The Town of Elsewhere: A Scary Short Story for Your Halloween

What’s Halloween without at least one scary story? I thought this one was pretty good and well-written, but as LeVar Burton would say, “…you don’t have to take my word for it.”

There’s A Town In Kentucky That You Won’t Ever Be Able To Find On A Map, And For Good Reason” by Seamus Coffey

The overgrown gravel road leading to the abandoned settlement doesn’t even connect to a main road. As with most places you shouldn’t go, even Google satellite images have been scrubbed with what looks like a bad use of a blur tool. It was located in south-eastern Calloway County just off the shore of Kentucky Lake. Elsewhere sat surrounded by forest. Until recently, several buildings remained.

I’d heard stories about Elsewhere growing up. Being a Calloway County native, I heard most of the local folklore and ghost stories. I spent several nights in Asbury and Old Salem cemeteries looking to verify stories of creepy ghosts and various monsters. The most I ever got was spooked friends and a bad case of the willies. I was volunteering at the Senior Citizen’s center when Earl, a man of about 80 years old, told me a story about the fall of Elsewhere… (Read more)

Recommended Reading: A Little Horror for Your Halloween

Having only recently taken an interest in horror, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with the genre. That’s why when I started research for Bloodletting, I asked friends and family what aspects they liked best and what books/movies were their favorites. In the process, I found out that several good friends of mine are big horror fans. These two sites are ones they recommended I look at as part of my research. What better way to celebrate Halloween than to share them with you?

No Sleep

Reddit has a page called “No Sleep” where anyone can submit single horror stories or serials. According to the moderators, they try to encourage quality work by excluding posts that are only images or videos, and they do monthly “BestOf” awards to showcase great stories. There seem to be a wide variety of styles. Readers will like some better than others, but the variety is great for writers to see what works and what doesn’t – especially in relation to the reddit rankings.

Pseudopod

For those who’d rather listen than read, try “Pseudopod” where short horror stories are transformed into podcasts. I’m picky about voice acting and audiobooks, but the little snippets I heard were good enough that I’m still open to listening (when I have time). Since reading stories aloud generally takes longer than reading them on a page, they tend to like flash fiction, so this can be great training for getting a mood and effect across in fewer words.

There you go. Have a great Halloween and many happy frights!

An Author’s Thrill: Recipes from the Worlds of J.K. Rowling & J.R.R. Tolkien

As a reader, it’s always fun to find recipes for foods from your favorite books for movies. I recently came across one for homemade butterbeer, and, of course, many people have tried to recreate Tolkien’s cakes and foods from The Hobbit, including researching the kinds of food that Tolkien would have been familiar with (“Food in The Hobbit).

Thinking about it as an author, though, wouldn’t that have to be a huge thrill? I’m trying to imaging making up a food in a story and having people like my book so much that they try to recreate that food. What a compliment!

When Complications Go Too Far: The Lazy Reader Issue

As I was getting distracted on Facebook instead of doing what I got on FB to do (again), I clicked on yet another post about Disney character remakes as this or that. It’s kind of old hat now, but I enjoy seeing them – if it doesn’t take too much time or energy.

That’s the problem. See, as soon as the page loads, I could see the hideous markings of a slideshow. That means that instead of scrolling down a page of amusing images, I would have to click on each blasted “next” area to view each image one-by-one. And that means that each image would have to load individually.

Which takes forever.

I’ll be honest. If I click on a link that takes me to a slideshow, I almost always close the window unless there’s an option(that I can find) to view the page as a list. The same is true for a lot of videos. If I was only mildly interested, I don’t bother to watch because it takes longer than a quick glance at an article (like I was expecting).

Uh-huh. What does that have to do with writing?

Well, many of today’s readers (and almost all of tomorrow’s readers) spend their time online. They’re just as impatient as I am, and the harder it is to read something (the more buttons they have to click), the less likely they are to do it.

That goes for novels, too. There are a lot of fun complications that writers like to throw into our books. Complications add difference. They make us feel unique and creative, and it’s easy for us to get excited about one and go overboard. Unfortunately, those same complications are almost certainly going to make us lose some readers.

Here are a few examples of complications that can make readers decide that your book is too difficult and not worth the trouble:

  • A ton of characters introduced very quickly
  • Strange/unfamiliar names
  • Exceptionally long books (such as the 1,000 page epic fantasy)
  • Intricate and difficult plots
  • Convoluted prose (such as showing off your sentence variety)
  • Lots of longs words

A lot of readers out there are probably going, “but I read books like that all the time!” So do I. But I’m not the average reader, and I know that. I like epic fantasy and science fiction – genres that are known for strange names, long books, convoluted plots, and long/scientific words. But the intricate ones are not my lazy reading. That’s the kind of reading that makes the reader infer more, make connections, and remember those connections 10 chapters later. I’m not always in the mood to do that, so I completely understand why some people are never in the mood to do that.

You’re not losing the die-hard readers. You’re losing the casual readers. You’re losing the people who were interested enough for some quick, lazy reading but didn’t want to put too much effort into it.

That’s not always a bad thing. If you’re writing in a specific genre, you may not care if people who don’t usually read that genre like the book. If you’re trying to appeal to a broader audience, however, it’s more important. And even in a genre like epic fantasy, it’s possible to go too far. If you make it so complicated that a die-hard reader puts it down, you have a problem.

My point is that you need to know. You need to be aware that putting all of those characters in the first chapter is going to turn off some readers. Know that intricate sentences will throw some people off.

Recognize that some people are going to close the window when they realize it’s a slideshow.

If you know, and you still decide to do it, then that’s a risk you’re choosing to take. You’re going in with your eyes open, and if you don’t expand your fan base with that book, you’re not going to be shocked and disappointed. On the other hand, if you do something that complicates your writing but don’t realize the effect it might have on readership, you might be in for a rude shock. Worse, you may not know what the problem is – what to target in your edits.

I don’t know about you, but, personally, I’d much rather know I’m taking a risk before I take it. Finding out after you’ve failed is too cruel.

Gotta Catch ’em All – Not

This is the hard data behind my theory of writing as a business.

This is the hard data behind my theory of writing as a business.

Too often, we try to make our writing appeal to everyone. We cut something that might offend one group of readers even though it would probably amuse another. We add something to try to interest a third group. Adding and cutting like this can mangle a story so much that everything that used to be good about it is buried under stuff we added only because a specific group might like it.

Unfortunately, trying to make the work please everyone is more likely to make it please no one. Writing isn’t Pokémon. You don’t have to catch them all – you only have to catch enough.

The Mystery of the Meh Film: Nature Or Nurture?

I bet every one of you have a seen a movie or television show that was ok (with meh overtones) but could’ve been great if it’d had better writing. You know the ones I’m talking about – the shows that get brought up with an “if only” (either in a grumble or a sigh, possibly over alcohol).

I can think of a few that are visual treats: the world, characters, and effects all look great. The scores are decent or even pretty strong. And to top it off, the actors and actresses do a good job and portray believable, interesting characters.

At least, as believable as they can be when the plot has issues. Because, let’s face it, if the movie is meh, it probably has plot issues (if the rest is bad, too, it’s generally much worse than meh).

In a lot of these movies, the pacing is off, or tangent scenes detract from the buildup. Sometimes, the goal is so muddled that it’s hard to tell what it was supposed to build up to. At other times, the climax doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the movie as if the plot not only took an abrupt turn but also teleported over a few light years. Even worse, we can tell from seeing it once that if they’d taken this out or added that, it would’ve been a better movie. It would’ve made more sense.

It would’ve gone somewhere.

Of course, in other meh films, the plot is predictable but not really bad; however, the dialogue is so bland that it sucks the life out of the story. Everything about the story gets your hopes up (the looks, the plot so far) – and the characters are on screen going blah, blah, blah. Like the adults in Peanuts. Their lines are more fluff than anything else, and you’d have a hard time remembering even one by the end of the film (unless you can make fun of it in a memorable way), which makes the characters less memorable, as well.

The saddest part about all of this to me is that these issues are all problems with the script more than the execution. They’re problems with the writing that could’ve been fixed before the movie ever started. So why weren’t they? Why didn’t the studio/director/producer/whoever hire a writer to fix the plot and spice up the dialogue?

When I think of these questions, two potential answers come to mind that scare me.

  1. They don’t care. They know that they can pretty it up with CGI, throw a few famous names in, and get enough money back in sales to make the movie worth the investment without bothering to improve the script and make it really good (and the mere idea of that breaks my heart both as an artist and as a viewer).
  2. It started out as a good script, and at some point during the making of the film, they broke it. They added scenes that they thought would look cool but that don’t make sense, or they deleted scenes that were vital to the plot because they were too expensive/time-consuming/difficult to make. Or that the director didn’t like. Or worse, maybe, they let the actors ad-lib their lines instead of saying wonderfully witty and well-written dialogue. (If the other idea breaks my heart, this one horrifies me and makes my soul shrivel and die a little.)

The Naive Idealist in me wants to believe that neither of these is ever true.

“No,” it says, “the filmmakers wouldn’t do that. They simply got caught up and didn’t realize these flaws were there. In hundreds of hours of work and with a multitude of people checking the final product, no one noticed this. Or they noticed them too late to fix it. It was an oversight. Or, no, I’ve got it. They think it’s fine as it is. Yeah, that’s it! They just don’t see any problems with it.”

Thanks, NI. That makes me feel a lot better.

Learning To Write Stories

I like to joke that I was writing stories before I knew how to write words.

That usually gets me a “you’re weird” expression or a generally confused look, but it’s actually true. Even back when I was a toddler and hadn’t learned to write (or read) yet, I would make up stories. And since people had read books to me, I knew that stories were supposed to be written down. I wasn’t about to let not being able to write get in my way, so I got my mom to write them down for me.

So, technically, I’ve been writing stories since before I could write.

I think that’s because I grew up surrounded by stories. Disney movies, musicals, stories in books, make-believe games, camp songs, ballads, plays, stories told at bed-time or around the campfire – there were stories everywhere, and I soaked them up like upsalite1 until everything that happened or that was said reminded me of a story I knew or made me think of a new one.

I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t have ideas for stories bouncing around in my head. Granted, I don’t remember a lot of my childhood clearly, and the stories in my head were probably awful back then. But my point is that I’ve always thought in stories, and honing the craft of writing has only accentuated that.

That’s why I have a twinge of worry whenever I see people asking how to learn to write stories, and the answer they get is to “follow this formula,” “learn this,” or “take these kinds of classes.”

Yes, classes are great. I’ve enjoyed my share of them (from Writing & Composition to Novel Writing to Play Writing and more). They can teach you about grammar, literary devices, and how to analyze other stories. More advanced courses can teach you about manuscript format, cover letters to agents, how to do peer review respectfully in a writer’s circle, and how to recognize flaws in your work. They can give you tools to examine your character, setting, and plot – and to improve them. They will teach you useful skills for the craft and career of writing.

But I think what a lot of people are actually trying to ask is how to come up with stories and how to make the stories their own. It’s hard for classes to help with that, especially the first part.

When it comes to that part of writing, the only way I know to learn to write stories is to experience stories (as many as you can). Read them. Listen to them. Watch them. Live them. Like a visual artist trains to think in images, a writer can learn to think in stories.

Learn to see the stories in the world, and they will teach you more about writing stories than any class could.

1Upsalite is possibly the most absorbent material known to man, which makes the corresponding statement a bit hyperbolical.

Schrödinger’s Setting

You’ve probably all heard of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought experiment that has become a widespread internet meme. To summarize, the cat is simultaneously considered alive and dead until someone can be bothered to open the box.

Oh, the uncertainty. If only, I could somehow discern the truth!

Now, about Schrödinger’s setting. I’m sure you all know what the setting is.
ALL: [In a monotone chorus] Where and when the story takes place.

Technically, I guess the setting would be the box, so it’s not that great of an analogy; however, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat, the idea of two opposing states existing simultaneously, is very relevant to setting.

For example, if I take the plot and characters and put them in a different setting, is it the same characters? Is it the same plot?

Often, the answer to these questions is simultaneously “Yes” and “No.” Yes, I just said that I was using the same characters and plot. By definition, the characters and plot have to be the same, or I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. At the same time, they’re not the same at all. They’re in a different place, which changes the flavor of the story. It changes the feel of the characters. It changes our reactions to the characters and the plot.

If I took the original Star Wars trilogy and rewrote it in a steampunk Old West-style world, it would be a very different story – even if every plot point was the same. Even if I didn’t change any characters.

It would be very different. But it would also be the same.

The sameness (despite the obvious differences) is one reason people talk about the same story being used over and over again. The theory is that there are really only 2 stories (or 1, depending on whom you talk to) that authors write over and over and over again with different names for the characters and different settings (sometimes). Maybe, it’s true. Maybe, not.

Maybe, both.

True or not, you can exploit this concept (and Schrödinger’s setting) in so many ways:

1. Use it to brainstorm.

Seriously, take a story you like, and change the setting. Use the setting to re-envision the characters and the plot. Once you make enough setting-driven changes, you’ll have a hard time recognizing the story you started with.

2. Find ways to make your plot and characters setting-dependent.

Remember how I said that the yes/no answer was “Often” true? If you interweave your plot, setting, and characters closely enough, the answer will only be “No.” This goes into the nitty-gritty of characterization (would you be the same person if you grew up somewhere else? If you lived somewhere else?) and plot (how would the character’s choice change in a different location? How would the options change?).

3. Take advantage of the setting to make your story more unique.

If the theoreticians are right, and there are only 1-2 stories, then the biggest difference between them is the setting. Where you choose to put your story can help make it stand out, or it can make it blend in to the thousands of other westerns set in Dodge City. If you feel like your plot and characters are unique (Forget those theoreticians! That’s hogwash!), then, a common setting could emphasize that uniqueness. Find the balance that’s right for your story (and, we hope, the readers).

Plenty of people tend to be on one side or the other of this fence. Either the setting is vital and defines the story, or the setting is an afterthought – characters and plot define the story. Clearly, I tend to be more middle-of-the-road.

What do you think? Is the setting alive, dead, or both?