Everyday Horror

Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing, and life doesn’t.”

~ NEIL GAIMAN

As most of you know, I’m attempting to branch out into horror, and I’m waiting to hear from a publisher who has expressed some interest in my novella, Possession of Blood.  I have curtailed all other writing activity while I wait, and if I’m going to be honest, I have to tell you that this enforced inactivity has begun to look pretty attractive.  I don’t know where it might lead, but anyone who knows my history might be able to take an informed guess.

But while I’m waiting, I’ll pass the time by starting a discussion on the principles of what constitutes effective horror.  Classic horror uses monsters.  Dr. Frankenstein’s abominable creation, werewolves, mummies, and of course, the king of the classics, Count Dracula himself.  Developments in the 1950s gave us giant bugs, abominable scientific developments, and things from outer space, and the material I’m developing makes great use of interdimensional creatures and entities that at least seem to have roots in the supernatural.

But are these bloodthirsty but imaginary beasts necessary to create good horror?  A moment’s thought will suggest that that is far from being the case.  There are any number of horrible things in everyday life that can make your skin crawl.  Spiders, especially those with exotic poisons.  Most reptiles, both the venomous and the large and powerful.  Big cats.  Hippos.  And if you live in Australia, forget about it!

But these are things as foreign as the bug-eyed monsters of the 1950s to most North American readers.  Oh, we have black widows and rattlesnakes, but treatments are common and effective.  Here in America we see a couple a vicious dog attacks a year, and about once a decade, a bear will get somebody, but in general terms, the “classic” monsters are sorely lacking.

What we do have in vast numbers are people, and are there really any monsters more terrifying than a human being with malice in his or her heart?  We’ve all seen that kid who shows up at school with bruises, maybe a limp, and an excuse from P.E. class.  How about the wife down the street who seems as terrified as the woman in a slasher movie but swears that everything’s just fine?  How about that new friend who always seems to “bump into you” while you’re shopping, gardening, or just relaxing on your patio?  You know, the one that nobody else likes.  Taken to the far edge of sanity, we have had Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer.  We’ve all seen examples like this, and they’re made all the more horrible by their very reality.  You might live down the street from one of these horrors, work with one, shake hands with one in a shop, ride next to one on the bus.  They’re out here in the real world every day, impacting real lives, and they’re closer than you think.

Of course, the focus of this blog is on the aspiring writer, and the moral of this tale, I suppose, is that if you feel a hankering to write some horror, but lizard men, predatory plants, and articulated blobs of protoplasm seem a bit silly to you, there’s still plenty of ground left to cover in the psychopath-next-door genre.  Take a run at that; you might even wind up scaring yourself!

And that’s 30 for this issue.  Join me Thursday for the roundup of the usual suspects, writers and bloggers alike, and while you’re waiting, remember to read well, and write better!

Gizmos

Plot is people.  Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion – that’s Plot.”

~ LEIGH BRACKETT

Many of you will have heard by now that Lynda Dietz has convinced me that this piddling little blog I run here has value, so once again, the exact opposite of what I announced would happen is happening.  I hope someone finds this interesting . . .

This week I’m going to discuss the Gizmo that Drives the Story, often called the MacGuffin, a term coined by Angus McPhail and popularized by Alfred Hitchcock.  It is, in its simplest terms, a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.  The MacGuffin is nearly ubiquitous in any sort of adventure fiction, and even in genres like romance, one of the two primary characters can be considered the MacGuffin that drives the actions of the other.  We all need them; we all use them.  What do we do with them?

In my experience, where many new writers fall afoul of the MacGuffin comes from ignoring that phrase, “with little or no narrative explanation.”  They expend page after page, whole chapters sometimes, explaining what the MacGuffin is, how it works, and why its capture or defense is vital to the fate of The World As We Know It.  See, there is always this temptation to get lazy, to let the story of the MacGuffin carry the narrative at the expense of character development.  No!  Bad writer!

As an author, this is a complete waste of your time as well as physical resources if you’re expending ink on paper, and can even serve to drive your readers away; if they wanted to read a science textbook, they wouldn’t have chosen your thriller.  To study and make the point, let’s examine a prime example of the MacGuffin done right:  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel From Russia With Love.  The film is very close to the novel as adaptations go, so whichever you’ve experienced will be fine.

The MacGuffin in this story is a Soviet Spektor (novel) or Lektor (film) coding machine much coveted by western intelligence for whom 007 works.  The villains conscript a beautiful cryptography clerk, Tatiana Romanov, to contact MI6 with a fable about how she wants to defect, but will only attempt it if superspy 007 comes to collect her, and as a sweetener, she will bring “her” code machine, the Lektor.  MI6 smells a rat, but of course, the Lektor is too big a prize to ignore, and 007 is duly bundled off to Istanbul to make the pickup.  Waiting to off him is a whole operation prominently including dirty-deed organizer Colonel Rosa Klebb and super-assassin Donald “Red” Grant.  Much merriment ensues.

But our purpose here is the study of the MacGuffin, and the main thing to note here is that once the Lektor is mentioned and defined, it is rarely brought up again.  We’re told that it’s an unbreakable coding machine, the west wants it, and the rest of the story concerns itself with 007’s efforts to secure it and his interactions with those using it for bait in order to assassinate him.  We know it’s what he’s after, we see it briefly when he opens its small case to verify that that’s really what’s inside, and we see the case a couple more times during their flight from the assassins, but it never becomes the focus of the narrative.

The story of From Russia With Love is the interactions between Bond, Romanov, Klebb, and Grant, plus a few incidental characters.  It is not about the Lektor; that could have been any desirable state secret, a list of agents, or the outline of an operation.  It isn’t about the Orient Express, where the climactic fight between Bond and Grant takes place.  That could have been set on a Caribbean island or a space station without changing much of anything; some later films were set in just those places.  No, the story of From Russia With Love, as it is with any quality work of fiction, is the story of how the characters go about pursuing their goals, and the friction between them that this causes.  I can’t tell you how to find great commercial success; that has eluded me for almost fifty years, but if you want your work to be well-regarded by however many readers you have, lock this into your memory, and never lose sight of it:

Characters are fiction.

Make that your focus, and you’ll never go too far wrong.

And those are my thoughts on MacGuffins.  I hope someone found this useful, or at least entertaining.  I found it enjoyable, and I offer my thanks to Lynda once again for bringing me back to this.  Enjoy, comment, question, and be back here Thursday for my latest roundup of Other Voices.  See you then!

A Book to Inspire a Book

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

~ ALBERT EINSTEIN

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In my younger days I used to make semi-regular visits to thrift shops.  Some of those visits were necessitated by the demands of raising children; there are some things that a regular working family just can’t afford new.  But one of the things that I checked regularly was the book section.  People seem to have a way of suddenly deciding that they need to clear off a bookshelf.  Maybe it’s spring cleaning, maybe someone dies, but whatever the reason, boxes of books show up at thrift stores every day, and I’ve gotten some sweet deals by keeping my eyes open.  Take this beauty to the left:  First edition, published by Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London in 1907.  First edition, naturally.  Set me back a whole dime at a little independent thrift store that had formerly been a mom & pop grocery.  I chose it to photograph because it was in arm’s reach of my desk.  And why is that?  Well, if those familiar with former aero-officer Clinton Monroe of Beyond the Rails fame could read this book, they’d recognize a great deal of his training, attitudes, and tactical expertise in these pages.  Ten cents.  Thrift store.  Books are magic.

But every book is a mystery before you open it, and that’s especially true of old books.  And not just the content.  Every individual used book has a history.  Maybe there is a cryptic inscription or notes in the margins written by a previous owner.  Perhaps it is stained with tears, or, is that blood?  What if you found a heavy, leather-bound tome on a thrift shop shelf?  What would it contain?

Now it gets interesting, yes?  If you are a writer of fiction, any style, any genre, this is your lucky day.  As a gift to you, I’m going to apply a defibrillator to your creative synapses, and you may feel free to take whatever results and run with it.

You hold that book, gravid with age and history, in your hands.  With a sense of awe and reverence, you open it.  What do you find?

A vanishingly rare first edition of a famous novel?
A book of poetry that seems to carry a much deeper meaning than it first appears?
A scientist’s notes for an invention the likes of which has never been seen?
A map to a ruin lost to history for a thousand years?
A formerly unknown tale penned by a famous author?
A diary containing the deepest secrets of an infamous villain?
The working sketchbook of a great artist?

Or is it something much more wonderful than the few possibilities I’ve listed here?  You see, writer, what little it takes to jump-start your creativity?  Case in point:  I reported Thursday on my birthday loot, including William F. Nolan’s book, How to Write Horror Fiction.  The book may be out of print, but for whatever reason, my daughter ordered a used copy.  Tucked between the pages when it arrived was a boarding pass for American Airlines Flight 9100 departing from Dallas/Fort Worth on July 9th, 2005, and a receipt from the Terminal C, Gate 22 snack bar.  Well, writers, is there a story there?

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Now, go forth and conquer!

In Other News . . .

Last week I said I was going to start acting like a “professional” author, whatever the heck that means.  I said that every morning was going to be filled with writing projects from whenever I got up, sometimes as early as 6:00 AM, until noon, and that something tangible would be produced, be it manuscript pages, outline sections, character descriptions, something.  It is now one week later, and what I have learned, or rather had imposed on that grand vision, is that I’m not that guy.  I don’t get the unmitigated pleasure out of The Craft that professional authors apparently do.  There are just too many other activities that I enjoy as much as, or (horrors!) more than writing, that I very quickly began to feel that writing was a form of self-inflicted punishment designed to keep me from enjoying the other things I love to do.

Does that mean I’m going to stop writing?  Far from it!  It means that I need to find the balance.  I schedule things I need to do, housework, gardening, and such through notes on the calendar, and I’m now going to attempt to put Writing, as in a day devoted to The Craft, into the cycle, and devote several hours if not the whole day to the process.  I’ll have to see how that goes.  Does this mean that I view writing as a chore similar to weeding out the flower beds?  I think perhaps it does, but a chore in the sense of one that is fulfilling in the doing of it; some people like gardening and the sense of completion that a well-tended patch gives them.  I feel the same about writing, and I will figure this out.  This may not be the solution, but I think I’m getting close to it.

Other Voices . . .

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been crossing Facebook paths with a most interesting fellow named Bonsart Bokel who produces an in-character steampunk podcast.  In celebration of Halloween month, he’s inaugurating a new feature thereon called S.C.P., Secure, Contain, and Protect.  I’m not going to try to tell you what you should think of it, but if you’re a fan of the “horrors among us” genre, you should definitely take a look.

If you aren’t busy next weekend, MileHiCon makes its 50th Anniversary appearance in Denver, and they have invited all of their living previous guests of honor.

MileHiCon

Here is your chance to see such luminaries as Mario Acevedo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Steven Brust, Liz Danforth, Chaz Kemp, Jane Lindskold, James Van Pelt, Robert E. Vardeman, Carrie Vaughn, Connie Willis, and David Lee Summers gathered in a single venue.  The convention will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel – Tech Center in Denver on October 19, 20, and 21. You can get all the details at MileHiCon.org. Who Else Books, Massoglia Books, and Wolfsinger Publishing are all scheduled to be in the dealer’s room.  Not to be missed if you’re in town.

Last week Phoebe Darqueling looked at the Snow White story that Disney used for their feature film.  This week she compares the Grimm Brothers version with the Disney, noting that the Grimms added some material to pad it out, thus making it the only tale that they actually wrote themselves (they were dedicated collectors).  This is a fascinating read for literary historians and writers who want to see how stories develop over their lifespans.

The MovieBabble site specializes in film reviews.  Several reviewers post multiple times a day there. As I write this, the movie at the top of the page is Apostle, though it will almost certainly have been superseded by a new review within the hour.  Virtually all of their reviews are both fully informative and spoiler-free, which says a lot about the skill of their writers.  They also delve into the concepts and philosophy of film making, and is very much worth regular visits for anyone into the contemporary film scene.

The Writers Helping Writers site is a go-to compendium of useful (by which I mean vital) information for authors.  The several members hereof get into the grit and detail that isn’t often covered in the Big Successful Writer Telling You How To Do It books.  They offer free knowledge on their page, and some of the best comes from their Occupational Thesaurus.  They cover every aspect of a profession from knowledge needed and people they have to work with to sources of friction and ways to twist the stereotype.  Their latest entry looks at the General Contractor.  In the past, they have looked at jobs from Parole Officer to Exotic Dancer.  Every serious author should have this bookmarked and on their feed so they see every new entry.  I can’t do it justice in this little blurb; just go and see it for yourself!

Sci-fi fans need to pay a similar level of attention to The Firewater Site.  Here the owner takes in-depth looks at science-fiction movies and television productions.  He’s currently in the midst of an episode-by-episode review of the original Star Trek, including a timeline of real-world events to put each episode in context, and still finds plenty of time to bring in variety, such as yesterday’s post about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  If sci-fi in films and television is close to your heart, consider following this site.  I just discovered it recently, and you can take it from me, it’s quite a ride!

Finally, Richard of Cool San Diego Sights usually posts a portfolio of spectacular photographs of some themed aspect of our beautiful city, but this time he’s outdone himself.  He has discovered an interactive crime scene attraction in downtown San Diego called Solve Who! that immerses the visitor in the life of a detective investigating a murder.  He has provided a thorough writeup and a number of pictures on his website, so Law & Order fans who find themselves in the San Diego area and would like to spend an hour in the shoes of their favorite detective would do well to include this on their itinerary.

And that’s 30 for this week.  I’ve already found some intriguing new titles for my Thursday book roundup, so join me then to work on your TBR lists.  Until then, read well, and write better!