Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oh, the Horror!

A friend and fellow writer has turned her fiction endeavors toward horror, specifically short stories, and has proven to have an aptitude for the macabre. Several of her stories have been published, or are waiting publication, and in a genre she didn't expect.

I didn't expect to have an association with the horror genre, either, but have been volunteering as a submissions reader (slush reader) and a proofer for Fear and Trembling online magazine for almost two years. There was a call for help, and I signed on -- for the experience and the practice, if nothing else.

My friend's creativity was set free by exploring a new genre; I may read for it, but have yet to write anything frightening enough to make folks turn the page, let alone turn on all the lights.

However, this horror magazine gig has reinforced a few principles that seem tired to some writers who submit their work there -- principles so tired, in fact, that many of these writers feel no need to abide by them, things like "Show, don't tell," or "Learn to spell, dagnabbit!"

Actually, one thing that has been hammered into my skull after reading so many bad submissions is this: "Don't waste the reader's time."

In other words:

Get to the point.

Don't meander.

Don't load the beginning with the back story.

Don't be cute.

Don't try to appear lofty, intellectual, or literary.

Don't get so wrapped up in your style that you forget to tell the story.

Don't rely on gimmicks i.e. no gore for gore's sake.

Don't rely on foul language to make your characters tough or your fiction gritty. Any fool can cuss.

Skip the sentiment, and go straight to the heart. If you want readers to feel the love, show the love. If you want them to feel the fear, make them afraid.

Don't over-write; stop explaining. If you tell the story in a clear, concise manner, your readers are smart enough to understand it.

Keep your promises. Don't mislead readers into thinking they're getting one kind of story but you deliver another. If you introduce a plot element, follow through.

Don't use opening hooks that go nowhere. If you start with a bang, don't end with a whimper.

Tell the story first, and worry about the word count later. If you tell a good story, and you tell it well, editors are apt to ease that word limit to include excellent fiction in their publication. As Jerry Jenkins said in the quote I included in my previous post, "(A) good book can't be long enough for my taste. And a bad book can't be short enough."


The Texican said...

I have a whole shelf of books on "Rules For Writing" and you have aptly summarized the entire library in this post. I could have saved hundreds of dollars if you had written this post earlier. I am going to post a horror feature on Wordless Wednesday today. I hope you enjoy it. Pappy

Keanan Brand said...

Tex - Maybe I'm just now taking my own advice: I'm getting to the point. (Wish a few preachers I've known would do the same, and more than one politician.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the compliments! I never thought I'd be writing horror.(and liking it!) I really pictured myself either writing sci-fi set in far future worlds, or that castle stuff I took a stab at years ago.
Not to say that I can't change literary genres sometime. I would like to try good old-fashioned suspense.
Great list, Keanan. Especially the TS Eliot reference(did you do that intentionally?) "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang, but with a whimper". But good stories shouldn't end that way!
Thanks for all your encouragement!

Jeff Draper said...

Excellent rules. I've read slush before and so I wholeheartedly agree with the greatest commandment: Don't waste the reader's time.

Alexander Field said...

Interesting Keanan...I know a filmmaker who turned to making horror films and he found it a medium useful for satire and commentary; and when he showed the dark, he was also able to show the light. Good luck weeding through all the tired submissions...can be fun when you find that gem, right?

Keanan Brand said...

Jade - I wasn't consciously channeling Eliot, but some of his stuff is such a part of my reading past (in school) that it's natural if some of it surfaces now and then.

I say, write what you wanna write!

Jeff - I've read some of your posts about wading through the slush in search of a great story; it can be discouraging to encounter so much mediocrity, or it can be an excellent motivator i.e. "Please, God, let me write better than that!"

Alex - Yes, it's fun to read a story that is so well written and so engaging that I laugh out loud when I read it. (Yes, laugh. I know, I know, it's the horror genre. Work with me here!) Those stories often send me back to my own work with renewed energy.