keep you in mind to invite back next year.  When you wrote the words, you felt something.  There was some emotion you were trying to convey to the readers.  Now is the time to let that out.

But, you ask, what about stage-fright?  There is a statistic running around that states that more people are afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying.  Absurd, perhaps, but true in my experience.  So how does one overcome stage-fright?  You can try all the old stand-by's like picturing the audience naked (which only serves to make me giggle like a maniac) or focusing an inch or two above the tallest person's head.  But to me, the only real way to get over stage fright comes in two steps.  First, you have to realize that the absolute worst thing that can happen is they (the audience) don't remember you at all.  And the second worst thing that can happen is they don't like it.  They're not going to kill you, they're not going to throw things, you're not going to spontaneously combust on stage.  What happens if they don't like it? Usually, they'll still smile, they'll still sit in silence or fidget, but that's about it.  I've yet to see someone at any convention, author panel, or reading stand up and yell "You suck!" or pull a Kanye West on an author.  It just doesn't happen, and even if it does, so what?  Anyone who would do such a thing is an ass-hat anyway, so what do you care?

The second way to get over stage fright comes in two parts.  First, practice.  Learn your material.  "But I wrote it" you say.  Sure, but make sure you remember it the way you wrote it.  Practice it over and over until you know it by heart and don't really need the book in front of you.  That allows you to connect with the audience by making eye-contact, which is something that Bella Lugosi used on audience members when he did the live stage production of Dracula.  The second part is also practice, but of a different sort.  You can see this one coming, can't you?  Get out there and actually do it.  Not your friends and families, not a room full of teddy bears and action figures, but in front of a live audience.  Take any opportunity to get up in front of a live audience to speak.  It takes time, but eventually the butterflies in the stomach will go away.

In your reading, get animated.  Jump up and down, scream and shout, cry, laugh...Show them the emotion you want your piece to have.  Writing is visceral.  Reading should let the readers see into that world and let them feel the story's heartbeat.

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Surviving the Con

Okay, hotshot. Your book's been published, and now you've been booked for a convention appearance or have secured a table at the next relevant convention. What do you do? Relax. Surviving the con is painless and is actually one of the most fun parts of this job. I have a blast at conventions, and you can too. Just use your head and follow a few simple guidelines:
  • Your Table - It doesn't take a genius to see that a visually unattractive table will not inspire folks to come by. Little things make a difference. For example: I use a black spiderweb tablecloth on mine. Sure, it's a minor thing, but it would surprise you how many comments I get about it. Also, no matter how many copies of your book (or how many titles) you have, don't clutter your space. Put out between one and three of every title, then stash the rest under your table. Make sure your space looks clean and professional. And props don't hurt at all. My table usually has my gargoyle bookends, a coffin that I use to hold markers and pens, and a candy dish that looks like a pile of skulls filled with Jolly-Ranchers. I know it's cheating, but it works. Make sure your price list is clearly posted, as is your name with "Author" below it. If you can swing it, go to Kinko's and get a poster made up of yourself and your book cover(s). True, it might be pricy, but it's worth it.
  • Your Appearance - Please, folks. You're a professional now. Look like it. They say clothes make the man (or woman), and, to an extent, it's true. I'm not saying that every convention is a suit-and-tie event, but I am saying this: Dress appropriately. Dress the way you want to be perceived, and be damned sure that's how you want to be perceived.
  • Your Fans - This is probably the single most important piece of advice I can give, so please pay attention here. WITHOUT THE FANS, YOU WOULDN'T HAVE A JOB. Fans include anyone who's ever even thought about reading one of your books, so consider everyone at the con the same way: The people who allow you to write. Show some appreciation for them because they deserve it. Be nice and friendly to everyone. This doesn't mean that you have to endure the indignant or possibly psychotic stalker that hangs out at your table for three hours, but you should smile at everyone, engage in polite conversation, and let the fans know that you appreciate them. I've been to cons with a host of celebs, and the best ones are the ones that never turn a fan away and always have time to talk to them. Among the best of them are Ari Lehman, Bill Johnson, and Roddy Piper. I've honestly never seen any of them be rude, turn down, or walk away from a fan, and I respect them for that.
  • The Other Celebs - That's right, the other celebs. You're one too, remember? You have to walk in with that mindset so you don't turn into a drooling fanboy when you meet your idols. In the hospitality suite (that magic room where they go when they disappear, to which you now have access), they just want to breathe without being asked for autographs or to pose for pictures. This does not mean that you can't talk to them. In fact, most of them are genuinely nice and down-to-earth and are interested in making friends. Not business connections, mind you, but friends. So introduce yourself, listen and talk, and be yourself. That's all there is to it.
  • Practice Your Patter - Have an opening line, a book description, or a prepared sentence or two that you can repeat without stuttering. It makes you appear more confident and more intelligent.
Above all, conventions are meant to be fun. Take your camera, prepare to meet some wonderful (and some weird) people, and have a great time. Remember why you're there: Because someone thought you were worth the time to appear, and because you appreciate the people who put you here: the fans.

Good luck!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tips for Independent Movie Makers

By now, everyone knows that I review stuff for Dread Central, the greatest horror-news site on the planet. Mostly I do books, but I pretty much review anything that winds up in my mailbox. Because of my work ethic, I've gotten to review some really wonderful movies. I've gotten to see movies that no one ever sees. I've also been subjected to some of the most banal and horrible things ever committed to tape. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to give a few pointers to independent film makers to increase your chances of actually being reviewed, and of getting good marks from me.
  1. Don't hire your friends as actors - Hear me out...What I mean is, don't populate your cast with your buddies just because they're your buddies. Make sure they can actually, you know, act. Nothing kills a film more than bad performances by the actors, and you, the film maker, have so many resources to cull talent. Local colleges, theater programs, hell, even CraigsList has a section where indie films are being cast. Granted, most of them seem to be porn...But I digress. The point is everyone...say it with me, everyone...has to audition. Cast whomever is best for the part. Your friends who believe in you and understand what you're trying to do will understand.
  2. Make nude scenes count - Nudity for the sake of nudity does not equal art. Nudity in general doesn't equal art. Granted, I for one enjoy seeing a naked body as much as the next guy. But in the case of making a movie, if you want your flick to be taken seriously, make sure there's a reason for that person to be naked. The random shower-scene is just cheesy, and having a girl in the flick just so she can show her enhanced bosom and die is just plain bad film making.
  3. Make the blood count - See above.
  4. Tell a good story - The script is what's important. Your movie could have all the coolest special effects in the world, could have the most beautiful actresses, and be slick and gorgeous, but without an actual story, you've got a pile of crap. A story has to have a plot, a beginning and an end, motivation, inciting action, conclusion...all those little things that some English professor somewhere tried to teach you. If you were paying attention, you're already past this point.
  5. Don't be hampered by a tiny budget - You don't need the latest and greatest cameras, light rigs, etc. to make a movie. You need heart, you need technique, and you need intestinal fortitude. I've seen some truly wonderful films shot on high-8 and I've seen some real garbage backed by the Wienstiens. Learn your craft. Watch movies (good movies) and learn from those film makers. Hell, watch the bad ones too and learn from their mistakes. You can learn an amazing amount about filmmaking from watching Plan 9 From Outer Space. Camera angles, lighting, composition...all these things are your friends, and all these things separate your movie from ninety percent of the garbage out there. You can do amazing things with just a camera, a single light, and a little thought.
  6. Be proud...But not too proud - When you're done with your movie, chances are you're going to screen it for your nearest and dearest, and most of them will tell you how brilliant you are. Enjoy it. Soak it up. Then get back to reality. If you submit your work to the public (i.e. film festivals, critics, etc...), someone is going to hate it. That's the nature of the business. No matter how much you've put into it, someone will call it a stinking turd, and it's your job to suck it up, smile, and move on. Don't argue, don't start an internet campaign against the critic, just accept his statement, acknowledge in your own mind that he's probably retarded or was an abused child, and move on. It's only an opinion. Remember what they say about opinions.
  7. Take care of your actors and crew - I cannot stress this enough. Don't be a dick. Again...Don't be a dick. Without your actors and your crew, you have nothing but you, a camera, and an unrealized vision. It truly is a collaborative effort. That doesn't mean suffer the idiot ravings of a Prima-Donna on your set. But be gracious to your actors and crew. Thank them for working with you. And when you're done, you'll have something that all of you can be proud of instead of another war story.
  8. Avoid stereotypes - Especially the bad ones. A cage full of giggling, drooling over-the-top lunatics is...well...cliche, lazy, and just not interesting. A cage full of giggling lunatics in which ONE is standing calmly, watching you and smiling...Now that's unsettling. The point is, if an audience has seen your characters in a hundred thousand movies before, they won't be interested in them. Give them something new, real, and original.
  9. Continuity is key - Remember the famous movie in which the lawyer changes clothes a dozen times in the span of one trial in one day? Go to this site: MovieMistakes. Sad, isn't it? Make sure there is someone on set who's whole job is to make sure everything matches. Trust me.
  10. Hire a local band - Unless you're Motzart, John Williams, or Danny Elfman, you're not a composer. The "music" that comes from you playing chords on your Cassio keyboard does not work as a movie soundtrack. Sorry, but it doesn't. But guess what? In every city, town, neighborhood, there is a garage band. There are local kids that are dying to get their sound heard. If you like them, approach them and ask them about using a song or two in your movie. Go (again) to the local college and seek out the music department. Guaranteed, there are at least a few folks there with some ideas as to what music would go with your opus, and they'll be happy to work with you for a credit in your film (and maybe one on IMDB...You never know).
Okay, these are just a few hints about making movies. I can't tell you how many filmmakers break these "ten commandments," and whose work turns up as steaming piles of bunny-dung because of it. Don't take my word for it, though there are others out there that are MUCH more knowledgeable than me. If you want to read what I pretty much consider the bible of micro-budget film making, get Gregory Lamberson's book Cheep Scares. There are literally thousands of books out there about indie film making, so grab a few and learn. Learn your craft, work hard, and remember names like Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. All of them have one thing in common: They started off EXACTLY where you are right now.

Until next time...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

DEADLANDS Re-Released!

When my book, Deadlands, went out of print because the publisher closed its doors, I was sad, but I figured all good things had to come to an end. I mean, after all, it was my best seller, and (according to the publisher) it almost sold out of its first print run of 5,000 copies. So I thought that was it for my little zombie story. Then along came Dr. Pus and the Library of the Living Dead press. He said it just couldn't die (it's a zombie, after all...) and picked up the reprint rights. So here it is, new, fresh, and gorgeous, with a new cover, new layout, and two new short stories added to the back of it. I absolutely love this book and I'm proud to see it in print again! If you haven't read it, and would like to, head over to my web page, AmericanHorrorWriter.Net and get it through my bookstore, or you can get it directly from Amazon. The dead must shamble on!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Finding the Time

It's a statement I hear every day. "I'd love to *insert artistic activity here,* but I don't have the time." My general response to that is, well, then I guess you don't really want to do it, do you? Not to be cynical, but let me take you through a typical day for me: Up by 6 a.m., at work by 7:45, lunch for an hour around noon, home by 6pm. After that, there's the karate class, the children, dinner with the wife, and about a dozen other things that I do. The point is, I lead a really busy existence. So how do I find the time to sit down and write? It isn't easy, but here's how I do it.

I make time.

See, to me, writing isn't a hobby, or something that I do in my free time, or something that is a burden. It's something that I genuinely love to do. I don't find time to do it, I make time. It became a priority in my life, and so I set up my life accordingly. Now, I'm not saying that everyone in the world has to do what I do, but this worked for me. If it works for you, great. If not, figure something else out.

First, I decided that I was going to take this whole "writing" thing seriously. I gave it a priority status in my life, and moved on from there. For me, my priorities are 1) my wife and kids, 2) my job, and 3) writing. Everything else that I do comes after that. Period. Karate, music, television, you name it, it takes a back seat. Ask anyone who is serious about their craft (no matter what it is) and I'm betting they'll tell you the same thing.

Step two: Once you decide that you're going to pursue your artistic endeavor, take a look at what you really do in a day. You can't ignore the wife and kids. For me, that's my whole reason for writing. Without them, I'd be pretty directionless, and I love them dearly. So whatever activities I'm doing with them come first. Then there's the job. Well, that pays the bills (mostly), so I can't really stop doing that, now can I? So now what? How much television do you watch? And how much time do you spend surfing the internet (reading blogs like this one)? How much of that time is wasted? Surely reading this blog isn't a waste of time, but c'mon, television? Biggest black hole time-waster of all time, and it doesn't really stimulate the imagination. Instead of watching the latest episode of "Big Brother" or "Dancing with the Stars," go sit down behind your keyboard and let your fingers do the dancing.

Third and final step: Set a goal. How much can you write in a day? How much before you feel you've earned a break? Setting a modest goal will help you sharpen not only your writing chops, but also your time management skills. There is no magic number of how many words to write. Everyone's is different. Stephen King advocates something like 10,000 words a day, I believe. I'm nowhere near that prolific (yet) and I do have other priorities, so mine is a more modest 1,000 words per day. Come hell or high water, that's what I do. End of story. Lots of folks write more than me, and lots write less. But do the math: If the standard length for a novel is between 80-90,000 words, how long will it take you at that rate to complete a first draft? Oooh...The possibilities are endless!

The point is, if you want to do this, you have to train your brain to work for you, not against you. Time? P-Shaw...You have all the time you need. You just have to make yourself use it wisely.

Write On!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Reviews A-Go-Go!

It's no secret that, in addition to all the other goofy stuff I'm into, I do book reviews for Dread Central. So I thought I'd throw out a few reviews of books that I did, and let the blog-o-verse know what I thought about them as well. So, without further adeu...
Those are just a few that I've reviewed this year. My intent here is to show what works in fiction, and to inspire folks to write their own masterpieces. More to come!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Useful Sites for Writers

Every aspiring writer I know has questions about the business, and most of them revolve around three subjects. Tops on the list: Will you read my manuscript/collaborate on a manuscript/write my novel for me? Easy answer to this one: I'm sorry (not really) but no. Here's why: I'm busy working on my own stuff and I don't want the possibility of someone saying I ripped them off. I do work with people's manuscripts through Seton Hill University, but that's about it. Unless I'm teaching, mentoring, or leading a writing workshop, chances are the answer will be no.

The next most frequently asked question on the list is "How I find a publisher/agent?" Good question, and one that many professional writers pursue in every waking moment. In fact, many of us pursue the same question in our dreams as well, when we sleep. Otherwise we lay awake and stare at the ceiling, revising and rewriting the "perfect" query letter in our heads. So, keeping that in mind, I thought I'd provide a couple of useful links for finding publishers and agents for aspiring authors out there.
  • Preditors and Editors - Bar none, the most important site for a writer. This site tells you in no uncertain terms who the good publishers and editors are, who are just out to scam you, and who actually pays and /or makes sales. Good things to know.
  • Writer Beware - Warnings about hucksters on the internet. Before you sign any contract, check with these guys first.
  • Duotrope - A cool database in which you can customize your search for someone who wants to publish your work.
  • Ralan's - A constantly-updated listing of who publishes what.
  • Query Tracker - A free database of literary agents all over the world, and a way to keep your queries organized. And to track them.
  • Writers Market - The old standby, and still one of the best.
  • Agent Query - An absolutely HUGE database of agents and how to get hold of them.
If anyone has any more, feel free to post them in the comments section. This is designed to help out where I can.

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Common Grammatical Mistakes

One of the things that really cheeses me off in writing is when a professional (or aspiring) writer doesn't seem to know the rules of grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Aside from annoying me, it is also one of the quickest ways to ensure your manuscript makes a fast leap from slushpile-hell into the recycle bin. So, being the helpful little sod that I am, here are a few of the most common mistakes that I see on a daily basis. And I work for a college, so that's a particularly bad and worrisome statement.
  • "It's" vs. "Its" - This rule has stumped people for a long time, and it's really quite simple. Unlike most of the rest of this silly convoluted language we call English, the apostrophe doesn't show possession. It only shows the contraction of "it is." For any other use, "its" is the appropriate word. Example: It's going to take a lot of work to bring its purpose to light."
  • "There" vs. "Their" vs. "They're" - Sure, they sound alike, but the three words have distinctly different meanings. "There" indicates a place. Example: It's neither here nor there. "Their" indicates ownership. Example: He took them back to their car, where he killed them. "They're" is the contraction of "they are." Example: They're not going to like it when they find out. So to put it all together: They're going over there to find their car.
  • "Here" vs. "Hear" - "Here" is a place. "Hear" is one of your senses. You "hear" someone breathing under the bed. You call your mother and ask her to "come here and see what's breathing under the bed."
  • "Damn" vs. "Damned" - If you see something written that reads "take your damn hands off her," it's wrong. Just plain wrong. "Damn" is a verb, plain and simple. To "damn" something is to condemn it to Hell. "Damned" is an adjective, or modifier if you will. Whatever you put that word in front of, you're telling the world that it can go to Hell for all you care. "Damn" can also be used as an expletive, by the way. So you can say "Damn, nature, you're scary!" or you can say "Get your paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"
  • "I could/couldn't care less" - Too many times, people say "I could care less" about any particular subject. But read that sentence carefully. By saying you could care less, you imply that you do, in fact, care. The proper phrase is "I couldn't care less," because if you don't care, there's no lower level of caring for you to go to. Therefore, you really couldn't care less.
Hope this helps at least someone.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Little on World Building

So you're writing a book and the setting needs to be a place that we (your readers) have never seen before. Your creatures are strange, your races are weird, and you want to make it as realistic and believable as possible. Well, building a world for your characters isn't just a matter of picking a pretty backdrop. There's actually a lot more to it, and there aren't that many writers who take the time to properly build the world.

First off, for all intents and purposes (and I hope I'm not offending anyone here), you, the author, are God. On this world, you are the creator, the Alpha, the Omega, the end-all-be-all. The head honcho. The big cheese. The...You get the point. So lets say in all of your Godly wisdom, you want your world to have a sky color that's something other than blue. Green maybe. Fine and dandy. You're God. You can do that. But hold on just a moment. Now, as a writer, you have to go and find out exactly what it would take for a world to have a green sky. Our sky here on Earth-Prime is blue because of our atmosphere and the mixture of gasses in said atmosphere. So what gasses would combine to make a green sky? Do some research and Methane will pop up. So now you have a planet that has a methane-rich atmosphere. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

Now, along with your green sky, you've just jumped right into what types of creatures would inhabit the planet. They don't breathe oxygen, now do they? Nope. They're methane breathers. So what kind of creature would evolve into such a thing? And for that matter, what would an oxygen-rich environment do to them? And what would they exhale? And where would that methane come from? On earth, the plants breathe in the carbon dioxide that we exhale exhale oxygen. So what do these creatures breathe out, and what filters it back to methane? Lots of questions there, and the answers are part of what you (God) has to come up with.

If your characters are interacting with humans, you've just stepped into a whole lot more of detail. What size is the planet? What difference does that make, you ask? Glad you did. Smaller planets spin faster and therefore have shorter day/night periods, which the inhabitants of that world would take as normal. Your human characters could be driven buggy by thirty minute days and nights. Also, smaller planets have higher gravity because they spin faster and are more compact. So big strong jock from earth might just get out-muscled by a toddler on planet quick-spin, if he can even lift his own bulk.

A few things that you, as God, need to consider for your world:
  • What stage of development is it? Genesis? Pre industrial? Highly industrial?
  • Planet composition - Is it iron core? Is it carbon based? What's the atmosphere like?
  • Dominant species - Creationist or Evolutionist, you still have to figure out how the dominant species on the planet became so.
  • What rules of chemistry, physics, or other odd bits of science do you need to know in order for your species to survive, and for your planet to function?
This is just a very (VERY) brief overview. There is much more to be covered, and much more that you, little Godling, must uncover before your world will breathe and live on its own. And there's so much more to this: Societies in your world, energy, laws, rules, religions...All of them things that make your world function, and all things that you must consider when you're creating the setting of your fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or other novel. If you'd like to know more, one of the best books on the market on world-building is, in fact, titled World Building. Who knew, right?

Okay...That's enough for now. Back to your characters! Write on!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

from the New York Times' Writers on Writing Series.


These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

  1. Never open a book with weather. - If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  2. Avoid prologues. - They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck'sSweet Thursday, but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story."
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. - The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated", and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . - . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. - You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". - This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. - Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. - Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephantswhat do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. - Unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. - A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character - the one whose view best brings the scene to life - I'm able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on, and I'm nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. "Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts" is one, "Lousy Wednesday" another. The third chapter is titled "Hooptedoodle 1" and the 38th chapter "Hooptedoodle 2" as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: "Here's where you'll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won't get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want."

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I've never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Literary Snobbery

A long time ago, when I got my first book published, I hurried to tell a few people whom I thought would be excited over a friend and colleague's first book. When I told them, they seemed happy for me, but then they asked what I wrote.

"Horror!" I exclaimed.
"Oh," they said. "You write genre fiction." Then they turned up their noses and walked away.

A few months later, one of these same people said to me "Y'know, I should just write some stupid horror novel so I can be published. It's not like it real art or hard or anything."

It took every ounce of control I had to not strangle him on the spot. Not art? Not hard? Horror is not literature? Horror is not good enough? Bollocks, I say! And here's why.

For those of you who write, you know how hard it is to get ANYTHING published. You know how hard it is to keep your audience enthralled. You know how hard it is to pull those emotions out of your reader. Lovecraft said, to paraphrase, that the oldest and most powerful emotion is fear. To wit, we have become such a desensitized society that finding things that truly pull a sense of dread out of an audience is damned near impossible, doubly so for a person trying to accomplish the goal with words on paper. If I, as a writer, can give a person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, then what does that make me? A hack? Is it easy to do? No. And I dare say, there is something of an art to scaring the crap out of people. Anyone with a loud noisemaker can hide behind a door and shout "BOO," but it takes real effort to unsettle, to unhinge, to make them see things that may not be there. Horror is damned hard, and it is an art form unto itself.

Not literature? Again, I cry Bollocks! What is Frankenstien, which is taught in every college? Dracula, if it is not horror and a love story to boot? There are so many cases of horror in literature that listing them would be an exhaustive and futile effort. It also wouldn't change a thing. Walk into most MFA programs proclaiming to write any of the genres and you'll likely be treated with the same response. In fact, I was told by at least one MFA program that genre fiction wasn't welcome. Why?

What it boils down to is this: Good writing is good writing. What is our goal as writers? To make our readers feel one way or another, to love, to hate, to cringe, to cry, and to do it with nothing more than our words on the printed page. That's pretty damned hard, don't you think?

While this post isn't by any means a commercial for Seton Hill's Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program, I can't let this rant continue without mentioning them as the one bastion of literary acceptance in the world. That's right, popular fiction. Which means fiction that people read. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, and blessed Horror, all nurtured. Why aren't more schools like them? I don't know.

But I do know this: Nine books later, and I'm damned proud to say that I write horror. It's my website (, it's my passion, and it is my life. And for anyone else out there reading this who has been laughed at, picked on, put down, or generally been the target of literary snobbery, I say to hold your head high. Literary fiction, genre fiction, they're really the same thing. It's a false distinction. Be proud of what you write, and keep writing it. And know that you are not alone, know that greatness comes in many forms, and know that if you can make your readers feel, you've done your job.

My name is Scott A. Johnson, and I'm a horror writer. And I'm damned proud of it.

New convention, and that's where I'm going to be!

I'm going to be in San Antonio signing copies of my books and mingling with the stars on August 27-30, at the Alamo Draft House! Come by and see me, buy some books, and have a blast! Guests include Bill Johnson (Leatherface from TCM2), Tony Moran (the first Michael Meyers), Ari Lehman (the ORIGINAL Jason Voorhees) and more! Oh...And I'll be there too. In case you were wondering. There will also be a whole bunch of movies screened (Like I said, it's a film festival) and much more! If you can make it out, you really should!

Frickin' Hillarious

One of those things I've always wanted to do. "Weird Al" Yankovic, you are my hero!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Using Magic in Writing

writingAs a teacher at Seton Hill's Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program, I work with students every semester to try to help them perfect their writing abilities. Not that I'm perfect mind you, but since I've gotten books traditionally published (that's all I'll ever do, mind you), someone seems to think I know what I'm talking about. So occasionally, I'll post something for the writers out there who might stumble across my blog to try to help them out as well. Tonight's topic: Using Magic.

Magic is a curious thing. No, I'm not talking about slight-of-hand trickery here, but what Alester Crowley referred to as "Changing your environment by will alone." Magic is an invisible (in most cases) force that projects the user's will to make things happen. Quite simply, "I will it, therefore it is so." But when you're writing your magnum opus, there are many pitfalls to using magic, some of which I'll outline here.
  • If everyone can use it, it isn't magic. It's science. - Okay, that may come across as inflammatory to some people, but lets look at it for a moment. "Magic" is unknown. "Magic" is a mysterious power. Most important, "Magic" is special to only the few who can use it. That's why it's called "Magic." Fire was once called "Magic," but we've gotten past that because a majority of the world walks around with little portable fire-starters (lighters) in their pockets. What a computer does is, to many people, still quite magical because those people still can't understand how a hunk of plastic and silicon can create so much interesting stuff. But, chances are, if you're reading this, you own a computer. Just like most other people in the world. It's not magic to you. It's technology. If you build a world in which everyone, down to the last little person, uses magic, doesn't it stand to reason that it would lose a great deal of its mystery, and would be commonplace, and would therefore be taken for granted? If you have a world where everyone can do some extraordinary thing, would they think it was extraordinary? No. They'd find it normal. Magic isn't normal, now is it?
  • Magic isn't a catch-all - Too many times, I've seen young writers come in and explain away an incredible amount of unbelievable events with the byline of "Magic." He's being attacked. Magic. His friends are falling. Magic. His room is messy. Magic. In fact, many times, the characters use so much "Magic" that the reader is left wondering why there's any conflict at all. If the character can just magic his way out of everything, why isn't he living high up on a mountain somewhere living the good life and using magic to suit his every need? A character that can do absolutely anything through magic is boring. It's trite. And it's also wholly impossible for a reader to relate to them. If he's so all powerful, he would be a god. Instead of having your character use magic to get out of every little thing, make them use their brains. Make them make choices. Make them living, breathing creatures that have to struggle to overcome odds because that's what makes a story interesting.
  • Magic has a cost. - Magic is energy, or the manipulation thereof. Ask yourself this: Where is that energy coming from and how is it directed? If it comes from inside the person or elsewhere, it's still being directed by the character. That's all fine and dandy, but guess what? Your character is now a conduit. Let's put it in terms of electricity. Your character is a wire, electricity is the magic. The source of the magic is, let's say, a 9-volt battery. Hook up the battery to the wire and let it go. Eventually, the energy will run out, just like magic. But then let's say you hook up a car battery to the same wire. What happens? First it gets red-hot, then it melts the casing off, then the wire melts, then you're left with a dead wire. The same thing applies to the theory of magic. Your character's body is the wire. The energy coursing through him is using him to travel, much like the wire. Too much energy going through him will burn him out. If the energy is coming from inside him, what happens when fatigue sets in? Or if he uses all of his energy? The energy runs out. Your character dies. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, really. But what I am saying is that, no matter what, you have to show that there is some cost to using that energy. Does it make him tired? Does it hurt? Does it strip away a piece of his soul whenever he uses it? What is it that limits the magic? What makes a superhero so interesting? Is it is powers, or his weaknesses? I'm putting my money on the latter.
  • Learn the Rules - Magic, like everything else, has limitations, laws, and rules. Especially if you're working with an established system of Magic (like Wicca, for example). If you're writing a story about a group of witches, learn about the philosophy of Witchcraft, Druidism, Vodun, and every other religion that uses magic (Catholics, though they won't admit it) so you can write about it like you know what you're talking about and don't come off as a tool. If you're creating your own system, fine and dandy, but figure out where the limitations of your system are before you go writing and making it up as you go along. The readers may never see your "rule-book," but they'll get the idea when you start showing those laws.
  • Learn your Terminology - If I say "Witch," what do you think of? How about "Satanist?" How about "Druid?" The fact of the matter is, most of us have been spoon-fed media-slanted half-truths our entire lives, and only the truly intelligent question it. For example, I know quite a few "witches," and absolutely none of them are green, have warts on their noses, or wear black peaked hats (except on Halloween, and then as an inside joke). They're not evil, don't put hexes on people, and generally believe in being as good to each other as possible. Satanists? Guess what...They don't sacrifice babies. In fact, true "Satanism" doesn't particularly believe in the concepts of good and evil, nor do they get up every day saying they're going to dedicate their lives to Satan. They're more hedonists, and pretty much leave everyone else alone. However, screw with them, and their doctrine says they have every right to destroy you. The name "Satanism" came from a loveable little kook named Anton LeVey, who chose the name just to be controversial. Ever hear about pentagrams and candles being referred to as part of a "Satanic Cult?" No...That's not really true. The Pentagram isn't an evil symbol, and candles are used everywhere. Nine times out of ten, the "Satanic Cult" that people are looking for are bored teenagers lashing out at their parents or another hopelessly deluded individual who believes what he sees in movies. You, as a writer, should be smart, educated, and should strive to not fall into such bullshit. You must be more intelligent than that, lest you offend the wrong groups or, worse, the people who actually do know what's what will cry bullshit and tell everyone that your work is sophomoric, idiotic, and pandering. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

City of Demons

City of Demons is my newest novel, released in July from Library of the Living Dead press. It also is kind of an experiment, in that it's the bloodiest thing I've written, and I wanted to try to write something in the "noir" genre made famous by Dashell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. It's about a cop who tracked down a serial killer that almost killed him, but left him with a curious and terrible ability: If he touches a person, living or dead, he experiences the last few moments of that person's life. Sights, smells, tastes, everything. Imagine reliving the last few moments of a victim of a brutal killing, and you'll see why this is such a problem.

While working on this, I passed a copy off to my friend, fellow author Gary Braunbeck (if you haven't read his work, you're really missing out), and he wrote an introduction for the book for me. This is what he had to say:

The Divine Madness of Absolute Clarity:

An Introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’m not going to tell you a damned thing about this novel you’re holding in your hands right now; I’m not going to tell you how Scott Johnson creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension that starts with the very first paragraph and never lets up; I’m not going to tell you about the emotional layers he uses in creating the all-too-real human beings who populate these pages, nor am I going to go on at length about how the shifting dynamics of the characters’ relationships ring so true that often-times you’re going to feel like you’re voyeuristically eavesdropping on the most private and intimate moments of someone else’s life; I will avoid discussing how Scott Johnson understands the difference between genuine tragedy and the merely tragic – something that all too few horror writers seem to grasp (or care about) in this age of the Rampant Zombie Boogie – which, with the exceptions of a small handful of writers’ work, cannot end quickly enough for me; I’m not even going to get into the beautifully-orchestrated set-pieces that, combined with the excellent characterizations and the authenticity of fear that lies at the core of the story, propel City of Demons to a level of near-operatic grandeur in the final third; I won’t discuss his menacingly poetic narrative voice, nor how his dialogue is as crackling and literate as anything penned by Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, or Charles Beaumont; and rest assured that I will not waste your time or mine by describing the jaw-dropping, epic, and beautifully grotesque imagery that reads like Johnson has taken Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and transposed it to modern-day Houston, Texas; I’m not going to discuss any of that. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about Scott Johnson himself.

Picture, if you will, a demented leprechaun. Add about sixteen inches of height, a sharply-trimmed goatee, and give it a voice that falls somewhere between Richard Burton and Tommy Lee Jones, and … you might have some idea of what to expect if you ever meet him in person. Yes, he’s a bit on the small side, but so is a vial of nitro.

You can feel his energy for his work, and when he discusses his love of the craft, you cannot help but listen.

And then there are his eyes. Go on-line and look at his author’s photo on his website, or photos taken of his readings at any convention, and you’ll note immediately that there is a barely-contained creative insanity lurking In There. This is a man who does not see the same world the rest of us do. I do not mean he sees the world differently than us – he sees a completely different world, and that mad sparkle in his eyes tells you that Scott Johnson is warped in the best of all possible ways – the embodiment of what Oscar Wilde called, “… the divine madness of absolute clarity.”

Scott Johnson’s clarity of vision is absolute. I have had the pleasure of seeing him evolve from a damned good writer into one who displays the range and control of the truly gifted. There are several sequences in City of Demons (especially its bravura finale) that very easily could have tipped over into the absurdly over-done, piling grotesquerie on top grotesquerie for the sake of shocking or grossing out the reader, but like a good actor who knows that the quality of a performance is best measured by the control which he or she orchestrates in peeling back the onion layers of a character’s psyche, a good horror writer knows that terror, heartbreak, and revulsion are their most effective and affecting when the reader is given just enough of a glimpse of the horror to know they don’t need or want to see anymore; a telling detail, a small line of blood trickling across the floor from behind a closed door, a terrible sound from somewhere behind … it can more than enough when the writer knows when and how to exercise control, and – just as importantly – when the writer trusts in the intelligence and imagination of his or her readers.

Scott Johnson trusts his readers, he respects their intelligence, and knows they are sharp enough to fill in the blanks for themselves, thus making their reading of his work all that more a personal and intimate experience – because, let’s face it, take away any and all blurbs, words of praise, the bells and whistles of word of mouth, Internet publicity, great cover art, all of it, and it boils down to this: terror is arguably the most intimate of individual human emotions, and to provoke that reaction with mere words on a page requires that the writer and reader both agree to step into that dark alley together. The writer knows what’s back there, but you don’t, and as a reader you accept that, trusting that the writer does indeed know what lies back in those shadows between the dank brick walls. And he does – just look at his eyes. He sees what you can’t, but also knows that half the joy in this process is making the reader believe that he’s in the dark as just as they are.

That’s where the control factor really kicks in. There are many writers who are so impatient to get to the punchline of a sequence, so determined to get to “Z” that they forget to go from “A” to “B” and so on. Not Scott Johnson. This is a writer who, here, is in complete command of the English language and in total control over his story. Scott loves horror, and that comes through. He knows that story is king, and he its humble messenger.

A good writer also knows when he’s worn out his welcome, so allow me to make a quick and (hopefully) graceful exit with this last thought:

What you hold in your hands is, in my opinion, an almost perfect horror novel; and the only reason I qualify it with the “almost” is because Johnson hasn’t written his next one yet.

So climb into the cruiser with the nightcrawlers and hold your breath as the real nightlife of Houston, Texas comes out to play.

Gary A. Braunbeck

Lost in Ohio

June 4, 2009