Writing advice from successful authors can be a unique form of psychic torture. Let me share with you my own personal hell demon:
Oh, God, this one drives me crazy. The reason it drives me crazy is because I think he’s right but, by the same token, I live a life that prevents me from reading even a quarter as much as I’d like to. I would estimate I read about 10-15 books a year for my own pleasure. All of this happens during the summer. The rest of my life is spent re-reading texts I’m going to be teaching for the fall and spring semesters (approximately 20 books) and then reading all the student papers I need to grade (which works out to about 4800 pages a year, give or take a few hundred–call that another 10-15 books). So, you know, I do actually read the equivalent of 40-50 books a year, but only 25% of those are ones I actually get to pick. Therefore, I go around feeling as though I’m not able to do the thing I evidently need to do in order to be a writer.
But, of course, I am a writer – a published author with book deals and short story pubs and one award under my belt – so clearly I’m doing okay on some level.
There are literally hundreds of pieces of advice like this floating through the ether. Join a writer’s group and you’ll hear all of them. “You must write every day!” and “Write what you know!” and “Finish everything you start!” and so on and so forth. Listen to them long enough, and you’ll get it into your head that the only way to be a successful writer is to already be a successful author who can do nothing but author things all day long and, on top of that, have no real life outside of the written word (oh, wait, but that violates that rule about “lived experience is the only way to write with authenticity.”).
There is a lot of truth to a lot of these things – they can and do work for a lot of authors. None of them, though, is set in stone. To quote Hemingway:
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
That, right there, is probably the best bit of writing advice anybody can give you beyond “put your butt in the chair and write.” All of us – every damned one of us – is kinda making this up as we go along. Nobody has it figured out. One of the weirdest things I’m learning as I go is that every single novel is difficult and easy in completely unique ways compared to all my previous novels. Now, does that mean it’s true for you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who the hell knows?
The point here is that listening to too much good-intentioned advice is a good way to scare the hell out of yourself before you’ve even gotten started. Take the recent Twitter discussion among many authors I follow regarding how old you can or should be to begin writing. The consensus is that, ultimately, you can become a writer at any age – there is no aging-out in storytelling. And then we’ve got Chuck Wendig pointing out that he published his first novel at 36 (Hey! Me too!) and now has published 20 novels.
In only 4 years.
Wait…wait…20 books in 4 years? I’ve only published two in two years! Holy shit, how much of my time have I been wasting? What is wrong with me? WHY CAN’T I ALSO DO THAT?
Okay, okay…cool it down. It’s all right. It’s not a race. It’s not even a competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, Habershaw. Work your own problem. Wendig’s pace is not your pace. That’s not how this works.
And, ultimately, that’s my main point here. There are no rules on how to do this thing. There is no time limit, no required pace, no set reading list. You have to sit down and write, yeah, but how and when and where and how often are something you need to negotiate with yourself. That also doesn’t mean you should be so arrogant as to assume you know it all already and will discount any advice that comes your way – listen, take notes, absorb. But then, in the end, it is you doing the writing, and only you can solve that problem. And, given the drive, you will solve it.
My relationship with Stephen King’s writing is a complicated one. On the one hand, his body of work demands respect and his gift for plot and pacing is legendary. Those books of his I’ve read (which are rather few–Carrie, a variety of his novellas, a few short stories, and about half the Dark Tower Series), I have enjoyed. None of them, though, have managed to grab me. None, except perhaps The Gunslinger.
Say what you will about the Dark Tower series, but it is different. King creates a world that’s full of pointy edges and odd curves – you can’t quite get a handle on it. Roland journeys through a sort of dark, decaying Wonderland, with a new crumbling edifice around each corner. It is a world steeped in a kind of melancholy mystery which is enchanting. The Gunslinger encapsulates that beautiful doom perfectly, in a short little book stuffed full of strange. This is no wonder, though, as the Robert Browning poem that inspired King’s work is, itself, a work of incredible imagination (greater, I would argue, than King’s work itself).
It has been years since I stopped reading the Dark Tower series. I made it as far as The Waste Lands and left it behind me. I tell myself I really ought to go and finish the thing, but I don’t and probably never will. I think the problem (insofar as it is a problem at all) is that the Dark Tower, for me, is something that need not be reached. I am not left with any wish to see Roland’s quest completed, nor am I engaged in the character arcs of any of the characters. For me, the Dark Tower series is more poem than novel, anyway. Beautiful imagery, wonderful ideas, peculiar mood…but narratively compelling? I don’t really think so.
See, Roland and the Man in Black and the strange parallel world they inhabit aren’t really people to me. The Dark Tower doesn’t really seem to be a place. The whole thing echoes with metaphor, striking thematic parallels with every hero’s journey from Sir Gawain to the Torturer Severian. The picture is complete for me, without the need for plot or narrative motion. Honestly, I feel like the kid and the addict and the crazy lady interfere with what I like about the first book. They inject ‘real’ into the cloudy ephemera of Roland’s world, and I resent it.
The Dark Tower – hell, all Dark Towers – are places to dream about. They are points of inspiration, ideas fashioned from unknowable black stone. To get there, to achieve the Dark Tower is to touch your own dreams; to find out, in a supreme moment of catharsis, if your hand will pass through and you realize your delusion, or if your hand will land firm and your dream will be pulled back down into filthy, complicated reality. It’s lose-lose. I, myself, prefer to leave it there, atop its field of blood-red roses, it’s riddle unanswered. I feel, ultimately, that the answer is inherent in the question, anyway.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way and start with HP Lovecraft, shall we?
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
As a side note, I’ve always found this quote to be richly ironic coming from Lovecraft, as I’ve never found his stuff terribly frightening with one or two possible exceptions (“The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark”). Usually his stories consist of a weirdo, a monster, and the monster coming to eat/claim/drive mad said weirdo. Once you’ve read one or two of them, you’ve got the formula down (with rare and important exceptions–“The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, and others, but those stories were always more ‘cool’ than ‘scary’, anyway). The ‘unknown’ and the fear thereof becomes significantly undermined if you already know, in loose detail, what’s going to happen.
At the heart of it, though, Lovecraft is spot-on. What is really, truly frightening is not knowing what you’re up against or how to combat it. If you doubt it, ask yourself this: if you saw an elephant walking down the street, would you be scared? Now, would you be more or less scared than if you saw an elephant walking down the street and had no idea what an elephant was at all? The second, clearly, and Lovecraft understood this. It’s just that his ability to plot didn’t quite keep up with his understanding of what makes something frightening.
In the end, if we’re trafficking in horror quotations, I prefer one by Stephen King:
The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
~from Night Shift
So, here’s the challenge in horror: to get your readers to believe, even for a moment, that there’s something there to grab them by the ankle. That’s more than simply the unknown. That’s the unknown that knows about you. That’s the unknown and the immediate. Lovecraft’s characters, who go wandering off over hill and over dale to seek out their madness, they’re asking for it. By contrast, that VHS tape in The Ring is right there, on your living room table. You just need to pop it in and aren’t you curious about it, after all? I can not know about elephants, but I won’t be scared of one until it’s stomping through my neighborhood. I need to believe that it’s possible. I need to draw the shades to keep the man-eating giant from looking inside.
I am not, by self-identification, a horror writer. I think part of it is because I’ve never had a horror book scare me, so I don’t quite get it. I’ve been told that things I’ve written and done have been creepy or scary, but I confess to not really understanding what they mean all the time. That said, I like horror. It’s fun to scare people. It is a rare and unique challenge.
Very soon I’m going to be starting up a gothic horror RPG (Ravenloft is the setting, for you nerds out there, and I’m using the FATE system), and I’ve been wracking my brain on how, when, and why to scare my players. One of the basic tricks is, of course, keeping them in the dark. You need to keep the enemy unknown to keep it scary; as soon as it makes its first on-screen appearance, it loses it’s magic. In RPGs, where players are so often obsessed with the minutiae of statistics, stunts, and dice, this is especially important. I can never describe something as a ‘vampire’ and have it work as a terrifying foe. I need to keep it’s identity in the dark for as long as possible, giving the players the sense that something is going to grab their ankle without actually making the swipe. It’s at that moment–at the moment when the scaly, taloned hand grasps the ankle, that ‘horror’ evaporates. We are then, at that precise moment, in an action scene.
There is a distinct and important difference between being afraid and being disgusted, and modern horror seems to forget
this all too often. Graphic scenes of torture or gore are not, by their nature, frightening so much as they are gross. If I decline to eat live cockroaches, it isn’t because I’m ‘afraid’, it’s because I imagine the experience will be unpalatable.
When I go to see a movie or watch a show that is intended to be frightening, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that their idea of horror is going to be pretty bloody and graphic, but the film won’t be frightening, really. Exciting perhaps, but not scary. Fright comes from a different place, at least for me. I don’t have nightmares about gore and violence. Hellraiser didn’t so much scare me as gross me out. I slept fine that night, though I can’t say I had a huge appetite for a rare steak afterwards.
Ah, who am I kidding? I always have an appetite for rare steak. Hell, I felt like meatloaf right after seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus in the theaters. Mmmmm…bloody.
What scares me is the idea of helplessness. Alien scared the hell out of me, and you know why? Not because the critter burst from that dude’s chest, but because they were all stuck on a spaceship with a monster and there was no way out. It wasn’t as if there was no way out because they were idiots, either–the characters in that movie were operating at the top of their intelligence; the idiot ball was not in use. There was no way out because there was no way out.
That’s scary. The inexorable approach of doom is frightening. The unavoidable slip into madness is frightnening. Stephen King knows this better than anybody. Most of his truly terrifying works are based on that idea. In It, how can the kids possibly defeat Pennywise? In The Shining, Jack is terrifying primarily because his wife and kid are stuck with him while miles and miles from any kind of help. Misery works on the same concept, and on and on and on. It’s not the gore, folks, it’s the isolation, the removal of agency, the horror of helplessness.
If you want proof, try transposing. If Pennywise were to pick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how would it go? If a lone alien got loose on one ship among a fleet of ships, how hard would it be to solve the problem? If the crazy dad from The Shining chased his wife and kid into a crowded shopping mall, how dangerous would he really be?
A lot of horror movies like to cheat by creating artificial isolation by throwing around the idiot ball or breaking the rules
of reality just for the hell of it, but I’m not buying it. It’s all too easy sometimes to explain how to escape the dangers of a horror movie, and that’s a sign of a bad horror movie. House seems haunted, but you’re only visiting? Dude, just go home. Crazy killer in the woods? Drive away. Being chased by some slow-moving zombie monster? Just run away.
So, in conclusion: Freddy Kreuger was scary (you can’t get away), but Jason Vorhees isn’t as much (he can’t realistically ride the bus or catch a cab so, you know, just leave). Likewise, cutting off some guys nuts and tossing them in a blender isn’t scary. If he’s made to do it because he has a brain worm that he can’t get out, that is scary. It’s all about setting, it’s all about agency, it’s all about character.
It isn’t about the blood.