How to Make a Story a Classic*


*Research in progress.


Lately I’ve been having–or, rather, subjecting other people to–conversations about how to make stories that are better than well-crafted.  I’m at this weird point where I acknowledge that becoming better at my craft is going to be a lifelong project…but there’s something more out there to writing than just craft.

The first part of this realization came with understanding that writing isn’t just about the story that’s on the page; it’s about what happens in the readers’ heads.  For me, this came in the form of doing research about con artists, brainwashing, cults, etc., and realizing that a lot of what these people do to cheat and bamboozle their victims is what I’m trying to do as a writer:  create a lie so plausible that the person will fight their own best interests to defend it.

Granted, the most a writer’s probably going to do to you is keep you up all night when you have to go to work in the morning.  But still.  There are writers that I will drop hardcover money on a preorder, no questions asked.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of irrational loyalty?

It’s something more than the run-of-the-mill reaction to a decent book:  “Oh, that was good.”  Reader sets book aside, moves to next book on TBR list.

Some writers get to jump a reader’s TBR list.


And, above that, what makes a story endure over time, across cultures?

Here’s what I’ve been putting together lately on the subject:

  • There are classics in every genre, in every art form.  (Lee mentioned classic cars.  Yes, of course cars are an art form.  Huh.)
  • Not everyone likes every classic that they’ve been exposed to.
  • The work that wins awards isn’t necessarily the work that endures (which might be why there are such things as lifetime achievement awards).
  • The difference between a classic and a cult classic is hard for me to define.  It seems like classics were popular on release (or reasonably so), while a cult classic overcame obscurity.  I saw a definition online that was something like, “a classic is loved by a large number of people, while a cult classic is loved by a large number of people in a narrow field.”  …and maybe that’s a better definition.  Not sure yet.
  • Tons of stories have been based off Joseph Campbell.  And aren’t classics.
  • Not everything that’s a classic is based off Joseph Campbell.  It might be that Joseph Campbell supporters accrete all other stories and backsplain them into being based off Joseph Campbell.
  • Classics don’t just happen because they’re pushed by the gatekeepers:  think of all the movies that sank despite huge advertising budgets.
  • The biggest driver of sales–at least, in the back streets of indie promotion upon which I often lurk–is word-of-mouth.  Not advertising, not promotions, not sales, not contests.  These things are all damage multpliers to word of mouth.   One form of this thinking is the “1000 true fans” idea.

So far, all of that is mostly about what a classic is not.  It is not a specific type of story, told according to a specific type of formula.  It is not bought and paid for; there is something intrinsic to the story itself–but it doesn’t hit every single person the same way, and that’s okay.  (Universal emotions not required.)  A story can be disliked by some people and still be a classic.

But what are the traits of a classic, then?

  • The story has to be reasonably technically proficient, although it does not need to be above-average in every respect.  There are lots of problems with, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  And yet it is a classic.
  • The story has to affect your emotions and engage your mind to the extent that you suspend disbelief.  This is harder than it sounds.  For me, most published stories–good, competent stories–don’t do both, or, often, either.
  • The story spreads via word of mouth.
  • The story has to stick with you.  It’s can’t be just Well, that was good.  It has to endure.
  • The story itself–or a quote or scene from it–becomes shorthand for expressing some emotion or concept.
  • Annnnnd probably a bunch of other points that I haven’t considered yet.

An example:

Between The Avengers and Firefly, I’m going to say that The Avengers is a good movie, but it’s Firefly that’s the classic.  It’s a hair of difference–they’re both technically very good, and I would say that some of the scenes in The Avengers are more technically proficient as writing than anything in Firefly (the fight scene over Loki that Cap has to break up).  Both engaged the emotions and suspended disbelief for a large number of people, me included.

But it’s Firefly that’s the more memorable, and that has entered the language.  Browncoat.  Firefly invented a new word.  It might not be around forever, and it’s not much more than “A fan of Firefly, tending toward some fairly anti-establishment views,” but it’s a new word.  And the only thing keeping Firefly off the air was that word of mouth took time that Fox didn’t want to give it.  It’s to the point where you are mocked at writers’ conferences if you can’t discuss story elements via Firefly, although I would argue that The Avengers makes a more useful example most of the time.

You can control for making a story technically proficient.

Can you do anything about the other points?

I think you can.  Some writers write one classic and that’s it (they may write many very good things, too, just not classics), but others can hit it over and over, even if they don’t hit it every time.  Stephen King: there’s a reason he’s popular, and it isn’t because the publishers promote him.  (Granted, some of his books carry the weaker ones.)

Is there a science to it?  Probably not–and yet there are probably some principles.

For one:  probably a story with integrity is more likely to become a classic than a story that is merely technically proficient.  That is, a story in which all the elements are used in harmony with each other, as required to handle the story:  the plot matches the characters matches the language matches the conflicts matches the themes.  The example that pops into my mind here is LittleBig.  But that’s kind of obscure, so…Dumb and Dumber.  The plot is stupid.  The characters are stupid.  The themes are stupid.  The jokes are stupid.  There isn’t an element of that movie that isn’t stupid…except for the technical proficiency that went into every element of making that movie as stupid as it was.  I busted a gut.  Their dog van…

Compare that to The Mask, which was a good movie made in the same year, but not one to endure the generations.  (Yes, 1994.  It’s an entire generation.)

I’m pretty sure integrity is going to be important (even though, at the moment, it’s almost always beyond my deliberate control).

But the element that I’ve been working on the most lately is memorability.  Memorable scenes, memorable characters, etc.  Right now this is a laborious process.  I write something, then I go, “Was that memorable,” take the most memorable elements, and rewrite it.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Does this mean I understand what my readers will remember?

Nope.  I’m just barely getting to the point where I get what I’ll remember.

It’s frustrating.  Ego-busting.

I used to be able to get away with a single pass, when I was shooting for technical proficiency–sure, I had to clean things up, but I didn’t have to tear things out two or three or four times to get even start getting close to what I wanted.  I hope this phase doesn’t last forever; it’s annoying.  But…it seems to be working.  The stories that I do this on sell faster, anyway, and I can tell stories apart without having to go back and check on them.  The earlier stories where I did this accidentally are the ones that I still like, even though I can see flaws all over the place.

What else?

No idea, yet.

I have a long way to go, and, honestly, every time I touch on this I feel like an arrogant idiot for pretending that I know, or can reasonably guess anything, but it keeps coming up:  How do I sell more stories?  How do I get them to hang around longer?  How do I build a fanbase?  If I kind of get how each element of a story works and can write it more or less competently, what is the next thing?

Right now?  Memorable.

I’m putting together a list of resources related to this topic (and post-craftsmanship topics in general).  I haven’t gone through all of it, mind you.

Here’s what it looks like so far:

  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Plotto, by William Wallace Cook
  • Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman
  • Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, by David Farland
  • Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Tales from the Perilous Realm, JRR Tolkein
  • The Writing Excuses Podcast
  • The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
  • The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us
  • Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions
  • The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

If you can think of more that I should add, please let me know!



The Ethics of Button-Pushing

I worked out a program for learning how to write this morning, in the broadest (and most general) possible steps.

1) Read.

2) Write.

3) Study by typing stuff in and analyzing it as much as desired, in a way that satisfies curiosity.

4) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts:  clarity of writing (the reader can scan the sentence-level writing), ideas, plot, character, setting/worldbuilding, dialog, scenes, conflict.  (The basics.)

5) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts: beginnings, endings, structure, POV, surprise, character voice, delivering elements of the story at the appropriate time for reader enjoyment.  (The middle concepts.)

6) Research and practice building understanding on the following concepts: pacing, tension, emotion, meeting/exceeding reader expectations. (The advanced concepts.)

7) Specialize as desired, with additional research focusing on a particular genre: what conflicts, characters, settings, themes, and emotions are desired by the reader?

8) Research and practice building understanding on how to increase readership via storytelling techniques.  (Bestseller level, admittedly a GREAT mystery to me, but I suspect involves story in an almost mystical sense.)

–Is this the path that every writer follows?  Of course not.  But it’s the path I’m on so far, and it seems to have been the path of more than a few writers I admire.

I had a dream a couple of days ago, one of those trippy dreams in which you utterly know something, it is truth and nothing but, and then you wake up and it all seems kind of frail and wishy-washy.  I dreamt that I understood how to manipulate readers:  not fully and totally, but with two gestures.  The twist, and the slam-bounce.

The twist wasn’t a plot twist; it was a wringing gesture that perfectly coincided with what you needed to do with a reader in every scene of a horror novel.  In the dream, I understood exactly how this coincided with putting words on a page (siiiiigh).  Horror, I knew, could contain a variety of emotions, but if you didn’t deliver on that twist, then you should get out of the business of horror.  The twist could be a number of different sub-emotions–horror, terror, surprise, revulsion, etc.  But those sub-emotions all shared the same twist-iness.

The slam-bounce was another set of emotions, this time belonging to adventure.  I’ve been thinking a lot about adventure lately: what emotions does it involve, what traits does it share across other genres (in fiction, adventure isn’t a genre so much anymore, so you have to track it down either in movies, in snippets across other genres, or in older work), what does the reader get out of it, etc.  The slam-bounce I wasn’t as clear about, even in my dream, how to translate into words.  But this morning I figured out that the slam-bounce is when a down (some obstacle that slams against the character) forces an even greater up (the character not only overcomes the obstacle, but emerges even more powerful than before because of it).  James Bond is trying to question a contact when the building blows up, from which he emerges scathed, energized, holding more information than he had when he went in the building, and with additional motivation to take the bad guys down.  For adventure, there must be sudden, explosive turns in the main character’s fortunes, up and down, up and down.  You can’t just drag an adventure further and further down into appalling depths, the way you can with a straight horror.  There must be some highs; otherwise you haven’t done a slam-bounce.

Like I said: it was a dream.  I think I’m headed toward some insight that I don’t actually have yet, and got a flash of it in a dream.  I’ll understand it on a more practical level later, I hope.

But for some reason, it got me back to thinking about the ethics of writing: the deeper we go into the great ocean of story, the more we come back with magic fish that allow us to do deep, subtle things inside other people’s heads.  Is it ethical to screw with people’s heads this way, as a writer?  It must be: good writers are honored rather than villified.  They get paid; they get treated almost as shamans, people who carry their readers into a magic world of spirits.

But there must be a limit.  If we can build people up, we can tear them down, too.  Or, possibly worse, we can play them and force them to “like” our work, when really it’s not the best work we could be doing.

Chuck Palahniuk has written a story that makes people literally pass out during readings.  I’ve read it; it didn’t do much for me.  They weren’t my buttons he was pushing.  Was it ethical to write that story?  Or at least, once a pattern of harm was established, to keep reading it at readings?

It’s relatively easy to come up with books that could break, or convince other people to break, various taboos.  Human beings, as a species, are vulnerable to brainwashing, manipulation, con jobs.  We use all kinds of stories to jusify the most monstrous actions; our most monstrous actions are the logical extension of the stories that we tell each other.

The man is the head of the family.  Therefore, if the man is a failure, the family is a failure too, and they should all be destroyed together.

A man will not love a woman with children from another man.  A man can only love his own children.  Therefore, if you are trying to get another man to support you, you should get rid of your current children.

Two examples.  Not everyone responds the same way, of course.  But people are vulnerable to these kinds of things.  A father loses his job and becomes abusive to his spouse and kids.  A woman remarries and ignores her older kids in favor of the new ones.  Some people consciously reverse these things.  But that doesn’t make the story go away.

Would you want a book that encouraged people to kill their kids?

But often a book should break taboos, because taboos change.  Art should challenge social norms; testing and influencing opinions is part of the Great Conversation, and sometimes extreme revulsion, madness, and sex are part of that.  Sometimes gay penguins are part of that.

Where is the line?  Where would a librarian say the line is?

Where should a writer draw their own lines?  A reader?

I can’t judge where the line is for other people, and I think librarians have a specialized muscle that they build that allows them to think about that line more critically than I will ever have to.

So I only have myself as a reader and a writer to really judge from.  And I’ve been a reader far longer than I’ve been a writer, so I’ll start with that.

My thought is that the best way to defend yourself against brainwashing in general is to read a wide variety of books, as well as expose yourself to a wide variety of opinions.  The button pushing becomes more evident, and you’re able to strip it away and examine the (mostly) nonsense that lies beneath with less bias.

The Palahniuk story didn’t affect me because, uh, whatever, dude.  It felt artificial and fake to me–I could see a bunch of the buttons, and it felt like a more sophisticated version of a junior high gross-out story.  I’ve pushed those buttons before, lots of times.  The entire setup felt like a cheap manipulation, and I haven’t read a Palahniuk story since.

A lot of people like, or are at least impressed by, his work.  And admittedly this was a short story, and if you can’t experiment in a short story, where can you?

I liked Fight Club.  But this turned me off.  You have the power to make people faint, and you used it for this?  My reaction probably isn’t fair, but it’s visceral.  Whatever, dude.

I’ve picked up other books, too, where the manipulation is too obvious, and I always ditch them right away.  Not to say that the books I like aren’t manipulative, but I feel like the writer should at least make the pretense of telling a story for the story’s sake, and not just to push my buttons.

So here’s my line as a reader: Don’t expect me to read your book just because you feel like pushing my buttons.

The more I write, the more I have it in my power to write stories that are just about pushing other people’s buttons.  Not necessarily in a way that makes people vomit, makes them uncomfortable because I’m breaking taboos.  Delight…love…hate…understanding…intolerance…the importance of manners… I can, given enough time, work out how to do these things to readers (see the system above).  Any writer worth their salt can, and probably has, picked several of these things, and done them over and over again.

Is that ethical?

When is that ethical?  When not?

Where is my line as a writer?  Are good intentions good enough?  When is it a good idea to write a story that makes people faint?  Is Because I can good enough?

Readers are paying to have their buttons pushed.

The books I most enjoy are the ones in which the writer has dug down deep and pulled something out of themselves and explained it to me, subtly or otherwise.  Even the most light-hearted books are like this sometimes.  The books I like the least are the ones that seem like they’re shouting at me in flashing allcaps, in which I, the reader, am something to be manipulated.

As a reader, I’m paying to have my buttons pushed.  But I hate being treated like a robot, a commodity.  A fine line, a gray area: is the writer pushing their own buttons as well as mine?  If so, is the writer brainwashing themselves, or is this an honest exploration?

Are we in this story together, or am I playing the reader?

I think that’s my line.



[flash fiction, horror] Hair

I wake up and start to comb my fingers through my hair.

It’s falling out, you see, faster than it grows back in, and every morning I take a perverse pleasure in eradicating the loose strands with my fingers.  Here, says my fingers, lies your “crowning beauty.”  Your hair.  It’s long and thick, thicker than any normal two women’s hair put together, and I’ve always taken it for granted.  “Horse hair,” my hairdresser, Nancy, calls it.  Every morning a scattering of delicate strands dangles from my fingers like spiderwebs, and I roll them into a ball and throw them into the trash in the bathroom before I sit down to pee.  At this rate, it’ll be years before I turn bald.

But this morning is different.

When I actually touch my hair, I feel not delicate strands but a jellylike paste.  I can feel the hair underneath when I scratch my head, but it breaks under my fingers, almost as though it were dissolving.  My fingers freeze.

Luckily Craig’s already gone for work.  He gets up before dawn so he can work out, holding old age and infirmity at bay.  Still holding my hand to my head, I sit up slowly.  Although the sun is just up, it’s still dim in the bedroom.  With my other hand, I fumble around on the nightstand for my glasses and slip them on.

A cold trail of something runs down my back.  I shiver and make a mental note to wash the bedding today.  Before Craig gets back.

The room smells of that sour smell when a group of old ladies use the toilets at a movie theater.  Great, I think.  Must have a yeast infection.

On my head?

I stumble into the bathroom, turn on the lights, then twist on the shower, bend forward, and lean into the cold water, letting it wash whatever is on my head into the drain.

The sludge is a warm, dark brown.  The exact color of my hair, in fact, if you don’t count the few twinkling strands of silver.  It pools up in the bottom of the shower, promptly backing up the drain and causing the level of water to rise.

I rub my hands over the back of my head, feeling bare skin.

Well, that’s it, then.  I’m bald.

I scrub my scalp until it’s hairless and clean.  The skin seems unbroken.  When I lean around to look at myself in the mirror I don’t appear to be bleeding.  Two brown streaks where my eyebrows used to be, and a dribble of brownish liquid from my nose that, when wiped, isn’t blood.

I suddenly remember the shower and turn off the water, which is finally hot and casting up clouds of gross-smelling steam.

The sludge in the drain has mostly disappeared, and the water in the shower stall is slowly glugging down through the cracks.  I pull off a wad of toilet paper and notice that the seat is down, a sure sign of Craig having a good sit, first thing in the morning.  Maybe the smell is from him.  I’ll have to see if he’s feeling all right.

I start to wipe the sludge away from the drain.  As lovely as it would be if it all just disappeared, it would be wiser to throw it out in a plastic bag.  We have enough trouble with the sewer line as it is, with tree roots always growing through.

Something scratches against the bottom of the shower stall.

I turn over the paper.  There, in the middle of the brown sludge, is a tooth.


I run my tongue around my mouth, but no, no teeth missing.  They’re gummy and badly in need of brushing.  But all there.


I walk over to the mirror and put the wad of toilet paper down on the counter, sludge downward.  The tooth clicks on the countertop.

I riffle my thumb against Craig’s toothbrush, my stomach heaving.  It’s dry.

I blink at myself in the mirror.  My eyelashes are gone, everything that makes me feminine is gone.  Hairless, I seem like an alien.

My eyes  in the mirror grow darker and darker until the pupils fill them up from edge to edge, not a single fleck of white remaining.

Behind me in the mirror, Craig’s workout bag is balanced on the edge of the tub.

What?  Still in the mood for horror stories?  Check out my collection of horror, dark fantasy, and ghost stories:  A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre.






Release Day for A Murder of Crows – How You Can Help

tl;dr:  a) buy book and/or ask for free copy, b) review someplace, c) tell a friend, d) give me hugs.


Today is the official release day for A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre.

I am, of course, in panic mode, because I have a release-day checklist in which I do more than whisper a quiet announcement on Facebook and slink back into my hidey hole, as usual, so make snarky comments and post nerdy links.  The dreaded promotion phase of writing.  I think I know like two writers who enjoy promoting themselves.  The rest of us are terrified.

My goals:

1) Get the book onto a nice place on the horror sub-lists on Amazon during October (for example, the Ghosts sublist).

2) Gather reviews in preparation for running a big promotion later on, towards Christmas.

3) Not go batshit insane.

People keep reminding me that it’s perfectly okay to ask other people for help achieving my goals.  I struggle with this, but it’s on the list, so I have to do it.  Please note:  this is not an email to press complete strangers into being my book slaves (there’s a thought), but for family, friends, and fellow authors exchanging favors.

So, if you would like to help me, here are some options:

1) Buy the book on Amazon today.  Even if you don’t have a Kindle.  This costs $2.99.  My Midwestern brain insists that I mention that this is not required, but it would be a huge help.

[Note:  This goes to Goal #1.  The more people who buy the book in the first 30 days of a new Amazon release, the better it seems to look to their algorithms and the more visible they make me to complete strangers who happen to be looking for ghost stories for a while.]

2) Ask me for a free copy of the book.  I have formats set up for all major ereaders as well as on your computer.  If you have no intention of reading the book but want to pass it on to someone who miiiiiight want it like six years from now, I have no problem with that.  Ask away :)

3) Review the book at Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, on your blog or other social media, on the back of a napkin, sealed up into a bottle and tossed into the ocean…

[Note: Anywhere you mention the book--or link to it--on the Internet helps brainwash Google and other search engines into making it just slightly more visible.]

4) Pass the word.  There’s a local commercial that always ends up with, “If you like our service, tell a friend.  If you don’t, tell me.”  That’s it exactly.

As far as social media goes, you may copy the picture of the cover off this blog and use it to help promote the book if you like (most social media give extra weight to posts with pictures attached, which is why you see so many dang cats).

Here are some thingies suitable for copying and pasting onto Twitter, Facebook, G+, or what have you:

Ghosts, monsters, and the macabre: A MURDER OF CROWS on sale for #Halloween #horror

It was we crows who stole your daughter… A MURDER OF CROWS: 17 TALES OF MONSTERS AND THE MACABRE

Mothers, daughters, & other monsters. 17 short stories of ghosts, dark fantasy, and horror. A MURDER OF CROWS

5) Sign up for my newsletter.  

[Note: Social media's kind of random whether you actually see what I post or not.  A newsletter will end up in your email inbox, where you can read it or not, as you choose, rather than as Facebook chooses.  I send at most one newsletter a month except this month, in which I will be sending an extra one out today or tomorrow with the actual release announcement and (basically) the same information as is on this blog.]

6) Chat with me.  I will listen to you complain about/praise the book, I will take typo oopsies if you catch any in the book, I will take invitations to write on your blog, I will talk at your book group, I will bring free copies of books to libraries, I will show up to speak for your writer group on pretty much any topic.  Unless I gotta travel out of state, and then…maybe.  If you have a favor to ask, ask it :)  Because trading favors is what makes the writing world go ’round.

7) Give me hugs.  I am not the huggiest of people but I’m going to hit this wall of exhaustion about five o’clock today and start crying about what a terrible writer/person I am, more because I’m just tired than anything else.  I intend to go to the PPW writer’s night tonight for support, but we’ll see.

Thank you :)  I couldn’t do this without all of you.  I owe you big time.


Book Review: Irredeemable, by Jason Sizemore

Disclosures: A) I used to slush for Apex Magazine, of which Jason is the publisher, and B) I got a review copy.

I’m reading (as I’m sure you’ve heard me go off about by now) Nightmare Magazine Top 100 Horror Books.  What I’m seeing, as I work through the Bs of Barker, Barron, Blatty, Bloch, and Bradbury, is that (other than Blatty) I’m not finding these stories particularly scary.  I like them all well enough, but they’re not really horrifying to me.  Here’s what seem to be the basic revelations so far:

  • Old people are scary, unless you’re old, and then they’re even scarier.
  • White people are scared of everyone who isn’t white.
  • Men are scared of everyone who isn’t male.
  • Young people with old spirits or who are possessed by old spirits are terrifying–because of the oldness.
  • I usually have more empathy for the antagonists than the protagonists, except in The Exorcist and Psycho, which, well, no, actually.  I had empathy for Norman Bates except in a few spots; it was his mother whose ass I wanted to kick.
  • The theme seems to be, “Everything we took for granted, why can’t we take it for granted anymore?  Waaaaah!”

Now, in my world, old people don’t scare me, and death is a Goth chick in a top hat.  (Okay, sometimes old people scare me, but not necessarily because they are approaching death, but because of the things they take for granted, like Hey, you should destroy your personality when you become a mother, or Hey, wouldn’t it be great if Jesus came and set everyone on fire?)  White people can, in fact, learn how to get along with everyone else, and “men” isn’t an end-all be-all club anymore.  And in my world, what we call it when you have to stop taking things for granted is called “wisdom,” not horror.

Maybe it’s just the Bs, I don’t know.

In the middle of these, I took a break and read Jason’s book, a short story or two at a time.  It’s a good sign, see, when you can only read a short story or two at a time, because a good short story is too powerful to move on from right away.

And they gave me nightmares.  Which none of the Bs have managed to do yet, although I need to reread Blatty before I can really make a final call.  I’m not sure if it’s just me or what.

Here’s what Jason’s stories have to say:

  • What if it’s me?  That’s the horrible one, and I didn’t know it?  And now I’m going to get what’s coming to me?
  • What if I went along with something horrible, and now it’s going to drag me down?  Does it mean I deserve it or not, if I didn’t actually do anything?
  • What if happiness (or at least getting what I want) would kill me?  What if it took the end of the world to get like two seconds of happiness, would it be worth it, then?
  • What if someone’s using the few good parts of my soul that are left against me?  Would it be better to be evil, then?
  • What if I’m so inured to pain that I would suffer more if it stopped?

These things, I can relate to.  In my world, they matter.  But that also means that I don’t know that I’m the most objective judge of the stories, either.

There were some that I thought very well put together (“Caspar,” “Sonic Scarring,” “Yellow Warblers,” “The Sleeping Quartet,” and others), and some that I thought were weaker, that hadn’t explored the line of thought all the way down (“For the Sake of Pleasing”), or had gone for the easy, quick kill instead of being very Jasonish (“Hope”).

And then there was “Shotgun Shelter,” which made me shout and almost toss the book across the room–it’s presented here as a short story, but it’s really the opening of this great novel somewhere between Joe Lansdale and Stephen King and why the @#$% did I get robbed by having it end so abruptly?

I look forward to him finishing the novel.  Which I doubt he has plans to finish…yet.








Trolls by Genre

I was screwing around with genres while journaling this morning:


Horror: We are all trolls.

With a splash of terror: Everyone is a troll but me, and now they’re after me!

Urban Fantasy: It’s the job of all right-thinking citizens to make a stand against trolls.  Especially, you know, if we’re getting paid for it.

Crime: How the troll took me down, and I got my revenge.

Mystery:  Which one of you is the troll?  Scratch that, which one of you is the troll who murdered my sister?  Sheesh, you’re all a bunch of trolls…

Romance: A troll hurt me once, so I never loved again…until now.

Historical Romance: …with dresses.

Paranormal Romance: …and the troll was literally a troll.

Noir: Sometimes it’s trolls versus trolls, babe, and you just gotta go with the lesser troll.

Christian: With love, even a troll can be saved.

Janette Oke: …on the prairie.

Thriller: When trolls turn DEADLY.

Epic Fantasy: A savior will arise against the troll who stands behind the throne.

Contemporary Fantasy: What you thought were metaphorical trolls…are literal trolls!  Which is both terrible…and cool!

Slipstream: What you thought were metaphorical trolls…are actually science construct robots run by miniature trolls, and you might be one, too.  Which is deeply unsettling.  Don’t adjust that dial…

Magic Realism:  The quiet suffering of the trolls must be understood.

Weird Fiction:  Dig too deep into the nature of trolls, and you will find something even worse then trolls…something too horrible to comprehend…

Grimdark: If the trolls want this ruined land, they will have to tear it from my cold, undead hands.

Sword & Sorcery:  My unlikely companion, Troll, and I get up to all kinds of blood, guts, and ADVENTURE!

Science Fiction: What if we went into space and found an alien society were run by trolls?

Mundane SF: How will we survive the inevitable worldwide society run by trolls, especially after we run out of petrochemicals?

Space Opera: We few rebels must resist the overwhelming power of a galactic society secretly run by trolls! Of course we will win!

Western: Well, I figure this here town run by a troll of a sheriff has something to learn about right and wrong, and here I am with a teachin’ license and two pistols.

Space Western: We ex-rebels have to teach this trollish society a little something about justice.  Also, money.  As in them not having so much of it all of a sudden.

Caper: So there’s this troll with a lot of money…what?  What could possibly go wrong?

Fable:  Once upon a time, there was a troll under the bridge, whom the main characters tricked so badly that you end up feeling sorry for him, kind of, if he would just stop eating people.

Alternate History: What if the Nazis idolized trolls as the master race?

Historical Fiction: Let us delve into the rich history of trolls, to explore where they came from, and their effect upon society now.

Steampunk/Gothic: A plucky heroine discovers an underground society of trolls abducted from the Colonies and forced to serve His Majesty as slaves.  She prevents a bloody revolution and instigates peaceful social change while falling in love with a Duke.

Steampunk/WeirdFic: A washed-out inventor discovers an underground society of trolls abducted from the Colonies and forced to serve His Majesty as slaves.  He accidentally starts a revolution and is haplessly dragged all over the place as brutal slaughter occurs around him and he finds out more than he ever wanted to know about the nature of reality, which is essentially broken.

Cyberpunk: An arrogant programmer discovers an underground society of trolls forced to serve the Government as online spies.  He deliberately starts a revolution that gets out of control, then is captured by the Gov’t and forced to work against his former allies.

Erotica: Captured by trolls, the main character learns to break down all their inhibitions and become…more truly themselves.

Porn: Captured by trolls, the main character learns to break down all their sexual inhibitions and become…the Queen of Trolls!

Chick Lit: Finding out that you and all your friends are, you know, some kind of minor troll…but you all have each other’s backs once a tragic loss brings you together.

Suspense: You and a troll face off against each other through intermediaries until, finally, you are trapped together, forced to face each other directly…and only one of you will survive.

–What other genres would you like?

Also: Ack, I’m trying to sell books here!  Preorders for my collection of horror/dark fantasy/ghost stories, A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre is available here.  The book will be released on Oct. 27th.  Please preorder and help me get more visible on the charts on release day!

A Murder of Crows: Preorders Now Open


Preorders are now open for my collection of short horror, ghost, and dark fantasy stories for adults, A Murder of Crows.  If you are so inclined to make a preorder, many thanks!  The current price is $2.99 US; it’ll go up after the release to $4.99.

The print edition is not quite ready for preorders yet (ahem).

If you would like a copy but find yourself short of cash (or need a format other than for Kindle), then contact me via your favorite social media network or at publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com, and I’ll email you one in trade for a review.  If you want to hold out for a print copy for review, email me anyway.  I’m making a list.

If you would like to preorder a copy and have an early review copy so that you can show up on my release day (Oct. 27th) with a review and therefore help boost sales to the moon, yes please!  Send me an email!

If you want to help me out but don’t want to read the book (horror stories aren’t your bag, I get it), then please help spread the news by posting any of the below (or making up your own):


It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering… A MURDER OF CROWS avail for preorder:   

Monsters and the macabre: A MURDER OF CROWS preorders now available:    

Facebook and almost all other social media:

It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering… A MURDER OF CROWS, a collection of short horror, ghost, and dark fantasy stories by DeAnna Knippling is available for preorder here:  

And if you would forward the link to this particular blog, that would be helpful, too.

I’ll have more blogs later telling you how clever and fascinating this book is–the crow story isn’t so much a frame story so much as it is yoinked out of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which I’ve always been fascinated with.  But that’s later.  Today’s just to announce presales.  The opening of the book is below.





It was we crows who took your daughter, in case you were wondering. She didn’t run away. We had–I had–been watching her for some time, listening to her tell stories in the grass behind the house. She would sit near the chicken coop and watch the white chickens pick at the dirt, pulling up fat worms and clipping grasshoppers out of the air as they jumped toward the fields. 

Some of them were good stories. Some of them were bad. But that’s what decided it, even more than any issue of mercy or salvation or anything else. Crows are, for one, possessive of stories. And also by then I had pecked almost all the elders into coming to listen to her at least once, except Facunde, who was then mad and responded to nobody’s pecking, not that I had had the courage to exactly take my beak to her. “She is like a daughter to me,” I had pled with the others. “She listens.” They laughed at me, they rattled their beaks, they came and heard her and were convinced, or at least bullied into pretending they were convinced. 

We took her on the same cold winter day that you traded your son to the fairies, the wind blowing in cold gray threads, ruffling our feathers. It had snowed a few days before that, a storm that had killed your husband, or so it was said. The wind had snatched the snow out onto the prairie, hiding it in crevices. It had been a dry year, and even though it was still too cold to melt the snow, the thirsty dirt still found places to tuck it away in case of a thaw. 

I stamped my feet on a sleeping branch while the others argued. Some argued that we should wait for spring. So many things are different, in the spring. But old Loyolo insisted: no, if we were to take the child, we would have to take her then and there: there had been at least one death already, and no one had heard the babe’s cry for hours. 

We covered the oak trees, thousands of us, so many that the branches creaked and swayed under our weight. I don’t know if you noticed us, before it was too late. You were, it is to be admitted, busy. 

The girl played on the swings, rocking herself back and forth in long, mournful creaks. She wore a too-small padded jacket and a dress decorated in small flowers. She was so clean that she still smelled of soap. Her feet were bare under their shoes, the skin scabbed and dry, almost scaly. Her wrists were pricked with gooseflesh, and her hair whipped in thin, colorless threads across her face as the wind caught it. The house had the smell of fresh death, under the peeling paint and the dusty windows, and seemed to murmur with forgotten languages, none of which were languages of love or tenderness. Afternoon was sinking into evening. The girl’s breath smelled like hunger. 

“Now!” called old Loyolo, at some signal that not even I could have told you. And thousands of birds swept out of the trees toward her. From the middle of it, I can tell you, it seemed a kind of nightmare. Wings in my face, claws in my feathers. The sun was temporarily snuffed out, it was a myriad of bright slices reflected off black wings… 

Book Review: The Imago Sequence

by Laird Barron.


Reading this book, a collection of short “the horrors of that which is beyond our comprehension” horror stories, was quite the experience.

The first two stories, “Old Virginia” and “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” bored me.  I’m reading Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books, so I’m expecting this stuff to be over-the-top good.  They were well written, but they just didn’t do anything for me.  No horror, no tension, no delight, no schadenfreude, no emotion.  Just the reasonably unpainful slog of turning pages.  I neither loved, nor hated, nor even goggled at any of the characters.  “Uh-huh,” I said.  Logical and plausible, given a world in which the uncanny exists.

The third story, “Procession of the Black Sloth,” made me go, “This guy has a particular horror of old people, doesn’t he?”  I mean, in that story, it’s blatant.  A group of little old ladies are not what they seem.  A man could go mad, finding out what little old ladies get up to, when they’re not playing cards.  This one I liked; it was a much more tense, almost intimate story, and some of the visuals are still with me, although I’m entirely on the side of the little old ladies here.

“Bulldozer,” well, it’s there, okay, whatever.  Interesting setting, a Pinkerton in the West who…looks into stuff what he would be better not looking into.  An old woman adds to the horror of the milieu.  Yawn.  I had to look this one up, because I could not remember what it was about.

I sit down and write a couple of journal entries ranting about how I’m tired of being held at arm’s length by this writer and how I would have ditched the book if it weren’t on the damn list.  Then start I list all the things I’m afraid of and why, and look at it with satisfaction.  “Ugly,” I think.  “But utterly mine.”

Then “Proboscis,” about the same reaction as “Bulldozer,” initially.  Different setting–modern, northwest, horrors at some ancient geological features, wait wait, will we be sorry we looked behind the curtain?–yep, someone’s getting eaten, okay, whatever.  But there are some things about bugs that have real zest to them, about people who might or might not be human.  This story feels a little more real.  I laugh out loud when, at the end, a little old lady expresses sympathy for the main character, her hand lingering just a little too long on his shoulder.

“Hallucigenia” was quite enjoyable.  There were old people!  And insects!  And I was beginning to notice that rich people were coming up more often than not.  Nnnnno, not rich people specificially, but people in power, or people acting on the authority of people in power.  Here, a rich ex-game hunter/financial genius/predator gone soft stumbles into what a bunch of poor but extremely smart farmers have been getting up to.  “Does he have a thing about rich people?” I wondered.  “Everyone in these stories has the money to throw around and get into stuff they shouldn’t.  Working class people, even middle class people would be all  ‘screw this, I gotta go to work in the morning’ and leave it alone.”

“Parallax” is almost…cute, almost a directly connected story with “Hallucingenia.”  Meh.

I look up Laird Barron on Wikipedia.  For  some reason it is almost gripping that he’s from Alaska and wears an eyepatch.  “Don’t let the eyepatch influence you,” I try to tell myself.  “Oooh, he’s done the Iditarod….”  I find out that he’s strongly influenced by pulp, and stuff starts snapping into place.  The settings…the characters…the dryness of emotion.  Yes, those all fit, very pulp and popular fictiony.  70s adventure/spy stuff…with the uncanny!  Private investigator in the back woods noir…with the uncanny!  Pinkerton…with the uncanny!  A drug-induced adventure story…with the uncanny!  Rich people on safari…with the uncanny!

Then I realize these are his first published stories.

Bitterly, I think, “Everyone loves Mr. Cleverdick who can write pulp and the uncanny, grumble grumble.”  I seethe with jealousy, yet am secure in the secret knowledge that at least I’m gutting my own pitiful soul when I’m writing, not copying someone from decades past…at least I’m not holding people at arm’s length…

That Black Sloth story, though.  I still think it’s pretty good.

Then I hit “The Royal Zoo is Closed.”

I don’t remember the story at all:  it breaks out of the pulp mode, and doesn’t bother telling the story in a clear, linear fashion.  I’m not sure whether it’s any good or not (I reluctantly admit to myself, here, that the other stories are good, just not personally affective.)  And yet it feels more personal and real than everything but the Black Sloth story combined.  In a sense, this should be the last story in the collection–the breakdown of reality.  And yet it’s not.

And now the final story, “The Imago Sequence.”  I’m not sure whether it’s a good story or not; I’m not really sure how to judge it.  I wonder what my reaction to it would have been, had I read the story on its own instead of in this particular position in this particular collection.

As I was reading this story, I kept popping in and out of layers:  reading the story as a story, looking at the story as part of the author’s oeuvre and development, looking at how this story ties into the others.  I read the entire story as a story, but got distracted by the other two thoughts, and so I’m not sure whether, in the end, the story’s any good.  It must be (it must be brilliant), and yet I can’t tell.

Here’s the thing:  of all the stories in the collection, the one that came closest to actually spooking, startling, or horrifying me is the Black Sloth story, and even then, I consider the ending somewhat of a mess.  “Ach, that’s the kind of thing that I could end with,” I tell myself.  I expect more from this guy, sad to say.  I came to this with expectations.  “But you have to do everything so much better than I could ever hope to do, so that I don’t tear myself up with jealousy.”  Unfair, I know.

If you set that one aside, then–what you see is a lurching kind of development of the writer.  He starts out as a master craftsman, a master carpenter of words, a master architect.  Everything that I’m striving to hit, he’s already hit it, knocked it out of the park.  But there’s no soul to it, no intimacy, no personal creepy crawlies, or if there are, they’re very deeply buried, so that they only really pop out when you start comparing the stories to each other.  Old people, rich people, people in the employ of the rich and powerful.  I get the impression that none of this is personally important to the author.  Then, as things go on, you see stories with flashes of personal squick to them.  Bugs.  The dent in the rich guy’s wife’s forehead.  His love of screwed-up art.  The Mima Mounds, which seems as if they’re too important to describe directly:  they can only be mentioned, or the fact that they can’t really be seen can be dwelt upon.

Then the moment when everything gets blown up:  “The Royal Zoo Is Closed.”  Which feels like a story where the author finally lets go of the rule book of how to write a good story and just gets drunk and raves and raves without really giving a shit about how it turns out, sends it off, and gets it published, much to his surprise.  A watershed of freedom.

And, finally–”The Imago Sequence.”

It hits me, as I’m making tea this morning (I finished the story last night and, oddly, didn’t dream about it), that “The Imago Sequence” describes what it feels like to become a horror writer, or even just a writer in general.  There’s a first phase, that feels interesting but mysterious.  Pretentious, copycattish, yeah yeah whatever.  A second phase, where you get addicted to the stuff and you write to stop the nightmares and everything is too damn hard.  Stuff sloshes around in you, you start looking at the world differently:  “Hey, that one thing that everyone takes for granted?  It sucks.  It just @#$%^&* sucks.”  And every time you go off about that thing, people look at you like an idiot (at best), or start attacking you because you’ve just pushed the taboo button.  There are things that everyone would rather not know–not the same things for each person, but still.  Rather.  Not.  Know.  And then there comes a third phase, where you dig deeper and deeper into yourself (which is a nicely literal scene in the story itself) and pull out all the ugliness you can find, until it splatters the landscape and transforms the world in subtle little ways, leaving clues for the next person to find.  If Lovecraft hadn’t been racist, for example–he wouldn’t have been Lovecraft.

I’m not sure about the conclusion buried within “The Imago Sequence” itself–it sounds like there’s a fourth phase, which is the horror writer being ingested by the things that horrify him, and he becomes them or is destroyed by them.  I don’t know that that’s true–I mean, weren’t we the things that horrify us already?–but it certainly feels like an intimate kind of horror, being consumed.  Just what I was looking for.

By the time I finished the collection, I was like, A) gonna read more by this guy to see where he’s taking things, and B) I feel like a sick predator for enjoying the fact that the author has been dragged down more into being a personal, intimate, naked horror writer instead of Mr. Cleverdick.  I’m not sure whether B comes more from the writer side of me or the reader side of me:  it’s not often that you get exactly the kind of writer you want, writing the kinds of stories that you didn’t know you wanted, but there they are, and really I’m hoping that that’s where he’s going.  “Scare me!  You’re headed in my perfect horrific direction!  Go faster!”  A selfish thought.

This morning I looked up the copyright dates.  Earliest: “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”  Latest, the Black Sloth story.  I keep smiling in anticipation.

Final thought:  Is the reason that the earlier stories don’t affect me due to the fact that I’m just not afraid of old people or suppressing the idea that wealth and power aren’t all that good for you?  In short, because I’m just not afraid of the same things–and the author didn’t bother to teach me how to be afraid of them?

Is it ethical to teach someone how to be afraid of something they weren’t already afraid of?  Especially if you don’t afterwards teach the reader how to defeat it?

It must be what horror readers want, though.  Think of how many people like plushie Cthulul dolls, how many people from my generation who are afraid of clowns.



POV Musings

Point of view.  It seems simple:  either it’s first-person (the narrator is an “I”), second-person (the narrator is a “you”), or third-person (the narrator is either looking down on the scene like a god [omniscient], or is a “he” or a “she” [tight]).


Which one do you choose?

When  you’re studying POV–or studying how to build characters–what do you even look at, beyond going, “Yup, that’s a third person tight, all right”?

And what if the POV character has an accent?  Should you be droppin’ all the gs, and if so, should you add an apostrophe?

What about head-hopping?  Why aren’t you supposed to do it, if you see it in bestsellers all the time?

When should you use POV to view a scene moment-by-moment, and when should you sum up?

When should you add backstory?  If you’re writing a tight POV, how do you handle backstory–sum up or scene it?  How do you do that without making huge backstory scenes or long blocks of exposition?

Speaking of exposition, why do people say not to do it (i.e., an info dump), but I see it all the time in novels?

Why the hell can’t I do a prologue?!?

Studying POV:

I can’t sort out the answers to all those yet, not clearly.  But this morning I realized I at least have a clue about what to look at when you’re studying POV:

  1. Who is the POV character at the start of the scene?  That is, from whose perspective are you seeing the situation?  It could be a character from within the scene or a narrator–and the narrator could be someone not completely defined within the story (as in the narrator in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or someone defined within the story (as in Hastings, who often narrates the events in Christie’s Poirot novels).  You might even have a temporary narrator–when one character relates a bit of story to other characters.
  2. What is the time period of the scene?  Is it before, after, or concurrent with the main action of the story?  And what verb tense is therefore being used?  (For example, a story told in present tense might use past tense to tell past events, or flashbacks told in present tense; a story told in past tense might use past-perfect ["she had gone"], past-perfect that fades into past [the first few sentences are past-perfect, but then past tense takes over], past tense flashbacks, past tense not in an actual flashback, or even present tense.  For a good example of some of the variations, see below.)
  3. Is the scene in full-scene mode, with events being spelled out in nearly real time, or is it in summary mode, with a few sentences that flash over a longer period of time?
  4. How distant is the POV character?  This is mostly found in third person stories:  there isn’t just third-person omniscient and third-person tight; there is an infinite range of possibilities of focusing in or out on your character.  A distant POV character can be seen from the outside–sometimes from the outside looking in, if you can read their thoughts.  A tighter POV character is seen more from the inside.  If you have a narrator in a third-person omniscient story who is very empathetic, then it can almost feel like, for a moment, that you’re inside the POV character’s head when you’re really not.  Stephen King does this a lot. See below.
  5. When any of these elements change, throughout the scene–note it.

Doctor Sleep:

So here’s a section of Doctor Sleep that I’m working on (near the very beginning).  Granted, any given aspect that you choose to study on King is going to be more complex than pretty much any other hundred authors you care to pick.  King isn’t necessarily where you want to start studying, because it’s hard to sort out everything he’s doing.  But, if you’re looking for an example of how complex POV can be beyond the basics of first/second/third person, it’s fabulous:

[POV: 3rd Om, tightly empathizing with Wendy.  Summary. These opening scenes are backstory--honestly, they're a prologue!--for the main body of the story, and this story is concurrent with the backstory scene action.  Past tense.]  

Wendy nagged her son out of bed at noon.  She managed to get a little soup and half a peanut butter sandwich into him, but then he went back to bed.  He still wouldn’t speak.  Halloran arrived shortly after five in the afternoon,

[Change: shift into full-scene mode.]

behind the wheel of his now ancient (but still perfectly maintained and blindingly polished) red Cadillac.

[Change: shift into past-perfect tense; this is a very slight backstory.  Shift into summary mode to show that she did this many times.]

Wendy had been standing at the window, waiting and watching as she had once waited and watched for her husband, hoping Jack would come home in a good mood.  And sober.

[Change: past-tense, back into full-scene mode.]

She rushed down the stairs and opened the door

[Just a note here--her behavior, although not requiring the shine, is almost precognitive here, opening the door just as someone else is about to open it.]

just as Dick was about to ring the bell marked TORRANCE 2A.  He held out his arms and she rushed into them at once, wishing she could be enfolded there for at least an hour.  Maybe two.

He let her go and held her at arm’s length by her shoulders.  “You’re lookin fine, Wendy.  How’s the little man?  He talkin again?”

[Note--Wendy's accent isn't stressed, but Dick's is; she can't hear her own accent, but she can hear his.]

“No, but he’ll talk to you.  Even if he won’t do it out loud to start with, you can–” instead of finishing, she made a finger-gun and pointed it at his forehead.

“Not necessarily,” Dick said.  His smile revealed a bright new pair of false teeth.

[Note--no paragraph break, just me.  Shift in tense to past-perfect that fades into past tense after the first sentence.  Shift from full-scene to summary.  Shift into backstory.]

The Overlook had taken most of the last set on the night the boiler blew.  Jack Torrance swung the mallet that took Dick’s dentures and Wendy’s ability to walk without a hitch in her stride,

[Shift from backstory into the present moment.  Midsentence.]

but they both understood it had really been the Overlook.  “He’s very powerful, Wendy.  If he wants to block me out, he will.  I know from my own experience.  Besides, it’d be better if we talk with our mouths.  Better for him.  Now tell me everything that happened.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

After she did that,

[Note that she didn't bother to retell the story at all, despite the fact that she has to retell herself the story about Jack hitting her with the hammer.  Shift into past-perfect backstory.]

Wendy took him into the bathroom. She had left the stains for him to see, like a beat cop preserving the scene of a crime for the forensic team.  And there had been a crime.  One against her boy.

[Shift into past tense and full scene, in the present.]

Dick looked for a long time, not touching, then nodded.  “Let’s see if Danny’s up and in the doins.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

He wasn’t,

[Shift into full-scene mode.]

but Wendy’s heart was lightened by the look of gladness that came into her son’s face when he saw who was sitting beside him on the bed and shaking his shoulder.

[Completely break focus on Wendy and hop into Danny's and Dick's heads.]

(hey Danny I brought you a present)

(it’s not my birthday)

[Shift back into Wendy's head.]

Wendy watched them, knowing they were speaking but not knowing what it was about.

Dick said, “Get on up, honey.  We’re gonna take a wakl to the beach.”

[Shift into Dick's and Danny's heads.]

(Dick she came back Mrs. Massey from Room 217 came back)

[Shift into Wendy's head, but very distantly.]

Dick gave his shoulder another shake.  “Talk out loud, Dan.  You’re scarin your ma.”

Danny said, “What’s my present?”

Dick smiled.  “That’s better.  I like ot hear you, and Wendy does, too.”

[Shift closer into Wendy's head; we can hear her thoughts now.  Still much more distant through the rest of the scene than in the beginning of the scene.]

“Yes.”  It was all she dared say.  Otherwise they’d hear the tremble in her voice and be concerned.  She didn’t want that.

“While we’re gone, you might want to give the bathroom a cleaning,” Dick said to her.  “Have you got kitchen gloves?”

She nodded.

“Good.  Wear them.”

Most stories aren’t going to be this complex, but there are still some lessons that non-Stephen-King-level writers might extract from it:

  • POV can be fluid when the story calls for it (like telepathy).
  • Tense can be fluid to help clarify when you’re using backstory.
  • You can shift between full scenes and summing up without making a huge deal out of it–especially if you have a character who dwells on the past.

At any rate, POV is more complex than just first/second/third :)