What’s the Secret to Writing Good Horror?

I have recently toyed with the idea of writing some horror stories.  I love the genre and have several story ideas that may have some legs.  I’m just not sure if I can pull it off.  As with everything I do, I try to be the best.  Since we are talking about horror writing, that means I compare my work to Stephen King.  King is the undisputed master of horror, capable of keeping the reader glued to their seat turning pages while feeling true fear and excitement.  That’s a hard act to follow.  Regardless, the hill must be climbed.

The process of fleshing out some of my stories got me thinking about what is required to write good horror.  I didn’t think my work was “scary enough,” whatever that means.  The basic writer’s skill set is, of course, required, but what about more specialized knowledge?  There are no college programs that I know about which specialize in training people to write horror, so how do people learn what it feels like to be chased by a green-tailed swamp monster?  This thought made me wonder if one must first experience true terror before they can accurately write about it.  If this is true, how are there so many horror books available?  Of all the authors who ever penned a scary tale, how many have personally experienced true horror or terror?  Have they been chased by wolves?  Or monsters from space?  Or any other large-fanged villain intent on mayhem?  Unlikely.  So how do they do it so well?

My Google-fu is uncommonly strong, yet I am unable to find any specific, high-quality information on the query.   The summary advice given by the best minds on the subject is to “use your imagination.”  What a letdown.  I can imagine a lot of things vividly, but sheer terror is not one of them.  Even if I could conjure the feelings and emotions out of the ether, how would I know if they were appropriate to the situation?

That’s the rub.  Thoughts and feelings only make sense when considered in a specific context.  Without experiencing the context either directly or indirectly through training, recreating those thoughts and feelings remains a mystery at best, and is completely misunderstood at worst.  Any actions taken with respect to this mysterious context are therefore just wild-ass guesses.

Is it fair to assume that masters of horror like Stephen King and Anne Rice have accidentally stumbled upon the ability to scare the bejeezus out of their readers?  I would hate to believe this.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be many other possibilities.  What are your thoughts on the matter?

Dilemma: Should Writing Be Completely Honest and Realistic?

I’ve been wrestling with a problem: how honest and realistic should my writing be? The easy answer I tell myself is that writing with complete honesty and realism is the only way the job should be done, but that may not be the best choice for a number of reasons.

The question first arose when I started my first-person account of the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas.  Continue reading “Dilemma: Should Writing Be Completely Honest and Realistic?”

15 Tricks to Help You Become a Professional Writer

When I decided to write as a professional, I committed to a daily output of at least five hundred words. Notice my commitment is not qualified with conditions like “most days” or “provided I’m not busy with other projects.” It’s an everyday requirement. It has to be. To take a day off, or worse, to have the ability to skip a day’s work on a whim, invites procrastination and laziness into my life. Once they have a foothold they become insidious and cripple productivity.

Below I have listed the top fifteen tricks I use to stay true to my commitment as a professional.  Before I show them, I want to make certain you understand why they are important and why you should adopt them. Without a thorough understanding of their purpose, they’re just simple ideas. Once you have changed the way you think about your commitment to writing as a professional, they can change your life.

When I started, I thought I knew how to make myself write every day. I didn’t. I am insanely busy and had trouble making time to write every day. I thought I needed outside help.  I thought I could write when my schedule allowed.  I was wrong on both counts.

In hopes of boosting my resolve to write every day, I joined a Facebook group called my500words. Jeff Goins started the group to encourage budding writers to write every day. It’s was fun to have a little bit of external accountability via the group, but it’s not the source of personal motivation I hoped it would be.  I had to change the way I approached my work because the group was not helping.

Through my participation, I realized my goal to write is truly mine alone.  It’s a simple concept but was a revelation to me.  I think a lot of writers, including me, start by looking for external validation to help overcome the fear of putting their work out into the world, to provide the motivation to keep writing in the face of the fear and to get some positive feedback to encourage them to continue.   That doesn’t work.  I learned no one is going to care if I fail to do the work because no one noticed when I didn’t post my daily word count, and I didn’t care when they didn’t post their own. They are just hundreds of anonymous writers trying to make their way in the world. They have no stake in my success. Why should they?

I struggled to make my daily output goal until I internalized the realization that no one cared about my work. Once I fully accepted responsibility for my own productivity I changed my daily habits and scheduled the time to write.   I began writing for me.  The more rigidly I controlled my time, the easier I could do the work.  I also began to understand why so many people fail.

It always appeared to me that most members pounded out their daily words and posted their accomplishment to the group.  Then I did the math.  Given the number of people who belong to the group and then noticing that it was the same fifty or sixty people posting their word goal every day, I understood it was a very small percentage who were actually doing the work.  Kudos to them. The truth is that most people, if they posted at all,  posted the reasons why they failed to reach their five-hundred-word goal. It’s common to read comments such as “I’m behind because <reasons>, but I’ll catch up.” Or my personal favorite, “This has been a day. I had to put my writing on the back burner because <reasons>.”  They think we care why they missed their goal.  They don’t understand it’s their goal, not ours’.  We don’t even know them.  This misconception is exactly what kept me from doing the work every single day.  I wanted people to notice my work or lack thereof.  They didn’t and that rejection kept me from doing the work.  Then I changed.

Reading the “I’m not able to make my five hundred words because…” comments depresses me now.  People either do not realize how easy it is to make the time to get the work done or they are not serious about writing in the first place. Either way, they are missing the opportunity to achieve their writing goal because of their personal failure to make it happen.

Now I believe that unless you are in the hospital and are physically incapable of writing, or a loved one has died or is on death’s doorstep, whatever reason you claim for not doing the work is just a personal crutch.  This is now one of my professional guidelines and its validity was proven to me by the repetition of the excuses on the my500words group.  Ultimately, this was the change in thinking I needed to alter the way I approach my work.  If the work is not getting done, it’s your own fault.  Don’t make any excuses.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. I’m a busy person and I get my writing done. How busy am I, you ask? I am a husband to my beautiful wife and father to four awesome kids, each of whom requires my attention every day. I am the operations manager of a thirty-million dollar per year business, where I work a minimum of fifty hours each week. I’m a paramedic student, where studying and class attendance require fifteen to twenty hours per week. I’m a part-time 911 emergency medical technician in Las Vegas, a job which requires about twelve hours per week. I’m a professional competitive shooter, a job that requires a few hours of practice each week. I’m a hobbyist traditional woodworker, an activity I enjoy as I have free time. I’m now a professional writer, a job at which I spend at least one hour each day, often more. I believe “busy” is a cop-out, a label that means nothing but sounds important. It’s not objective reality. How you use your time determines what you can accomplish.

If you want to be a professional writer, don’t make excuses why you cannot do the work.  Take the responsibility to produce every single day and get it done.

Below is a list of methods I use to schedule my writing time and come up with new ideas every day. The first three are absolutely critical. Skip them at your peril. Somewhere in this list are the keys to unlocking your own ability to write every day.

  • Commit to writing at least five hundred words every day, without excuse;
  • Adopt the absolute belief that any excuse to not do the work is, by definition, bullshit. No exceptions;
  • Understand no one cares about your success except you;
  • Get up an hour early and write before work;
  • Stay up an hour later and write before bed;
  • Write on my lunch break instead of socializing;
  • Write or come up with ideas on breaks from work (quit smoking if you have that vice, you will live longer and you will have more time to write);
  • Write while sitting in the ambulance waiting for a call (or anywhere you have unproductive downtime);
  • Write while waiting for appointments to start (they’re always late anyway);
  • Think of new ideas and ways I want to write about a subject while exercising;
  • Write instead of watching television;
  • Write instead of going to the bar with friends;
  • Record writing ideas between meetings or other work tasks when I need a couple minutes for a break;
  • Think of new ideas while cooking meals for my family;
  • Think of new ideas while driving;

I did not write this article intending to bust anyone’s chops. I hope that is not how it is perceived. That said, you must accept responsibility for your writing success. Don’t make excuses for why you fail to write. Adopt some of these techniques, adapt them to your own life circumstances and quit making excuses. Quit looking for external validation to keep you motivated.  Just do the work.

Finding Ideas for Writing: My Daily Ritual

Finding the perfect idea is the holy grail for every writer. It’s the hope for a magical gift of fame and prosperity bestowed upon a lucky few by a fickle muse. Millions of aspiring authors have thought “if only I could find the perfect idea, I, too, could be wealthy and famous.”

It’s complete bull, of course, but the belief persists. Tomes have been written (and will forever be written) and sold on the best ways to find million-dollar ideas. Writers line up to pay for the snake oil, willing participants in the farce. I admit guilty participation over the years, too.

Continue reading “Finding Ideas for Writing: My Daily Ritual”

5 Ways to Find Excellent Writing Ideas for Science Fiction

One of the most difficult tasks we writers face is continually coming up with good ideas for our work.  I wonder how many hours I’ve spent over the years, my mind blank, staring at an empty screen or page.  This is one of the universal experiences all writers share, no matter the genre of their work.

The times I’ve been at a loss for an idea and turned to articles such as this one for some inspiration did not end well.  All I found were some vague guides that really didn’t provide any true insight or help generate a good idea.  They offered empty advice like “pose a what if question” and “pick two random things and compare and contrast them.”  The problem with the vague advice is that I was still the one who had to come up with the details.  I wanted some help with those!  I want specifics, damn it!

This article is the first in a series of articles that will provide the blocked writer some concrete, genre-specific methods to develop a good idea for their writing.  Today’s genre: Science Fiction.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres.  There’s something about a good space story that has always made my imagination run wild.  I know not all sci-fi deals in space stories, but my favorites certainly do! Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Z. Williamson are my favorite authors in the genre, though I’ll try anyone’s work at least once.

If you’re itching to write the next great space novel, here are five ways to help you find some excellent ideas for your science fiction.

  1. The easiest way to get your mind thinking about all the possibilities for a good space story is to talk to a bona fide rocket scientist (or as close as you can get to a real one).  Unfortunately, most of us do not personally know any real rocket scientists.  Luckily, you do not need to know the people in order to talk to them.  Get your Google on and find forums where people talk about space topics.  UFO reality sites are good sources of space-based conversation, astronomy forums have a ready supply of space geeks to trigger sparks in your imagination, and Reddit has numerous conversations about every kind of space tech there is.  The point is that when you participate in discussions on the topic, your brain will start to get creative with the subject matter.  So get social with people who are interested in spacey subjects and the ideas will follow;
  2. First, focus on humanity’s (or your protagonist’s) downfall and then reverse-engineer your science fiction idea. In other words, figure out what horrid thing will befall humanity in your story, or what frailty of the human condition will be exploited in your story, and then figure out what could cause it. Here’s an example. Imagine you want to write a story about the near global extinction of humanity and the survivor’s fight to live.  Think “War of the Worlds,” only that’s been done to death.  What else could bring about the end of mankind?  Rogue virus (I Am Legend)?  What about a parasitic alien species that came to Earth to use humans to replicate themselves (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Puppetmasters)?  Or maybe an alien race that wants to use humanity as biological Energizer batteries (The Matrix)?  Get the idea?
  3. I hate to admit it, but not all science fiction stories are space stories. Therefore I must also recommend that you talk to various professionals about some of the worst things they can conjure from their fields.  A good example would be to talk to an emergency room physician (or even better, a nurse or paramedic – they typically see and do more than the doctors and have better stories).  Sit down with one over a cup of coffee and have them tell you their horror stories from the graveyard shift.  Your imagination will be kicked into high gear after hearing what they deal with on a normal day at work!  I guarantee you will hear things that you will not be able to un-hear – which is awesome for someone trying to come up with a good sci-fi story idea.  And if you think medical-based stories cannot make good sci-fi reading material, try any one of Robin Cook’s many novels;
  4. Use a story idea that you like and adapt it to science fiction.  This is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to come up with a good idea for any genre, not just science fiction.  It’s also the most often used method.  As an example, consider the movie Titanic.  Two young people, coming together against all odds only to lose each other in a tragic shipwreck. Now put it on a spaceship and salt a few malevolent aliens into the mix. You can call it Titania (that’s the name of the spaceship, of course). Actually, you can’t. I just copyrighted it by publishing it here!
  5. If all else fails, break out your history book.  Believe it or not, human history is the source for all our best story ideas.  Look at the wars, the continental conquests, the plagues, the people and personalities involved.  A history of the twentieth century is nothing short of a primer on science fiction story adaptation.  Here’s an example: Ebola Zaire.  A virus that has a kill rate greater than eighty percent is tailor-made for a good sci-fi tale.  Throw in some malevolent aliens bent on conquering good old planet Earth for the exploitation of its plentiful resources and you have yourself a great story.  Put the two together and you’ll have a movie franchise (Independence Day)!

It is highly unlikely that you will find your next great idea via a random word generator website, or an emailed writing prompt.  Try these techniques instead!  Remember that your goal is to be a great storyteller.  Storytelling is a social experience that humanity has shared since we were living in caves and picking lice out of each others’ hair. Get out of your house and talk to people, or push your comfort zone out a bit and join some forums to get your sci-fi geek on and get social with people who love to talk about the same stuff you love.  You’ll be amazed at how many ideas you can come up with from the conversations you can have with others.  I hope this post helps you find and write the next great sci-fi novel.  And if you have some thoughts on how to come up with good sci-fi ideas, please leave them in the comments for everyone to use!

The Power of Rituals for Your Writing

Rituals have existed since the dawn of mankind for one reason.  They work. Work for what, you ask?  Rituals are used to reinforce good (and bad) behaviors for individuals and groups.  Examples include the obvious, like church rituals.  Holy Communion, the marriage ceremony, and baptism are all rituals.  Other rituals are not so obvious, like how we get ready for a date, how you celebrate birthdays, and what you do on New Year’s Eve.  While not as elaborate as the church rituals, they are every bit as potent in terms of how they affect the individual. Continue reading “The Power of Rituals for Your Writing”