Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Suffer The Children?

In the last 12 months, I have been at two different panels, at two different Cons, where a member of the audience asked the same question. The question was, "Is there anything you feel you can't write about?"

The first panel was the one on British horror at FantasyCon in Brighton last year. The panel was peopled entirely by men (unrepresentative, I thought, as there are plenty of British women horror writers, but I digress). The second panel was at the Harrogate crime conference last weekend and dealt with the issue of whether women write more violent crime than men. This panel was almost entirely women - the sole man there writes under a female pseudonym, and he was there to give a slightly different slant to the discussion.

All members of both panels unanimously gave the answer that they shied away from writing about terrible things happening to children.

In my writing career thus far, I've had terrible things happen to many children in my stories. Indeed, the plot of the first novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, revolves around a supernatural creature who survives by sucking the life essence out of children. My urban fantasy project - though currently shelved - features a supernatural private eye who works as a 'ghost whisperer', and in an early scene she has to deal with the ghost of a child horribly disfigured in the accident that killed her.

Admittedly I come from the perspective of someone who not only doesn't have children, but who clearly wasn't in the queue when maternal instinct was handed out. Most of the writers on the aforementioned panels were parents. But let's look at this a bit closer. My writing idol, Stephen King, has many terrible things happen to children in his stories. In CARRIE a gymnasium full of teenagers at their high school prom burn to death. The plot of IT kicks off with the young brother of one of the main characters being pulled into the sewer and killed by the Big Bad, in the guise of an evil clown. And then there's PET SEMETARY, that features a toddler mown down by a truck, who consequently comes back from the dead and goes on a murderous rampage.

People with children are uncomfortable with the idea of terrible things happening to children because it cuts too close to their own fears for their children. But as horror and crime writers, our job is to scare people. You can write about nothing more convincing than the things that scare you. I think that's what Stephen King was doing with PET SEMETARY. After all, he is himself a father. Surely nothing scares a parent more than the thought of one of their children dying. And the father in PET SEMETARY, having to face this tragedy, knows that there's a mysterious graveyard over the hill that seems to possess the abililty to bring things that are buried there back from the dead - even if they don't come back quite the same as they were before. Faced with that knowledge, what should he do? What would any grieving parent do?

In order to grow as writers, I think we need to be able to write about anything - especially the things that we are most afraid of. Ultimately that's why I decided I need to tackle that rape scene in the curent WIP. I knew I was shying away from it because I was uncomfortable with the subject matter. And hence, I needed to face it.

There should be nothing that a writer should be afraid to write about, especially if you like to write stories that scare people. The things that scare you the most are likely to scare your reader as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writing Multi Genre

When I was younger, I loved reading  mysteries, fantasy, horror, and suspense/thriller. My favorite books were by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Phyllis A. Whitney (YA mysteries), Madeleine L'Engle, and others. My first stories were horror and YA adventure.

And then my focus turned to poetry and literary writing. Genre writers were replaced by Kafka, Camus, Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and others. As I worked toward my BA in English, I became interested in alternative journalism.

It would be over ten years before I came to understand a simple truth. If I enjoyed reading what could be considered speculative fiction, then why not write what I loved to read?

So why was I so dense?

I think I was still trying to find myself as a writer. Even now, I want to try writing in genres I've never tried, like mystery and maybe even science fiction. I don't want to be encumbered by "rules" that say I can only write one genre because I'm not an "established" writer.

Looking forward to writing these stories, whatever genre they might be.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Tell, Not Show"?

I was quite interested to discover this summary on the Internet of Lee Child's recent talk at ThrillerFest on 'Tell, Don't Show' to do with debunking writing myths.

Now, I'm not about to start disagreeing with Lee Child. He's a best-selling writer and I am not, so he's obviously doing something right. But the advice he gives here contradicts everything I've been told in 30-plus years of writing, and I think it warrants further discussion. Namely, this advice of "telling" not "showing".

Let's take this point of describing the character. When you're writing in third person, it's easy enough to throw in a brief description: "Jane was a tall, willowy redhead." I would have no problem with that, and I do like to have the main character described early in the novel - it helps me picture them in my mind. When you're writing in first person, though, it becomes rather more difficult, without resorting to the old trick of the character catching sight of themselves in a mirror - and admittedly this has been somewhat overdone.

Lee Child maintains that there's nothing wrong with just telling the story. To a certain degree, I can see his point. A writer who becomes preoccupied with technique can lose sight of the story. But to "tell" instead of "show" flies in the face of everything I have been told about writing, and I think to apply story "telling" instead of story "showing" generically is to tread a dangerous path. Say you're writing a story about a character who finds a dead body, and gets scared. You could "tell" the story just in those terms, but it would be a far more interesting story to describe how the character gets scared. Describe the dead body. If it's been there a week and is festering with flies and maggots, that's going to provoke a very different reaction in your reader than just stating "there in the grass lay a corpse." How does the character display fear? Does he scream and run away? Does he lose control of his bodily functions?

I wasn't present at the talk, so it's difficult for me to take it in context. However, I do think it's good food for thought. What's your take on this? Do you think Lee Child has a point, and sometimes "telling" is better than "showing"? Or would you disagree?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What If?

This past Saturday, at my local Sisters in Crime meeting, we engaged in a POV writing exercise. As I scribbled furiously, letting the words flow - this was timed, after all - I suddenly realized an idea for a romantic suspense was forming. True, it was a rough sketch about two dancers, hardly the stuff of suspense at that point, but it didn't matter.

So, ideas. Where do they come from? The great cliched question. And I'll admit it depends on the particular story. For example, many of my stories start out as "What if?" questions. I remember sitting in gridlock during a particularly hot, humid July. No air conditioning and traffic moving at the proverbial snail's pace. As I sat there, I wondered what would happen if girl fell out of the sky, hit my car, then vanished. Another "what if" story came while driving down Hwy 44, through verdant forests and twisting curves. What if a young girl moved to a cursed, isolated village? That story became "White Pine Village," a YA and my first work of fiction in over a decade. (No, I've never submitted it. It still sits in my drawer.)

Although I don't do this as much, I sometimes clip articles from a newspaper as possible ideas. Pictures are also influences. A portrait of a woman holding an umbrella over her face inspired "Family Tradition," my latest dark fiction suspense short story.  

Whenever an idea comes to me, I write it down and keep it on a file. Even if it's no more than a title, I note it. Many of these ideas won't become stories but this doesn't mean they're not valuable. Sometimes an idea may not work for one story but might work for another. 

Mystery, paranormal, suspense, romance, genre doesn't matter. Only the story does. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WIP Woes

When I first started writing, I used to scribble in the back of school exercise books, in pencil. Towards the end of the 1980s I got my first computer - an Amstrad PCW. It was one of the machines with green fonts on a black background. It didn't have a hard drive, so files had to be saved on floppy disks.

I tell this story because the influence that machine had on my writing is still with me today. Because the floppy disks didn't have much memory, files had to be small. I used to save each chapter as a separate file, because it would take several disks to hold an entire novel. I still use this system of saving each chapter as a separate document. Only when the manuscript is nearing completion do I compile it all into a single document - and only then do I really know how many pages I've got.

Currently, I'm working on draft 2 of the horror WIP. Up to now this has largely been minor amendments to each of the early chapters, though as I go through it I start thinking about any major changes that might need to be made. Things were going quite well until I got to chapter 12. And then I realised chapter 12 was missing from my 'Draft 1' folder.

An extensive search failed to unearth the missing chapter, but because I keep meticulous logs of when I write each chapter, I have worked out what has happened. The early chapters of the first draft of this WIP were written from October to December last year. At that point, I was still on my clunky old laptop, and my old NetBook. My writing routine has always been fairly rigid. If I was writing the chapters in Starbucks during my early-morning writing session, they were written on my NetBook. When I got home I would boot up both machines and copy the files from one machine to the other, so that there was a back-up. If I was writing at home, then I would transfer them the other way.

However, the old laptop was very slow, and sometimes waiting for it to boot up to transfer files was a frustrating process. What clearly happened is that when I was copying over my new chapters from the NetBook to the laptop, I somehow overlooked chapter 12 and didn't copy it.

I got my new laptop for Christmas, and copied the files from my old laptop to the new one. Then the hard drive on my NetBook died - suddenly, and without warning. All files were lost. That was OK, I thought, I had everything backed up. Or mostly everything. Only now have I realised I had failed to back up chapter 12, and the only copy of that chapter is now lost forever on the dead hard drive.

What I am left with is a log of how many words were in that chapter (1,330) and a summary of what it contained. But the file is gone. I have to rewrite it. And that realisation was a depressing thought.

So the next day, I got up early for a writing session, took the NetBook into London and sat in Starbucks staring at chapters 11 and 13 or quite a long time. I did not get hit with any inspiration to re-write chapter 12. What did occur to me, though, is that there are a lot of problems with this section of the novel, and there's a lot of rewriting that needs to be done. Maybe that's why I couldn't write chapter 12 again. There are a lot of 'talking heads' - people talking about things instead of doing things. Too much 'telling', not enough 'showing', as the writing group would probably say.

What I am attempting to demonstrate in this section of the novel is the changing personality of a character who is being possessed by a demonic creature, in the way he interacts with his friends, and how he's becoming more violent to his girlfriend. At present, the girlfriend tearfully relays to her friends how her boyfriend raped her. I haven't actually got a scene showing the rape. But I think I'm going to have to write it. The action will have a lot more impact than the telling.

I haven't been able to face writing this scene in this week's writing sessions. It's going to be a very difficult and harrowing scene, and writing such scenes can be emotionally draining. But it needs to be done. Sometimes your WIP takes you to places you really don't want to go to. But you have to go there anyway, in order to grow as a writer.

The ironic thing is, if chapter 12 had not disappeared, I would not have scrutinised that section of the novel quite so hard. Some times these things happen for a reason...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bad Books - Good for Authors?

This post is about a certain type of book. I'm not naming any names, but I've come across a few in this category, and I'm sure you have too.

It's a type of book published by a major publishing house. It starts to sell. Suddenly it's selling very well. Then it's selling extremely well. Word spreads, and sales go supernova. The reviews are mixed. There are as many people who hate this book as love it. Eventually you decide you better see what all the fuss is about, and you read the book. You consider it a book with flaws. You start to wonder why so many people are raving about this book. "I know plenty of unpublished writers who can do much better than this," you think. You probably think even you can do better than this. The only difference is, this author is in print and is making loads of money, and you are not.

There are two sides to this argument. First up is the view that publishing rubbish books is bad for new authors. Publishers only have a finite number of slots in which to publish new books every year. Every time they publish a book on the name - perhaps written by a well known celebrity who's decided to try their hand at writing novels - they're wasting a slot that could be used for an unknown but talented new author. But that book will make money, and a publishing company is a business aiming to make a profit. The criteria for book sales does not necessarily take into account how well written it is. You, the unknown author, may have a masterpiece on your PC. But if the publisher doesn't think this masterpiece has mass market appeal, they are not going to take it.

Then we come to the alternative argument. If a publisher takes on a less-than-great book that proves to be a runaway best seller, they are suddenly raking in loads of money. With this sure-fire money maker flying off the shelves, said publisher might be more inclined to take a risk with some unknown author. After all, gambling on said unknown author might pay off, and their book might sell well. Even if it doesn't, they've still got the runaway best seller raking it in, so they can afford to take the chance.

There is also the point that liking a book that is very subjective. Although you and all the authors you know collectively grumble about this famous best-selling book and meticulously list its flaws, the fact that it's selling so well proves that there's more than a few people out there who would probably disagree with you.

So is the publication of these less-than-great but best selling books good or bad for the emerging author? What's your take?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Digging Beneath the Blood-Stained Cement

I wasn't going to talk about editing today, but I received my notes for "Family Tradition" from my content editor, so it seemed apropos.

Now some writers are surprised when they get pages of comments from an editor after their story has been accepted for publication. "But my beta readers and critique partners gave me feedback," they argue. "I polished the story until I could see my reflection. Why does my manuscript look like it's bleeding?"

The answer is because a good content editor knows what to look for that even the most judicious CP may not be able to find. For example, they dig through the dirt (your story) and unearth plot and character inconsistencies. Then they hit cement. Being unable to go any further, they move on to other stories. But a content editor knows there's more work to be done beneath the cement. S/he breaks out the jackhammer and gets to work pulverizing the concrete to get to the story beneath.

Content edits can seem overwhelming at first. It takes me a day or two before I become accustomed to the red "comments" bleeding across the pages. Usually, I start with the easiest task, something like accepting and/or deleting punctuation and minor grammatical errors. Then I work on those edits that are the easiest to change, moving on to the more complicated ones. Finished, I turn them over to my CE.

And wait for another round...