Steel Breeze is intense at almost every moment. It’s unpredictable and well written and defies you to put the book down. I cannot recall a thriller in a long time that had me so captivated. Douglas Wynne is the real deal and I’m certain we will be enjoying his books for a long time to come.”
–Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award Winning Author of BLACK & ORANGE and BOTTLED ABYSS
If you take the easy path, life is difficult
If you take the difficult path, life is easy
I’m currently working on the revisions for my third book, working faster than I ever have before in an effort to get it out this year. Usually I don’t let anyone see the first draft of a novel, but this time I’ve been handing the marked-up pages over to my wife before even typing in the changes.
She’s making her own notes on the same pages. A few days ago she said to me, “I hope I’m not being too hard on you.”
“Too hard?” I said. “There’s no such thing. And somebody has to be before the reviewers are.”
I’m a big believer in beating the hell out of a book before submitting it to the editor. Stress testing your story with a few trusted readers and running diagnostics on it with a few good writing manuals can make the difference between a book that lives up to its potential and one that doesn’t. And once you click “submit,” it can get harder to make big changes.
If you’re a writer revising a novel, I can’t give you my five or six beta readers (they’re mine! Mine!) but I can give you six writing books that will kick your novel’s ass and toughen it up before it has to fend for itself out in the world.
You know those talks you have with beta readers where you’re trying to justify your weak execution of your underdeveloped idea? Yeah, you don’t want to be doing that in response to Amazon reviews. Take the beating now, in private. And if you feel like you have to explain or justify something, there’s a good chance it’s a weak point that needs to be worked harder.
I liken it to training in a martial art. If your dojo buddies go easy on you, how will you ever be prepared to handle a real altercation with a stranger?
So here they are: Six black belts who won’t let you off easy. Click on the images for Amazon links.
1. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King – This book changed the way I write, but I still go through a checklist of its main points when polishing a novel.
2. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass – This one was recommended to me by Jonathan Maberry, who said he buys a new copy and fills in the exercises before starting any novel. Yeah, we owe him big time for not keeping that to himself.
4. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman – An agent gives you a point-by-point look at all of the things that will get your book rejected in the first five pages. And guess what? Most of them apply to the rest of the book, too.
Those four are for strengthening the book; these last two are for strengthening the writer.
I read NOS4A2 on summer vacation last year and had meant to review it sooner, but then I lost track of my notes on the book. I’ve learned to keep pen and paper handy when reading Joe Hill because invariably there are brilliant lines and passages that I want to go back to later, and I don’t want to underline or highlight in a hardcover. In this case I was lucky enough to attend the launch event at Water Street Books, so I definitely wasn’t going to mark up a signed copy.
But some of Hill’s best lines are like classic song lyrics; they stick in your head so well that you don’t even need to jot them down to remember them later. Like this one from his second novel, Horns: “Talking to her now was like flailing his hands at a storm of hornets. It did nothing, and it stung, and yet he couldn’t stop himself.” Pretty fuckin’ awesome, huh?
Anyway, I finally found my notes right after NOS4A2 was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, which it totally deserves. It was the best horror novel I read in 2013.
A friend asked me recently, “What’s the premise? Is it about a vampire?”
That’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Yeah, it’s sort of about a vampire, but not like any vampire you’ve seen before. It’s a big, deep, rich book about a lot of things. That’s why it’s so good.
The monster at the heart of the story is Charles Manx, a creepy old bastard who abducts kids and takes them to a dark fantasy realm called Christmasland. He’s your nosferatu, but he and his demonic Rolls Royce Wraith don’t consume blood, they consume souls. Children who end up in the back seat of Charlie’s car are drained mile by mile until there’s “nothing left in them but hate and teeth.”
So it’s also a demonic car story, but again, not quite like any you’ve ever read, although it does consciously riff on that and other themes frequented by Hill’s father, Stephen King, along with a treasure chest of other geek culture references and Easter eggs. It’s a fun ride.
It’s also about motherhood, and madness, regret and redemption, and the nature of art.
It’s about Vic McQueen, a tough chick who was the only one of Manx’s victims to escape, and who has since spent her life thinking she might be insane because of the things she’s seen. You see, Vic has a magical vehicle too, a bike that enables her to travel through the Shorter Way Bridge and traverse the distance from Lost to Found. She starts out using this portal to locate lost objects, and later uses it to track down Manx after he has abducted her son.
It’s a high concept, big metaphor story that never gets bogged down in all that meaning, because it moves like a high-octane muscle car.
NOS4A2 has a rock n roll heart, but I found myself hearing “Amazing Grace” while riding with Vic, because she’s fighting to keep her shit together while moving from lost to found on many levels.
One of the big themes of NOS4A2 is that we all have an inner world, and with the right tool some people can turn their inscape into an external, tangible thing that others can experience. It’s what Manx does with his car to manifest the realm of Christmasland, what Vic does with her bike to find the bridge, and what Hill does with his pen to immerse you in this crazy, dark, utterly believable fantasia.
Like David Mitchell, Joe Hill is a master of writing about two things at once with subtle economy. Check out these lines from a scene in which Vic and Lou (the father of her child) finally talk about her past at a Fourth of July picnic:
Lou was waiting for something to detonate—it was coming, any moment now—when Vic wandered over with her hands shoved down in that army jacket of hers and said, “This chair for me?”
The emotional potential of the scene is front-loaded in the setting, a fireworks display, which presents an opportunity to do a whole lot of story work with just a few razor sharp lines of dialog because of the association to her father, a demolitions expert.
“ANFO. It’s an explosive. What my dad uses to take out stumps and boulders and bridges and so on. It’s basically a big, slippery bag of horseshit, engineered to destroy things.”
“What is? ANFO? Or your dad?”
Just one example of a scene that does more than you realize at the time because of how entertaining it is. It’s also the scene that Hill featured in a great blog post he wrote about his drafting process. That post actually got me to start re-typing my late drafts in full because I’m a masochist and Joe is my Sensei.
The man has some serious chops and NOS4A2 gives him the room to use them. It’s a tour de force that finds him at the top of his game, simultaneously scaring the shit out of you and making you laugh. You can tell he’s having fun when the language can shift from the road poetry of this passage…
How she loved the smell of the road: asphalt baking and soft in high July, dirt roads with their dust-and-pollen perfume in June, country lanes spicy with the odor of crushed leaves in sober October, and the sand-and-salt smell of the highway, so like an estuary, in February.
…to this image of Vic in a leather jacket and no pants scaring away a pack of yuppie bikers just a few paragraphs later:
She raised her bottle of whiskey to them and wolf-whistled with her free hand, and they grabbed their throttles and took off, tailpipes between their legs.
We get pretty deep into Vic’s character: her backstory, her creativity, and her rough-around-the-edges persona. The supporting cast is also well developed. I adored the geeky, overweight Lou, and found Bing (aka the Gas Mask Man) at times more terrifying than his boss, Charlie Manx. But it never feels like all of that character exploration slows the story down.
And that might be the author’s greatest accomplishment. At almost 700 pages, with a story that spans decades and the breadth the continent, NOS4A2 is an epic. But oddly, it doesn’t feel like one. It’s almost like an optical illusion. You never feel like you’ve spent 700 pages slogging toward Christmasland with the crawling pace of a trip to Mordor. I suspect it’s because we flip back and forth quite a bit in both time and space. Hill even breaks chapters in mid-sentence and titles the next chapter with the end of that dangling line just to keep moving the reader forward into new places, speeding along with barely a breath to notice the transition. In the end the book itself becomes a kind of Shorter Way Bridge from Near to Far, and from Lost to Found.
Joe Hill knows exactly what he’s doing, and comes closest to commenting on it in the voice of Maggie Leigh, a librarian who uses magical Scrabble tiles for divination. Here she is about to consult them near the climax of the book:
She had a brief window in which to use the tiles, to force sense out of gibberish: a minute or two at most. It seemed to her sometimes that this was the only fight that mattered: the struggle to take the world’s chaos and make it mean something, to put it to words.
Here’s an interview I did recently for the program Write Now with Gayle Henney on HCTV. Got to talk about samurai swords, dirty cops, beheading, and book promotion.
There’s been a lot of online debate lately about the benefits of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. Some of the best summary of that debate can be found at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, and I’ve followed it with interest but haven’t participated much because most of the time it doesn’t look like a debate so much as a food fight or a shit flinging frenzy in the monkey house. Chuck is a braver pen monkey than I. He doesn’t mind putting on the Hazmat suit and venturing in there on a regular basis.
But I might finally have something to contribute.
A radical idea.
A guiding light.
A pole star by which the intrepid up-and-coming author might steer his or her ship.
It’s great that authors have so many options these days in the digital marketplace, but it can be difficult to navigate the world of publishing and I think most writers will find themselves circling around certain questions as they progress.
Should I self publish? Should I seek an agent? Should I submit to small presses? Should I sign with this particular agent or press? Should I blog? Should I write short stories? Novellas? Should I write this idea or that?
Most of the people arguing about Kindle Direct Publishing vs. Gatekeepers, most of the folks trying to interpret Hugh Howey’s author earnings charts like some kind of ink blot derived from a printout of a photo of Jesus’s face descried in the water stain on the ceiling that is Amazon’s Author Central ratings…they’re framing all of the above questions in relation to the Big Question:
Will I make more money if I do X?
Sure, money is important if you aspire to do something professionally. For me writing is a second job that I put a lot of hours into. Hours away from my family and friends. Hours that could be spent playing guitar or going to the dojo, or watching movies. Of course I want it to pay off in the long run, and it’s starting to.
But I suggest that a better Big Question for writers is:
Will it help me up my game?
Take that as your pole star.
Will writing this book or that book next help me up my game?
Will querying agents who will only look at the first five pages of my novel force me to scrutinize those pages and hone them into razor sharp, mirror polished steel? Hell yes, that’s a trial worth engaging in because it will force you to up your game.
Will clicking PUBLISH on Amazon temper your work in the same fire? Ehhh….
Will working with a great editor who had to earn his job with a publisher push me to up my game? Yes.
Will writing short stories or tweets or blog posts help me to hone my craft and up my game? Only you can answer this for yourself, but asking the question might affect your approach to such endeavors.
Will self-publishing and getting my work in front of people who can critique it in reviews help me to up my game? Maybe.
You have to decide how much of your growth you want to do in public, right?
If you are looking to paying customers to provide the pressure that will turn coal into a diamond, you’re also leaving a public trail of your development. I guess any published author who continues to work at improving their craft is also growing up in front of an audience, but I believe that “gate keepers” are valuable because in the early stages of your career when you don’t have a lot of perspective on your own work, it’s kind of cool that the rejections and critiques are kept between you and an agent or editor who knows better.
I’m aware that bad books do get published by big houses, but I also feel sure that Hugh Howey’s Wool would have been a success no matter how it was published because it’s a damned fine story by a writer who had honed his craft before putting it out there.
If you want to be a pro, you should develop yourself before you sell yourself.
Even in the little choices throughout the day, you can keep asking this question. There’s a place for marketing and for educating yourself about the marketplace, but if you have twenty minutes of reading time available to you on a busy day, you might ask yourself what it’s best spent on. Will reading your Facebook or Twitter feed and related links help you to up your game? How about reading a few pages of a great book?
I have musician friends who practice non-stop to perfect their technique, even when they have no intention of gigging, because mastering music is a heroic quest to them. Others may find that the experience of playing in front of people is something they have to force themselves to do because it develops different skills and helps them to master their nerves under pressure.
I remember my Ear Training teacher at Berklee, an old jazz cat, laying this hard-ass lecture on us:
(Morgan Freeman voice)
“You can go on ahead and make music without practicing. Sure. Go on and do it for the love. But don’t book a gig and subject the general public to your lack of musicianship. Don’t make those poor people paying their hard earned cash for a good time on a Saturday night suffer through your not giving a shit about being in tune. That’s just wrong.”
I know this ain’t Medicine or Law and you don’t need credentials to practice an art, but looking at the writing community, I’m often reminded of the martial arts. My six-year-old has been doing karate for almost a year now, and he’s somewhat motivated by the color of his belt. He’ll also tell you that he knows most of the kicks and punches already. And yeah, he “knows” them, but all of the adult black belts I’ve met will tell you that learning the full range of techniques and proving that you can execute them under pressure is just the beginning. When I took my first black belt test I was told that a black belt is kind of like a Bachelor’s degree. It’s a starting point, a basic competence that says you’re ready to embark on the real work of refining your technique and developing your own unique strengths.
I suggest that more writers should view getting published in those terms. A professional editor, publisher, or agent is a kind of sensei. They’ve seen a lot of red belts who thought they were ready for the tournament get the shit kicked out of them. There’s something to be said for finding a sensei who will push you beyond your comfort zone into a new range where you don’t know if you can meet the challenge. There’s something to be said for the day when your sensei tells you you’re ready to go out there and do it for real, and that it doesn’t mean you’re perfect or finished. Because it’s never time to rest on the laurels of your belt color, or your publishing contract, or your audience. It’s just time to keep working.
Keep asking: Will this help me level up? Will this choice challenge and refine me? Is it for my ego or for my craft?
On Sunday night, after browsing for a good horror movie on Netflix and Amazon, I took a chance on Absentia, and I’m glad I did. This indie film does a lot to combine creepy suspense with a few good jolts, using little more than an apartment, a tunnel, good acting and great writing.
The story centers on a pair of estranged sisters who reunite after the younger, Callie, gets out of rehab and moves in with Tricia, who is single and expecting a baby. Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years. She has finally given up on finding him, and is in the process of filing for a certificate of “Death in Absentia.”
The backstory and relationships are efficiently established through dialog and visual cues, along with subtleties of the acting, and it doesn’t take long to be drawn into caring about the characters. The first scares come early too. The missing husband haunts Tricia, and there’s some great tension generated by the psychological aspect of what she’s going through. These are sophisticated characters who would be at home in an indie drama, so it becomes unnerving to watch them grasping at the straws of rational explanations when the weirdness escalates. Tricia has good reason to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her, burdened as she is with guilt and conflicted about letting go of her lost husband, while Callie’s personal baggage comes packed with the questionable perceptions of an addict.
Much of the POV is through Callie’s eyes, and I’m eager to see what actress Katie Parker does next. Her girl-next-door good looks never undermine her emotional credibility, so that even in the one scene where she’s looking for monsters in little more than a long t-shirt, she manages to defy expectations and avoid cliché’. No small feat in this sort of film.
Another cool theme was the differing spiritual orientations of the two sisters. Callie has recently found Christianity in recovery, while Tricia is using Buddhist meditation to cope with the stress of her situation. Ultimately, neither watered-down worldview is adequate in the face of primordial evil (never mind the impotence of good old fashioned police work), and I enjoyed being ushered into a corner where terrifying superstition becomes the only sane perspective. An undercurrent of irrational dread drones below the reassurances of the therapist and detective characters, infusing the film with an effective Lovecraftian atmosphere.
At a time when CGI has come so far that directors of blockbusters can show us any monster in vivid detail, this Kickstarter funded horror flick reminded me that in horror, less is often more, and sometimes limits can be sources of power. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. When Absentia does show you something visceral, it’s often fleeting and out of focus, but never lacking significance, so that a little goes a long way. Especially at the end. Which is all I’m gonna say about that, because you should see it for yourself.
H.P. Lovecraft knew how to write a hook. Say what you will about his adjective addiction or his lapses into florid prose; one place where he knew how to get to the point was in an opening line. He may have meandered a bit after getting your attention (and I’d argue that’s part of his charm), but in his pulp fiction heart Lovecraft understood the importance of grabbing you right away to earn your patience, and his stories consistently showcase his mastery of the intriguing opening.
I’m currently writing a novel with a strong Lovecraftian influence, so I’ve been revisiting his body of work, and recently, while discussing hooks with a young writer I’m mentoring, I realized that any horror writer, no matter how modern their style, would do well to look at Lovecraft’s openings for good examples of powerful hooks. Here are my top ten favorites from the gentleman of Providence.
10. THE DUNWICH HORROR
When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.
Subtle and atmospheric but for me the hook is that it’s a WRONG turn. You wouldn’t go there on purpose. And that makes me curious about that curious country.
9. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS
I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why.
The reluctant narrator. He doesn’t want to talk about this shit but no one will heed his warnings without an explanation? I’m in. Give up the goods.
May the merciful gods, if indeed there be such, guard those hours when no power of the will, or drug that the cunning of man devises, can keep me from the chasm of sleep.
Um, dude, are you okay? What’s so bad about falling asleep? Could it be the dreams?
7. THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK
Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge.
Dead body introduced by a rational, journalistic voice that you just know is going to suggest that something far stranger than lightning killed Mr. Blake.
6. THE DESCENDANT
In London there is a man who screams when the church bells ring.
And I want to know why.
5. HERBERT WEST – REANIMATOR
Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror.
All about dissonant juxtaposition. Why would the memory of a longtime friend become a source of extreme terror?
4. THE CALL OF CTHULHU
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This one’s a classic. A concise philosophical statement that makes you wonder why connecting the dots and reaching certain conclusions would be so bad that your ignorance is the ultimate mercy.
3. THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS
Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.
What end? And WTF did you see, exactly, if that’s your opening?
I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.
Top that! Hard to do, but I believe the man himself did with…
1. THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP
It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.
Possibly one of the best opening lines in all of horror literature. Within 31 words you know that some heavy shit went down. You want to know why one bullet through the head wasn’t enough. Was emptying the gun enough? And how is he not his friend’s murderer? Put a paradox like that up front with highly specific details and visceral language and promise to resolve it in the story that follows, and you have me eating out of your hand.
What do you think, did I miss any of your favorites? Which of Lovecraft’s opening lines hooked you on his writing?
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first draft of my third novel (a cosmic horror/terrorism thriller mashup) is almost finished. Most days I’m having fun with it. There are a lot of cool elements and crazy scenes that I can’t wait to unleash on readers, but the writing process has also been fraught with uncertainty. I mean, it usually is, but maybe more so for this book. Or maybe I just don’t remember the doubts I had about the other books when I was writing them because by the time they’re finished they make sense and it gets harder to recall the days when they didn’t and the times when I struggled to find the path forward. I’m also working faster than I ever have before because now I have deadlines, so that could have something to do with it.
I’m an intuitive writer, a seat-of-the-pants improviser who does a fair amount of revision. I can’t see what’s at the top of the staircase when I put my foot on the first step. For me, that uncertainty keeps the writing fresh and spontaneous. I never feel like I’m just transcribing some preordained plot. But it also means that I arrive at junctures along the way where it’s hard to put words down because I just have no idea what happens next.
At those times I always ask WWCD? What would this character do? Not what should I make this character do to move the plot from A to B or C to D. What would she do next that is most true to her background, personality, hopes, fears and motivation at this moment based on everything I know about her. If I can write a scene in which the character makes her next move based on those authentic influences, then the story takes a step forward on solid footing. And then I pick another character and ask the same question: WWCD? And this person—ally or antagonist to the main character—comes up to bat with all of their own drives and flaws and tendencies.
If I know my characters well enough, if I know what makes them tick, they will inevitably have experiences that involve tension and conflict, love and hate, victory and defeat just by interacting with each other under the pressures of the premise.
As long as the premise and characters are rich with opposing forces, you don’t need to plot. This is nice because the reader never gets that feeling that the characters are just slot cars propelled around a track that was already laid out before the writer pulled the trigger.
Regarding premise, or situation, it’s a well-worn axiom that speculative fiction is born of the question “What if?” But that question is good for more than just starting a story. I keep it in my front pocket all the way through, and the notes of mine that most resemble an outline are lists of what if, what if, what if… Over and over again through various permutations, most of them rejected if they don’t jive with the internal logic of the story or the integrity of the characters.
Some writers get good results from plotting. Their brains just work differently from mine. I think I might try outlining my next book in advance because for once I know how that one will end. The ending came with the concept and I’ll probably have to build back from it to some extent, but the energy of that story still comes from what I know about the characters.
I think most of us read for the characters. To experience extreme empathy within the safe context of fiction, to vicariously escape into different points of view, to wonder what we would do in someone else’s shoes. So my advice to writers who are trying to find the confidence to start telling a story that they can’t yet see the end or even the middle of is Know Thy Characters. They will show you the way. When you get lost, dig deeper into the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my way through a story as intuitively (blindly) as I’m doing with this one, but I’m pretty sure if I let the characters keep doing what they need to do, everything will fall into place. Soon.