Friday, October 31, 2014

Being Scary

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick on
Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d write a little bit about being scary in your writing. Now, I’m not a horror writer.  It’s not really my thing.  However, I do enjoy a good scare every now and then. 

Unfortunately, writing something scary is a lot more challenging then showing something scary.  This is why you’ll have people jump and scream at horror movies, but not necessarily while reading a scary book.  At least, I’ve never screamed while reading a scary book, though I am guilty of yelling at the characters not to go into the basement.

I think that the reason for this is that human reflexes are triggered by visual and auditory things.  When we hear the music swelling during a movie, it heightens our awareness.  A sudden crescendo followed by silence causes chills.  We see something jump out; we flinch.  Our natural defense reflexes—the adrenaline response—are triggered by such things. Seeing and hearing very frightening or startling things set off our adrenal glands like crazy. 

This is why I scream bloody murder whenever people sneak up on me.  By the way, there should be some kind of law against sneaking up on people who are wearing headphones.  Seriously.

So, clearly, film has a leg up on writing for the sheer immediacy of the fear response. However, writing has its advantages too. But before I get into that, I’m going to propose that there are two ways to be frightening in storytelling:

The first is to write about something which is scary ipso facto. Ipso facto is, loosely translated, Latin for “in and of itself.”  Basically, this includes stuff like ghosts, demons, and the like.  It can also include cultural phobias—snakes, spiders, and rats, for example.

The second is in the telling itself.  This type of storytelling can take something which otherwise would not be scary and make it absolutely terrifying.

If you combine both of these things, you will have people sucking their thumbs for the rest of the night, and being a bit twitchy for weeks thereafter.  Arguably, however, the most important part of being scary is the telling itself.

So, what is it about the telling that makes it scary?  The most important thing is to appeal to the senses.  Adrenaline responses are all about the senses; for most, it's hearing or seeing. Describe the sound or visual cue--be sure to use short, choppy sentences for a sense of urgency--and then describe the physical response in the character.  Their stomach plummets.  The hairs on the back of their neck stand up.  Their throat is seized and locked into silent terror.  Their pulse thuds in their ears.

This is where writing has the advantage.  Movies can show us and provide the sound for us, but they cannot put us inside the actual bodies of the characters.  Bring your reader into the deepest, most fearful parts of your character's psyche.  That will trigger an emotion response in the reader. 

Fear is visceral.  We feel it in our guts.  Our bodies react powerfully.  If you make your characters feel the same way, this will spill into your reader's mind as your reader becomes absorbed in your writing. I've read scary stories that were written this way.  The character's stomach tightens; mine tightens as well.  Shivers run down the character's spine; shivers run down mine.

So, never having written horror, from what I've read, I can surmise that this is how horror is written effectively.  Remember that the best writing instructor you'll ever have is reading other books.

So, while the ipso facto stuff is great, nothing is more important than the telling. I have read books which should have been terrifying, but did not actually scare me that much. 

A couple of years ago, I was in the mood for being scared, so I decided to read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.  I was sorely disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong—demonic possession is a pretty horrific, scary thing.  It was certainly frightening ipso facto. I won't deny that I got chills a couple of times.  However, in my opinion, the storytelling itself dragged down the potential scariness of the book. Blatty is not, in my opinion, a master of suspense. It was not artfully written, and the only part about it that scared me a little was the fact that, hey, demons are scary.

Even then, I don't worry about demons on a day to day basis. I do believe they exist, but being a Christian, they are pretty low on my list of things to be afraid of.  As long as I'm not stupid and actively try to get involved with them, God definitely takes care of that problem for me.  I realize this is the second time I've mentioned my religion this week, and I don't mean to pontificate.  It just happened to relate to the topic at hand both times.

So, while demons are creepy and all, I'm not that scared of them, so the telling of the story was what I needed to send me over the edge into thumb-sucking terror.  Blatty did not deliver. I realize there are many people who disagree with me, but Blatty became famous because of the topic of his book, not his writing skills. It's all in the telling.  If Blatty had done a better job of telling the story, with perhaps more character development, or appealed more to the senses, I would have had a little trouble sleeping that night.  As it was, I was disgusted that I'd never be getting back the 75 cents I spent at the used book store, not to mention three hours of my life.

Now, compare that to H.P. Lovecraft.  Oh, I love Lovecraft.  He is an absolute master of the telling.  The way he builds suspense, the way he tells things, makes even relatively tame things seem terrifying.  One of my favorites of his stories, "The Colour out of Space," is a marrow-chilling tale about...color.  Yes, a little bubble of color breaks free from a meteorite and finds its way into the ground.

And the ground becomes permanently affected.  Suddenly, everything else around it becomes affected.  The thing that makes it the most terrifying is that you never find out what the heck it is. Uncertainty is a huge part of fear. Lovecraft takes that uncertainty, nurtures it like a loving mother, and then lets it infect you in stages.

I read that story with white knuckles and goosebumps.  I was pretty twitchy for a couple of days.  In other words, it was seriously awesome.

I highly recommend you read H.P. Lovecraft.  He was a big inspiration to Stephen King, who further developed the art of telling seriously freaky stories. While you should always develop your own voice, if you want an example of how to be absolutely terrifying, check him out.

Image courtesy of
 Also, while you're checking stuff out, I'm going to put in a shameless plug for my writing group's most recent anthology.  The League of Eclectic Authors is based in the Washington, D.C. area.  Shortly before I joined their eclectic ranks, they released an anthology of horror stories--stories based in the D.C. area--called Bill of Frights. If the name itself wasn't awesome enough, let me tell you that the stories in there are pretty hair-raising.  One of the authors is a real-life ghost hunter (though he doesn't have all the fancy equipment like they have on TV) and his story will give you goosebumps, for sure. Check it out on Amazon!

So what do you think?  What, in your opinion, makes for a good scary story?  Share any thoughts or questions in the comments. 

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Word of the Week: Chiaroscuro

Time for another Word of the Week! Woohoo!

Word: chiaroscuro

How you say it: [kee-ahr-uh-skyoor-oh]

What it is: noun

How to pluralize it: chiaroscuros

What it means:  1.) the distribution of light and shade in a picture. 2.) Painting. the use of deep variations in and subtle gradations of light and shade, especially to enhance the delineation of character and for general dramatic effect: Rembrandt is a master of chiaroscuro. 3.) a woodcut print in which the colors are produced by the use of different blocks with different colors. 4.) a sketch in light and shade. (Definition courtesy of

Use it three times and it’s yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory. Remember that context helps you understand which sense of the word is being used.

We learned about chiaroscuros in art class today.

Shadows fell across the plains, creating a chiaroscuro effect.

The picture had a very attractive chiaroscuro.

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Word-Craft Wednesday Mea Culpa!

Cecilia is not happy that I forgot about today's post.

Oh, hey, was it Word-Craft Wednesday?  Oh…yeah, it was.  Great.

For those of you who were on the edge of your seats waiting for a detailed explanation of prepositions and conjunctions, I must apologize.  For the people who weren’t—what is wrong with you?

Just kidding.

So what on earth was going on that made me forget about today’s post?  Early this morning, I spent about five hours making soap. Yes; I make soap. Then, instead of doing useful things, I looked over and re-read a bunch of my Tower Key novel because I had a sudden inspiration for a scene from it. Great.  I’m trying to work on the Charybda storyline and now I have an idea for Tower Key? Thanks, Mr. Muse. Then, because I’m not feeling well, I slept for three hours after lunch.  After that, I realized I was up against a deadline for one of my clients, so I was proofreading and copyediting stuff. My client also happens to be a truly good friend, so I really didn’t want to let her down.

All of that is probably not much consolation for those who are bitterly disappointed about missing their date with conjunctions and prepositions.

It does bring up an interesting point, though.  Why on earth am I even blogging about parts of speech in the first place?  What practical application does it have?  Once can certainly write well without a total understanding of the technicalities of English linguistics. 

The practical application is this: proofreading and copyediting.  If you are going to edit a work, you need to understand what every single word does and why.  You have to be able to patch together broken clauses; you need to know exactly what part of speech is missing.  Or, you might need to remove something (“What’s this verb doing here?”).  I’ve been likening parts of speech to parts of the body. Well, editing is like dissecting the body.  Sometimes, it’s more like performing an autopsy.

Okay, that’s great if proofreading is a career you’d like to have.  But you want to be writer, not an editor. You’ll just send your work to an editor.

Give me a minute to stop laughing here.

One second.


If you want to be a writer, you have to be an editor.  There is no way around it.  You can’t remove all grammatical issues from your own work, but you certainly should try to catch as many as possible.  It’s not just about grammar, either.  It’s about style.  Plot.  Character development. It’s about the big picture.

And the big picture is made up of thousands upon thousands of little parts—parts called “parts of speech.”

So, NaNoWriMo permitting, you’ll be able to read all about conjunctions and prepositions next week.  If not, however, forgive me.

Now, onto the next proofreading project…

How important do you think it is for writers to self-edit when they are able (and frequently need to) hire an outside editor? Share and thoughts or questions in the comments.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Totally Random Tuesdays: NaNoWriMo!

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month (
For those who are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month.  The idea is simple: you write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. If you meet the goal, then you win! You can check out all the details at If you are so inclined, you can still sign up before November 1st to get in on the novel-writing action!

While my sister-in-law and one of my friends have participated in NaNoWriMo, this is my first year.  I’m going to be writing a novel which is the third part of a potential series.  It’s actually kind of funny; when I started this novel, Charybda, in 2011, I planned for it to be a standalone novel.  Now, it’s looking like it’s going to be two or three books.  I really don’t want to split it, but it’s getting to be so long that I don’t think it will work as a single book.  So, I’ve decided (for now) to split it in three; however, I won’t know for sure whether it will be two or three books until I have it all written out.

Since I have approximately two-thirds of the full story arc written, but I only have the final one-third of it in outline format, I’ve decided to make the that last third of the story arc its own novel, entitled Nivin. Of course, Nivin is just a working title for it.

This is the novel I will be writing during NaNoWriMo.  Nivin, a blind young woman from a different world, must use questionable powers that she does not understand to save the nation of Libertas from destruction.

Here’s the teaser I imagine might be written on the back cover:

The nation of Libertas has just discovered its history is a lie.  The defenders of Council City have defeated Scyllorin’s preliminary attack, but the evil king’s resources are nearly limitless.  All of Libertas has only one hope going forward: the stranger Nivin, a blind young woman whose powers won them their victory at Council City.  Nivin insists that her powers, which she does not fully understand, are evil and should not be used again.  Nevertheless, the Council insists she leave on a quest to destroy Scyllorin and Scylla, his dragon bride.  Reluctantly, she sets out with three companions: Brand, a young, optimistic champion of the Freemen; former champion Ordnance, a man plagued by his past choices; and the giant Anek, Nivin’s friend who dates back to their days as fugitives together.  When Nivin learns the dark secret behind her abilities, she must face the age-old dilemma: do the ends truly justify the means?

I am really excited to finally finish the last bit of this story arc!  I hope that I can fit all of my plot points into 50,000 words!  As you can imagine, writing 1,700 words per day will be a huge demand on my time! That equates to about 6 or 7 pages (double spaced) per day.

As a result…well, blogging might be a bit tough for me during the month of November.  I’ll still try to get up my four posts a week, but they might be significantly shorter than usual. On the plus side, I’ll keep you all posted on how my NaNoWriMo progress is going! (That’s a plus side, right?) I also hope that if I miss a day, you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me. 

Write on!

Do you think you’ll participate in NaNoWriMo? Do you know anyone who is? Share any thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

How to Be 100% Original (Spoiler: You Can't)

Image courtesy of Surachai at
When it comes to writing original fiction, the most obvious, most important, most imperative thing is that you be original. Completely original. Like something nobody has ever, ever done before. Otherwise, it’s not original, right?  

Ha.  That’s funny.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a 100% original story.

Think of The Hunger Games. Great books, right?  Really fresh and original and fun.  But…wait a minute…a lot of life in Panem, particularly the Capitol, is modeled after ancient Roman history. Ever hear of gladiators—you know, Roman slaves and dissidents who were forced to fight each other to the death…in games? The rebellion is loosely modeled on the French revolution. And the love triangle?  Please.  There is no such thing as an original love triangle.

The Hunger Games trilogy is a really neat, original story, yet it is full of concepts that have been around for centuries.

What about Harry Potter?  J.K. Rowling was acclaimed for her fresh, engaging, original stories.  But how original were they, really?  Almost every magical animal (with the exception of a few) was directly hijacked from ancient myth.  The basilisk? Yeah, it exists in legend.  Mandrakes? Yeah, those exist in legend too. And what about the story line?  Pureblood wizards vs. halfbloods, mudbloods, etc? Based on the ideology of Nazi Germany.  The costumes worn by Death Eaters are based on the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group that started in the United States. At the end of the series, Harry dies and rises from the dead in order to defeat the ultimate evil.  That’s a distinctly Christian theme, and whether Rowling purposely modeled it that way or not, there it is.

How is that completely original?  All of that has been done before, in one way or another.

What about the Percy Jackson series?  Those are original, right?  Um, let’s see…use of Greek mythology—yeah, no.  Those are not 100% original either.

Twilight isn’t either.  Werewolves and Vampires have been around forever. And so have love triangles.  And wars between two diametrically opposed cultures.

And what about books or storylines based on the four elements of water, fire, earth, and air?  There are lots of those, or variations on that theme. Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is one very popular example.  A lot of video games use ‘elemental’ powers.  My unfinished story The Tower Key has a variation on that theme.

And let’s not overlook one of the most original, game-changing books in the 20th Century: The Lord of the Rings.

Yeah, that’s not original either.  Tolkien didn’t invent Dwarves or Elves.  A lot of what he wrote was drawn from ancient European mythology.  If you want to read something really interesting about Tolkien’s fantasy creatures, check out this blog post at Falling into Mythopoesis. Even Tolkien’s storyline isn’t totally original.  While Tolkien never purposely wrote The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for anything—he just wanted to tell a story—there are many elements which reflect Biblical themes.  If you read the Silmarillion, you’ll see just how much he drew from other mythologies.

Outside the fantasy genre, consider Tom Clancy.  He wrote awesome, original books—but they were all drawn from history and modern warfare.  He got all of his ideas from things that had already happened. How is that original?

What about Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird was based on actual events.  How is that original?  

It’s simply not possible to be 100% original because all fiction is drawn from life.  As people, we all interact with a lot of the same things.  We hear a lot of the same old legends.  The easier communication between cultures becomes, the more things we share—the more impossible it becomes to be completely original.

As a Christian, I am convinced that only one person ever was completely original—God.  Everything else we’ve come up with since has either been a knock-off of His stories or a knock-off of other people’s stories.  If you’re not a Christian, you still kind of get the point.  The only people who were original were the first homo sapiens, but even they got their inspiration from nature.

Either way, humans are incapable of being completely original.

So what the heck do we mean by ‘original’ stories?

Original stories are stories which do not plagiarize other stories.  For example, if I wrote a story called “Mary Trotter and the Magician’s Rock,” which was about a young girl who discovers she’s a witch and goes to Pigpimples, a special school for witches and wizards, that would definitely be considered plagiarism.  My butt would quickly wind up in court and I’d be sued for all I’m worth. (There is an exception for parodies—books which explicitly make fun of other books—but unless this was a parody, I’d be in trouble.)

If I wrote a story about a guy named Oedipus who ends up marrying his mom and then poking out his eyes, and claimed that it was my own original work, that would be plagiarism.  However, if I wrote a story about Oedipus and titled it, “Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex Retold” that would not be plagiarism, because of a little thing called copyright laws. Nobody has a copyright to Oedipus Rex, so as long as you acknowledge that this wasn’t your idea, you’re good.  However, since J.K. Rowling has a copyright to Harry Potter, anything you do with her works, even if you say it’s a retelling, could not be published for monetary gain.  Unless you want to be sued, big time.

My Oedipus story wouldn’t be considered original.  Unless, I significantly changed several facts of the story, changed the setting, and put an original spin on the story.  Maybe it’s now a science fiction story that takes place in space.  It’s simply modeled on, or perhaps inspired by, the story of Oedipus Rex. Suddenly, with a ton of things different, it’s now an ‘original’ story.

Most of the time, what we mean by ‘original’ is a story which hasn’t been told before in the way that it’s being told now. And a lot of it also has to do with copyright laws.  Being original isn’t so much about doing stuff that nobody else has ever done—otherwise, James Patterson would be a plagiarist hack because of his Witch and Wizard and Middle School series.  It’s about doing it in a way that nobody else has ever done it before.

Even then, there are overlaps.  Some stories are very cliché, but people like them because people enjoy that particular cliché.  You’ve probably left a movie once or twice and felt like you saw the exact same movie before. 

So, I’d say that there are two types of original stories: the kind that doesn’t plagiarize anything, and the kind that truly tells a story in a way that nobody else has ever told it.  All original stories need the first one, but the real shining gems are the ones that also meet the second type.

There are lots of very successful stories that are very similar to others.  While I haven’t read Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, I have heard that it is almost exactly like The Hunger Games. One of those, “exactly the same, only different” type things. It’s different, so it’s original, but it’s not a revolutionary kind of original. Maybe it is; not having read it, I can’t say—I’m just basing that on what I’ve heard.  

So, if you’re writing a story and you realize that someone out there is doing something sorta-kinda similar, don’t freak out.  Remember, it’s not necessarily the topic of the story that matters: it’s the way you tell it.

Do you find yourself worrying that your story might not be original? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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