To sum up: if a reader likes the grotesque horror and odd mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe, then they will probably like this collection, which is similar.
As an example, the story depicted on the cover above is “The Human Chair.” A writer sends a manuscript to his favorite (female) author in the form of a letter written directly to her, about an artisan who crafted wonderful chairs and who developed an obsession about becoming part of his own furniture…and so hid himself inside one of his chairs after it was sold to a hotel. It gets weirder, stranger, and more grotesque from there, although certainly never obscene.
Each story is stranger and more inventive than the last.
I recommend this book for older teens and up. Readers who enjoy Edgar Allen Poe, The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock will find much to delight them here.
“What everyone wants to see,” the crow said, “is someone getting eaten. Preferably someone who deserves it.” 17 tales of monsters & the macabre.
This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.
I know, I know. A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle. However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”
But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting. Long-term professional writers don’t do it. Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost. It doesn’t have to take a lot of words. Just do it.
Okay, you’ve had your lecture. Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.
Middles are made up of conflicts. The conflict can be obvious. It can be subtle. But every middle has a conflict. If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].
And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict. It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have. A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.
(I really like that story, sorry. I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)
So. You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted. What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?
A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.
The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:
The character themselves (internal conflict).
As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.
In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way. These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short. It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.
The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:
The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)
These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way. There may be more.
Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:
Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup. He fails. (Try/Fail.)
Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured. (Succeed But Worse.)
Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley. When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail. The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)
There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts: When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”
If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued. As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny. (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)
The middle of a scene can get quite complex. It can have one long conflict. It can have multiple short conflicts. It have have a few short, then one conflict. It can have conflicts within conflicts. The pattern of conflicts is up to you. Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.
Which conflicts should you choose? It depends on the story.
Mostly, go with your gut instinct.
But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?” For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on? If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?
But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious. Your subconscious may have plans…
Next, I’m going to talk about endings. First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.
Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.
1. This collection is made up of short, creepy horror tales, not necessarily splatterpunk but not broodingly gothic, either. What made you decide to write in this particular vein of horror? It feels both adventurous in the classic pulp adventure sense, and very thick with detail and observation that lead inevitably to creepiness and suspense.
It was never really a decision. These were the stories coming to me, and I wrote them in whatever way spoke to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I started really experimenting with different types of horror, including some quieter horror. However, I do love the classic, blue collar sort of horror, and that’s probably always what I’ll write the most naturally. My first influence in horror was Stephen King, and I feel he’s telling blue collar tales, too. I like straight forward, hopefully identifiable characters, doing normal things that prove to be a mistake in the end. Life is unpredictable, and I hope I reflect that to an extent.
2. This collection contains the locally infamous Blue Sludge Blues story that I heard you read part of at an event. Please briefly describe the setup for the story…and the reactions you received at the event. (I know, I’ve heard the story behind the story before, but it’s a good one and I want you to share it anyway because heee hee hee!)
That was the most fun I’ve had reading a story! When I set out to write Blue Sludge Blues, it was meant to be an experiment in visceral horror. I asked people what words grossed them out or gave them an automatic negative feeling. And then I wrote about one of the most disgusting, uncomfortable places a person can go: a rest stop port-a-potty.
The story features a man moving across the country. He stops at a rest stop, where something waits for him, deep in the blue sludge of the chemical toilet. Something with tentacles. A quick bathroom break becomes a fight for his life.
When I read it at an open mic night, I wanted to see how people would respond. It wasn’t quite finished yet, but the gross details were there already. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought I might offend someone. Instead, there were groans, exclamations, and laughs at all the right places, and it was impossible to read it with a straight face as people sounded off around the room. They were grossed out and horrified, as I’d intended, and it remains my most requested short story.
3. How do you decide what kind of ending you end the stories with–from happy to tragic? It sounds like it’s a process, with some endings on some stories garnering some pretty harsh rejections. What was the worst reaction you’ve ever received, and did you decide it was all about the person rejecting the story, about the ending being wrong for the story, or something of both?
I hate to say it for this answer, too, but I don’t plan most endings. I’m a complete pantser, sometimes not knowing where I’m going until I’m in the thick of it. I’ve been told I tend to write circular stories, with the ending doing a bit of a callback to something in the beginning, so I’d say the endings are instinctual. I had no idea I was doing that until someone pointed it out. Admittedly, I lean toward more tragic endings or the false happy ending. Likely because those are the types of endings I grew up reading and watching in horror films.
I haven’t had anyone ask for a new ending, but I’ve had issues with details within the story. The one I had the most issues with was for a story called Cravings, about a pregnant couple dealing with some disturbing cravings. Originally, the couple had a dog. At one point, the husband came home to find his pregnant wife gnawing on the dog’s neck. It lived. My first rejection came from an editor who said I should have gone all the way and killed the dog, and he was disappointed I hadn’t done so. I went ahead and changed it to see what would happen. Sure enough, personal rejections came in because I’d harmed a dog (and to be clear, I was not submitting to markets that blatantly forbade harm to animals in their guidelines). They weren’t nasty (in fact, they were complimentary of my writing style), and they said they liked the idea of the story, but they wouldn’t publish it because the dog died. Or, as one woman said, she couldn’t handle “the slow, awful death of the dog.” (It was intentionally not slow and awful—I don’t do animal torture—but it obviously bothered her). I stubbornly went on submitting the two versions of the story to various publications, and it netted me the most personal rejections I’ve ever gotten on one story. They liked the idea and the writing, but that dog (poor Jauncy) was trouble, no matter which direction I went.
Ultimately, I removed the dog entirely and rewrote the story to actually be slightly more extreme on the one hand and more discreet on the other. No harm to an animal was directly depicted. I was deeply frustrated, and couldn’t decide between the two courses of action, so I figured out a third instead.
I definitely felt it came down to personal preferences for the different editors, not so much this detail being wrong for the story. My critique group was sad to learn I’d changed the story to remove the dog. I’d gotten exactly the reactions from them that I’d intended when they read the original piece, but sometimes it’s best to let it go. With such mixed reactions from editors, the readers were going to have equally mixed reactions.
4. You, M.B. Partlow, and I have been reading through several lists of horror novels over the last few years (it feels weird to say that, but it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it?). Who do you feel that you’ve discovered through those lists that you most relate to, as a writer? Not necessarily the book you enjoyed the most, although feel free to mention that. What techniques have you stolen or borrowed? What have you simply said a big fat “nope” to?
It has been a few years, hasn’t it? That’s hard to process.
The story that struck me the most (so far) was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It gave me a new understanding of horror. I was already familiar with monsters, both human and animal, but this book has varying levels of human monster, and the big ones, the ones that put this dystopian landscape into play, are never seen. We only see the results of their actions. Other than that, they’re faceless. It’s astoundingly well done.
Other than that, I learned a LOT about what makes up horror. In the beginning, there were books I’d read and I had no idea why they’d been classified as horror. But I’d think about it, tear my ideas apart, and eventually expanded my definition of horror. All horror authors should have an epiphany like that one. As it is, I still have people argue with me about The Handmaid’s Tale being horror. People also have trouble understanding that a story can be horror-plus. As in, it can be horror and science fiction. We don’t have to pick one genre. The film Aliens can be both horror and science fiction. In fact, it can be horror, science fiction, military sci-fi, and action/adventure. It can be all those things without diminishing it or changing its meaning to any one person.
Overall, the entire project helped me become bolder and more experimental with my writing. I’m more willing to play because of what I’ve experienced in the books on the list. For the most part, I’ve also stopped saying, “That wasn’t horror,” instead immersing myself in it and picking it apart until I can see why someone else might have defined it as horror.
One of the skills it’s made me work to hone is holding back. Sometimes I rush forward, so excited to get to the big freaky thing. It’s more effective not to do that, and it takes finesse.
My big nope? The nonsensical, bizarro, political weirdness of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Too abstract for me.
5. Where do you think you’ll go from here with your writing? I know a lot of short story writers end up writing novels, often because it pays more (at least, in theory). If you were able to make a living at short stories, would you stick with those, or still work your way into novels?
I was actually working on novels first, and I do have a few in the works, but I enjoy my time with short stories so much more that I rarely work on the novels. There’s a roller coaster high-low addiction to short story writing, submitting, and publishing. Instead of one or two novel releases a year, I have a bunch of releases, and the excitement involved in them. Sometimes I’ve got multiple releases at once! Plus, there’s a kinship with the people sharing the tables of contents with me at times, as well as the editors. It’s a fantastic community, and one that’s growing.
Novels move at glacial speeds. Short stories are rapid and exciting. I’ve been published with big names that I’d never share space with in writing any other way.
In short? I’d love to also have novels published, though not for the money so much as the fact that some of my story ideas simply turn out to need a novel’s length to tell, and they want out as much as the short stories do. Well, almost as much. I don’t see myself ever giving up short stories. I’m making the same amount monthly from my collection of short stories that friends with one novel out are making. It’s not a lot…for either of us (bearing in mind I’m speaking only of self-published friends with a single novel out), but we’re running parallel in terms of royalties. And in addition to that one book, I sell short stories throughout the year, which is a meager additional income they’re not bringing in.
I’m also playing around with short memoir/creative non-fiction and working on a craft book on short stories, so we’ll see where that takes me.
and last but not least, the bonus question:
6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on? (Hint: the additional promo question.)
Writing short stories has led me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of the same benefits and opportunities as novelists, such as being picked up to speak at conferences, be a panelist at conventions, do standalone workshops, participate in book signings, etc. Short stories have a natural ebb and flow, like many other aspects of writing, but right now they’re flowing. It’s a great time to try your hand at short stories to see how you do. Short fiction is selling especially well in the speculative fiction realm, so give it a go!
And those opportunities I mentioned? I’ve got a piece coming out September 4 in an anthology with some of the most amazing, up-and-coming women in horror. I’m incredibly excited about it, and there are already rumblings of an award nomination for the book, as well as a review in Publisher’s Weekly. If nothing else, it’s made a stir. Most of the stories are reprints (including mine), but there are also new stories written for the anthology. That book is Fright Into Flight, put out by Word Horde, edited by Amber Fallon.
And I’m in an anthology of novellas and novellettes, due to be released September 15. The Society of Misfit Stories, Volume II can be found here.
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, including Space and Time Magazine and Dark Moon Digest, and her short story collection Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations is now available. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.
I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.
The Vegetarian is a short novel set in contemporary Korea. Yeong-hye is a housewife who, after a terrible dream, decides to become a vegetarian. Because her role is so restrictive and other people’s understanding of her humanity so limited by her circumstances, her decision–seemingly so minor–comes to have horrific effects.
Because this is a story about one’s point of view being invalidated, the story is told from other characters’ points of view, in three novelettes. The first is from her husband’s point of view; he is incredulous that she will not eat meat, and even more incredulous that she won’t start eating meat because he told her to.
The second is from her brother-in-law’s point of view as he turns her into a kind of living art object, only caring about whether she will model for his video art or not.
The third is from her sister’s point of view, as she struggles to decide whether to treat her sister as a person with a will of her own or as an inconvenient bit of living meat after everything else has been stripped for her.
The Vegetarian is one of the world’s perfect book club books; it’s short and easily readable, and it’s almost guaranteed to provoke interesting discussions. Are the events of the book fully realistic, or do they have any sort of supernatural implication? Is the book a fairy tale or not? How should the people closest to Yeong-hye have reacted? Who was at fault? Readers’ emotional reactions will also vary greatly; I found the book very Kafkaesque and ironically funny at times (as I do with Kafka). Other readers have said they found the book tragic and moving.
I recommend this book for adults and older teens; there is no strong language, but shocking situations, including graphic sex and violence, abound. Readers who are interested in modern-day fairy tales will also find this of great interest; the story reads like a retelling of an old fairy tale that one hasn’t happened to have read yet. The book should also be of interest to readers who enjoy weird fiction such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I read this in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much.
Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked. Wonderland Press Newsletter.