Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Writing Horror and Suspense

One of my new friends on Facebook recently wrote me asking for advice on writing horror. She wrote:

I see you're a horror writer. Do you have any advice for me, when writing particular scenes for horror? As far as gore/suspense, descriptions/emotions, etc...

Writing horror/suspense: When writing horror, don't hold back. Tap into your deepest, darkest imagination and write whatever your imagination gives you. Avoid censoring yourself. I've written some pretty twisted scenes and thought: I can't let anybody read this. The violence is just too brutal. But then people would read it and say they loved the scene.

I enjoy writing and reading fiction that originates from truth. When I say “truth” I mean that the scene was written from the writer’s heart. There’s a great distinction between stories written from an idea and those written from an author’s heart. The way to tell the difference is a story written from a writer’s heart evokes feelings in you when you read it. So in the case of writing horror, which explores darker themes, the genre attracts readers who want the writer to give us everything he or she has within her. As you type words across your computer screen, unleash whatever's clawing to get out. At the core of good protagonists and evil villains is a darkness driven by fear. Readers of horror can relate to fear, because we all have inner demons that we battle from time to time.

Suspense is putting a character into a situation where the reader knows danger is present. Example: a cop enters a house where a serial killer is hiding. All the lights are out. The cop finds a mutilated body, and it’s his partner. The dead man’s face has been skinned off. We might already know the killer likes to peal off the faces of his victims and wear them as masks. Now the cop has tracked down the killer to his lair. Every second the cop is exploring that house, we're on the edge of our seats, wondering when the killer is going to leap out of the shadows. We can ratchet up the suspense as our hero discovers a basement where shelves are lined with mannequin heads, each one draped with shrivled skin masks staring at our hero with hollow eyes and twisted grimaces. The more we learn how dangerous the killer is, the more suspenseful the scene gets.

Describing violence and gore: As far as gore goes, that's a matter of taste. Horror includes a whole spectrum from psychological horror (with very little gore) to splatter punk (graphic gore and violence - Brian Keene's zombie novels are great examples). So write gore according to your taste. Extremely gory novels attract a certain group of readers and tend to repel others. So, again, write horror the way you love to read it.

Writing descriptions: If you're writing suspense, keep descriptions to a minimum so you can keep the action driving at a fast pace. I describe settings in short paragraphs, then I start the action or dialogue. I generally interweave descriptions with the action. In SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I have a platoon take refuge in an abandoned Catholic church that's suffered a lot of war damage. I don't describe the church all at once. I give a brief description when the soldiers first reach the church. Then I describe a little more and a little more, as the soldiers explore the church with their flashlights. At some point the reader puts it all together and sees the big picture. When describing a setting, feed the reader a little at a time, so the setting becomes its own mystery--a place full of wonderful discoveries and hidden darkness.

We don't have to describe every detail. I like to allow the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. Buildings like churches, castles, mansions, hospitals create their own image. If it's a minor scene, I'll just say my character entered a Catholic church. I describe more the action happening within the scene rather than paint the setting. When you allow the reader to use his imagination, in a sense you and the reader are co-creating the scene together in the reader's mind.

Writing emotions: Your ultimate goal is to evoke emotions in your readers and have them fall in love with your characters. But you can't contrive emotions or the scene will feel flat or trite. I first create characters that I, myself, fall in love with and care about. Then whatever happens to them evokes emotions in me. When I write dramatic scenes or scary scenes or action scenes where my protagonist is running for his life, I have to feel what's happening. I drum up those feelings of anger, fear, sadness, love, lust, and then write what my character is feeling. This happens naturally when I get into the story and I'm in tune with my character. The love scenes between my leading man and lady are by far the most fun to write. :) Again, don't hold anything back. Write about people you love and then write whatever you're feeling as they face conflicts with antagonists who will do everything in their power to stop the protagonists from achieving what they most desire.

I wish to thank Elizabeth H. from Syracuse, NY, for enquiring. I hope this helps.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Writing, writing, writing!

This week I've been writing feverishly on my next novel, DEAD OF WINTER. I've started getting up between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. each morning. I rouse myself out of bed, blend a chocolate-banana smoothie, and off I go. I write for a couple hours before going to work my day job as a video editor.

It feels great to be back in the flow of writing. My muse had been on a vacation for a couple months (I think she went to Tahiti) and I barely got much written. Sometimes I go through periods where I get too caught up with other activities that fiction writing falls to the back burner. Now that my muse is back and stoking the fires of my imagination, I'm getting closer and closer to completing my second novel.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dare to Dream and Make It Happen

Working your dream job takes courage, commitment, and tenacity. When that dream doesn't earn you money right away, it’s easy to get discouraged. You might question whether following this career is worth the effort. It seems like a huge mountain to climb. And there are no immediate rewards in sight. I say start climbing anyway. Just go for it. There are rewards at every level. Start doing what you love now and the money will one day follow.

Since beginning my path as a novelist, I faced a lot of hurdles. It took eighteen years before I began earning money as a fiction author. I could have been successful much earlier, but several times I gave up on myself. I took advice from people who only looked at the practical side of life. They didn’t strive beyond their comfort zones. They didn't see the point of me writing manuscript after manuscript and not getting paid for all the hours I spent typing at a computer, alone by myself. So those people became voices in my head that slowly, over time sapped my passion to continue. I quit climbing the mountain to my dream. I focused on working other jobs that actually paid a salary. I was making money, but inside a part of me felt empty, and it was only when I got back into writing in my mid thirties and pursuing my real dream--being a published author--that I was happy again. My dream stood before me like a giant mountain, so daunting I feared I could never reach the summit, but I started climbing anyway.

I had the fortune of meeting bestselling author Robert Crais at a book signing. He had just landed a huge Hollywood movie deal for his novel Hostage which stars Bruce Willis. I told Robert Crais that I was writing a novel and I wanted to be sitting where he was one day. He looked up from autographing a book and told me, “Then I’ll give you some advice. Never give up.” Those words stuck with me. I have since rephrased the motto to: “Never give up. Keep climbing until you reach your goal. No matter what, stay persistent.” We can spend our whole lives making excuses, or we can start taking action now and just make it happen.

So I had a dream fueled by plenty of desire, but I still needed direction. I first listed my values. I asked myself, “What do I want most? What’s most important to me about my dream career?” I listed my values in simple words like: achievement, fun, seeing my books on bookstore shelves, sharing my writing with readers, receiving advances and royalty checks, hanging out with other writers, writing a bestselling novel, etc. And then I listed those values in order of importance. Prioritizing your values is key, because it causes your mind to focus on what’s most important to you. You feel an emotional boost. It empowers you and stokes your inner fire. Then as you begin taking steps toward doing what you love, you take the most important steps first.

Once I had my values listed, I had a new sense of purpose. A vision I could work toward. It was like filling my engine with rocket fuel. I was ready to blast off to a career that was more aligned with my truth. I posted my values on a wall so I’d see them every day. Then I wrote out specific goals, and chunked them down into small daily “action steps” I could accomplish easily. I continued writing, pushing myself daily, weekly, monthly to complete my manuscript. I read books on my craft and took classes so I could get better at it. I read books about other people’s success stories so I could believe that I could accomplish my goals, too. And I read about the publishing business. As a writer seeking to publish my novel with a major NY publisher, I needed a literary agent. I submitted query letters to countless agents over the span of ten years and received only rejection letters. At the time I felt like a failure, but I wasn’t. “Rejection,” as I later learned, is just a guiding post. Rejection guided me away from the wrong paths—the wrong people to do business with. In my vision, my literary agent was passionate about representing me and my books. Rejection is where a lot of people give up. I say, “Never give up. Keep climbing until you reach your goal. No matter what, stay persistent.”

I eventually self-published my first novel, just to get it out there on the market. More important, to make being an author more real for me. Being your own publisher can be a very time-consuming venture. It was also a huge financial investment. It’s not necessarily the path for all writers, because it requires a business sense and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s also a very high risk of ever seeing a profit. If you don’t mind taking risks and hard work, then I recommend self-publishing as an alternative to getting a book to the market. For me, self-publishing is how I jump-started my career.

Within nine months my novel went from polished manuscript to a soft-cover book I could hold in my hands. Through great marketing efforts in tandem with a publicist I hired, the book sold relatively well. I began to do book signings and realized I had achieved one of my goals: to be like Robert Crais, the author autographing books. It was an awesome feeling.

When you pursue your dream 100%, there can be wonderful surprises that happen along the way. My WWII novel Shadows in the Mist hit number one on Amazon.com’s Bestselling Mystery and Thrillers list, stayed there a couple hours, beating out Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. That was very surreal, let me tell you, and a victory I would have never experienced had I given up.

Self-publishing turned out to be a great way to launch my career, but it was always just a path toward my bigger dream of landing a book deal with a major NY publisher. I continued to pursue literary agents and eventually found an agent who catapulted my career to the next level. She sold Shadows in the Mist to Berkley/Penguin in New York for a mass paperback deal, as well as to a publisher in Germany. In 2010, a German version of my novel will release in Europe. Within two years of self-publishing I became an international author. What was once a passionate hobby has finally become a career I take seriously. When you focus on your dream daily, you get there little by little. In fact, that has become a mantra in my head: “Little by little, little by little, little by little …”

We all have a calling. A life purpose. A reason we came onto this planet. What brings you joy? What do you dream of doing as your career? We can spend our days living mundane lives or we can do what gives us joy. My calling is novel writing and inspiring others to pursue their dreams. Life can be so joyful when you are doing what you love.

So if you're pursuing a dream that isn't paying you the big bucks just yet, keep going for it. Even if it’s just a hobby on the side. You may not see the top of the mountain right now, but keep climbing. Little by little. Focus a few hours each week on your dream career. Commit your weekends to it. You can accomplish anything with time and persistence. And when you reach the summit you can just smile to yourself and say, "I went for it, and I made it happen, and now I can do anything." Whatever your dream is, start climbing now and make it happen.

I also coach writers to be successful, and I'm available for one-on-one personal coaching. Contact me at Brian@BrianMoreland.com. On Facebook look up “Author Brian Moreland” and feel free to join my two groups, “Horror Shadows in the Mist” and “Coaching for Writers.”