I love ghost stories.
Particularly the whole gothic genre of the nineteenth century: intense questioning of reality layered with beautiful houses and dramatic landscapes and sometimes hilariously-dated kitsch. I’ve read all of Mrs. Radcliffe. Whooee!
I especially love the whole concept that my love for ghost stories is the other side of my utter yellow-bellied, chicken-livered response the few times I’ve thought there was a real ghost in my vicinity. Have you ever seen anyone levitate straight in the air and cling to a chandelier?
Yeah, that was me.
That makes my relationship with ghosts and ghostly ephemera the complete encapsulation of everything I know about the internal conflict that is the driving fuel of all fiction:
Be careful what you wish for or you might just get it
When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers
So it will be no shock to any of you to learn that my one of my favorite novels of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
My god, what an amazing writer. I stumbled on that book in a second-hand store a few years ago, but I was not surprised to discover later that it is canonical and, in fact, one of the novels that taught Stephen King his trade. (I would love to get into a discussion of all Jackson’s work, and at a some point I probably will, but for now I’m going to content myself with recommending this gorgeous, mysterious novel to writers in general.)
I was interested enough when I heard that King discusses The Haunting of Hill House in his nonfiction exploration of horror to run out and buy a copy of Danse Macabre, which King wrote in 1981 between Firestarter and Cujo (not counting one of the novels he wrote under his Richard Bachman-Turner-Overdrive pseudonym).
Now, it turns out King’s interpretation of Hill House is, sadly, so wildly pedestrian as to be almost useless. He analyzes Hill House at length as the height of narcissism because it’s about the internal world of a young woman with whom he can’t identify (although one of his own favorite novels is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, which is about the internal world of a man with whom he apparently can). King finally admits there might be another “truly terrifying” interpretation of Hill House, which is that it’s the house itself that’s generating the ghosts. . .um, bingo, Stephen.
However, King is still heck of smart, his book is a meticulous research project on the horror genre of the twentieth century (largely movies and television, but also fiction), and he’s a very good writer when he wants to be.
I dog-eared dozens of pages of Danse Macabre so I could go back later and copy out quotes and insights, which I am studying right now. And I’m discovering that even when King is a little limited in his exploration of his basic insights, they lead me into truly rich ground in my own understanding of fiction.
Fiction is seeking pressure points
Wow, do I love this insight.
Fiction is about reaching into the reader, past their intellectual understanding of both your story and themself, and pressing where it’s sensitive. Some writers—like King—do what they do because for many people the resulting adrenalin rush of terror temporarily deadens all other feeling and gives them some relief from their own fears. And King has learned that readers in an era of political upheaval and economic uncertainty are willing to plunk down a whole lot of cash for relief.
This is also why romance aka soft-core p*rn is the top-selling genre these days.
Adrenalin rush through either procreation or running for your life, the two most predictable chemical jolts in the animal kingdom. Temporary relief.
But even if you’re not interested in simple-minded triggering of the adrenalin of terror or sex (as I really am not—there are real-life social and personal consequences to addiction to those particular adrenalin triggers, which I’m not going to get into here), your goal is still to trigger emotion in the reader.
Not in your characters. In the reader. Visceral response.
Without that, you’re just talking to yourself.
Without belief, there is no reader engagement
King talks about reader engagement purely in terms of terror and horror, but again this insight applies to all genres, all fiction.
Is your goal to engage the reader in a fantasy adventure? That reader had better believe the logic behind your fantasy, or they’re not going to feel the thrill of the adventure.
Is your goal to engage the reader in an exploration of sci-fi? That reader had better believe in your science, or they’re not going to feel invested in the consequences.
Is your goal to engage the reader in YA or MG? That reader had better believe in the authenticity of your teenagers’ or children’s world, or they’re not going to feel one cotton-pickin’ thing for the dilemmas of your characters.
Fiction is both what you say out loud and what you say in a whisper
This is called subtext, and it’s essential for all storytelling.
An enormous amount of the writer’s toolbox is devoted to techniques specifically designed for subtext: structure, pacing, resonance, juxtaposition, dialog, description, action, gesture and mannerism and expression, word choice and and sentence structure and telling detail. The list goes on and on.
Devote yourself to learning these techniques, and the entire universe of subtext will blossom for you with a complex and unearthly beauty.
Locking the world out is locking the world in
Again, King discusses this purely in terms of terror—that the character’s efforts to hide (specifically inside a house) lead them very often to closet themself with their enemy.
But this is, in the greater scheme of things, why readers read: as they sink into fiction to escape their own worries and griefs, they find themselves unconsciously drawn to stories that reflect those very things.
This is the psychological reflex of healing. We are unconsciously desperate to lock ourselves in with what truly haunts us (not just what pushes our buttons), to face it and triumph once and for all.
Lives and careers can be destroyed in a moment
Fast, succinct, condensed—these are the hallmarks of great fiction.
You want your fiction to be powerful, don’t you? Well, power is greatest where matter is most condensed. Don’t stand too close to a black hole, people.
Reader engagement arises from the feeling that the world is ‘unmaking’
And this is perhaps my very favorite insight. Just that word: ‘unmaking.’ King has put his finger on the pressure point of all humanity with that one.
Both anticipation and anxiety are the key human responses to the possibility that something we want and need will all our souls is being ‘unmade.’ And those are two of the most powerful push/pull emotions a writer can use.
Push the reader away with anxiety—oh, no! things are falling apart!
Pull the reader in with anticipation—oh, boy! things are falling apart!
The ways in which the reader feels these developments depend entirely upon how you craft your characters, what needs you give them, what illumination you cast upon their endless struggles to meet their needs.
This is the core of the writer’s work: employing the myriad wonderful techniques of fiction to play upon the reader’s emotions like a xylophone.
Stephen King did a lot of cocaine in the early ’80s
And you can sure tell.
You get this from the last third of Danse Macabre, which escalates into the final chapters until you can veritably hear that ole razor scraping the mirror. “Just one more last thing,” he starts saying. “Just one more last thing.”
Notice how he loses reader engagement when it stops being about leading the reader where he’s decided he wants them to go and begins to be only about him and his frantic, hopped-up need to just keep talking?
Take a lesson from Stephen King.
This post was brought to you by M. Terry Green, author of Shaman, Healer, Heretic, who asked me a simple question in email this morning (“How are you?”) and started an avalanche.
In honor of having given up sleep last week (apparently after fifty years you’ve had all the sleep you need), I’m going to introduce you today to my grandmother, to whom I was very close and who gave me most of the instructions that now guide my life. She didn’t actually say any of these in reference to writing, but even Grandma can use an editor.
If you can’t say something interesting, don’t say anything at all.
This, of course, is not what she really said, but it is the cardinal rule of fiction.
Sit down quietly and share with your sister.
This one she said all the time.
Because it’s not about me. It’s not even about you. It’s about sharing this amazing, complicated, poignant world with the reader, and if we can’t share nicely they’re not going to follow us around begging.
If you don’t learn to make your bed, no one will marry you.
This one she also said, and I’m not going to use up space here recording my many witty adolescent replies. Suffice it to say that she was mistaken, and nobody in my house now is any good with hospital corners.
However, she was correct that if we don’t learn how to shape and tidy our manuscripts no one will ever read them. They’re incredibly lumpy, uneven, and full of missing socks in their early drafts. Readers find them extremely uncomfortable and cannot relax.
This is a bad thing.
Don’t be a smart-aleck.
This is also a bad thing.
We’re all very clever and amusing people, I know, in the privacy of our own heads and usually a number of hours after it doesn’t matter anymore. I infused my own early novels with a whole plethora of snarky asides and snappy comebacks.
Turns out Grandma was right on the money with this one too, though.
Readers don’t want untutored attempts at snark. They want either real, one-of-a-kind, death-defying humor that makes them spontaneously laugh out loud or no smartypants nonsense at all.
Stop kicking the table leg.
No kidding, people. I know we all get intensely frustrated at the state of the publishing industry these days. It is indeed an intensely frustrating state, in which unknown writers become less and less likely to see publication every single time someone buys a best seller at Walmart.
But the truth is we were already complaining about the state of the industry decades ago, when it seems in retrospect that we actually had it fairly good.
We need to just stop annoying people and buckle down to the hard work.
Wipe your feet before you walk on clean floors.
Leo Buscaglia tells the story of meeting a famous Buddhist lama and walking in the garden with this gentle little man, yammering on and on and on about himself and his big, brilliant ideas and how important they all were, until the gentle little man turned suddenly and slapped him right in the face.
“Stop walking in my head with your dirty feet!” the lama exclaimed.
This is excellent advice for all of us—but especially for writers.
Keep your sticky fingers off the wallpaper.
Again, the reader has their own big, brilliant ideas, which they love far more than they are ever going to love ours. It is our job to show them their own lovely wallpaper, not muck it up getting our fingerprints all over it.
Don’t make me tell Grandpa.
You know who Grandpa is? That’s right. The reader. And Grandpa always gets the last word.
Actually, it was my great-grandmother who said this, the German granddaughter of pioneers, a woman who lived to be 93 and, at the end of her life, began seeing the ghost of her husband in her room at night.
Make it good.
If you’re going to be haunted, you know, it had better be worth your while.
You can cry on me.
Grandma also said this, for which I will always love her.
There’s a lot of grief in first struggling for years to get our beautiful dreams down in words and then finding someone who wants to read them. I don’t care how brilliant or talented or experienced we are, our kindness to each other is truly the most important thing we have to give.
Come back and see us again soon, honey.
Because when you get right down to it, it’s all about dedication and long-term commitment—commitment and good-heartedness and being in this world with others. We’re able to share our wonderful fictional adventures with the reader only if they add significantly to the reader’s life.
And if we can’t develop the habit of producing great stories—not just one, but one after another, for as long as we expect others to pay attention—we must content ourselves with being readers.
After all, everyone loves them.
We’re jumping in the Way-Back Machine today. This was the very first of my numbered-list posts—from January, 2010—and the comments are still some of my favorites!
- You’re not going to get rich. You’re probably not even going to be able to pay your bills. In fact, money is going to turn out to be the last reason to do this. I know—you guys hate it like blazes that I keep telling you this. (Huffington Post). But keep reading (or skip ahead) to 7, anyway.
- Your friends and family will LOVE IT. They’ll start following you everywhere, waiting for famous people to accost you so they can be the shy, self-deprecating second person, blushing and elbowing you and saying, “I’m just the sister. Really—we always knew they [pointing] were a genius.” Humorous, eye-rolling, palms-up shrug. This will be fun for awhile and then become intensely annoying, especially when the famous people never materialize. Your grandparents will keep your book on their coffee table until the day they die (when you will inherit it back).
- Your book will have a really strange reaction to publication. It’s going to open itself up in the middle of the night the night before your publication date and rearrange all the words to make you look like an idiot. It will choose one obscure paragraph in one chapter to arrange exactly the opposite—so beautifully and profoundly and perfectly that, as god is your witness, you know for a fact you did not write that. The rest of it. . .yeah, it kind of sounds like you.
- You will spend at least a week in an alternate universe in which your entire head is bigger than your body and your hair is actually bigger than your head. You will have eyes like a fly, facing in all directions at once. Your neck will be a thin string tied rather inexpertly to the base of your head. Although the view from up there will be extraordinary, the bobbing up & down will be so disorienting that it will affect your ability to speak clearly.
- You will come back from this alternate universe a humbler and better person.
- You will suddenly hate your book, hate everything about your book, hate everybody else’s books, too, and lock yourself in your attic with your dreams and your words and your vision and begin the real task of writing what you know you can write, what you’ve had inside you all along. You just needed the self-confidence of getting published to bring it out.
- Your boss will call you up at home and tell you to get back to work or you’re fired. And you’ll go—but you’ll still be thinking all the time about what’s going on in your attic. Eventually it will occur to you that this is also how you were living before you were published. And that’s the reason to do this. . .because this is a wonderful way to live.
100. I don’t know a hundred other things about being a published author. A commenter said readers like really big numbers, and I thought I’d roll with that. But even if I did know a hundred other things, you guys would never read them all, much less remember them. And how helpful is that?
That’s what Therese Walsh dubbed it when we came up with the idea of an editor’s advice column on the new, up-coming Writer Unboxed newsletter.
We’d been wanting to collaborate for a long time, take our guest appearances on each other’s blogs to the next level.
As soon as we thought of adding my advice column to her newsletter, we knew we’d hit on the right idea. So we’ve been hustling for the past few weeks to make it happen.Therese and her partner Kathleen have solicited questions from the Writer Unboxed Facebook community, I’ve put on my editorial thinking-cap, and we’ve created the advice column we hope will serve aspiring writers best.
And today we went live.
However, the newsletter is still in development, so we went live on the Writer Unboxed blog, a demo of the column as it will appear in the newsletter, so you can all get a window into what’s in store. Ain’t life grand?
We’re over there right now answering the reader question:
Aside from meticulous proofreading, how can we, as writers, make your job easier?
Please join us! On Ask Victoria.
Hey, guys, I just spent the entire day trying to develop video for this blog. Guess what? That’s right. So let’s talk about how my experiment with video mimics the experience of writing fiction:
It always seems like such a good idea at the time.
Who has not begun a story with the gripping, overwhelming conviction that this is the best idea ever?
It gets intensely complicated, overblown, and unwieldly really, really fast.
Writing fiction is enormously complex and involves far more facets than can ever be entirely remembered or even explained. We try and try and try to simplify the basics so we can build a sense of competence and an inner sensory map—a body memory of how to navigate these complexities—but the sheer number of layers always makes the overall picture invisible from any particular vantage point.
It involves a whole lot of little, nickpicky details you simply can’t see coming.
Fiction is all details: the details of character, the details of plot and subplot and plot thread, the details of setting, the details of tens and tens of thousands of words and sentences. Detail overload. . .and yet every one of them is essential.
The exact aspect of any and all illumination is crucial.
If we don’t have complete control over where we shine the light when we create, we can’t hope to show our audience what we want them to see.
Repeated attempts to accomplish the same piece of the project over and over again becomes something akin to hammering jello on porcelain.
Revision is massage taken to the point of pummeling. The breakage can be, eventually, deafening.
Stagefright is a constant.
Although the camera acts as an audience in the external world, our critical faculties act as an on-going internal audience, so that the accumulation of silent tut-tut’s can be paralyzing if we listen.
Halfway through, you’re guaranteed to forget what you’re doing.
We are a simple species, and one of the most predictable of our reflexes is the urge to mentally step away when things stop being fun. This is especially true right about when we’ve acquired 36,000 of the 72,000 words we need.
Freezing in the headlights is sometimes the only thing that makes sense.
Fortunately, the fact that none of this is live means we can freeze for as long as we like. It’s never detrimental to the final product, and it’s often the key to quality.
It turns out you don’t actually have a single, consistent voice.
Did you know this about yourself? Even when you’re talking? Me neither.
The longer you struggle, the more obvious it becomes this can’t possibly end well.
I really don’t have an answer for this.
A writer falls over a cliff and is clinging helplessly to a vine while two editors crouch on the edge, shouting advice. Suddenly the writer sees the most beautiful strawberry in the world just out of reach.
“Reach for it!” cries the first editor. “A perfect thing is worth the sacrifice of your life!”
“Don’t reach for it!” cries the second editor. “It is in toil and dedication that success lies!”
“My novel’s a piece of shit!” cries the writer and jumps off the cliff.
Hey, welcome to 2012! We’ve had such a luxurious vacation catching up on our lives around here and cleaning our offices and writing stories and all that good stuff. Now we’re gearing up for the new year in that very special way that we writers have: with panic.
First I want to thank all of you with my deepest gratitude for your nominations for the Write to Done Top 10 Blogs for Writers Contest. You guys got me into the Top 20 Blogs for Writers, which is exactly where I hoped to be. Although I am greatly honored to have been one of the Top 10 last year, I spent the first three months of 2011 working my heinie off trading guest posts with the other nine folks, and I suspect I am not the only one of them to have trembled at the thought of doing that all over again.
So thank you. Thank you so much.
Now, I have a few new things lined up for this blog in 2012:
My son has become quite a video afficionado, as can be seen in the trailer he made for The Art & Craft of Fiction. And he’s going to be making short videos of me talking about craft, little five-minute versions of the video interview Joanna Penn did with me last fall.
Writer & Editor Jokes
I’m sorry. I’m apologizing in advance for the groaners. This is what happens when an editor spends a little too much of her holiday vacation exploring the possibilities of chai and rum.
New Guest Column
I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag just yet because we’re still working out the details, but within a few weeks I’ll be able to announce my regular guest column on the upcoming newsletter for one of the best blogs for writers in existence. I’m extremely excited to be working with these folks. Stay tuned!
A Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions
And these are just for today:
Trim, trim, trim. Cut, cut, cut. My manuscripts will lose their flab and tone their muscle until they can eject a reader to 5000 feet without leaving the ground.
Out with cheap crap! In with the greats! I will devote my precious reading time to only those writers whose dedication and talents have shaped and continue to shape this craft we all love, and I will resist the urge to waste my time on mindless drivel just because everyone else is doing it.
I will practice my writing skills until for every 1000 words I hope to publish I can proudly boast 10,000 words of honing my craft. I will spend far less time talking about writing and far more time doing it. I will focus on the sheer tangible pleasure of writing—because that’s the reason I’m a writer.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.