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Tag Archives: writing tips

For those writers and bloggers who have steadfastly followed the last two stories I’ve posted, I would like to say thank you for reading them. After I published my collection of short stories in 2010 I decided to take some time away from writing and figure out a new direction. Finally, I decided to write a novella that was a Lovecraftian, Cthulhu Mythos story – The Scourge of Wetumpka. That took some time to write but turned out quite well. Coming off of that I began writing Psychological Horror short stories. When I use the term Psychological, I am using it in the true sense of the term as having to do with Psychology. I have a Master’s in Psychology and I really enjoy Psychological thrillers with horror or dark fantasy overtones. The first couple of stories were “Alone” and “Shockley House”. I was very pleased with “Shockley House” but wound up re-writing “Alone” in order to make it deliver the right effect. After those two stories, I began to get interested in the use of Symbolism and the techniques used in Impressionism. The last two stories, “The Land of Nod” and “The Murklor”, explore using those techniques in writing weird tales. What makes them really work on a blog is that each day (or every couple of days) a new glimpse or vignette is added to the overall impression of the piece. In “The Land of Nod” I tried to do that by adding more bits of symbolism to the canvass of the story. In “The Murklor”, I tried to do that by adding new vantage points – usually in the form of different writing techniques. Overall, I’m really liking this new direction of Impressionistic Weird Fiction. It’s fun and offers so much freedom.

BTW, I can’t take credit for inventing it. Here’s a really good interview about what I’m trying to achieve in my writing:

The Insomniac Propagandist

One final note – the ciphers in the story “The Murklor” are very much real. They aren’t just thrown together to make the story weirder than it already is. Each one was methodically designed and does have a real solution.

Here is a good article about what this blog is all about!

Storytelling

 

Here is a great book on story writing that I’m currently reading.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

When I was a kid I loved to watch The Twilight Zone. That show had a huge influence on how much importance I place on the endings to my stories. The best part of TTZ was the twist-ending. While Rod Serling didn’t invent the twist-ending, he sure did make it a trademark for The Twilight Zone.

It is my opinion that a short horror story or weird tale is not complete unless it has a twist-ending. This may fly in the face of many horror or weird writers but I don’t care. The twist-ending is such a strong element that a story falls flat unless the reader is left with a bang at the end. Plus it has the added benefit of leaving a far stronger lasting impression on the reader than an ending that is nothing more than the end of the narration. Hell, a great twist-ending can turn a mediocre story into a good story simply because it is the last impression the reader is left with.

But how do you define what exactly a twist-ending is? I think that a twist-ending is when the author reveals to the reader (or viewer in the case of film) the answers to the holes in the plot in such a way that it shocks the reader (viewer). There are three basic ways this is done: 1) the author reveals to the reader a key piece of the plot that answers any ambiguities that have been left unanswered, 2) the reader has been led to conclude one direction in the plot and the author reveals something that totally turns that assumption on its head, and 3) a shock is revealed that makes the plot have a far greater ramification than the reader suspected.

I place a great deal of importance on the endings to my stories in the hopes that I achieve a twist that leaves the reader going away from the story with more to think about than just the events of the story.

I dearly wish that I didn’t have to work a full time job and that I could spend my days both reading and writing. But, alas, I must dedicate a mere smidgen of my time to reading short horror/weird tales and writing. I also enjoy reading and writing in other areas of interest so even my part time dedication to weird tales is part time. I envy that Lovecraft had free time to be so well-read in the genre and be able to pen his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. He finished that work in 1935 and I would love to be able to bring the genre up to date myself but this is truly a dream I don’t see coming to fruition. Another element of difficulty is that since then there has grown a legion of descent writers that would need to be mentioned making my task even more surmountable.

I can offer a different approach, however. I am still pretty well-read in the genre and have discussed in this blog my practice of logging the stories I read and ranking them. Currently, as of today, I have read over a thousand stories in the genre. From this list I have assembled the best of the best and that list numbers over a hundred stellar stories that are must reads. Many of these stories Lovecraft makes mention of either the story itself or, at least, the author. To this I can add several authors that I would say have added numerous stories to the genre; authors such as Ramsey Campbell, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, Manly Wade Wellman, and most definitely, the author who penned Supernatural Horror in Literature himself, H.P. Lovecraft.

I will make it abundantly clear that I recognize I have missed many good authors and that is simply because I have yet to read their work. I have several stacks of books yet to be read. I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. I can’t very well comment on gaps in my reading in the genre.

Recently I purchased the book H.P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Weird Tales which includes two lists that Lovecraft recommended to be read in the genre. The second list was an updated list based on the fact that Lovecraft had read some additional stories. These were, supposedly, Lovecraft’s favorite weird tales. Of the 18 stories included in the book I have read 10 already.

Narrowing down a list to the top 10 seems like a task I care not undertake. What I would like to do now is comment on specific stories and their authors which I believe should be must reads in the genre but may not be the most commonly mentioned or readily accessible stories. The following list from my Listmania list on Amazon is a resource on where to find nearly all of the stories I will mention. Keep in mind that this is a mere smattering of the hundred or so stories that I currently list as must reads – the rest being many stories by the authors Lovecraft mentions in Supernatural Horror in Literature and the authors I mentioned above. Also, unlike Lovecraft, I will not spoil any of the plots. I will let the reader discover for themselves why these stories are some of the best weird tales ever written.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/richpub/listmania/fullview/RC22MSOYPL8OZ/ref=cm_rna_own_lm/103-5607512-2401439

The first story is Moonlight Sonata by Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943). Woollcott was a writer for The New Yorker who seems to have written nothing else in the genre. A curious fact about him is that he died on live radio. The story is very short but powerful in its conclusion. Much of the effectiveness in this story is in the fact that Wooollcott left much unsaid that a creative mind is able to speculate on.

The next story is The Thing in the Cellar by Dr. David Henry Keller (1880-1966). Dr. Keller was a physician who dabbled in weird tale writing on the side. This story first saw publication in Weird Tales in 1932.

Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity is a pleasantly disturbing tale by David Morrell (b. 1943). Morrell is a Canadian born author best known for creating the character Rambo in his novel First Blood. This particular story ranks right up there with The Wendigo (which I think is slightly better than The Willows) in its otherworldly weirdness.

Moving on, we come to The Ghost of the Capuchins by Eugene Montfort (1877-1929). Montfort was a French novelist who wrote mostly in a Mediterranean setting. This story is cleverly plotted and well worth the read.

The Entrance is an instant classic by Gerald Durrell (1925-1995). Durrell was an Indian born Brit best known for his naturalist work and bio-environmental conservation efforts. For whatever reason he wrote this horror story and I, for one, am thankful he did. There are many different elements that make this story a gem.

My next pick is a story called Keys and Locks and Open Doors by Jane Wallis Hicks. I haven’t been able to find an ounce of information on Hicks. This story appeared on a now defunct website and gives no details about her. The story itself is written in an archaic, Quaker, New England settler style of language that is a perfect vehicle for delivering this unsettling tale.

The next story is another Weird Tales alumnus called Canavan’s Back Yard by Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990). Brennan wrote many novels and short stories. Many of his short stories appeared in Weird Tales in the early fifties. I haven’t had the opportunity to read any of his other work but one day I’ll get around to reading one of his short story collections.

The Beckoning Fair One by the Brit author Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is a story that I am surprised Lovecraft failed to mention in Supernatural Horror in Literature. This story has many features that mark it as a classic horror tale. The ending is a real masterpiece that leaves you thinking about the story for a while. Onions was a commercial artist turned author. I’m not sure he ever produced any other horror of this caliber, though.

Another story that deserves to be ranked among the classics and I was surprised Lovecraft failed to mention in Supernatural Horror in Literature is How Love Came to Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens (1864-1950). Hichens was a Brit who wrote several novels but seems to have only written a couple of short stories. This particular story is a masterfully written haunting with an unusual twist.

Ray Bradbury (b. 1920) has written many weird tales that will ensure he is ranked among the best weird tale writers. I could list any number of his stories as being must reads but there is one story in particular that I feel is his best weird tale. The story entitled The Jar is a very unusual story that Bradbury has done a wonderful job in weaving a really weird tale with. Bradbury is a goliath in the science fiction genre best known for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451.

He Wanted to Live by Richard Matheson (b. 1926) is a perfectly crafted horror tale. Matheson is another author who has written many great short stories that are must reads. Matheson is best known for his work on the T.V. series The Twilight Zone (the episode entitled Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is most popular) and his novels that have become major motion pictures (Stir of Echoes and What Dreams May Come). Read this story and you’ll see why I chose it!

While I haven’t read more than a handful of stories by Robert Bloch (1917-1994), I have yet to read one that is not a top-notch story ranking him among the best. Most of the stories I have read by Bloch are Lovecraftian pastiches; however, there is one story called The Rubber Room that deserves to be read by anyone looking for the crème de la crème of weird tales. Bloch is best known as the creator of Psycho. I will definitely be purchasing a collection of Bloch’s short stories in the near future.

It is a shame that Lovecraft couldn’t have lived longer to enjoy the blossoming of the genre and be able to read so many of the great authors who came along in his wake.

Let’s talk about what makes a good short horror story. Whether you want to write them or read them, this introduction should make you mindful of the key elements that make for a really well crafted short horror tale.

Of course, before I ever began writing short horror, I read a great many of them. All the greats and all the not-so-greats. And I began to notice certain elements that worked really well, as well as those that make a story flop.

The first element that makes a good short horror story really work is not provided by the author at all. It’s provided by the reader and it is what brings the eerie magic of a finely crafted short story to its full effect. It is imagination. I am not talking about a simple suspension of belief either. I am referring to the ability to put yourself into the story. It takes a very strong imagination to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist(s). I have, on numerous occasions, known of people reading a story that I thought was magnificent and they only found it so-so. Confused by this, I wondered how this could be. Typically, I have traced the problem to be a lack of imagination on their part.

One thing the reader can do to foster the right atmosphere and help fuel their imagination is to choose the appropriate time and place for reading the story. This isn’t necessary but the difference is amazing. Let’s face it, a story read in bed, alone, at night, while a rainstorm rattles the windows has a far different effect than the same story read while seated on a bench in the park, during broad daylight, while children are running around laughing and playing.

Now let’s talk about the elements that are under the control of the author. First and foremost the story has to have a good plot. The author doesn’t have to have every detail of the plot worked out in order to begin writing, but the meat of the plot needs to be worked out prior to beginning.

Ideas for plots can come from almost anywhere. The author needs to be careful that their plot is original. There are a couple of ways to ensure that your plot hasn’t already been used. One is to tell your idea to someone else. You’d be surprised at the “that reminds me of blah blah blah” and the “sounds like blah blah blah” that will be given as feedback. If you have a really good critic then they will help you make your plot even better. The second method of verifying you’re not using another author’s idea is to read – a lot!

Many of the plots to my stories are set in my home town of Birmingham, Alabama. The reason is because I am familiar with the area and I want the descriptions of the settings to be convincing. This is not necessary, but I like to do it. The actual plot ideas come from many different sources. Many of them are based on real events that I embellish quite a bit. Others are born out “what if” scenarios that I come up with. And still others are truly scary situations that I have experienced or dreamed up. I figure that if it would scare me, then it would probably scare other people. Wherever the ideas come from, the thing to remember is that the plot had better contain tension, horror, and keep the reader in suspense.

The next element that is of key importance is atmosphere. The author has got to create the appropriate atmosphere as the story unfolds. Within the genre of short horror there are typical atmospheric motifs that are used frequently. The list of these is quite large, but some examples are: the unnamed horror, subservience to overwhelming powers, growing insanity, building hatred, fear of some supernatural force, helplessness in the face of fear, etc. No matter what type of atmosphere the author is trying to create and maintain, it will usually require a sense of escalating tension. That is what the short horror story is a perfect medium for. It is very difficult to maintain rising tension if the story is too long. It is not impossible, but it is usually easier to accomplish over a short span of pages.

Of course, when it comes down to it, word choice is the crucial method to achieving the appropriate atmosphere. This is the real art of writing and can’t be taught through some formula or shortcut. And that’s as it should be. The reason is because this is where the author’s individual style comes through. True creativity in writing is in the author’s choice of words to create an atmosphere in describing his or her plot. As a matter of fact, there are many plots that are similar but their difference lies in atmosphere and word choice.

Earlier I mentioned the length of the short horror story as being conducive to escalating tension. This brings us to the next element and a common question. How long should a short horror story be? The answer is that there is no rule. I have read some great stories no more than a couple of pages as well as great stories that in are jeopardy of being too long to be categorized as a short horror story. But, as a general rule of thumb, I believe that the author should shoot for a story that can be read in less than an hour.

Next, let’s talk about the opening of the story. It is a wise thing to use the first sentence or two to capture the reader’s attention. There are many ways to achieve this. The author can start the story in the middle of the story if he or she so chooses. Starting a story at a gripping part of the tale and then backfilling the reader on the events leading up to where the story first began is a good device to use. The author can also throw in a few hints about where the story will lead without giving the whole tale away. There are many ways to entice the reader, but if the opening of the story doesn’t capture the reader then there is always the chance that the reader will not even bother to read past the opening paragraph.

We should also consider the point of view from which the story is told. I like to incorporate various points of views in my stories. I feel like this keeps the story interesting. Including a found manuscript or a newspaper article are just a couple of ways to include a different point of view in a story. An author should also explore first person perspective and third person perspective to vary his or her stories. And finally, dialogue really brings a story to life. Dialogue is intimidating to many would-be authors. It is really not so difficult to write good dialogue as long as it reads like it is spoken. An author must write like people talk. People say things like “gotta” instead of “got to” and “goin’” instead of “going”. If a character has an accent then the author should strive to capture the accent in the dialogue. This will make the character more believable and bring them to life.

The final element I would like to discuss is a critically necessary element. If it is not present then the story is incomplete. Not only is the story incomplete, but it also flops miserably. I am referring to the twist at the end of the story. Where this tradition began is unknown but it is so necessary to master this element that if it is not done, a great story can be turned into a disappointment.

The thing to remember with the ending is that it must be delivered effectively. It can’t be hokey, either. The ending should leave the reader thinking about the ramifications and meaning of what they have just read. You want the ending to be a surprise to the reader. You also want the reader to walk away from the story feeling satisfied that they have read a great story.

Many times the author gives hints to how the story will end and this may result in the reader seeing the ending coming a mile away. The author must be very careful about giving the ending away too soon. It is O.K. to give hints that will lead the reader to the obvious conclusion as to the ending and then create a different ending that has a bigger twist and is an even bigger surprise. Whatever the case, the ending must be approached much like a good punch line to a joke. The better the punch line the better the joke and the better the twist at the ending of a short horror story the better the story will be. The ending must be the best part of the entire story.

Many of these elements are very obvious things. But I have been quite surprised in my readings at how frequently these standard items are poorly created or are left completely absent even by great authors. That is one of the reasons that I began a log of all the short horror stories I read. I incorporated a rating system of one to five stars depending on how much I like the story. I also write a brief synopsis of what I think about the story. Currently, I have read well over three hundred stories by various authors of various time periods. It was through this exercise that I recognized the key elements that are required to create a good short horror story.