In part two of On Writing, King gives an overview of what he considers the essential tools for every writer’s toolbox.  The analogy is interesting, and the story he provides at the start demonstrates an excellent point: Always have all your tools with you so you can tackle any unexpected situation.

So what goes in this metaphorical toolbox?

The first layer consists of common tools.  The most common tool, per King, is vocabulary.  It’s something we all have to varying degrees.  I really appreciate King’s take on vocabulary, which is essentially, learn to use what you have and don’t worry about developing more.  Your vocabulary develops as a by-product of reading.  All writers are readers first, right?

The other common tool is grammar, and it goes on the top along with vocabulary.  He covers two fundamental issues in grammar: passive voice, and use of adverbs.  These are pretty common topics in discussions of grammar.  His reason for the mistakes really got me thinking.  He attributes both mistakes to a form of fear.  For passive voice, King thinks that timid writers use passive voice because it’s safe and because it lends some sort of authority to their writing.  Adverbs, on the other hand, come from the writer’s fear of being unclear.  King believes that “fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Good writing is about letting go of fear.

The second layer in the toolbox contains style.  Aside from the usual reference book recommendation, King concentrates on the paragraph as a good measure of style.  How the writer uses it to break up the page and follow the beats of the story can show the difficulty of reading the work.  Easy reading has short paragraphs and white space, hard reading looks dense.  In fiction, the paragraph requires less structure than in other writing.  He compares it to talking, and its use can be an act of seducing the reader.  It’s the music the writer hears in his/her head.  He says that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, and that to learn it well is to learn the beat.

King also talks about commitment throughout this section, and how a writer’s first goal should be to help the reader out.  Words have weight, they take a lot of work to put together, and can demand a lot from a reader to digest.  In writing, we must be considerate and mindful of the reader, always working towards clarity and  brevity, to keep the reader from drowning in a sea of words.

King wraps up by talking about the third layer, which is to write real fiction.  Stop the fear, build your works as a carpenter builds a house, one brick or board at a time.  Build your writing with the basics, and you can build whatever you like.

That’s it for the toolbox.  I think King does an excellent job of reminding us as writers just how far basic skills will take you.

Learn the basics, lose the fear.

It’s wonderful how much we can learn from stories, particularly when well told.  Stephen King spends the first part of his book, On Writing, by walking the reader through a series of ‘fogged-out’ memories.  The book itself is about writing.  But he sets the stage by doing what he does best, and tells the story of what made him what he is today.

I can’t say if it was intentional on his part, but in telling what he considers his “C.V.”, King demonstrates a series of important lessons that were critical in shaping him.  Notice I said demonstrate.  I think this is, perhaps, one of the first aspects he teaches us.  His book is about writing, but instead of listing out a series of lessons, he shows us what he learned and how he learned it.  It is a vehement adherence to the old adage of “show, don’t tell”.  I’ve read too many books and articles on writing that do little more than list out rules or guidelines or maxims or adages or aphorisms or whatever word you want to use.  But, in the end, they’re nothing more than a handful of words on a page that leave the reader with little more than a sense that there’s something to memorize.  There’s no feeling in the lessons they impart, no connection to the reader.  Just rules.

I also think that each person who reads his book will come away with different insights based on how they relate King’s stories to themselves.  I’ll recount what I learned from this, but by no means is this an exhaustive list of lessons to be found.  It’s one of those things that you simply must read for yourself in order to get at the real value.

Humor and Horror are very close cousins.  As writers, we don’t necessarily need to avoid one in favor of the other.  King emphasizes that having a sense of humor is important.  Rather, we need to be aware of both and conscious of when we cross the line between the two.  He learned this (sort of) early on from his experience with a baby sitter who would fart on his face.  Boy could I relate - for me, it was my brother.  He also tells the story of how he was cut off the list for being in Honor Society due to his sense of humor, and how he’s happy to have humor over prestige any day.

Good ideas don’t come from some common place that we must learn to tap.  For him, they come from taking two unrelated things and putting them together.  He demonstrates this by discussing how the ideas for several of his stories appeared.  This is pretty common advice anymore, but I think he does a really good job of demonstrating it.

Even Stephen King felt shame about his writing.  I just can’t imagine this guy ever being ashamed of his writing, but he lays it out.  Early on, there were people in his life, authority figures, who thought that writing horror was a waste of his talent.  That shame stuck with him for a while.  There’s always going to be someone who will try to make you feel bad about your ability to create and how you choose to use it.  Don’t let it keep you down.  That’s a tough one to deal with.  I know I’ve experienced shame, I even tried to set my desire to write aside, chalk it up to some sort of childish endeavor.  But it caught up with me.  There’s misery in letting other people manipulate you through shame.

The first draft of a story is you telling it to yourself.  The second draft and beyond are you telling it to someone else.  This is one I personally struggle with.  The perfectionist in me wants to do it right the first time and be done with it.  I have no idea why that’s part of my personality.  I suppose, if I look at my parents, there’s something of a perfectionist in each of them.  But it’s also not fair for me to attribute that to them at my age.  I think part of it is also living in the 9 to 5 culture.  When someone is paying you by the hour, they’re not inclined to just let you try until you get it right.  I’ve also read that perfectionism is a form of fear, a way of delaying the end of something.  Sounds weird, but okay, I guess it’s possible.  Whatever the reason, the important thing is that I’m aware of it now, and I can work on giving myself permission to use the first draft to tell myself the story.  Then I can go back and rewrite it for everyone else.

King gets into this idea of work ethic, which is not something I’ve every really heard directly associated with writing (or any creative endeavor).  It’s more than just perseverance.  He talks about a poem his wife wrote when they were still in school.  Part of what made the poem so appealing to him was that, in a time when people were just writing crap out of thin air (my words, not his), she constructed a poem with intent and full understanding of what she was trying to accomplish.  I can really relate to this.  My undergraduate work involved several poetry writing classes.  I saw my fair share of words thrown together with disregard to craft.  I did my fair share, as well.  In the long run, it’s unsatisfying for everyone involved.

During a rough period in his life, when he was working hard and felt like he was just repeating his mother’s life, King finds himself thinking that that isn’t what his life was supposed to be.  I suppose at one time or another we may all think this, and he admits as much.  The difference, and this isn’t anything unique to writing, is that King did something about it.  Even when the writing was hard, when it came infrequently, and the day-to-day drained his life away, he never gave up.  This is a quality most successful people share, and I think it also relates to work ethic.  Never give up.

Even from the start, King had emotional support.  His mother encouraged him, and later on, his wife encouraged him.  This isn’t advice for the writer, but for those around him or her.  King sums it up: “Just believing is usually enough.”

King gives background on the story of Carrie.  He drafted three single-spaced pages of the novel, and then threw them away.  His wife recovered them later, and encouraged  him to work on it (there’s the support), but what I found really interesting is why he threw those pages away in the first place.  He gives four reasons, and provides them in order from least important to most important:

  1. It didn’t move him emotionally.
  2. He didn’t like the lead character.
  3. He wasn’t comfortable with the setting or the all-female cast of characters.
  4. The story wouldn’t pay off unless it was pretty long - longer than what the men’s magazine market supported at the time.  He didn’t think he could sell it.

Look at that list again - it speaks volumes about King’s work ethic and his sense of writing as a business.  The least important thing on his list was that it didn’t move him emotionally.  The most important was whether or not he could sell it.  It turns out that he was wrong about #4, but the point is, it was at the forefront of his mind when writing.  He treated it as a career, it was a source of income for him and his family, not some esoteric activity he did on the side.  I suppose some might think these priorities aren’t in the right order, but I think they are.  In order to be an author, one must recognize and engage in writing as a business as well as a creative endeavor.  Writing a book is easy.  Sit down and bang away at a keyboard until you’ve produced somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 words.  That doesn’t make you an author, although it’s good practice and a necessary part.  Sit down and do the same thing with all the awareness and intent of one doing business, producing something that has market value, and now you’re an author.  It doesn’t have to be a big market, but in the end, authorship comes through sales.  Okay, so I guess the first time through is for yourself, as discussed above.  But, it must be refined into marketable material.

King wraps up his C.V. with the story of his battle with drugs and alcohol.  Through it all, he kept writing.  In retrospect, it’s clear that many of the works he produced were related to this battle.  Some are more direct than others.  Part of writing fiction is developing metaphors for life, revealing truths through lies.  But in discussing his drug abuse and how his works relate to it, King gives a spectacular demonstration of fiction as a metaphor.  More importantly, though, is that King shows us that his fiction contains metaphors for his life.  That, I think, is key.  It’s a combination of the idea of metaphor and the idea of writing what you know.  Your work will likely contain metaphors for your own life, and getting in touch with those personal metaphors can help develop both your work and you.

There’s a little section after his C.V. called “What Writing Is”.  Kings spends just a few pages on the subject, but they provided an immense amount of clarity to me.  One of my problems is getting caught up in details.  I think it must be related to the perfectionist in me, but at times I think it’s also a form of procrastination.  Somewhere I read that writing is about the half-described gesture, and King says as much.  King describes writing as a form of telepathy, and that what’s important is the message, not the details.  Trust the receiver / reader to know what you’re talking about, that a cage need only be described as a cage if it’s not the core of the message.  He closes the section with some noteworthy advice:

Come to [the page] any way but lightly.  Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

…If you can take it seriously, we can do business.  If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.

I’m here to take it seriously.

The last section of “On Writing Horror” is all about the business aspect of being a writer.  It provides a nice overview of the current markets, good resources for research and promotion, and some worthwhile advice from editors and writers alike.

Here’s the advice I’m taking right now, given by Night Shade Books:

Write what you think is your best book.  Put it in a trunk and write another one.  Do this four times.  Then start sending your novels out for submission.

So, while it’s never to early to build awareness about the market, right now I’m focusing on building my writing skills.  If there’s nothing to sell, there’s nothing to market.

Oh, and the afterword by Harlan Ellison - quite cool.

I’m done with this book, moving on to the next.

Part 7 of On Writing Horror is titled “Genre and Subgenre”, but the 10 articles also cover concerns with medium as well (screenplay, theater, audio).

Archetypes and Fearful Allure: Writing Erotic Horror, Nancy Kilpatrick

I really struggled with this one.  Kilpatrick seems to rely heavily on the concept of Archetypes, and the just of her advice can be summed up in the following quote:

This means that the energy embedded in the image resonates with all readers because it taps into and stirs up the collective unconscious.

I don’t see anything practical in that sort of advice.  I mean, conceptually, it’s a neat way of thinking about it - Archetypes as a framework for developing characters can be useful.  But, I didn’t find any truly functional advice in here.

A few other things bothered me.  She makes a pretty bold statement when she addresses the balance between Erotic and Horror in a single story: “The story needs to perform on both levels equally.”  My problem is, this is a black and white statement.  The story works if it achieves and appropriate balance, not by achieving 100% equality on each side.

The rest of the article reiterated a lot of the same things as the other.  Reinforcement of good ideas, but nothing really new or useful to me personally.

Writing for the New Pulps: Horror-Themed Anthologies, John Maclay

This one interested me.  I always thought Anthologies were ‘invite only’ publications.  Goes to show how little I know about the publishing world.  Anyhow, Maclay and the editors he interviewed make some good cases for working with anthologies.

  • They are geared to sell, although not necessarily in a way that authors make significant money.
  • They are an opportunity for new authors to get published next to established authors.
  • They have taken the place of the old pulp magazines, many of which are dwindling or defunt.

Never considered it as an accessible market, now I will.  I guess that’s what I got from this.

Freaks and Fiddles, Banjos and Beasts: Writing Redneck Horror, Weston Ochse

Great introduction to Urban Horror.  Honestly, I’ve never really given much serious consideration to what exactly it is, but I really think Ochse gets to the heart of the matter.  Urban Horror is about isolation, not locale.  Urban Gothic, Brian Keene’s latest novel, is a great example of this concept.  It’s a standard Cannibal Clan story, along the lines of Wrong Turn or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it takes place in a New Jersey ghetto.  Intoday’s world, that ghetto in NJ is just as isolated as the solitary farm in Appalachia.

Ochse goes on to discuss what a Redneck is, and gives a comparison of the ‘stereotype’ with great examples from current works.  He boils it down to a perspective on the world that’s derived from the isolation, the lack of “book-learning” and a reliance on intuition.    He adds in this sort of fiction relies more heavily on dynamic characterization, but I think that’s a good target regardless of subgenre.

What really spoke to me in this piece is Ochse treatment of style.  He claims that Backwoods Horror is neither genre nor subgenre, but a style.  Maybe, maybe not.  The style he goes on to describe, though, is one I’ve found myself striving for as of late.  He says that “imagery fails as sentence structures expand”, and he cites Ed Lee as an example of strong prose through “active voice and transitive verbs.”  The writer still has to describe things to the reader, but:

This is done with short, declarative sentences and strong transitive verbs.  The reader gets the image in a one-two punch instead of a long visual wrestling match.

I’ve found that the more I focus on achieving this style of writing, the less my work wanders.  I guess in a way it forces me to get to the point, and I think it creates a fast pace for the reader regardless of the level of action.

Youth Gone Wild, Lee Thomas (aka Thomas Pendleton)

I’m not interested in writing YA stuff, but there are some interesting observations in here.  Thomas notes that teens are in a unique point in their lives, and I don’t think anyone can argue with that.  Teens are in a constant struggle, one that can serve as a metaphor for the human conditions of life and death, of movement and journey, and of loss.  These are all very powerful emotions that can serve as underpinnings for good horror.

The rest of the article covers usage of slang (sparingly, just like dialect), boundaries, and an overview of what editors look for in teen fiction.  Not interesting to me.

Writing Horror comic books - And Graphic Novels, David Campiti

This was another enlightening article.  As with anthologies, I personally never considered writing comic books.  Much of the actual writing advice in here is a rehash of ideas presented throughout with some focus on comics, but the gem is revealing how lucrative comic books actually be for a writer.

Acts of Madness: Writing Horror for the Stage, Lisa Morton

I have no interest in being a playwright.  Morton’s article covers the peculiarities of being a playwright, from working with a company to the mechanics of portraying visceral horror on the stage.  But, I personally found nothing in there that would help me be a better writer.  Not a shortcoming of the article, just a mismatch of interests.

Fear Spins Off: The Tie-In Novel Comes Into Its Own, Yvonne Navarro

Tie-Ins are a long way off for me.  If ever.  Actually, probably never.  I prefer to work in my world, not someone else’s.  Navarro makes it pretty clear that Tie-Ins are really only available to writers who have proven themselves, so experience and reliability are key to even getting a chance in this space.

I found it interesting that Tie-Ins are usually written just from the script.  It explains why the visualizations contained in the novel version often stray quite a bit from the movie.

The Play’s the Thing on the Doorstep: Writing Video and Role-Playing Games, Richard E. Dansky

Another one I’m not interested in at this point.  I’m just trying to be a better writer!  Anyhow, writing for rpgs and video games is clearly a team sport.  Dansky does a nice job of delineating the writer’s role in both processes.

Now Fear This: Writing horror for Audio Theater, Scott Hicky and Robert Madia

Another interesting medium to work with, one I might tackle some day.  What I found really interesting, although not surprising, is that dialog has to spell things out for the listener.  What makes for good dialog in print makes for terribly ambiguous audio scripting.

Hicky and Madia also make the claim that “…the time is ripe for a comeback of the genre in new and emerging media.”  Okay, yes, the Internet  certainly provides a readily accessible channel for setting audio theater.  But, having an accessible channel doesn’t mean this will make a comeback.  I’m not arguing against it, but I didn’t see anything in the article aside from “the internet makes it so” to support this statement.  Is there an audience for it?  In the face of competition from the likes of On-Demand cable and streaming video like YouTube, is there a contingent of folks other than the nostalgic few to make and keep audio theater horror as a viable market?  I don’t know, but it seems counterintuitive to me.

Good Characters and Cool Kills: Writing the Horror Screenplay, Brendan Deneen

What I got most from Deneen’s article is a sense of proportion.  He covers the issues of premise, protagonist, villian, kills, second act, and conclusion, much of it similar to what’s been said before.

In his discussion on Second Act and Conclusion, he gets at something not really covered.  The idea of timing (or pacing), and how it needs to be tracked and manipulated to meet audience expectation.  He talks in terms of screen time, but I think it’s an important notion.  In order to keep things moving along, to keep the audience engaged in the middle, the story must have layers.  And, it’s during the second act that those layers are explored and peeled back, momentarily leaving the prime horror element to explore the lives of the characters.  It’s a good framework, I think, for tackling the middle of any story, not just screenplays.  The conlcusion, then, serves to tie all the layers together.  He adds that in a screenplay, the conclusion should be open-ended enough for a sequel.

One other bit Deneed pulled out that I had not put any thought into is that the protagonist and villain should have a direct connection.  When I read it, I thought, “duh”.  But in considering my current work, I realized I had not made a direct connection yet between the two.  So, I got some work ahead of me.

NB: All in all, I didn’t get a lot out of this section.  I think that’s because it covers so much in such broad terms that there’s bound to be parts that aren’t of interest to all horror writers.

Part 6 of On Writing Horror is titled “Tradition and Modern Times”, a series of articles covering horror tradition and its place in our modern literature.

No More Silver Mirrors: The Monster in Our Times, Karen E. Taylor

Taylor addresses how the old monsters can be made new again.  She’s got some good advice, and I’ll get to that in a second, but there’s something she says early on that is direct opposition to what at least one other author claims in this series of articles.  Taylor states:

…modern readers are more sophisticated than their parents and grandparents.  Today’s readers also require credible premises and explanations; they want things to be scientifically possible.

I added the emphases.  Compare this to what Winter states in section 5:

But today, explanation, whether supernatural or rational, is simply not the business of horror fiction.

Again, I added the emphasis.  Who’s right?  What’s going on here?  At first blush, they do seem to contradict one another.  But, based on the advice Taylor goes into, I think they are consistent with each other.  I took Winter to mean that the modern story itself need not necessarily address the reason for the events it contains.  To me, he’s speaking to whether or not the internals of the story must link to an external reason.  Taylor, on the other hand, is speaking in terms of internal consistency.

She first addresses the question of consistency and the rules of your story.  She suggests that, unless you as the writer know the rules for your ‘monster’, you cannot meet reader expectation and deliver a believable story.  So, whether you start with a vampire or a werewolf, you must first understand and commit to the rules of the trope.  And then, you can decide which ones to break.  But, when you break the rules, you must remain internally consistent.

The other two bits of advice she offers are to spend time in characterization of your monster and to know your reader.  I don’t recall the first being addressed in any other articles, and it’s good advice for the modern horror writer.  It seems that a generalization of the horror genre is the stupid, lumbering, unstoppable force of the monster, a thing to be reckoned with rather than a person to interact with.  She suggests taking the time to provide the reader with your monster’s point-of-view, and that by doing so, you can help the reader better understand the internal and external processes that make this monster a possibility.  Again, the explanation lies not in locating a foundation in reality, but in creating an internally consist world where that monster can and does exist.

The part about knowing your reader is common advice, but no less important.  In the context of the article, Taylor is emphasizing that in order to create and maintain the consistency while using the venerable monsters of old, you must as a writer address the reader’s expectations.  You don’t have to meet the expectation, but if you’re going to violate an expectation, you must create the internal consistency that will help the reader accept your violation.

Fresh Blood from Old Wounds: The Alchemist Meets the Biochemist, Joseph Curtin

I personally did not get a lot from this article, I think primarily due to its subject matter.  Curtin describes how the modern horror writer can leverage current-day science to enhance or refresh old tropes.  He cites how Dean Koontz refreshed Frankenstein in his series of books, and how Michael Crichton refreshed The Lost World with Jurassic Park.  These story achieved a freshness by enhancing the old story with current scientific thought on how the ‘monsters’ could be produced.

He also talks about the modern social fear is in Biotechnology, and relates that to the Cold War terror of the prior generation.

To me, this is an advocation of explaining the beast and tying it to an external plausibility.  It’s good advice, but for me, it’s not necessarily relevant.  My current interest and focus is in leveraging myth as a basis for horror, not leveraging science.  If and when I change focus, I’ll be sure to come back and revisit this article to prime myself.

More Simply Human, Tracy Knight

Knight’s article gives some great insight into characterization of personality and mental disorders.  He cites some common errors in representing these and a list of reference material that writer’s can use to validate or help ensure that they’re portraying these things accurately.  He also clearly states that he’s not advocating the use of mental disorder, but just wants to help make sure that it is done accurately.

  • Aside from the reference material, Knight goes on to clear up a few common misconceptions.
  • Current psychotherapy goes well beyond Freud.  Know and make use of contemporary techniques.
  • Take care not to stereotype based on the reference material.  Not everyone has every symptom.
  • People who are unbalanced are, in fact, less likely to be unpredictable due to the nature of mental illness.  People with personality disorders are more rigid, predictable, and inflexible than the rest of us in terms of their perception and interactions.
  • The behavior of people with mental disorders is not without goals.  Every behavior has a goal, and they are coherent and consistent with how each of us views the world.
  • Everyone does what they believe to be their best.

Some of Knight’s advice, particularly the last two, I think demonstrate that people with mental or personality disorders are still human like the rest of us.

The Possibility of the Impossible, Tom Piccirilli

This is the first time I’ve ever really considered the close relationship between horror and humor.  Piccirilli does a great job of demonstrating how both derive from the surreal - the juxtaposition of the normal and abnormal  Combining things in new and interesting ways also provides the writer with the ability to create new and interesting metaphors.  And that is foundational to all fiction, in my opinion.  Like Taylor, Piccirilli also stresses the importance of internal logic or consistency in creating the illusion.

Take a Scalpel to Those Tropes, W. D. Gagliani

Gagliani rehashes the previously presented ideas of combining old things in new ways to innovate and altering the rules for freshness.  What I liked about this particular article is that Gagliani uses this short piece as a practical demonstration through one of his own works. Nothing new, but it serves to reinforce some very useful ideas.

That Spectered Isle: Tradition, Sensibility, and Delivery Or Ghosts? What Ghosts?, Steven Savile

While the premise of Savile’s article is about the difference between American and British horror, the real value to me is in getting yet another perspective on horror without monsters.  He gives 2 resasons for what he calls the “British Sensility”:

Britain has a long history and rich heritage that is filled with ghost stories.

Brain has a heritage of “withstanding atrocities with that stubborn stiff upper lip”.

What he lead to is that the most frightening things to the British audience are those that can’t be seen.  So, the most frightening things are those based on internals - social ills, ghosts, stuff that can’t be seen.  I think what he is driving at is that there’s tremendous value for the modern horror author in working with things less tangible than the old vampires and werewolves.   I wasn’t really getting a point from him until he brought up Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.  It works so well because it drives the reader into the head of a madman.  Aside from the gruesome acts of the main character, being inside his head adds an element of horror beyond.

New Horrors: A Roundtable Discussion of Horror Today and Tomorrow, Joe Nassise (moderator)

I don’t have much to say on this.  All four authors (Pat Tremblay, Gary Frank, Melinda Thielbar, Nate Kenyon) provide some good advice.  But it’s short, so none of them really have the opportunity to delve into any one subject.  It’s definitely a good read for new authors, as you can see that even here, not all authors play by the same rules or focus on the same things.  Here are the questions posed to the group:

  • What are the three most important skills a new writer should have?
  • What three pieces of advice to new writers do you not agree with?
  • What’s different about the publishing industry today than when you started?  What’ll happen over the next couple of years?
  • What’s the value of horror to the literary community?

Like I said, interesting questions and a variety of answers (sometime contradicting one another), but nothing that I felt helped me out.