Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Just Wrote a Novel and You're Never Going to See It


I just spent several months writing a ghost story, and it was a great experience for me. Here's what happened:

I started the story without the idea of making it scary--the ghost story was just intended to be a way to make the characters come together in a way that brought them back to their childhoods.

But as I wrote the story, it became obvious to me that the ghost story really needed more suspense than it had, so I started reading more horror novels to get some sense of how the pros build suspense. Then I went back and darkened the story significantly.

The end result, I think, was a much-improved story.

I then read "How Not to Write a Novel" (great book--highly recommended), and I identified several things I had done wrong. I won't list them here.

I went back and fixed those problems.

The story was even better as a result.

Then I sent out a passle of queries to agents and received the requisite form rejections, all the while reading a number of agent blogs and re-reading "How Not to Write a Novel."

I've stopped sending queries for this novel because I think I can do much better.

So now I'm working on a new novel.

Was it a waste of time? Absolutely not.

Did I give up too easily with my first novel? I don't think so.

Truth be told, the rejections were not crushing or heartbreaking, because even as I began sending them, I was beginning to see the flaws in the first novel.

Flaw #1: Married to the "Big Idea"

I had a great concept and expected it to carry the reader. But readers don't read novels for "big ideas." They read novels because the author has hooked them early on, created the necessary tension from the outset, and then played on that tension, augmented that tension, and twisted that tension until the reader simply can't put the book down.

Flaw #2: Way Too Linear

Most of my story built logically to one possible conclusion. And while the conclusion itself was cool, it's not realistic to expect a reader to plod through a few hundred pages towards a foregone conclusion, no matter how clever the plodding is.

Flaw #3: I Wimped Out

Since I didn't start out writing a scary book, I made the mistake of choosing a genre (supernatural fiction) which doesn't really scare me. To borrow from Ray Parker, Jr., "I ain't afraid of no ghost." And since ghosts don't scare me, the end result was not adequately frightening.

So, what scares me? Human cruelty scares me. Phooey on the dead and undead as far as I'm concerned: It's the living you need to worry about.

Flaw #4: My characters were too easily stereotyped

Now, I had written my characters with the intent of defying the stereotypes in interesting ways. Since you'll never see this novel, I can tell you: It's the homeless crackhead who ends up finding himself and saving the day.

But since the characters look like stock characters at the outset (even though they don't turn out to be that way by the end of the story), it just wasn't possible to get the reader on-board and take them on the journey.

So, as I said, I'm writing another novel, and I'm taking a radically diffferent approach.

New Approach #1: Microtension

It's a lot slower writing this way. Rather than envisioning a "cool scene" and sailing through it, I am now constantly racking my brains with the page-by-page action and torturing myself with the question: "Okay, that wasn't bad, but how can I raise the tension here? Not set up some 'big picture' future tension--but raise the tension in this scene, with these characters, at this moment?"

New Approach #2: Get a Little Twisty

I have a clear picture of how this story ends, but getting there is becoming a more interesting process fraught with hazards. As I increase the tension in each scene, other twists, turns, and dark notes keep presenting themselves. My characters keep getting darker and more complex, and the dangers they face seem to keep growing.

New Approach #3: Be Cruel to Be Kind

I've pushed myself into a dark corner--my opening chapter depicts an especially surreal and disturbing scene. Since this raises the bar in terms of where the story must now lead, I have not allowed myself the luxury of ending with a whimper. And since I am now writing about something that actually scares me instead of indulging in supernatural "what-ifs," I don't have the easy out of mere cleverness to get me through each scene.

New Approach #4: Characters without Labels

From a "type" perspective, the characters all exist in fairly similar circumstances. It is only their words, attitudes, and behaviors that differentiate them. There aren't easy short-cut labels that allow me the ease of falling into stock characterizations.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Interesting Workshop Notes

Daniel Steven ( teaches mystery/suspense writing workshops in Bethesda, MD. If you live in that part of the country, his website might be worth checking out.

For those of us who live in other parts of the country and/or lack the resources to attend the workshop, I found these handouts from his website while Googling for suspense writing techniques. Obviously you're missing most of the benefit by looking at the worksheets without the actual workshop, but I nonetheless found the sheets to be interesting and helpful in their own right:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven

Friday, March 27, 2009

Punching Up Forever Odd

As I work to learn the various techniques used by authors to create suspense, I find myself reading a lot more horror these days than I have ever done before. This reading gives me useful ideas about how authors make their stories scary.

Most of the time, I just find myself taking mental notes of techniques used. Occasionally, however, I find myself wishing that an author had done certain things to make the story scarier.

Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series offers a fine range of such techniques. However, his second book, Forever Odd, left me with the feeling that much more could have been done to raise the stakes and get the blood pulsing faster.

At the risk of being incredibly presumptuous, I am going to discuss some of the things I would have liked to have seen in this particular book that I believe would have enhanced the suspense.

SPOILER ALERT: The following discussion reveals essential plot elements of Forever Odd and may significantly reduce the impact of the novel to those who have not yet read it. If you plan to read Forever Odd, I encourage you to read the novel in its entirety before reading the rest of this post.

Punch-up Suggestion #1: Don't make it so easy to figure out who will live and who will die.

By the time Odd Thomas enters the storm tunnels in pursuit of the villains who are holding his friend captive, the reader already has a pretty clear idea as to who will survive and who will not.

1) Odd Thomas won't die. Well, he might die in the traditional sense, but we know that he will remain a sentient storyteller--which is as good as being alive for our purposes--because the story is told in the first person with Odd as the narrator.

2) Danny won't die. He can't for two basic reasons: (1) He is the story's "object of altruism," the "damsel in distress," as it were, and the whole point of Odd's pursuit is to rescue him from the captors. (2) Danny's character has not been imbued with enough moral ambiguity to give the reader the sense that his death might have a literary justification.

3) The villains will die. Or if they don't die, at least they will be stopped.

Two possible solutions to this problem occur to me. The first solution is to have Odd go into the tunnel with another sympathetic character rather than alone (i.e., someone whom the reader will believe might die). The other solution is to find some way to add some gray area to Danny's character, make him less a pure paragon of friendship and more a complex human being earlier in the tale.

The bottom line is that the reader needs to believe that someone other than the villains are in real peril, and I do not believe that this is adequately established when Odd enters the storm drain.

Punch-up Suggestion #2: Raise the friendship stakes.

We know that Danny is a childhood friend of Odd. We know that he has a disability which makes his kidnapping a physically excruciating experience. We know that Odd and Danny traded some fantasy cards when they were kids. Beyond that, we don't know nearly enough about Danny's personality to bond with him until Odd actually reaches the destination.

Achieving this character coloration would not have been difficult to do. As he follows the trail, Odd might recall incidents and conversations from their lives that would give the reader a stronger sense about why Danny is a character we should care about.

Punch-up Suggestion #3: Raise the villain stakes.

Aside from two anonymous phone calls, we don't have much insight into the prime villain until Odd Thomas reaches the destination. Since the villain's primary motivation is to lure Odd Thomas into her trap, why not let her toy with him in the tunnel as he makes his way to the destination? This could have been achieved quite easily with a few spray-painted messages on the tunnel walls and the meaningful placement of some occult-related items along the way.

Punch-up Suggestion #4: Show us the cat.

We know that there is some animal lurking around, because we've seen the paw prints in the tunnel and in the destination. And at a critical moment in the story, the cat appears at a fortuitous time and saves the day.

But before that happens, it would have been nice if the cat could have posed a more direct peril to Odd Thomas, and it would have been even nicer if Odd Thomas, presented with an opportunity to kill the cat, had chosen not to do so.

Then, when the cat finally saves the day, the event itself would carry some poetic justice and moral weight.

And finally...

Not a "Punch Up Suggestion," but just a "gimme"

One of the henchmen has a taser, and we find his body in the tunnel. It would have been nice if something creative could have been done with the taser and the plastic explosive that appears later in the story. It just seems a shame to let a perfectly good supply of plastic explosive go to waste, especially when you can use a taser to set it off.

Tasers combined with plastic explosives--that's almost as good as having sharks with freakin' lasers on their heads!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Overlooked Detail

I first came across this technique while reading The Exorcist (being a horror wimp, I nearly always read the book before I subject myself to the movie). In that book, an interesting little thing occurs early in the story. Reagan is already beginning to show the early symptoms of her possession, but the thing has not yet blossomed into full flower.

The author (Peter Blatty) makes passing reference to the fact that there is a book on the bookshelf in the downstairs study. I don't even recall the exact topic of the book, although I believe it has something to do with supernatural phenomena.

At one point, the author simply states that the book in question is now missing from the bookshelf, and he ends with the words: "Nobody noticed."

In Stephen King's Misery, a similar thing happens when the trapped author ventures out of his room while his captor is away from the house. It's a very dangerous thing for him to do, since she will undoubtedly do something horrible to him if she discovers that he has trespassed outside of his allowed space in the house.

He makes it back into his room well before her return, and he is congratulating himself on "getting away with it." But as he re-enters his room, his wheelchair scrapes against the door, leaving a tell-tale mark on the door. We know that the mark is there, and we know that she will find it. But our hero remains completely unaware that he has left this crucial clue behind.

This notion of the crucial overlooked detail is useful because it reveals the chinks in the hero's/heroine's armor and gives the reader the sense that the hero/heroine is more vulnerable than s/he fully appreciates.

Nobody Is Innocent

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of this principle, the idea that every character in a story carries their own dark secrets, their own special form of guilt. Who can forget the opening sequence in Psycho as Janet Leigh's character drives through the rain, plagued with second thoughts about the $40,000 she has just embezzled from the bank where she works, second thoughts about the wisdom of running off with the married man she has been having an affair with?

In Peter Straub's Ghost Story, there is an entire club of men who carry around the hidden secret of a crime they committed in their youth.

In The Shining, Jack Torrance is racked with misgivings about his inability to control his temper, and his wife is racked with guilt over the thought that she hasn't provided Danny with the stability and safety that every mother feels her child deserves.

This notion of guilt is an effective tool for several reasons. (1) It allows the author to rake up all sorts of uneasy feelings within the character's internal monologues, (2) It draws in the reader, as they sympathize with the internal struggles and moral dilemmas faced by the characters, and (3) It creates vulnerability within the character, the sense that they may not be immune from some form of harsh future judgment and punishment.

The Warning Shot

One very effective technique I've seen in some horror novels is something I'll refer to as the "warning shot." (Since I'm a bit of a neophyte to this genre, I'll probably be making up the terminology as I go along.)

This technique is a fairly simple one, but it seems to work wonders in establishing the tone of things to come, and it has the effect of raising the tension level in the story, even if the current action itself is not (yet) terrifying. It works like this:

Very early in the story, the author presents the reader with a flashback or with the memory of some horrific event which, although it may not actually be integral to the direct plot of the story to come, sets the bar in terms of the author's "limits" and sets the expectation within the reader that he or she is in for some strong medicine.

Perhaps the best example I've seen of this technique occurs in the opening chapters of Dean Koontz's thriller "Intensity." After a brief prologue in which we see the killer standing on a hillside savoring the horror to come, we join two college students, Laura Templeton and Chyna Shepherd, as they speed along the curving back-roads on their way to spend a weekend at the home of Laura's family.

Laura is an impatient driver, and she pulls up close behind a slow driver on the road. This event triggers a traumatic memory from Chyna's past, which she relates to Laura in detail.

In relating this story from the past (a horrific episode in which a drug-addled sociopath--and the boyfriend of Chyna's mother--runs an elderly couple off the road, causing their car to sink into murky waters as the hapless victims press against their car windows helplessly), Koontz is in effect firing a warning shot across the reader's bow. The episode itself is so disturbing (and so vividly wrought) that the reader is left with a complete dread of what is to come.

The girls reach the Templeton home with no problems, and Chyna is treated as part of their extended, loving family. The house is a comfortable, inviting place in the Napa Valley. The food is delicious. But the vivid imagery of Chyna's horrific flashback (coupled with the prologue that tells us a killer is waiting in the hills), leaves the reader with the powerful feeling that this entire bucolic scene is about to be shattered horribly.

Which, of course, it is.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Thing in the Window

I haven't been a big reader of horror until fairly recently, so some of the stuff I post here will no doubt seem very basic to experienced readers and writers of suspense. But I've got to start somewhere, so we'll begin with the "Thing in the Window."

I've noticed that this technique appears with some regularity in the few books I've read over the past few weeks, and it works something like this:

The hero/heroine is alone in a house (preferably some place where they feel especially vulnerable and where their own privacy is usually assumed). There's some business with the hero/heroine worrying over some earlier development in the story or perhaps some disturbing aspect of their past--a relationship gone bad, whatever.

As the protagonist is going about their business, fretting over whatever it is they are fretting over, they are also engaged in some mundane activity (preparing for a bath, making tea, toweling off the dog after a lonely walk in the rain), when they are suddenly overcome by some vague, bone-chilling, sense of dread. They are overpowered by the uncanny terrifying sense that something is watching them, something malevolent, something evil.

The protagonist chances to look up at the bathroom window (or the kitchen window, or the bedroom window), and there it is! A dimly-defined face expressing malice, or hatred, or agony, or some other unpleasant, disturbing emotion.

Then it's gone! Just like that.

And for the rest of the story, we repeatedly find ourselves in situations where one of two things happens:

1) The thing pops up again, or
2) The protagonist is in another situation where the thing might pop up again, and it doesn't. But the protagonist keeps worrying about whether it will pop up again, what it means, etc. So even if it doesn't pop up this time, we are left with the unsettling sense that it might at any time.