End your novel with hope

A while back I mentioned in a post that I preferred my horror stories to end with hope. This actually applies to just about everything I read, with the exception of books that lay in the middle of a series. Right now this isn’t a very popular method, especially in horror. At the end of just about every movie I see, everyone is dead and the evil is unleashed upon the world.

Swell.

So, without getting too philosophical, I’ll explain my preference.

If there is no hope, than what is the point?

When I read, I am immersed in the world of the novel. I am fighting alongside the protagonist. I am suffering with the victims. I have something to lose. When the stakes are high, there should be losses, for sure. Kill those darlings and kill them brilliantly. Tear my heart out.

But if you then leave me devoid of any chance of redemption… well, then I’m just pissed I wasted my time reading your book only to be left depressed and hopeless.

Now, frequently this tactic is used to leave room for a sequel. I get it. But unless that is clear, (think the Dark Tower Series), I will likely not read another one of your books and I will not recommend it to anyone else.

That doesn’t mean everything has to be roses and sunshine at the end. No. The world can literally blow up and everyone is dead. But maybe, just maybe a life pod made it out… or a DNA arc, or freaking anything.

If you’re reading this and shaking your head and saying to yourself “She doesn’t get my vision. This is how my story HAS to end!” Then please ignore me. Because you are the Lord of your created world. You know better than anyone else, and you’re right. I won’t get it. I’m am not your ideal audience.

But if you feel like you have to end in total darkness because that’s what you’re seeing as being a successful ending to a story, I urge you to reconsider. End with just a note of hope, even if it’s in a bleak and burning hellscape. It will make a huge impact.

An Unlikeable Protagonist

I’ve been seeing alot of requests for this recently. We want a hero we don’t like but that we can root for.

Oh, awesome. Because that makes tons of sense and is super easy to pull off.

I have tons of real world experience to draw upon. I love rooting for people I don’t like. I go to political rallies for candidates I despise and shout “Woo! Yay for you! I hope you win you sick bastard!”

Seriously though, this kind of hero is showing up more and more in fiction and agents and readers are seeking it out. Why?

Writing a Mary Sue, who is perfect, sweet and likeable in every way is easy, and it, inadvertently has the opposite effect of what we, as writers are looking for. People don’t like someone who doesn’t have to struggle. They can’t relate. They roll their eyes when the extra awesome protagonist has trouble.

Writing a hero that isn’t particularly nice immediately raises that stakes. It sets the conflict on a internal level as well as external. Consider  But there is a fine line to walk. Even though the hero isn’t likeable, you want your reader to want them to succeed.

This is not to be confused with characters that are “morally bad” that we love anyway like Jay Gatsby or Tyrion Lanister. This is more along the lines of Sansa Stark or Sherlock Holmes. We don’t really want to be friends with them, but we want them to succeed.

But it’s a fine line to walk. You don’t want your character to be so disagreeable that your reader just can’t stand to stick around and find out how they succeed.

In “Fate of a Princess” my main character Princess Melandria is just awful at the beginning. In fact, she is so awful that beta readers didn’t want to read on and see what happens to her. I needed to go back and fix her up just a bit.

How do you pull this off? First off, they need a spark of something. Whether it’s just very interesting or a hope for greatness, this hook needs to come into play in your introductory chapter. Sometimes all you need is the foreshadowing that this character has some serious poop coming their way. Sometimes you need something more.

You want the villains they’re pitted against to fail. You really want them to fail. In Sansa’s case, the villans are really really awful. So even though she is a simpering little fool, easily mislead by pretty things, pitted against Joffery and Littlefinger, you want her to suceed by wising up and getting out. When Mr. Holmes makes a brilliant observation paired with a barb toward his long suffering bff, you grin and shake your head, because he is an ass, but he’s a brilliant ass who’s gonna stop a nefarious plot.

They can be dynamic or static. I like to think that Sansa is dynamic, but I’m still holding out to be sure. At some point, she’s going to have to grow up, realize that she needs to control her own destiny and see past the facades that seem to dazzle her so easily and acknowledge the good people who have tried to help her are not as posh and polished as the ones who have hurt her.

In Holmes case, remaining static is how he gets it done and any inkling of change is quickly dispelled as a momentary lapse. This works. We don’t want him to change, because then he may not be as competent or interesting. When writing your character, you will see what works for you in this regard.

The stakes need to be high. Since we already know Holmes is brilliant, the case needs to be completely baffling and full of false turns and certain disaster needs to be imminent if he does not succeed. This is where an unlikeable character becomes really interesting because, with all the bombs exploding outside, the deep flaws of the character are sure to get in the way too. Those flaws can be overcome, they can be put on hold or they can used as strengths.

It’s a challenge for a writer. It can require serious planning, but the payoff is so much more rewarding when you succeed.

Who’s your favorite unlikable protagonist?

The Rules of Ghosts

After a break last week, I thought I would come back with something a little different. Instead of giving you tips on how to write, I’m going to share what to write if you are writing about ghosts. I am well researched in any number of topics, but ghosts have been a passion of mine since I was a little one. What I have below are the generally accepted “facts” based on various research.Featured image

One of my biggest peeves in horror is when the rules are completely discarded. They are very flexible rules. The topic has pretty much limitless loopholes, but, as with any subject, there are some parameters. If you’re working from a purely fantastical horror place, by all means, make up your own rules, but if you want your ghost story to have an air of authenticity (ie, something your readers can research and scare the hell out of themselves finding out that this shit is documented!!!) here are a few things to consider.

  • Ghost use Energy

What does this mean? Well, as you eat food to function, ghosts use energy. They can get this from water and electricity. Ghost hunters will frequently time their investigations to coincide with thunder storms. Mills and buildings by water sources can be ripe with activity as are ships. Haunted houses often have electrical problems.

Or… They can draw their energy from people. A spirit can siphon energy away from a living human, leaving them drained, and causing health problems. Spooky, right?

  • Not as hauntings are human

We don’t have to jump right to demons in order for this to be creepy. On the lower end of the spook scale we have residual hauntings (imprints that have been left on a space, like a video recording that sometimes plays) and elemental hauntings (if you want to get really out there). On the higher end there are poltergeists and shadow people.

  • Ouija can bite you in the ass

Oh yeah, it’s a cliche, but it is for a reason. Not every innocent slumber party seance can result in unspeakable terror, but when you cast a line out into the abyss, you don’t know what you’re pulling back. woooooooo!

  • Ghosts are people too

Not every supernatural encounter is with an evil murderer who wants to steal your life force. How many of those people do you encounter on a regular basis? The rules would be the same for ghosts. Sometimes a terrifying encounter is only terrifying because a person doesn’t understand where it’s coming from. A beloved deceased grandpa might knock a vase off a shelf if its the only way to get the attention of the person he wants to reach out to.

  • They can do it

Depending on their intentions a ghost can do just about anything you fear they might do, but it will require a significant amount of energy, so if the ghost in your story is going to shove a person down the steps, manifest in the dark hallway, or warn a family that their house is on fire, there is generally a precursor. Flickering lights, electric storm, or a family feeling drained and lethargic.

Sweet Dreams!

Sketches from my stories

Blogging from a phone today so I thought I would just share some recent work I’ve done. The first is the Princess Melandria, from “the Fate of a Princess “. The other is a victim of the black crawl, from “The Silent Apocalypse”.

Sometimes sketching out what I see in my head allows me to write more accurate descriptions.Princess image

Where do you get your ideas?

If you are a writer you have heard this question. I used to struggle with answering it. Ideas for stories are a dime a dozen. They are all around you, and even more so, they are so prevalent within you, they overflow, right out of you into a page.

Then one day I was talking with my mom about my son and his insatiable curiosity. From the moment he wakes up in the morning to the moment he falls asleep at night, he is full of questions. Some of them are reasonable. Why do I have to go to bed? Are we going to the park today? Can I have a cookie?

Some of them make no sense. Will the electricity come out of the outlet and chase me? If I fly up to the roof will I find an elephant up there?

It be exhausting answering these questions all day. My mom commiserated. When I was the age my son is now, I was full of questions too. Many of mine started with “What if…?”

What if there is a tiger under my bed? What if a unicorn came out of the TV into the living room? What if all my socks disappeared? What if our house had no windows? What if a monster is waiting in my closet?

It dawned on me then. At the heart of every idea is this question that I have been asking since I was three years old.

What if?

What if a nomad encountered a singing cat? What if someone inadvertently cut a hole into a hell realm? What if a spoiled selfish princess was the only person who could save her kingdom?

It all starts there. A spark of an idea and a question of what would happen if it came to be.

It’s so simple. A natural curiosity. An urge to work out a solution for improbable situations. What if?

So where do you get your ideas?

When a story writes itself

I have spent many nights glaring at a computer screen typing and deleting the same paragraph, willing my characters to move, trying to force a story to happen. Every writer has. When it happens, sometimes you might be lucky and some read-overs can compel your hands, or a google search can make the story lurch forward a few more paragraphs, but frequently the best thing to do it just move onto a different project for a bit. Or go watch a Buffy re-run (fun fact, Buffy re-runs can trigger brainstorming).

The absolute worst is when a story has been pouring out smoothly since conception, you have a solid ending in mind (or a great outline if you’re the organized type) and you come to a screeching halt. Then, sometimes the only way to get through it is to fight through, hacking out every single line until you can get it going again. Nearly every story reaches this point, where the muse takes off and its just you, trying to force your way through to a point where you know the inspiration will pick up again.

Except, every once in a while, you find the golden goose of stories. The one you have apparently had within you, from conception to completion, your whole life. You find the story that writes itself.

On my hard drive there are 344 word docs with stories in various stages of completion. Seven of them are completed. Five of them I fought like hell to finish. Two stories, two beautiful stories wrote themselves. One is my most recently completed first draft, that is files under “The Silent Apocalypse” and the other is the one I will be publishing to kindle some time this year (fall, we’re hoping for fall) “The Fate of a Princess”.

They are radically different stories. “The Fate of a Princess” is a lighter, YA fairy tale, sword and sorcery type about an entitled brat of a princess who finds herself cast into the role of a potential hero and savior. “The Silent Apocalypse” is an adult horror story about a mysterious plague and the three people who carry different pieces to it’s source and demise. They have very little in common except that they wrote themselves.

And I really liked them when I read the first draft back to myself.

Can I say I like my own writing sometimes? I think when the story writes itself I can. Because when you read it over you find how perfectly the pieces of story fits together, without your planning or prior knowledge. You notice how the little off hand clues and details you sprinkled into the beginning later play out to be something perfectly significant that you never excepted. It’s almost like reading someone else’s work. Your story surprises you. You read it and think, “Oh man, I don’t think I’m this brilliant.” And then you lean back and start to wonder if there really is a muse.

A story that writes itself doesn’t mean you never have to research. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to plan. It doesn’t mean you won’t have to edit and re-write (a lot). It just means it all comes together so fluidly and so tightly and you find any missing pieces with ease. Plot problems are easily resolved and the story never stops moving as long as you are willing to sit down and type it.

If you haven’t yet written this book, (or had it written for you?) don’t lose hope. It is there. It is waiting and when it finally pours out of you onto the screen, you will revel in what a joy it can be to be a writer.

What Stephen King taught me about writing stories

My first Stephen King book was “Carrie” as the tender young age of eleven. As a life long horror lover, I had spent elementary school burning through every R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike, and real life ghost story book I could find at the library. It was time for the next step and my mom, a King fan herself, had been anxiously awaiting the day when she felt I was old enough to be introduced to her favorite horror author.

I remember consuming “Carrie”, eyes wide, gaping at the naked, awful tale of teenage bullying, abuse and inevitable retribution. I knew I had entered into the world of adult horror and from there I devoured every King book I could get my hands on (and that I was allowed to read. However liberal, my mom did hold out on giving me a few of the more adult books).

The first forms of art are imitation. The artist (or writer) takes a while to find their own voice. My earliest manuscripts have sloppy styling of Stephen King all over them. Over time I have found my own voice, but just as a child continues to speak the phrases and hold onto the morals of their parents when they grow into adults, a writer retains the lessons they learned from their favorite writers.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from the man who introduced me to the world of adult horror, and who remains the master of the genre to this very day.

Be as weird as you want

As an adolescent struggling with an exceedingly weird and creative mind in a sea of people who seemed to know innately how to be normal reading the internal dialogue of King’s heroes was like meeting a kindred spirit.

Blaine the train is insane. Dada chee?

It was funny, it was dark and it was weird and I loved it. Not only did I love it, but so his billions of fans. So much so that they all devoured his books too. Here was a man who not only embraced his weird, but let it spill out all over his pages, and people loved him for it.

So it’s taken some time, but now if I have the inclination to get truly strange in my stories I pursue it full force. Writers are weird. Lets just embrace that.

Know when the rules can be broken

King injects back story into his pages as he finds it relevant. he injects it as a recollection, a dream, an irritation, an explanation.

His heroes are not always likeable. Sometimes his villains are.

He uses prologues when he wants to.

He gives no fucks. He knows what works for his stories and he knows when the “writing rules” will get in the way of what he wants his readers to know.

Keep Humanity at the core

Whether we’re in another realm or another time or Derry, the theme of the story is humanity in it’s many awful and beautiful forms. It is humanity that gives depth to his books, the stories and characteristics and fears and hopes and struggles of his human characters as they deal with the horror in the world around them.

The mind is as scary as the monsters

Many of King’s scariest stories have no supernatural element to them at all. “Gerald’s Game” (one of those books I wasn’t allowed to read when I was younger) takes place almost entirely in the mind of the protagonist, so much so that when she is faced with the very human “monster” she is unsure of whether he is even real.

Many of his character take you through their decent into insanity. They suffer from repressed memories of abuse, they suffer from addiction. They are literally just freaking insane. And its terrifying because of the last point. They’re human and you can relate to them.

History is flexible

So the world ended in 1978 with Captain Trips. Then it ended again in the 90’s when Jake and Roland wandered through a different version of New York. It ended with mists. It ended with nuclear apocalypse. It ended and changed and ended some more and somehow, the fabulous Mr. King managed to tie all of it together and make it work in The Dark Towers series and even a bit in “The Talisman”. You don’t have to stick to the facts, but know them and make them work for you and if you’re going to change history, make it work.

Pop culture ages well in fiction

This one requires a special touch. King has been criticized for referencing pop culture in his books but he makes it work. How? he sets the date in his story. He knows that a story can take place in 1984 and still be relevant in 2015. In fact, those little details, the movies the characters go to see, the music they’re listening to, the cars they’re driving after, they mean something to readers. They wink at those who are immersed in the culture of the time, who lived during the time. And what’s more, when he makes little shifts to them (Nozz-a-la any one?) they feel like a little inside joke we’ve got with him.

Write what you know

Why are so many of King’s protagonists writers? Why do so many of his stories take place in Maine? Why do so many of his characters struggle with substance abuse? Because King calls upon one of the cardinal rules of writing and makes it his signature. He knows Maine like the back of his hand. He knows the weird mind of a writer. He goes as far as to inject himself into his stories and make his experiences part of them.

This is a basic rule, but there is nothing basic in how Stephen King pulls this off. Even when he’s in the story, he makes it about the character, the people, the terror. His stories do not appear to be written about himself (a rookie move that my earlier stories suffer from) but they have his life and his innate knowledge all over them.

That is what makes them authentic. That is what makes them terrifying.

What have your favorite authors taught you about writing?

Editing without an Editor

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I do not recommend this. A good editor is like a fairy godmother. With a wand of a pen, they slash run on sentences, illuminate plot holes and turn the pumpkin that is your story into the carriage that is fit to ride to the publishers.

And that is why they are not cheap.

If you are limited in funds, however, you can still polish your book to a shine. You just need alot of motivation and a thick skin (to be fair, you need a thick skin to be a writer anyway).

1. First edit

Print out a draft of your novel, sit down with a red pen and play English teacher. This is more effective if you’ve taken some time after completing the draft. Keep a notepad with you while you slash and scribble and read and make notes of any plot holes, any ideas for strengthening the story and any character development. Make sure you note any inconsistencies that are bound to show up along the way.
Then go back to your file and make the changes. Run a spell check when your done.

2. Beta Readers

Send your second draft to readers you trust. People you know will give you an honest and constructive review of your work so far. Do your best to choose readers who are well read in your genre. These can be friends or family members but keep in mind that if they like you they may not be as objective as you would like.
If they give it back to you (which is a big if in my experience), go over their notes and suggestions and decide what is helpful, what is not, and keep in mine that YOU are the writer. They may have some great ideas, but you are not obligated to take any of them. What you are looking for here is more of an overall impression on what does and doesn’t work for your story from a reader’s perspective.

3. Review boards

There are numerous pages and forums dedicated to sharing work between authors to get objective, professional opinions. I love the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror where you get review points that allow you to upload your work, chapter by chapter. I have gotten excellent feedback on my chapters and found some authors that I have established a good back and forth with. Another that uses an incentive system is Critters Writers Workshop.

There are many others but prepare yourself if you haven’t done it before. No one is more critical of writing than another writer. And at this point in your editing process, that is exactly what you want. Most author reviewers will be respectful but not gentle so thicken that skin up and be prepared to feel like your draft sucks. Then get over it and really read their suggestions. Some of them will not mesh with what you are going for. Some of them will provide that light bulb moment that gives you what your story was lacking. The more you do it, the more you will know how to discern between the two.

4. Other resources

There are apps, articles, magazines, blogs and books. There are local workshops and writing conferences. Do not let yourself off the hook. Anticipate the bad reviews and get ahead of them. Know that there will always be readers who don’t love your work. Just be sure that when those readers vocalize their feelings on it, you can be assured it is because the story wasn’t right for them and not because the story wasn’t right.

Have you self edited? What tactics and resources have worked for you in the past?