Monday, October 29, 2012

Horror for Halloween

First off, if you haven't already, check out my publisher's Kickstarter campaign. The $25 dollar pledge gift is a printed, signed copy of one of TM Publishing's titles. My book, The Shifting, is one of them. I'm going to continue to post this message until the campaign is over.

And now, on to today's topic: horror. If you want an entertaining, video overview of the symbolic elements of horror, check out this Extra Creditz video on Youtube. They're talking specifically about using horror in video games, the the storytelling value is still there and this is a pretty good, simple explanation of the self, the uncanny, and the other.

And now for my explanation, more specifically tied to books and movies. Like the video, I'm going to focus on the ideas of the self, the uncanny, and the other. First off: horror is almost always tied to a basic human instinct, particularly the drive to survive. That's why people tend to die in horror stories. The drive to survive is a powerful, emotionally charged instinct, so, when something is tied to this instinct, it becomes a more powerful, emotionally charged form of horror.

The self is, quite simply, the self. This is a reflection of the character or the reader that hasn't been twisted, necessarily. The self includes elements of a person that we are not proud of and try to keep hidden. I think Edgar Allen Poe does a good job of using this in his stories. Think of the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart". That guy is nuts. An insane narrator should fall under uncanny (more about that later), but Poe's narrators don't because they make sense. Before the story is over, the reader can see things the narrator's way, and that is creepy to the reader, because Poe is bringing into the light a part of the readers they would rather keep in the dark. in "The Tell-Tale Heart" it's the disgust we feel for people who are different, and perhaps even the desire to cut the disgusting people out of our lives. I can't speak for everyone, but I believe many people may understand how the narrator feels, and because we are horrified by the murder this understandable drive leads to, we become horrified by ourselves.

The uncanny is when things are slightly off. Imagine coming home one day and noticing that all your photos are upside-down in their frames. Or that the radio is playing music backwards. Or that all the food in your refrigerator has gone bad, all at once. There is nothing unduly threatening about any of these situations, but I'm fairly sure that if you encountered one of these situations you'd feel unnerved. Horror films do this a lot to stir up feelings of unease and fear in the audience. One film I think does a good job of using the uncanny is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Birds flock in real life; they fly in large groups. It happens. But when all the birds become slightly off by banding together, regardless of species, and flying in swarms over the town, they become uncanny. Add to that the fear for one's life (the birds attack), and we have horror. The viewer is left with a sense of unease at the end when the uncanny behavior is never explained.

I feel that Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes also does a good job with the uncanny, given his portrayal of carnivals and particularly the carnival freaks. We already think carnival people are uncanny (see the Extra Creditz video for a description of why), and Bradbury adds the element of fear of survival with a sweet, frightening element of the other.

The other is the alien. This is something we do not and cannot understand. Bradbury has a man with hairy palms, a carousel that turns people young or old, and beings that feed on the prolonged pain of fallen souls. We don't have these, we don't understand them, and we don't like what we don't understand. H.P. Lovecraft, from what I've read of his work, does a good job with the other. Cthulhu is terrifying because it is unlike anything we know, and Lovecraft exploits that. He describes the monster as something so awful people are driven mad by it, something that is impossible for the human mind to comprehend. Add the fear for life, and the fact that we never get a good "look" at Cthulhu, and we are in the presence of the other.

One last word: sometimes when writing horror it's better to let the reader imagine. In Jaws, we lose fear of the giant man-eating, uncanny shark the moment we see it. Signs is similar, in that we fear the aliens more before we see them. The mind can create monsters more terrifying than anything set down in words can. With a little room to imagine, the reader will invent something based in the self, the uncanny, or the other, something that resonates with them personally.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Couple Book Reviews

This week I thought I would review a couple of books I've read recently. They're both fantasy, but one is more of a paranormal romance and the other a historical fantasy. They were fresh takes on both, so I decided I would talk about them and how they are unique stories.

The first one is Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. This is a paranormal romance. But before you scream and run away, I will say that this is a unique take on the genre. It's not as unique and fresh as it could be (it's a teen romance, for crying out loud. They're the definition of formulaic.), it's pretty good. The story is about a girl named Mel who lives in a city known for being a haven for vampires. Yes, vampires are well-exposed (though not to the sun), and everyone knows about them. Anyway, Mel's best friend Cathy falls in love with a vampire, and Mel is ardently against this. She plans to do everything in her power to stop her friend from choosing the undead life, and along the way meets her own rather odd heartthrob. Again, teenage romance.

I did enjoy this book because it is unapologetic in its reversal of typical paranormal romance. Check the title: Team Human. The characters are fun and the book is a pleasant, Halloween-y jaunt. I don't expect it to become a classic, but it's deeper than your average paranormal romance (there's a lot I wasn't able to put in the summary on life/death, what it means to be human, and how to be a true friend). And, it's fun. Sometimes it's okay to read a book just because it's fun.

The other book I'm talking about today is also fun, and also written by two authors: Sorcery and Cecilia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. If you've ever wanted to read a story told entirely through letters with a plot like Pride and Prejudice with magic added, this is your book. It takes place in England around the 1830s, so Jane Austen's time. The heroines, Kate and Cecy, tell the story through their letters to each other, as one is having a Season in London and the other is at home. They meet men they find odious at first, but fall in love with, and they both meddle too much (or just enough) in serious magical matters and get into quite a bit of trouble. But then, we wouldn't read a book without any trouble, would we?

This book was wonderful because the writers nailed the voice of Jane Austen and other writers of that time. The girls talk about calling on people, going to balls, local gossip - like an Austen book. It's a true historical fantasy, and Kate and Cecy are plucky, intelligent girls. Again, it's Austen plus magic, and it's done well. This book may someday be a classic; I know a lot of my fantasy-reading friends have read this and love it.

I realize now that both books I reviewed today are pretty clearly for girls. Sorry boys; I'll be sure to review a more macho book next time. Maybe The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard.

Last word: the Kickstarter campaign for my publisher is still going. Tell your friends. Back us. Help however you can. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion...And Dashed Expectations

Today I want to talk about when a story builds some expectations and then dashes them, and what effect that has on the reader. But first, some self-promotion. My publisher, TM Publishing, is having a Kickstarter campaign for their magazine. It started this morning. I mention this because 1) they're my publisher, and 2) the Advanced Reader Copy (signed) of my book The Shifting is one of the pledge prizes, starting at a pledge of $25. Here's the blurb about my book:

In a world where magical ability has become a science, Sarah Flinn and Thomas Carter are outcasts. But when a friend casts a spell that brings the human world into a dangerous collision with another, all three of them must journey across a wilder, more magical America than they have ever known -- to save two worlds from dying.

So, if you want a signed copy of my work, back TM Publishing. Click here to go the campaign page.

Also, I didn't mention in my last post some details about my friend Alyssa's book. You can download the ebook Lunula from Amazon here. It's free, so you should definitely check it out and see if it's something you're interested in. Here's the summary:

The witch knows he will hunt her.

If history repeats itself, as it always does, Wynn will have no choice but to cross paths with her feared counterpart, the warlock. If given the chance, he would kill Wynn, absorbing her aura and obtaining ultimate power. In a desperate attempt to outrun destiny, Wynn moves from place to place, hoping to stray from the map laid out by the Fates. But by chance, on an urgent errand for Queen Alexandria herself, Wynn finds she has fallen into the hands of the one man she so hopelessly fled from. Now his captive, Wynn must guard her secret and that of her kingdom, or risk bringing forth a dark age not seen in hundreds of years.

Now onto the topic: dashed expectations. When a story, especially a long one, begins, it sets up certain expectations in the reader. Sometimes this is by genre, like a heroic tale generally ends with the hero winning and going home. Think about this with fairy tales: when the hero has tried something twice and is going on his third try, you know he's going to succeed. Action movies do the same: we know from the start that there's going to be a lot of chase scenes and destruction, people will die, and then the action hero dominates everyone. We expect a specific kind of ending, specific tropes, based on the story we're reading. So, what happens when those expectations are dashed?

What I mean here is, what happens to the reader when the writer breaks the traditional stereotype for her genre? I have a professor who loves this, and thinks it gives the story a newness, a freshness, that the genre needs. I can see his point of view. If you are surprised by the ending, it could be a favorable thing. Sometimes the typical ending doesn't work. The anecdote story I posted was one of those; nothing I put in the bottles would be as satisfying to the reader as nothing.  And, sometimes the hero doesn't come back, and the fairy tale is a fractured one and needs seventeen tries to make it work. I kind of like the idea of an action movie where the hero is totally inept (and I think it's been made). Doing this adds something new to the story, when the story is lacking something.

But then again, sometimes the story does call for the traditional ending, and when that happens, dashing expectations frustrates the reader. Imagine Lord of the Rings, but the Ring isn't destroyed and Sauron wins. That would tick me off, because I know that in high fantasy genre goods triumph over evil, and I expect that when I pick up the book. To not see it would make me feel cheated. Another example would be a mystery book where the detective ends up shrugging his shoulders and saying, "I guess we'll never know whodunnit." And meaning it, not just lying to one of the other characters. Readers read mysteries to find out who the culprit is. I think I would throw the book across the room if I read it and came to that ending. It's almost as bad as, "Then she woke up and it was all a dream."

My overarching writing philosophy comes into play here: do what is necessary for the story. If you want to twist things to add humor or a new side to a old, tired genre, then dash those expectations. The readers will thank you for it. They don't care all that much that you follow the same old pattern. But there are some expectations that need to be honored because they're the driving reason some people have for picking up the book. See mystery story example above. And most of all, have fun being creative.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Happy Halloween

It's been a crazy weekend, so this is going to be kind of a cop-out post. First order of business: my friend Alyssa A. Auch has published a novel. It was released yesterday, October 8, and is titled Lunula. She is a good writer, and this is worth looking into.

Next: Halloween is coming up. I generally celebrate by reading books and watching movies that have to do with Halloween and Halloween themes. I know there are weeks to go, but books and movies take time to enjoy. If you want to start the celebrating now, here's my list to get you started in your spooky storytelling.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury - seriously creepy book about a creepy carnival. Very symbolic, and beautifully written.

The Witches by Roald Dahl - A kid gets turned into a mouse, and there is a hoard of child-murdering women on the loose. Remind me, is this really a children's book? In fact, all Roald Dahl books should be on this list. Willy Wonka's a sociopath.

Dracula by Bram Stoker - A classic. Valuable to read if you like the vampire genre.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - Another classic, though the prose is a bit flowery for a horror novel, in my opinion. Get ready for the intelligent, sympathetic monster.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson - Another classic, and my favorite of the three. It's a short, powerful read.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - Not as Halloweeny as the others, but still, it's weird and disturbing enough to make the list.

Any other books that feature monsters of any kind.

Hocus Pocus - A Halloween classic, at least in recent years. It's one of those kid's movies that I think is better enjoyed by adults. Also, gotta love those witches.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown - Enough said. What's not to love here?

Anything by Alfred Hitchcock. Anything. Namely Psycho and Vertigo, for me, anyway.

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit - maybe it's just my love for British humor, but I think this is a rather clever and fun Halloween movie. Not the typical monster film.

Corpse Bride - This one is so well-told as a sympathetic horror. It fits in rather nicely with reading Dracula and Frankenstein. You know what, all Tim Burton films should be on this list. You know what you should do? Watch Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and have a creepy double whammy.

So there's my list. Enjoy, and have a happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Writer's Block

So, I'm sorry this is a little late. The truth is, I had writer's block over this post and wasn't sure what to write about. That gave me an idea: let's talk about writer's block. How can a writer start creating again after running dry? I can say some of the things I do, but every writer has his or her own methods. I know of some writers who don't believe in writer's block. They're the lucky ones whose well of ideas never runs dry. But, I think, for most of us, there's a moment when we can't feel our way to the next idea.

When that happens for me, I start by going on a long walk. This helps because it gets me away from my computer and instead of focusing specifically on the part I'm writing, I can allow my mind to wander and think of the story as a whole. Sometimes I see things I've already invented (characters, subplots, antagonists, items) that could easily come back in to solve the problem. Long walks also let me free associate, which leads to ideas that straight thinking doesn't lead me to. By letting my mind wander, sometimes it stumbles on something I couldn't see when I was looking for it. It's like searching the house for your cell phone, and after you've used a friend's, finding it in the center of the kitchen table.

I also use music. I recently had some difficulty with my novel because I couldn't see how the story would end. I needed to get the plot moving in the direction of the ending, so I needed to know as soon as possible how my main character would end the story. Believe it or not, it came to me when I was listening to my iPod set on shuffle. The random selection of songs led my thoughts to grow in a way I couldn't plan, which brought together the ending I hadn't yet seen as possible. I will also build a playlist for my characters, so when I'm trying to get into that character's head and see how he will react in a situation, I listen to his list. I also have a soundtrack for the book I'm writing, with songs that set the overall tones for the character interactions, emotional feel of the story, etc. But I'm not saying what's on mine. It should be distinct for each story.

Basically, getting my mind to think in ways I haven't been is how I get over writer's block. I've heard other writers say just sitting down and freewriting is a good way to get out ideas you didn't see before, but that only works every so often for me. I guess the best rule of thumb for me is this: think about how you first came up with the idea for the story. What were you doing? How did that affect your thinking? And then, go back to that place. But then, that's the best rule of thumb for me.