The Less You Know, the More You Tremble

I write this in defiance of a friend of mine. She says “Paul, you and I have different levels of tolerance for horror. I like far scarier things than you do.”

She lies. She likes a certain type of horror. If it’s not thrashing about, blood everywhere, heads turning and vomiting, it’s not her type of horror. I do not appreciate this type of horror. It also relies on a level of shock and awe. Anyone can shock and awe. It takes little effort. A monster jumps out of the shadows and eats someone we liked. Or, you know, King Joffrey orders someone loses their head at whim and GRRM has stolen another beloved character from us. I rank the little brat right up there with Aliens vs Predator. But GRRM, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and anyone else who does suspense well, the other form of horror, approaches it very differently.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

I bring this up because of the game Don’t Starve. It’s an indie game that was released for free on the PS4 for PS Plus members. My friend laughed at it when the darkness killed her, after day one, and said it’s not scary to her. Well if I watch the first ten minutes of a horror flick, it’s generally a soft core porn. So no, day one isn’t that scary.

How the game scares you after day one, along with all those writers mentioned, is the unknown. In the below clip there was strange music in the dead of night. I had played over 100 days and never heard it. What could it mean? What horror was coming? I convinced myself more and more this was normal. Everything was okay with the world. But I was wrong, and in the darkness, far off in the recesses of my mind, shadows formed and took shape. They stole the light of my sanity along with my campfire.

Dear friends, those hands were a terror unbeknownst to me. When they first appeared, I pondered if they were reaching for my small, delicious, cartoon flesh. Were those outstretched claws trying to claim me into the night? I would rather brave the farthest reaches of my campfire’s light then get close to those obfuscating digits, stealing the very soul of all I am and was on this alien planet full of frightening delights: fire and light. Light made the known, even late in the evening, and these tore that knowing from me.

Obviously horror writers use this all the time. The greatest horror movies, long ago when they were black and white, were entirely based on the unknown. Even when we knew, it was kept at the edge of our perception. We wondered if there was something else, something benign. Maybe we were wrong about the malice crawling up our spine. For the sake of the character, we hoped. But we were wrong.

Check out the other awesome artwork from this awesome deviant.
Check out the other awesome artwork from this awesome deviant. Along with the game in the other link provided.


What about other writing such as fantasy, science fiction, and romance?

Game of Thrones spoiler, when Ned was taken in front of the crowd, weren’t we all wondering what would happen? Weren’t we all terrified? We had a good idea of how it ended, but it couldn’t. Not to him. After GRRM proved he would kill anyone, every time we turned the page was a moment of heart stopping suspense. In an interview, GRRM says that was his goal, and he accomplished it by showing anyone can die or be maimed in any manner of ignoble ways.

You’re still wondering about how romance novels use this. I reached page fifty or so in such a novel when I put it down and stated I learned what I could from the book. I learned a lot. There was a woman who debated putting on her sexiest underwear, in the moment of incredible heartbreak, and lay upon a man’s bed, waiting for him to walk in. It was a page of her thinking this, and suddenly she does it. The entire time you’re thinking, “No, she’s too sensible for this!” She wasn’t.

Another page or two of her traveling to his house, breaking in, and laying in his bed, wondering what would happen. Was she going to regret this in the morning? What would happen when he walked through that door? Would there be sex!? It’s a romance novel. There had to be sex!

She’s about to leave out of shame when the light turned on. The next fifteen to twenty pages went into how they looked at each other, what they were thinking, their little nuances and physical interactions. All the while you’re thinking, “When do I get to the good stuff?!” Or even if they’ll get to the good stuff. Sexual tension is an incredible unknown. In the end, they didn’t have sex. They would later, but I learned more than I thought I would from the book and didn’t want to cheapen it.

Think about sexual tension as suspense, though. Think about the unknown of dating. I’m in the midst of it right now. It’s scary. Is she playing with her hair because she likes me or is bored? She touched me, that’s good, right? Did she just check out that other guy? Do I go in for a kiss on the first date, or is that rushing it? What’s she going to think when the only furniture in my apartment is a bed? I so should not have asked her over. It’s not the same, terror inducing suspense we think of. But trust me, your reader is on edge. We’ve all been there. Dates never go how you think they’re going to. The woman you thought was uninterested could just as easily end up waking up next to you. Or the interested one can just as easily slap you.

What I’m getting at is explore the unknown. This world is terrifying because we make it that way. Our imagination is a minefield of insecurities. Stop filling in every detail, stop thinking it needs to be in the horror genre. Give sparse details, make us realize anything is possible, and let the reader fill in the holes with their greatest fears. The audience will do most of the writing for you.

Balance in Writing

NarrativeControlProse is a delicate balance of dialogue, action, description, and narrative. Too much or too little of any of these, and you lose the balance and your reader gets board or frustrated and walks away. Thing is, every author creates his or her own balance. For instance, Frank Herbert has a massive amount of description in his writing, and comparatively little dialogue. However, Herbert’s description is fascinating. I’ve been told a number of times, and I have to agree, that while reading Herbert’s descriptions of the desert in Dune your mouth dries out and you start feeling hot. Compare this to Glen Cook, who has a lot of dialogue and action with relatively little description, or Clive Cussler, who has a lot of action and less description and dialogue, and it’s easy to feel more than a little confused about how writing actually works. Here’s the thing: the balance is your own, but the balance is still important.

balanceFirst of all, remember that you can’t please everyone. Every reader is going to like or dislike something different about your writing. Sometimes one reader will be bored with something another reader finds intriguing. Sometimes one reader will be put off by something another reader enjoys. I think I’ve said this before, but remember that while there are plenty of things that everyone agrees is bad writing, there is almost nothing that everyone agrees is good writing. I know people who scoff at Stephen King, look down their noses at Tolkien, and have nothing positive to say about Twain.

(Photo Credit)
(Photo Credit)

Second, remember that over-doing one thing is generally bad. Herbert can get away with massive amounts of description because Herbert’s description makes your mouth dry out and your eyes water. Chances are that you are not Frank Herbert, so don’t try to be. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write is a way that is comfortable to you. If you like description, be descriptive, but be aware of what is enough, and what is too much. Listen to people who read your work and give feedback instead of arguing with them (this is one of my biggest problems as a writer). However, as Kipling’s poem says ‘If all men count with you, but none too much’. You are not writing to an audience of one editor. I generally try to get multiple people to read what I write, and if one person brings up an issue I log it. If two people bring up the same issue, I listen. If three or more people bring up the same issue, then I know its something that needs to change.

Third, remember that none of the above should be non-existent in your writing. All the action and dialogue don’t matter if I have no idea where anyone is or what they look like. Beautiful descriptions are kind of pointless if no-one ever does anything. There are a few specific pieced that focus entirely on one or the other, but they tend to be both short and rare. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of skill to write even a short story that only includes one of the important components, and even these tend to include some form of the other components, just not a direct form.

Lastly, remember to vary your use of all of these components. If you only use still descriptions, people will get bored. If you only use living descriptions, people will get confused. Similarly, if your characters all talk the same, or if specific actions are always described in the same way, then your readers will get frustrated.

The key to writing well is to write. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, and don’t be afraid of writing badly. If you don’t like it, no one else has to read it, and if you show it to a few people and they don’t like it, then you can keep it to yourself. There are very few author’s whose first books are incredible, or even published for that matter. We have to practice, and we all start out writing badly. Instead of being afraid of that, use it.

A Matter of Responsiblity

You know the drill. Pass it on.

When I was seventeen years old, I hit two pedestrians with my car.  Now, this was ruled a no-fault accident.  It was 6:30 am in the middle of February on a cloudy day.  The road was quite misty, I was coming around a blind turn and my lights were on a yard instead of on the road, and the pedestrians were walking down the middle of the road in dark clothing.  There was no action that I could reasonably have taken to avoid the accident, other than not being behind the wheel of the car.  So, this accident was not my fault, but that lack of fault does not absolve me of responsibility.  If I had not been driving, the accident would not have happened.  If I had left later, the accident would not have happened.  My responsibility also does not absolve the pedestrians of their responsibility.  If they had left later, the accident would not have happened.  If they were not walking in the middle of the road, the accident would not have happened, etc.  However, this is a responsibility that I live with, because there were permanent consequences to my actions that day.

There is a lot more to this story, but my focus today is on the nature of responsibility.  We are responsible for our actions, and for the consequences of those actions – whether intended or unintended, and this is something that we should bear in mind both as people, and as writers.  If my action, or inaction, hurts another person (regardless of intent), then this is my responsibility, and I should take steps to mitigate that hurt (it is impossible to ‘right a wrong’ but it is possible to mitigate the harm done by a wrong).  This applies to any action, whether it involves a car, a relationship, a work of art, etc, and it is something that I have noticed a distinct lack of in the American people – both in our celebrities, our art, and in our everyday lives.

We can't start living up to our responsibilities until we start owning our mistakes. We must learn how and when to be the bad guy.

We have become a nation of people who insist that ‘it’s not my fault’ and ‘I can’t be held responsible for that’, and this affects our relationships, our work, our studies, and our entertainment.  As a professor, I can’t count the number of students who argue that they shouldn’t be responsible for the actions that led to their grade.  While I certainly bear a responsibility as the professor to inform them of class requirements, to post their grades in a timely manner, and give them feedback on what they need to improve; the student also bears a responsibility to fulfill those requirements, to act on that feedback, and to ensure that their work is finished in a timely manner.

In relationships, whether friendships or romantic, when I have done something to harm another it is my responsibility to make amends.  If I have harmed another unknowningly this responsibility is not absolved (although that person does have a responsibility to make me aware of the harm before I can make amends).  If my inaction hurts a friend or romantic partner, then it is my responsibility to make amends for that inaction, and in some cases, if my kindness will lead to greater harm, then it is my responsibility to be cruel (to be the bad guy) so that the harm done to my friend might be mitigated.  This same nature of responsibility applies to us as writers.

Words and images have power, and as writers and artists we must be aware of that power, and use it responsibly – and we must also take responsibility for the effect that our use of words and images has on others.  There is, and must be, a place for darkness in writing, as well as for graphic material (this is something that we have discussed before here and here).  However, we cannot control who reads our work.   If someone decides to read H.P. Lovecraft or Stephen King to a five year old, while the author cannot be held at fault, that author does bear some measure of responsibility for the inevitable damage this will do.  As artists we must take responsibility for the effect that our works have on others.  Just as a doctor, parent, or teacher must bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions, so we must take responsibility for the consequences of ours.  This is, and should be, a heavy burden on the mind of any artist – not just, ‘how will my work be received’, but ‘what effect will my work have on others’.

However, this responsibility cannot cause us to shy away from doing work that must be done.  If Schindler’s List had never been made, then it would be a great loss to the world.  If King, Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe had never written, then it would be a great loss to the world.  While we must take these things seriously, and understand the gravity of our words, we cannot allow the responsibility that they bear to force us to shy away from hard things.  Responsibility is a frightening thing.  It is uncomfortable, often painful, and rarely appreciated.  However, it is also profoundly needed, precisely because it is something that our culture has left behind.  I encourage all of you, and myself as well, to be careful with your writing, but do not be fearful.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – 😉 I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours.  One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write.  It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you.  You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it.  This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others.  The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing.  Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author.  Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive.  Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write.  If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail.  If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail.  This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong.  Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style.  J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose.  Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain.  David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc.  The key is that it is yours.  Remember that you can’t write like anyone else.  For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me.  Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do.  This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors.  They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing.  Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad.  Don’t let them change the way you write.  It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it.  Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.