Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Four Things (Every Guy Should Learn to Do)

I've been married (quite happily, I might add) to my wife for a long time.  We've been together for eighteen years now, and there are just a few things that, through nearly two decades of living with her, I feel every guy should know.  I listen to our single friends and hear what they say they want, so here is the SFW list of things that every guy should learn how to do to get the woman of his dreams.  There is an NSFW list, but this isn't the place for me to put that.  Guys, listen up, because this is pure deep-fried gold here.

  1. Learn how to do your own laundry.  Nothing turns a woman on less than to bring her back to your apartment (which smells of feet and armpits) to find piles of unwashed skivvies laying about.  And for you Cro-Magnon types who think that she'll do the laundry after you've landed her, I've got one word.  Evolve.  They're your sweaty drawers...You wash 'em.
  2. Learn how to cook.  You want romance?  Don't take her out for dinner, bring her back for a candle-lit dinner in your apartment.  Especially one you cooked.  Women (actually, people in general) like the feeling that they're special, that you're interested in making them feel good.  Put some effort into it.  And no beans and weenies.  I'm talking about REALLY learning how to cook.  Start with a salad, move on to Rosemary-Red-Wine chicken on a bed of rice pilaf with almonds, go toward desert.  Seriously, learn to fend for yourself in the kitchen.  She's your potential girlfriend, not your mother.  No woman wants to be your slave, and no one wants to hear you tell her to go make you a sandwich.  
  3. Learn to give a good foot massage.  I know what you're thinking.  Ew.  Feet are gross and sweaty. True, but no moreso than any of the other things you hope to do with your lady-friend, so hitch up your big-boy britches and get in there.  I have only ever met one woman in my life who didn't enjoy having her feet massaged.  Moreover, it's a selfless act that says "hey, I care about you."  Plus, think about this:  High-heels are not comfortable.  In fact, most of women's footwear was designed by men, not for comfort, but to make their legs and butt look good.  Women endure this kind of torture for the sake of some unrealistic ideal, and the least we can do for them is to massage the ache out of their feet to let them know that it's appreciated.
  4. Learn to dance.  I'm a big believer in dancing.  Slow dance, jitterbug, waltz, swing, it doesn't matter.  Learn to dance.  There's a whole litany of reasons why, but it boils down to this:  It's romantic.  You're going to have to trust your weird Uncle Scott on this one.  Believe me, suck it up, and just do it.  And (here's a secret that non-dancers don't know), it's fun.  
So that's it.  My hard and fast list of four things that EVERY guy should learn to do.  Whether you're married or single, let your partner know how much you care about them by learning to do these four things.  It makes a big difference.

Got other suggestions?  I'm all ears.  Add 'em in the comments below. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween: What it Means to Me

My favorite holiday is not, as you might guess, Christmas.  Like many other horror-type folks, Halloween is my Christmas.  Some people geek out over what I call the "silly season" and spend craploads of money on trees, tinsel, animatronic Santa Clauses and nativity scenes.  I do that at Halloween.  Actually, I usually just go into my writing room, take a few pieces off the shelves, and put them in obvious places around the house.  It works.  But, as is always the case, there are always people who misunderstand.  I actually had someone sarcastically wish me a "happy Satanic death-day," which first made me spit coffee from laughing so hard at their indignant ignorance, but made me think about what my favorite holiday (and lets not quibble here...To me, it's holy) means to me.

Somewhere in the Way-Back, Samhain (pronounded sow-een) was an agricultural celebration of the new year and the last harvest before winter generally sucked the life out of everything.  It was a celebration of everything the year had given, every accomplishment, and every moment spent with one's family.  It was also the one night of the year when the veil between this world and the next was thinnest, and your dearly-departed could come back and visit.  Sounds sweet, doesn't it?  That's what it was, folks:  A celebration of family, of love, of accomplishments, and of "we'd better get our party going on now because it's going to be frickin' cold tomorrow"-ness.  I'm paraphrasing that last part.  It was also theorized that, since the good spirits could return, so too could a few of the more annoying ones.  Disguises were worn to confuse the the more playful spirits, which is where we get the tradition of dressing in costumes.  The poor (read: the majority of everyone) would go door to door of the rich (read:  the vast minority, but still kept the poor under soul-crushing dominion just like they do today) to beg for food for their celebrations.  They also left out small bits of food for the souls of the departed.  That's where we get the Trick or Treat traditions.

All that brief little bit of history is fine and dandy, but what does it mean to me.  Well, on the minor end, it means I'm actually allowed to go wondering around in a costume scaring the ever-loving hiccups out of children for one night without being arrested.  It also means loads of candy and lots of friends.  But those things are actually minor to me.  Here's the real biggies:

First, my brother and his wife and their boys, my friends, and my parents all come to my house to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters.  Might sound lame, but believe me, it gives me the greatest joy in the world.  My Mom and Dad (if you knew them, you'd know why those two words are capitalized) visiting my house and handing out candy makes me proud, and seriously puts me in enough of a good mood that  the daunting shadow of Christmas doesn't bother me for a few days.

Second, All Hallows is very special to me personally because of one special event that happened on this day.  Eighteen years ago, Tabatha Piszczyk finally gave in and agreed to go out with me.  Our very first date was to a Halloween costume party.  She dressed as a rodeo queen, I as a drag queen (we were a pair of queens!).  From that night, Tabby and I have been inseparable.  I proposed to her soon after that first date, and we were married in April of the following year.  So the candy, the costumes, the scary stuff are all great and things that I adore and love, but Halloween will forever be a time that I cherish because on that night I found the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Happy Anniversary, babe!   I love you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Doing What You Love (or: If You Don't Love It, You Only Have Yourself to Blame)

The other day, I was in a social situation (I know...shocking, ain't it?) and overheard a couple fighting about...well...everything.  When the guys all retreated to a local pool hall, the fellow in that relationship did nothing but gripe about his significant other.  I learned later that his girlfriend did the same thing.  It seems the two of them make each other miserable.  It reminded me of another conversation I overheard (yes, I eavesdrop often) in which a person who wants to be a writer told a friend how much she hated writing.  "I'd love to go, but I have to work on this stupid story."  Both conversations hit me in a peculiar way...The first because the guy managed to bring a really dark cloud over an otherwise fine night of beer and billards, and the second because it was hard not to hear her pretentious rant because of the volume of her voice...because of how similar both situations were.  In both cases, the solution was simple, yet the sort of solution that, apparently, few people think of.

If you hate it so much, stop doing it.

Why do people put themselves in positions in which they know they'll be miserable?  Simply put, if you hate the person you're with, find someone else.  If you hate writing so much, quit.  It's that simple.  Here's my thought process:

First off, we (human beings, children of the Goddess, God's creations, beings of light, whatever you want to call us) were not, in my opinion, meant for suffering.  Sure, into every life, a little rain must fall, but that's why we invented umbrellas.  Perhaps we really can only measure the good times if we have something bad to compare them with, but that doesn't mean we must continue to be downtrodden.  There is nothing anywhere that says that you, John Q. Netreader, must spend all your life growing more and more bitter and angry just to keep comfortable.  It is the pursuit of happiness that makes things bearable.

So let's go back to the above conversations, or specifically, the latter one.  If you hate writing, then quit.  It's not worth the struggle, the anguish, the pain, the disappointment, or any other thing to call up such gruesome emotions, no matter what you think you're going to gain from it.  If it makes you miserable, don't do it.  Take up fencing or knitting instead, something that doesn't drive you disrupt a Starbucks by loudly proclaiming that you're a writer, yet you hate doing it.

See, writing is supposed to be fun.  It's a release, a joyful expression of the self.  But mostly, it's a hoot and a half to play God for a little while and see how mean you can be to your characters (ever read a book where nothing bad happens to anyone?  It's boring.).  No one forces you to do it, no one puts a gun to your head and says "You MUST write!" and then flogs you when you don't.  It should be something that you look forward to doing every day, something that you contemplate sneaking time from work to do, something that enflames your passions.  Typing the words "the end" when you know you've written a good story should be equal to the biggest orgasm of your life.  That's what it should be.  The same holds true for relationships.  Why on Earth would anyone stay with someone that makes them feel miserable?  And I'm not siding with either one, as they both seem to do a good job making each other unhappy.  Your life partner, spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, hetero-life-mate, or whatever, should evoke in you a feeling of warmth and happiness when you see them.

Forgive me if I sound preachy here, but I've been remarkably lucky (blessed, whatever) in my life to find three things that ignite my passions.  The first one (in chronology) was martial arts.  I could train every day, all day, and be happy doing it.  The second one was when my wife came into my life (the second time...The first time I was dating her best friend at the time and that was in Junior High School...nevermind...long story).  Tabatha brings out the best in me, and while I can't say we've never fought or that we don't occasionally get on each other's nerves (sometimes, I go out of my way to get on her nerves...It's called "fun"), I can honestly say that, at the end of the day, I look at her and know that I'm glad she's with me.  She makes me happy, and we share too much happiness for me to even think of looking elsewhere.  The third one is writing.  Oh, sure, I get frustrated with it, and I've been accused of overloading myself, but I enjoy it.  Genuinely.  Enjoy.  It.  I can't picture myself doing anything else for the rest of my life.

So that's it...Either love what you do, or you have only yourself to blame for being miserable.  And by the way, this isn't an open call for people to abandon their families or practice ass-hattery by any means.  What I'm saying is that life is too short to make yourself miserable.  In the words of philosopher, poet, and genious "Weird Al" Yankovic, sometimes you just have to grab life by the lips and yank until your satisfied.  Start yanking.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Observational Horror

When my book City of Demons was set to be published, I asked author Gary Braunbeck to write the introduction.  In what turned out to be both brilliant and humorous, Gary made the following statement about me:  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.”

It, and another blog I read from a fantastically talented writer, got me thinking about the subject of inspiration.  It's a common thing for folks to ask us where we writers draw our inspiration, and while I'm often prone to talking about my "Muse" and other existential methods of pulling the creepy-crawlies out of my ears, there is one place where, to me, there is no short supply of horror.  And you're sitting in it now.  The real world. 

Jerry Seinfeld made his whole career on what he called "Observational Humor."  Years before, George Carlin did the same thing, but he phrased his description that part of his job was "reminding you of the shit you already knew, but forgot to laugh at the first time."  Keeping with that same idea, I suppose a great deal of what I do could be called "Observational Horror."  It might be that I see things differently, or, as Gary said, I live in my own little world.  But to me, there are horrific things all around that most people just don't see, or don't want to think about.  

For example:  You walk down the street and you see a child walking a large dog.  Most folks laugh because the large dog is pulling the kid down the street and it's a tug-of-war that the dog will win.  I see that and I wonder who, exactly, is the pet?  Is the child the one on the leash?  Is he leading the child somewhere that the child obviously doesn't want to go?  The child is pulling back with all his might, but the dog drags the child along behind him with sadistic indifference.  There's an untold story there, of what they do when I can't see them anymore, and that's where the horror lies. 

Another example:  Mimes.  Just what the hell are they anyway?  Street performers?  Some say so, but to me, the silent creatures are terrifying.  Think about the Mime trapped in the invisible box...What did he do to get stuck there?  How long will he have to stay in his prison made of air?  Till he starves?  And who put him there?  I have a theory that there is an entire race of Mimes, and that they're bent on enslaving us, but first they have to learn how to mimic us.  That's why they follow people along in the park.  Their one flaw, however, the way we'll always be able to identify them, is that they can't talk.  When one of them figures out how to speak, we're all doomed. 

Take a good look around the room (if you're in a room with other people).  Who is smiling?  What do you think they're smiling about?  A joke?  Something their significant other said?  The body they have cooling in the trunk of their car?  Look around and see, really see how much of your environment you can take in with your senses.  Look at the tiny forgotten shadows on the floor, the space under the bookshelf, and ask  yourself what lives there.  That little chip out of the paint in the wall?  Was it always there?  What did that?  I shudder to think what it might have been.  

Here's one that keeps people up at night...There's an old internet rumor (that has been refuted by Snopes) that, while we sleep, we unconsciously eat about a dozen spiders a year from the things crawling over us, into our mouths and noses and ears, and we never know about it.  We're asleep.  We're vulnerable.  What else happens when you sleep?  If it's true what some say, that our reality is formed by our own perceptions, then think about this:  What happens when we sleep, and our perception is no longer active?  Does the world just blink away?  Probably not, because of all the other perceptions out there.  But what would happen if everyone fell asleep at once?  Ponder that one while you're lying in bed with the spiders and see how much sleep you get tonight. 

What I'm trying to get across here is that inspiration can come from anywhere.  The tiniest thing can set off a chain of firing synapses that bring about the most horrific story in the world.  The most innocent look might actually the piercing stare of a serial killer.  (Incidentally, and I'm not in any way condoning behavior like mine, but it amazes me how many people get paranoid if you just open your eyes as wide as you can and smile.  Not blinking adds a whole new level of menace.  Just FYI from your weird uncle Scott)

So look around.  See what there is to be seen.  Take it in, roll it around, and cover it in your own brand of nutty awesome sauce, and see what comes out.  I'm willing to bet it'll be something wonderful. 

Until next time.

Shameless Plug:

Friday, September 3, 2010

Two Bits of Shameless Self Promotion

My new book, VERMIN:  Book One of the Stanley Cooper Chronicles, just hit Amazon, and I hope lots and lots of people buy it.  Stanley Cooper is an average guy, short, dumpy, with bad hair.  But an industrial accident left him dead for seven minutes.  When paramedics revived him, he discovered he had the ability to see dead people.  And not just ghosts, but the living energy that surrounds all things.  A telephone call from a panicked stranger sets events in motion that puts Stanley in the middle of a bizarre string of robberies and murders in Pittsburgh, and it's up to him, his best friend Maggie (who is a witch) and a skeptical cop named Taylor to find out what's going on and how to stop it before it's too late.  

Order it HERE!

Here are a couple of excerpts:

     It takes a lot of guts to come forward when something weird or frightening happens to a person. Most people feel like no one will believe them, or that people will blame them and laugh behind their backs. And most people are right. It leaves people with a sense of hopelessness, that there is nowhere left to turn. When people begin to feel that way, those dark forces win. I don‟t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. They win a victory, a conquest over a soul when a person loses hope. Someone experiencing what Shannon claimed to experience has to be at wit‟s end to come and find someone like me. Most of the time, they dummy up and don‟t tell anyone. When it first happened to me, and I thought I was losing my mind, sure, I mentioned it to a few people: a shrink here and there, a few friends, a bartender or two… My friends stopped hanging around with me, the bartenders cut me off, and the shrinks told me I was suffering from some sort of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome brought on by my “passing.” 
     They never say “death,” always “passing.” “Passing” sounds so much nicer, less final than “death.” “Passing” sounds like something a person might do walking between two rooms. It doesn‟t sound like what happens when a piece of safety equipment fails due to production cutbacks, dropping a person thirty feet onto the back of their head. It doesn‟t bring to mind waking up on a gurney with a sheet over one‟s head and a paper tag on a persons toe. That‟s not “passing,” that‟s “death” with a capital “D.” 
     Good things came out of it, though. I developed a new respect for people I might have thought were crazy before. I also quit drinking and smoking. I‟ve heard of so many people who‟ve had near-death-experiences who came away with the “live for the now” attitude and saying things like “I‟ve been dead, so nothing scares me.” 
     Frankly, the thought of dying and not coming back scares the ever-loving Hell out of me. People talk about seeing the long corridor with light at the end or seeing dead relatives. When I died, I saw nothing. I saw darkness. I didn‟t even get to float up above my own body or relive my life in fast forward. Just black. Just cold. 

     People say they don‟t believe in magic or ghosts. They call people like me and Maggie delusional or say that we‟re living in a fantasy world. Magic isn‟t real, they say, and there‟s no such thing as ghosts. They go along their happy daily routines, safe and secure in the knowledge that the unexplainable or things that go bump in the night aren‟t real. These same people are the ones who avoid shops like Maggie‟s, who watch me as if I might do something spooky, and are the first ones to scream and run if so much as an odd noise is heard in the old dark and creepy house. They say they don‟t believe, but it‟s a lie. The trouble is they do believe, but they don‟t take the time to try to understand. They believe, but they‟ll never admit it to each other because that would let the possibility in that there are things in the world that don‟t fit in with their neat little model of what life is supposed to be. In the light of day, it‟s easy to say there are no such things as ghosts, or possession, or haunted houses. In the dead of night, tucked in bed, hiding beneath the blankets while the sounds of footsteps cross the floor and the sounds of breathing come from under the bed, everyone believes. 

And Now, More Shameless Self Promotion
Okay, so it's not really self-promotion per se, but it is something I hope lots of folks check out.  My darling and talented wife, Tabatha, just opened up her own online store to sell jewelry, objects d'art, and other stuff that she hand-makes herself.  Seriously, look at Lurch over there and tell me that's not cool.  He's already sold, but there are lots of other zombie heads, necklaces (I have a "Hand of Glory" that I refuse to take off), earrings, book marks, and other stuff.  Oh, and where is her store?  Just go to Monsters Under Glass and help support artists like Tabby and myself.  I can't tell you how wonderful I think her artwork is.  So jump over there already!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Standard Submission Format

Recently, to make ends meet, I've been doing freelance formatting for a publisher.  While most of the manuscripts I get I can chug out in a couple of hours, there are a few that make my job very difficult, and they could all be fixed if the authors paid attention to standard submission formatting guidelines.  When I first started writing, I had a hell of a time trying to find these magical guidelines, so I'm going to post them here so someone, somewhere, might get some use out of them.  Also to keep me from strangling a few otherwise talented writers.

Margins - One inch, all the way around.  You're not helping anyone by providing space for the gutter or by pre-formatting your work for Createspace, Lulu, or any other press.  One inch.

Spacing  - Double spaced.  This does NOT mean hit the "return" button at the end of every line.  All that's going to do is make the formatter (me) want to beat you with a stiff loaf of pumpernickel.  Seriously, just type and let that magical thing called "Word Wrap" do its thing.  And for the love of Pete, don't hit a double return at the end of paragraphs.  We just have to go back and delete them all.  By hand.

Tabs - Use the Tab key instead of spacing over five spaces.  Not every font spaces the same, and the tab goes by a unit of measurement as opposed to the random size of a particular letter.   

Font - This one varies, but for the most part a monospace font (like Courier) is what's preferred.  Also, twelve point is the general rule.  When in doubt, and I can't stress this enough, LOOK UP THE PUBLISHER'S GUIDELINES!

Underlining/Italics  - Anything that needs to be in italics in your story should be underlined, not in italics. I know, it seems weird, and I never understood it either, but here's the fact:  When formatting your work, publishers, formatters, and everyone else can actually SEE the underlining, whereas the italics just kind of run in with the rest of the text.  If we need to change font, we need to be able to see what has to be changed.  Do our eyes a favor and underline, don't use italics.  We know what to do.  Honest.

Document Format - Send it in either a .doc or a .rtf file.  Those two formats guarantee we can open your work.

When in Doubt - Do some digging and look up the publisher's guidelines.  No matter who it is, publisher, agent or editor, they undoubtedly have their own way of doing things, and there are reasons for them.  If your manuscript doesn't adhere to their guidelines, that's one more reason they can throw it in the garbage unread.  Take into consideration the number of manuscripts they have to read every day, and you'll see why they'll take any opportunity to clean out the pile.

If you want to be a professional writer, BE professional.  Find what gives you the best chance and use it. Don't shoot yourself in the foot before you've even gotten it in the door.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Writing Life: The Ugly Truth

There are a great many misconceptions about writers.  One is that anyone can write a horror/romance/sci-fi/fill-in-the-genre book and get it published.  Another is publication equals respect.  But by far the biggest one has to do with how we measure success.  For the most part, normal everyday folks look at someone who has a couple of books published and think we must be rich.

I thought I'd take a few moments to dispel a few of these myths.  Why?  Not because I'm trying to discourage, but because I want aspiring writers to know what they're in for.  Steel  your nerves and screw your courage to the sticking place, because this isn't a life for cowards.

To begin with, the notion that anyone can write any given type of book is true, but not everyone should.  An idea is not the beginning of a book, nor is it a finished manuscript.  It is simply that...An idea.  I also can't count the number of times I've heard some elitist snob (usually a lit student in a masters program) say "I should just write a _____ novel and get published.  Then I can work on my serious stuff."  Apart from resisting the urge to bludgeon him with his copy of Wordsworth, I wonder just how easy he thinks it is.  Consider:  A novel's word count has to be at least 80,000 words.  That's roughly 380 pages long.  During that time, you have to not only tell a story, but bring characters to life, make sure you know what you're talking about, and emotionally impact the readers, and you have to do it while being original.  Let's say you write a minimum of 1000 words every day.  That still gives you a little under three months for the first draft.  Then there's the revision process, which should take between one and two months.  Then, once it's perfect (in your eyes), you get to do the soul-crushing task of sending your baby out into the world to try to find love, i.e. a publisher or agent.  The major publishers have response times of up to (and in come cases more than) a year, and so do many agents.  Oh, and most of those specify that they want to be the only one reading your work at a given time, so that means you send it, wait a year, get rejected, send to the next person, wait a year, get rejected...ad nauseum.  How do I know you'll get rejected?  Because you will.  Everyone does.  It's a fact of the writing life, and it's something we wear as a badge of honor.  I've actually kept every rejection I've ever gotten.  So then, after several years of hawking the same manuscript, you start to try to push to smaller presses, which brings me to my next point.

Publication doesn't always equal respect.  The smaller the press, the less respect your work gets because it is measured against not only everything else that press puts out, but also because of the simple fact that smaller presses mean smaller audiences.  Few people will have heard of you, so they're not going to respect someone they've never heard of.  Smaller presses also, by necessity, tend to charge more for their books, and why would someone want to pay fifteen dollars for someone they've never heard of when the latest King novel is only ten?  If you go the self-publish/vanity-press route, you'll get even less respect for your book.  Why?  Because anyone, and I do mean anyone, can get their book published if they have the money.  It doesn't mean it's any good, but it can get out there, sell a few copies to Grandma and friends, and then there's still only a penny or two in your pocket.  Second, there are no standards, no people who are professionals at identifying what good fiction reads like, or if the person who wrote it is functionally illiterate.  Many of them don't have editors either.  Any typos or grammatical missives you've made?  They'll be in print for all the world to see.

And by the way, for those of us who do get lucky enough to land an agent and/or get published, it's still not easy.  We're not rich. Because our titles appear in bookstores or online, many people equate us with success stories like Stephen King.  But the truth is far less glossy.  One thing that most of us (with the exception of Mr. King and a few other notables) have in common is that we all have day jobs.  Why?  Because we need them to survive.  I know a rather well-published author who worked as a janitor to make ends meet.  I know another who runs tech at a theater.  I myself have worked as a baker, sales rep, bouncer, bar-backer, teacher, and other various odd jobs throughout my life.  The percentage of writers who get the "big money" deals is far less than the percentage who struggle to make ends meet.  In fact, the vast majority of traditionally published writers, chances are, you've never heard of.

So why do we do it?  Why struggle and try and sweat and burn the midnight oil to tell our stories if the climb is all uphill and fraught with dangerous obstacles?  Simple.  Because we can.  Determination, drive and faith in our abilities are what keeps us going.  For every acceptance, there's a hundred rejections, but those acceptances make it all worthwhile.  We think of ourselves as story-tellers, dreamers and scribes.  Those of us who dare, who stick with it, who learn our craft and pursue this career with dogged determination do have a chance, no matter how small or how high the odds are stacked against us.  We, whether we like to think of ourselves as such or not, are true artists, bearing our thoughts, our imaginations, and our souls to the world.  And to hear just one person (that you don't know) say that they like your work is worth all the struggles, the sleepless nights, and the financial hardship.

I recently landed my first agent.  After ten books and as many years in the business as a professional writer, I accomplished that goal.  I'm luckier than most.  My agent has a fantastic reputation in the industry, and I have complete confidence in her, and for that, I'm doubly lucky.  So keep working.  Do not give up, never stop learning, and pursue this lifestyle if you dare.  I can't, in all honesty, say that eventually you'll come out on top.  But I can, with all certainty, say that you never will if you don't try.

Write on!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Feeding Your Muse

In ancient Greece, those who were creative begged for the indulgence of strange creatures.  There were nine of them, most often depicted as beautiful women in sheer robes.  I'm speaking, of course, of the fabled Muses.  They were the source of inspiration, relators of history and guardians of culture.  And now, in our modern age, those of us who write, act, dance, play music, or do any other creative thing, reach for our inspiration in many locations, but you'll still hear us refer to "our muse."

And a damned persnickity thing she is.

How often have we sat in our chairs, befuddled by the words on our screens, begging, pleading for one of the nine (we often don't care which) to land on our fingers and grace us with an idea, a single word, or even muse-excrement?  And more often than not, she laughs and dances away until it suits her schedule to lend us aid.  Air spirits must be busy. But the best way to keep your muse happy, to provide you with inspiration, is to feed her.  I don't mean cheeseburgers and Oreos, either.  Oreos are reserved for the inner critic and Cheeseburgers, while tasty with bacon, serve to create a fat muse.

To feed your muse, you need to ingest a steady diet of first-hand stimuli.  In layman's terms, you have to get up off your butt and go experience new things.  New foods, new places, new events.  It doesn't have to be the grand opening of every restaurant in town, but things that are new to you.  It's surprising how simple it can be.  Take a different route driving to work.  For once, try that new salad dressing.  Experience what it's like to do something you've never done before, from actually watching an ant pile (which is, by the way, oddly fascinating) to taking a walk along a river.  Talk to people who do things you would never do.  Scared of needles but are curious about what it's like to get a tattoo?  Ask someone!  Wonder where the ducks go when they're not in the pond?  Follow them and find out.  Have you ever actually stood outside during a thunderstorm and just let the rain soak you to the skin?  It's  exhilarating!  No matter where you live, there is no way that you've done everything there is to do there.

Complacency and letting yourself get into a rut is the surest way to drive your muse away.  Indulgent curiosity will keep her well fed and happy, and when she's happy, she'll visit more often.

Good luck!  And WRITE ON!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Site Re-Design!

I know I do this a lot, but my webmaster, Owen (the creepy little bastard), decided that the site looked...what was the word he used?.. Bleak.  So he redesigned the site.  Head on over and take a look at it:  http://www.americanhorrorwriter.net

And let us know what you think.  Owen may not care, but I sure do.  Hope you all had a happy and safe July 4th!  For those not in the USA, hope you had a great Sunday.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Art of the Fight (Scene)

As hard as it may be to believe, I read violent material.  I know, you're shocked to hear it, but I've also written some pretty bloody stories.  One of the often-overlooked aspects of said novels and stories is the ever-popular fight scene.  Two (or more) toughguys (or ladies) slugging it out to prove dominance/prove a point/defend someone/defend their own lives is just the thing to get a reader's adrenaline flowing, if it's done right.  If it isn't done right, it can put the reader into "skim" mode, or worse, "sleep" mode.  As an avid martial artist for around twenty-five years (black belt in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, third degree black belt in Kajukenbo Karate), I've seen my share of dust-ups, and thought I'd share a few things that can help make your fight scene a good one.

  • Avoid Technical Terms and Jargon - Sure, I know what a nukete strike, a wazari, and a tominage are, but generally speaking, the reader isn't going to know that the above means a knuckle strike, a throw, or a stomach-throw.  If you throw in a great deal of jargon to show off your massive martial-arts vocabulary, you're going to lose your reader.  Remember that, for the most part, your reader wants to be in the action, not taken out of it while they rush to look up words. 
  • Be Realistic (Part 1) - Most fights do not work the way they do in UFC.  They also don't work the way they do in Kung-Fu movies.  The former is a sport with rules, the latter is pure fantasy.  While I love both, they just aren't the reality of the street.  Most fights are over in a span of seconds, and most manage to end up on the ground with both combatants rolling about.  In a real fight, the experienced fighter rarely kicks above the waist (because it puts him off balance and, if the other fighter is skilled, a flying kick will get him snatched out of the air and introduced to the pavement.  Most fights are brutal and enjoy such fun as biting, scratching, improvised weapons, and both combatants trying to make a point and get the hell out.  
  • Fighting Hurts - One of the reasons I love Jackie Chan is that, in his fight scenes, when he hits a person, it hurts his hand.  That's reality.  The whole idea of bare-knuckle punching a guy and walking away with a smile is pure horsefeathers.  There's a reason while fighters wear gloves, and it isn't to protect the other guy...It's to protect the tiny bones in the fighter's hands.  Also, getting smacked in the side of the head is one thing, but I can tell you from experience that a good head shot doesn't just hurt for a moment...it lingers.  Same thing for a good old-fashioned head-butt.  The fact that you have a hard head not withstanding, it still has a lasting effect.  
  • Not Everyone is a Kung Fu Master - Having a fight scene between to average Joes that erupts into something akin to a Golden Harvest film is, to say the least, laughable.  
  • Weapons - The trouble with a weapon of any kind is that, sure they're deadly, but they can also be taken away, dropped, and used against your characters.  Keep that in mind.  Also, keep in mind how much skill it takes to use one.  One of my favorite examples of this principle is the feared Nunchaku, made famous by Bruce Lee.  They look awesome and they're fun to swing around, but do you know what happens if you actually contact a solid object (like a wall or a head)?  They ricochet back at you.  And that sucks. 
  • Be Realistic (Part 2) - To go along with my usual unorthodox style of doing most things, I suggest that, if you're writing a fight scene, you walk through it with a partner.  I'm not suggesting you go out to a bar and start a scrap, but you should work out the movements with a partner to see what works, what doesn't, what's physically impossible, and what seems just damned silly.  Choreograph your fight for the real world, then translate it into simple language so your reader can "see" what you're talking about. 
  • Be True to the Characters - For some characters, fighting is the last thing they should do.  Running away seems more in character for them.  For others, a simple fight will not even begin to work for their level of sadism.  Try to put yourself into your character's head to find out what that character would do.  Would he flail in an attempt to get away, screaming like a wounded chicken the whole way?  Would he humiliate his opponent, then go in for the kill?  Would he act out of animal instinct?  Remember that if it's right for the character, it's good.  
These are just basic suggestions, and they're my opinions of how things work.  As always, the golden rule is "If it's right for the story, it's good."  If you have no experience with fighting and are trying to write a fight scene, visit your local Dojo and talk to some of the students.  Explain who you are and what you're trying to accomplish, then ask them to role-play for you and write out what they're doing.  Don't ask them for the technical terms, but write what you see.  Try your best to describe the action so that anyone could understand what's going on, and you'll keep your audience's attention.  

Until next time...

Monday, March 22, 2010

That Doesn't Work! Common misconceptions

Since my last rant, I got to thinking about other things that annoy me in fiction.  Things that denote not only lazy writing, but also that the writers spend little time actually reading or researching and get all their information from watching episodes of A-Team or 80's action flicks.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Gunshot Impact - I love it when I read that a character, wielding a .22 calibre pistol, shot a guy and the impact knocked him backward.  Even funnier if the bullet knocked him through a window.  Folks, a .22, while perfectly lethal, doesn't pack that much of a punch.  In fact, I've read several reports in which people shot with them don't even realize they've been shot until after the fact.  Reasearch people.  Research. 
  • Exploding Cars - Unless you're driving a Pinto, cars don't usually explode on impact.  ANY sort of impact.  They just don't.  They're designed not to.  Get over it.  Sure, explosions are big and exciting, but they don't happen all that often.  Include them in your work at your own peril and at the risk of being called a hack.  Sure, rig them up with explosives, stash nitroglycerine in the trunk (good luck finding that if you're writing modern fiction, by the way) or hit them with a surface to air missile and they'll explode.  But slamming into a wall?  Not likely. 
  • Throwing Knives/Stars - Do you have any idea how difficult is is to stick a perfectly-balanced throwing knife into a stationary target, much less a moving one?  Moreover, how next to impossible it is for the random untrained dipstick to throw an unbalanced 10-inch chef's knife and hope that it hits with the pointy end?  I've read enough passages where people "buried the knife up to the hilt" in muggers, intruders and monsters that I'm starting to believe that America is populated with nothing but circus performers.  Folks, it doesn't work.  Throwing stars work basically the same way.  The other tines on the star would actually prevent it from penetrating very far.  They're more an annoyance and a distraction than they are lethal.  Plus, most folks seem to want to aim for the head or the chest, ignoring the fact that the body has a wonderful protective system for such things.  It's called bone.  Look it up.  Fairly tough stuff. 
  • Knockout - I've been knocked out a few times.  I've also taken more than my fair share of hits to the head (no comments, please).  I can tell you beyond any uncertainty that knocking a person out isn't as easy as the UFC fighters make it look.  Also, getting hit in the head with a board will generally not knock you out, but you will get a nasty concussion, a severe headache, and be disoriented for a while.  
  • Amnesia/Regaining Memory - Amnesia is the result of a few specific types of trauma to the brain, either physical or psychological.  There is no "hit him in the head and it'll all come back" situation.  It just doesn't happen.  
The point here is simple, and one I've tried to make before:  Research.  If you've seen it in the movies, that doesn't mean it's true.  Most of the time, it means no way on Earth could it happen.  If you're thinking of using a clever plot device, do the leg-work and make sure it's possible.  In some situations, try it out yourself to see if it works (and no, I'm not advocating blowing up cars, throwing knives at people, or attempting other acts of random stupidity).  If you want your work to be believable, show things that can be believed. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Common Stereotypes (that drive me up a friggin' wall)

As readers, we see hundreds of thousands of the same idiot-formed stereotypes in what we like to call "popular fiction."  Characters that are cookie-cutter cliches and paper-thin do nothing to advance the art and are indicative of bad writing.  Yet, they still happen.  Pick up five random paperbacks, I'd bet that four of them have some kind of stereotyped characters.  Moreover, the stereotypes are based on ill-informed prattle, hearsay, paranoia, and are oftentimes racist, sexist, and just plain wrong.  It irritates me to no end that such stereotypes exist, and that so-called "artists" continue to put them forth.  Here are a few of my least favorite stereotypes:

  • Satanists - Check the news and you'll see hundreds of reports of "Satanic Cults."  Lots of books play into the same hysteria and paranoia.  But guess what folks:  There is a Church of Satan, and they don't do what people say they do.  They were founded by a fellow named Anton LeVey and they don't go around kidnapping babies, sacrificing kittens, or most of the other things ascribed to them.  In fact, they pretty much leave everyone else alone unless they're provoked.  "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" (which was actually said by Alestair Crowley) is pretty much their guiding force, but they don't just go on random ritual killing sprees.  The people who do that are called serial killers.  
  • Minorities - We like to think we've moved past this, but I can't count the number of times in the past couple of years that I've seen books containing ignorant black thugs, lazy fat Mexicans, money-grubbing Jews, Oriental bad drivers and tech geniuses, noble Native Americans, and Russian/German militant bad-guys.  Come on, people.  Haven't we gotten past this?  Can we please?  People, no matter their skin color, nationality, religion, sexual preference, or hat size, are just people.  They are products of their environment, upbringing, moral code, nutrition, and hundreds of other factors.  All people, no matter what, deserve to be treated with respect.  Period.  When you belittle someone for being different, you reveal yourself to be small minded. 
  • Witches - Not evil, not insidious, and not out to recruit everyone.  It's not like they win a toaster for converting x-number of non pagans.  They're generally not premiscuous (or any more so than any other religious group), nor are they "out of touch" or "living in a fantasy world."  In fact, chances are, there's one working next to you right now and you'd never know it. 
  • Gays/Lesbians - How many times have you seen the stereotype of the flamboyant, cross-dressing fag or the Burkenstock-wearing, granola-eating, man-hating dyke?  Gay men and women are just like everyone else.  They love, they laugh, they cry, they make decisions and they need to pay the rent, just like everyone else.  They don't all run around wearing the opposite gender's clothing, nor are they all "lipstick lesbians" or "boy-toys."  They come in all shapes and sizes, all races, and all backgrounds.  Build a good character, not a good stereotype. 
  • Christians - I'll probably catch flack for this one, but I'm sick of seeing the "God-Warrior," the militant ignorant bigot who does everything because "God says so."  Not all Christians are assholes.  In fact, the vast majority of them are kind and accepting of other people.  Just because the psychos get all the press (as they do in any religion) doesn't mean they're all like that.  It has become somewhat fashionable to portray Christians in a negative light, and that's tragic.  For every dipshit who tells the world that "God hates fags," there are a hundred others who reject his hate-filled doctrine.  
What I'm trying to put forth here are words that someone much smarter and much more talented that I once said:  "Good writing is truth."  Don't perpetuate bigotry.  Build real people. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Secrets to Happiness

I read a post a little while ago in which someone gave a list of suggestions for living a happy life.  It was a good list.  So good, in fact, that it made me think of my current mental state.  I don't really tell very many people this (though I guess they'll know now), but years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  Prozac worked until my insurance provider stopped covering it.  It took me a long time to become a happier, healthier person.  While I still have my bad days, they are fewer and farther between than ever before.  So here, then, are some tidbits that worked for me.  (Disclaimer:  I'm not a doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or even someone from whom most people consider taking advice.  However, if this works for just one person, I'm happy.)

Eat Healthy - It would surprise most people how much your diet can affect your outlook.  But the old saying "Garbage in, garbage out" really applies.  Tanking up on trash constantly makes your body feel tired, sluggish, and can really bring on a case of the blahs.  The healthier you eat, the better you will feel.  And it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg either.  I changed my diet and found out I was spending less on healthy foods (that taste just as good, I might add) than I was on junk.  

Exercise - It plays off the point listed above, but it still holds true.  You don't have to be an athlete or run a marathon, but you need to get up off your butt and move around some.  Spend some time in the sunshine, take a walk, anything to make your heart beat, your lungs expand, and to put your body in motion. 

Be Passionate - About SOMETHING.  Anything.  Find your passion, and follow it.  I'm not saying to quit your job in your quest to become the world's finest cheese-maker (though if you think you can, go for it!), but find something that stirs your soul.  For some its painting.  For me it's writing and music.  I can't live without either one.  Well, I could, but I'd be one miserable bastard if I did.

Ignore Stereotypes and Fads - ...which is a less Pollyanna way of saying be yourself.  Living your life living up to what Vogue, Cosmo, and People declare are the "in" fashions and trends is a quick way to make yourself feel inadequate.  Don't believe me?  Look at the covers of those magazines and realize that those women are being force-fed as the ideal of "beautiful."  Sorry, but unhealthily-skinny women just don't do it for me.  As for fashion, I wear what I like (which is usually a Hawaiian shirt with sneakers and jeans).  Wear what you like.  Be you, not who someone else wants you to be. 

Never let anyone determine your worth - No one needs any other solitary person to be whole.  Too many people are part of bad relationships or are made to feel less than their worth.  Make yourself happy and realize that you are a whole person.  Once you realize that you don't need another person to make you whole, you'll realize that you enjoy other people more, and that they enjoy you. 

Love Yourself First - Boy, that's a hard one.  For someone who came from a veritable plethora of neuroses and self-loathing (me) to somehow come to terms with, and genuinely like, himself is a huge step.  But the old saying of "You can't love someone else until you love yourself" is true.  

Laugh - Best medicine and all, but a good hard laugh has been proven to have all kinds of psychological and physical benefits.  Just never forget to laugh at yourself and with others. Never take yourself too seriously. 

I hope someone who reads this finds it useful.  Please, feel free to leave your own hints for happiness as comments.  Notice, I never said turn to Christ/Buda/Allah/The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Happiness comes from within.  

Monday, February 15, 2010

Never Apologize...

...For your art.

People that know me or that have had the "Scott A. Johnson Experience" at Seton Hill know that there are few things that royally piss me off.  Among the worst of them is a curious habit most often seen in beginning/novice/would-be writers:  Apologizing for your work.  If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times (to use hyperbole), never, never, NEVER apologize for your work.  No matter where I go, be it conventions or workshops, there seems to be this great tendency among students to preface everything with "Well, this isn't very good" or "I wrote this fifteen minutes before I got up here" or something of the like.  What that translates to, for your audience, is "I'm sorry, this sucks, and I'm about to waste your time."

Wow, that sounded harsh, didn't it?  But it's the truth.  By prefacing what you're about to read or workshop in such a manner, you're really telling the audience or your classmates that you have no confidence in your own work, and that they really shouldn't waste their time reading it.  Why?  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're at a convention.  You've been asked to read your work.  Let me repeat that...You've been asked to read your work.  That means someone liked it enough to invite you to share it.  Chances are, as I've said in other blog entries, even if it does suck, no one is going to stand up and throw things at you.  The fact is, the people in the audience are there because they want to be there, and more than likely, they're already fans.  Why would you tell fans not to bother with your work?

Let's say, again hypothetically speaking, you're in a classroom/workshop setting, and it's your turn to have your story workshopped.  Why on Earth would you tell your critique partners that they've wasted their time reading something that you've put your heart and soul into?

The truth is, no one is perfect.  Not one person who ever put words to page (myself included) is incapable of making mistakes.  Writing is a risk.  In fact, any time you pull something out of that creative portion of your brain, you're taking a risk.  How many times have you heard (or heard of) someone say they wished they could write a book?  Or that they have a great idea for a book, but they need someone else to write it? You, as a writer, have accomplished something that many people feel is personally impossible.  You created those characters, you put them through hell, and you deserve the credit for it.  Be proud of what you've worked on.  Be proud that you are a writer.  Never apologize for your work, because if someone else could've written it, they would've.

Someone once asked me, after I admonished them and told them to never apologize, what if the work genuinely sucks?  What then?

My answer:  Suck out loud.  Be proud of it anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Defense of Lovecraft...

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. - HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
There are only a handful of names that come up whenever a horror writer lists their influences.  Among the oldest names are Edgar Allan Poe (of course) and Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  For the former, there can be no doubt of the hair-raising qualities of his work.  Yet for the latter, despite rabid praise from contemporary authors like King, Barker, Matheson and Johnson (yes, me), I hear lots of folks say they just don't "get" it.  People don't like his writing style, don't like his flowery language, don't like (fill in the blank).  So why, then, do people like the afore mentioned group of horror Gods (and one shameless self-promoter) love the man so much?  I'll attempt to explain.

Lovecraft, to begin with, never referred to his work as "horror," but rather "weird fiction."  Horror wasn't really much of a genre to him, but, along with Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, formed some of the longest-lasting images of horror, science fiction, and fantasy (respectively) of anyone.  Of Lovecraft in particular, his themes have transcended his own age and moved not only through ours, but, I believe, beyond ours.  His theme of forbidden knowledge, particularly, is one that has been the subject of countless movies, books and television series.  All of his stories, in fact, resonate in some way the same overwhelming fear:  The world you think is real isn't real at all.

Far beyond that, there are two things Lovecraft did better than any other.  First, he was a master at bringing the settings, or even inanimate objects, to vivid life, creating an almost sentient character from every brick in each building.  Look at The Shadow over Insmouth or even Pickman's Model to see what I'm talking about.  The whole town functions as a living, breathing, slime-covered and malignant character in the former, while the single block in which Pickman lives becomes another.  And for pure menace, one need only mention the dreaded Necronomicon for people, even those who've never read Lovecraft's work, to shudder.  His description of the damned book so inspired people that many refused to believe it wasn't real, and others actually have developed cults dedicated to it.  His second area of mastery, one that I subscribe to, was the notion that the things we can't see are, most often, more frightening than the things we can.  While to some, his habit of leaving out details is annoying, to me it allows the reader to create the monster in his or her own head, which personalizes the story and makes it all the more frightening.

Now, sure, Lovecraft had his shortcomings.  His writing, much like most of that from the time period, is long-winded and difficult.  A person has to really want to read his work to develop a taste for it (or they have to be assigned it by a sadistic professor in a Masters level program...hehehe...).  He was an unashamed racist (actually, an ethnicist...He didn't like European white folks either), was paranoid, and pretty-much scoffed at the idea of a loving, protective deity.  He died a pauper living with his aunts and never really achieved what anyone considers any level of success.

But his influence lives on through his stories.  Sure, the man may have had issues, but it's not the man we're looking at here.  It's the work.  His words, his themes, his technique.  Say what you will, but look around at any writer of the modern age and you'll see Lovecraft's influence, if only in a small way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Creating Tension

One of the great hallmarks of horror is the palpable build of tension.  King did it masterfully in The Shining, with its slow-burn ratchet of terror.  Matheson, when he wrote Hell House, created one of the single greatest nail-biters in literature.  We, as writers, all aspire to create that sense of dread, that feeling that has our readers squirming in their seats, that moment when our readers, lost in our story, will leap out of their skin when a cat (or child or mouse) runs through the room.  With movies, television, even radio plays, the listener has cues to build tension.  Scary music, visual clues, or just a subtle drop in the actor's voice or a quarter-inch widening of the eyes can do it.  But we as writers have no such tools on which to lean.  We have our words and the page, and building  any kind of emotional connection therein is difficult, to say the least.

Horror without tension isn't horror...It's merely a collection of horrific things.  The emotional journey for the reader, without it, isn't there.  So how can we create tension in our stories?

My own definition of tension as it relates to horror, and writing in general, is taking your characters to the edge and refusing to push them over.  It's a subtle build of events, each one another notch on the ratchet, that brings him closer to the inevitable end.  But more than just careening toward that end, it's in how he gets there that's important.  It isn't enough to get your character from point A to point Z.  It's the roadblocks (points B-Y) you set up in front of him that make the story.  Each one brings him closer to the edge.

Take, for example, the classic ghost story.  If the first thing the characters see is the horrible phantom in all its grisly glory, the story is basically over.  We know what's coming and we're able to deal with it.  But if it starts small, say with a single moving door, and builds, we see the terror mount.  We see that ratchet tighten.  We begin to feel that character's growing dread.

We can create tension, as author Gary Braunbeck says, through hesitation.  A knock late at night.  The character hesitates before opening the door.  "Who could that be?" he thinks.  Another knock.  "It's so late," he thinks.  Another knock.  "I'm in a cabin with all my friends, and no one knows I'm here..."  Another knock.  The cliff drop is when he actually opens the door.  The tension comes from his reluctance to open it.

You can also build tension mechanically in your stories, by using shorter phrases, single syllable words, things that bring the rhythm of your writing to a staccato fever like a pounding heart.  You can build it with repitition, trigger phrases, or even with absence of description.  Describe a puppy and leave out the word "puppy" and the fact that it's only eleven inches tall at the shoulder and what do you have?  A fur-covered beast with needle-sharp teeth and claws.  The moment you name it, your brain quantifies it, and can therefore deal with it.  But if you leave it unnamed, leave the reader with the shadow under the door instead of what's making the shadow, the tension, the uncertainty, becomes significant.

Apply the above to any genre.  In romance or erotica, keep the lovers apart though the reader knows they want to be together.  In comedy, keep the punchline for as long as you can.  Build the tension and string the reader along.  It makes the payoff, punchline, or killshot much more engaging.

Write on!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joining the ORGs

One of the most common topics about which I'm asked is networking.  Many aspiring writers, newly published authors, and hopeful new micropress publishers ask me how I got to know so many authors, how I find out what's going on in the industry, and where I go to find people who know their business. The answer is simple:  Professional Writers' Organizations.  No matter your genre, there is a writers' organization made up of professionals whose sole purpose is further their genre and make life better for authors.  As with any organization, you get out of it what you put into it, so don't go in expecting to immediately be handed a contract, agent, and/or award.  But if you're willing to listen to the advice of those who've been there before you, chances are you'll find these organizations to be a rich resource.  Below, I've included links to a few organizations.  Check them out and keep your eyes and ears open.

These are just a few that are out there.  If your genre isn't listed, do a Google search for your genre.  I'm willing to bet you yours will come up.  In addition, all of these groups have regional chapters.  Think of them as a support group of like minded crazy people.  It works.  Trust me.