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The Art of Surprise

How do you surprise your readers?

I use two methods:  Wilhelm’s Law and the Agatha Christie Technique.

Wilhelm’s Law:  throw away your first three ideas.  

What this means:

  • Your first idea is generally the most obvious one.  It’s been done.
  • Your second idea is generally a response to the first.  Because most stories have been done before, this is the first plot “twist” that comes up…for almost everyone.
  • The third idea is a stretch, but it’s still pretty logical.  The audience will go, “Yeah, I see that.”
  • The fourth idea (sometimes this state takes more than four ideas) is the place where you surprise yourself as a writer.  Yes!  Aha!  Oh, that’s terrible and I must do it!

The fourth idea is the perfect place to be.  Let’s say you want to write a story about zombies.

  • Zombies take over the world and try to kill everyone.  Ehhhh.
  • Zombies take over the world and it’s a metaphor for social ills of some sort.  Okay, if it’s done well, or if it’s done first, or if it has really engaging characters in it.
  • Zombies take over the world but stop if you love them truly.  Warm Bodies.
  • Zombies take over the world but there’s a cure, only it makes you the slave of a half-zombie fascist.  Z Nation.

Guess which one of these concepts involves a giant wheel of cheese rolling down the street.  The fourth idea is where the audience goes, “Where do you get your ideas?!?”

The Agatha Christie Technique: identify a reader assumption and undermine it.

Kris Rusch jokes that Agatha Christie just picks the least likely person to have done it.  But I had to wonder–how do you pick the least likely person?

Some assumptions about a mystery that Christie undermined (spoiler alert):

  • One or two characters are the murderer(s)–>The Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects helped murder the dude.
  • The narrator is a good guy, a kind of sidekick for the detective–>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator did indeed do it, cleverly concealing this as he goes.
  • The people who get framed didn’t do it–>The Murder at the Vicarage, in which the murderers frame themselves, then “reveal” that they were framed.
  • A pattern of clues is meaningful–>The ABC Murders, in which a murderer kills several other people in order to make it look like a deranged alphabetical serial killer is on the loose.

Readers tend to focus on the method of solving a crime (“the little grey cells”) rather than the method of choosing what crime that what characters commit–as a writer must do.

Mystery isn’t the only genre you can do this with.

So let’s say we have a romance, which is sometimes seen as the most locked-in, predictable of genres.  You can’t mess with the falling in love bit, OR the Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending.  Those aren’t just assumptions but expectations; if you don’t deliver those things, readers are going to be pissed.  My examples are going to be a bit dated here, because I really, really love old romantic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out how they work.

  • The hero is tall, dark, and handsome–>The hero is a phenomenally ugly man with a big nose but a talent for poetry.  Cryano de Bergerac.
  • The hero is an honorable man–>The hero is an airhead.  The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • The hero falls in love at first sight–>The hero sneers at the heroine and ignores her for the first quarter of the book, then insults the holy crap out of her.  Pride and Prejudice.
  • There are some books that even sneak an end-run around violating the HEA/HFN rule:  The hero falls in love and they live happily ever after–>Both lovers, who never even had sex, die, but their kid falls in love and lives on.  Les Miserables.

You can’t just overturn the assumption and do the exact opposite of what it proposes.  That’s when you end up with “the butler did it wait what that was random” kinds of stories, which overturn assumptions but don’t meet expectations.  The story still has to feel meaningful.  If you set up a dilemma between two lovers, for example, making your heroine instead choose a third can seem completely random–readers have invested in the two lovers, not the third.  And having one of them die so the heroine can conveniently choose the other, well, whatever.

But if you combine both methods and have two men who look identical in a love triangle, then have one of them sacrifice himself to save the other, because he’ll be able to give the heroine a better life, well, that’s A Tale of Two Cities, and if Dickens were still alive, he’d still be making bank off of that.

Click here for an example of a killer plot twist in action.

How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

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.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

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Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

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 Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

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How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

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.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

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The Story Game

Here’s a game I came up with.  Asking one person is interesting enough, but asking at least five is essential to the point of the game.

It’s a dark and stormy night and you’re on a road going somewhere that you don’t want to go, but have to be.

  1. How are you traveling?
  2. Where do you have to go?
  3. Is anyone with you?

And the final question (ask this after everyone has a go-round) is:

Okay, so what is a story?

I came up with this while I was at the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference; it’s the culmination of about twenty years of pondering over something in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  I had to laugh when I realized it had literally been that long–it’s from The Wake, the last of the graphic novels, which was released in 1996 and which I read that year.  So twenty-two years, actually.

If you play this with enough people, you’ll notice:

  • Nobody gives the same answer.  They might have kiiiind of the same answers (e.g., some type of passenger automobile), but the answers will be different, and if you ask two people who say “a car” what kind of car, it definitely won’t be the same type of car, unless one of them is a complete smartass–which also says something.
  • Some people will break the rules.  I had one guy say he was in a speedboat and not on a road at all.  Breaking the rules is part of the rules of the game, though:  whatever the person answers is the right answer.
  • Some people will think their answers aren’t good enough, even when you’re like, “Huh.  That’s interesting.”  They can’t hear the uniqueness of their own selves; they’re too used to themselves.
  • That the structure of the three questions is really arbitrary in and of itself, and you could ask pretty much any three questions, or set up any given situation.  I just liked this one.

Very few people will be able to take the point of the game to heart very quickly, which makes the surprise of the reveal fun to watch.  Personally, I got a lot of stock answers about what a story was that boiled down to “a plot happens.”  When I gave the reveal, people struggled with it, then went, “But…” and then “Aha!”

The answer of the final riddle is:

A point of view.

Every person has a unique point of view.  Sometimes that point of view involves breaking the rules.  Sometimes you can’t hear your own uniqueness.  But it’s uniquely yours, and that’s the important part.

Please note:  if someone says, “But my definition of story is the right one,” talk about Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which has no plot and no characters–just an automated house running on autopilot long after humanity has destroyed itself.

You used to be the kind of kid that spun around in circles until you feel down.  And then you stopped.  And you know why you stopped…only you don’t know, not really.  This is the book for you.

Stephen King’s Grocery List

There’s this saying that Stephen King is such a good writer that he could write a grocery list and have it be entertaining.

I took a brief look to see if he had written such a story, but couldn’t find one.

Nevertheless, this should be a Thing, at the very least, an official thought experiment that involves:

  • The “ideal” writer
  • Writing something that appears to have none of the elements commonly expected in stories
  • That is nevertheless as entertaining or more entertaining than stories with the elements commonly expected in stories.

So the thought experiment should go like this:

  • Is Stephen King’s Grocery List a story?

I say yes.  But that’s just me.  I’d say that one relevant example is “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the short story by Ray Bradbury, which admittedly has setting.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference 2018 Wrap-Up

Books I was recommended:

  • Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Silence, by Tim Lebbon
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman

This list is shorter than I like, but I do have permission to ask Jonathan Maberry for some good action/horror titles.

Book to Study:

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, as per Laura Hayden’s mystery class.

Books I would like to demand get written:

  • Nonfiction forensics book by Megan Rutter.
  • A book on…how to say this?  Disrupting your assumptions from an anthropological (and feminist) basis, by Kristy Ferrin.

Books I want to write:

  • The Writing Class, a meta-mystery about a class designing a murder mystery.  Laura Hayden taught a class on reverse-engineering a mystery and I was fortunate enough to sit next to someone who suggested the frame story.
  • A book on intermediate fiction techniques to start studying/picking apart.

Class I need:

  • I want Sue Mitchell to teach a “how to be a freaking presenter” class, because I am still screwing this up, especially every time a mic is involved.

Special thanks to:

  • Kameron Claire, who ranted about men hearing about something on the Internet and deciding they’re experts on it, while women undersell themselves brutally.  It was timely.  Fine!  I am enough of an expert 🙂

This is the first year that I’ve stayed in a hotel for a writers’ conference.  It was bliss.  When I needed to run off for a bit and hide, I could do it.  I didn’t even have to keep shouting, “This one is occupied” every five minutes as I hid in a toilet stall.  Linda Tschappat, besides having worked her ass off as the Green Room volunteer all weekend, made for an awesome roommate, too.

I got to hang out with Megan Rutter on Thursday as she took over the full morning session that she was supposed to share with Pete Klismet, who was in the hospital.  I learned more about jurisdiction than I thought I would ever need to know.  Now, as my husband watches Supernatural, I crack up every time they walk into the room and claim to be FBI agents.  That’s how unexpectedly amusing that information was.

Thursday afternoon I moderated Pam McCutcheon’s synopsis class, where we worked on log lines and back cover blurbs.  She was incredibly supportive and generous with her advice, and our small group positively bathed in all that attention.  How often do you get that chance?

I taught a class on Pacing, in which like five people walked out…and everyone’s faces were glazed over. As I spoke, I felt ashamed of every minute that I tortured people with the indigestible information I was delivering. But after the class several people thanked me.  I was more relieved than I can ever say.

I figured out a Story Game and tested it out on a few people.  I’ll blog about that separately.  It feels like its own private victory.

I went to Megan Rutter’s poisons class, which was jam-packed with info, but just made me realize I need to read up more on poisons.

As mentioned, Laura Hayden’s class on reverse-engineering a mystery was inspirational.  I absolutely need to write a mystery featuring a stalker as the amateur detective now (around which the writers’ class is framed).

I sat on a horror panel with Steve Saffel and Jonathan Maberry, and I’m not gonna lie, I was sure I was going to shit a brick.  But it went great!  In the end, Steve (an editor at Titan Books) said something like, “This just inspires me to buy more horror.”  Mission accomplished.  My fellow horror writers, you can thank me later.

I taught a class on How to Study – the same stuff that I’m blogging about here.  Obviously, I’ve been running out of time lately and need to finish blogging that.  I think that went better than the pacing class, but also it was hot in the room and I was telling people to do more work that wasn’t actually writing (ugh, I know), and so people weren’t as jazzed when they got done.  Except for one person…I won’t name her in case she doesn’t want to be called out.  She asked a ton of questions.  And I went, “She’s the one who gets published.  Maybe not soon, I don’t know.  But she does.”

I went to Kristy Ferrin’s Whores, Sluts, and Prostitutes class, which turned out to be a class on questioning your cultural assumptions.  At first I was a bit doubtful, but I soon began to see what she was doing.  A real “aha!” moment.  I just wish she had more time and gone on longer…

Mariko Tatsumoto gave a class on multicultural novels that was fun, straightforward, and practical.  I always feel like I’m putting a foot in my mouth when I’m including cultures I didn’t grow up with in my stories (I probably am), but this makes me feel better about how to research and winging it when I can’t find what I need.  Ahhhhh…

The rest of the time I spent talking.  Okay, I did do some hiding up in my room.  But mostly I stopped and talked to people.  How did your pitch go?  What’s a good copywriting book?  Everybody has an interesting bio, are you kidding me? You studied to be a paleontologist.  It’s a dark and stormy night…

The speakers were all good, the hotel was good, I suffered a little bit less than usual from imposter syndrome, and I can only feel grateful to the organizers and volunteers.  PPWC helped raise me up from a baby writer.  I can only feel proud of attending, and hopeful that once again they might have me back 🙂

 

 

 

How to Dress a Writer

Still scrambling and running behind, but the end is in sight…

Okay.  If you have a fashion sense or do costuming, ignore this.  This is not for you.

You’re a writer, and you’re going to a writer function.  How do you dress?  It seems like some writers have this down, in a way that goes beyond “dress professionally” or “dress like you’re going to an interview,” etc.  Some of them are wearing jeans and t-shirts and managing to look like Real Writers(tm).  On the other hand, some of the people at the writer things you go to look like they’re dressed up for a Real Interview(tm), and look awkward as hell.

What to do?  What’s the happy medium?

It turns out the art, craft, and language of fashion is as complex as that of writing, IF NOT MORE SO, and a learning curve is involved.  The writers who are dressing in a way that is strangely appropriate have learned how to speak this language at least on a rudimentary level, and are managing to be more comfortable and more interesting looking than everyone else because of it.

Is it necessary to learn the language of fashion in order to look good?  No.  You could just throw on a corduroy jacket over whatever you were going to wear anyway, and you’d look 100% more Real Writer(tm) in just one step, because corduroy sports jacket (especially with leather elbow patches) = professorial.   Close enough.

But, if you’re not interested in the corduroy jacket method, here’s the general process:

  • Some clothes are functional (soft, warm, cover body, protect from injury).  Some are performative (look good, communicate a message to the world).  Your goal here is to combine the two so that you’re comfortable as a writer with your clothes.
  • If you are not comfortable with your clothes, out they go.*  If your clothes don’t look like writer clothes (but you love them), rethink your biases about being a writer.
  • If you don’t get rid of the crap that doesn’t fit or that you don’t actually like wearing, you won’t do the work you need to obtain what you need or really even to look at yourself in the mirror in a fair manner.  If you have 20 shirts and only like five of them, you will feel all the better over those five shirts when the other 15 are gone.
  • Invest in fewer, better-built pieces of clothing that you love rather than more closet-filling crap that you’re going to regret like a bad one-night stand later.
  • There’s nothing wrong with a thrift store purchase or a hand-me-down that otherwise fits the bill.  More expensive clothing tends to be better-tailored using more durable materials, but not always.
  • Haute couture is the New Wave Sci-Fi of fashion genres.  Treat it with respect as a performance, not as something comfortable to wear.

The first thing you need to know with fashion is…yourself.  What you know about your skin and body type provides the constraints to your experiments.  Just like in writing, though, when you’re comfortable with the rules, it’s time to start breaking them.

A cautionary note:  just like the rest of the world, the fashion world is full of stupid, pointless biases.  Please take what you read about fashion with a grain of salt, especially about race, gender, and physical shape.  And anything that says, “How to cover your flaws” more than it says, “How to celebrate the most awesome you” is to be avoided.

  • In general, start with things that have like four options (e.g., spring, summer, fall, winter), but as soon as you feel like you have the concept, look for things that move into 5-16 options.  That’s the sweet spot between “oversimplified” and “too complex.”  Nothing will describe you perfectly; you’re just looking for some training tools.
  • If you need a specific example, google “celebrities with X.”  Celebrity fashion is discussed to death, and fashionistas use them as examples all the time.

The three main things:

  1. I’d start with color typing, which is finding out what general categories of colors look good on your skin.  The lights in a dressing room are generally shit and will distort “what looks good” into “rubbish” and vice versa.  There are several systems of color typing, generally involving holding large blocks of color next to your face in natural daylight.  Google “what colors are best for my skin tone?”  You’ll probably be upset that a couple of your favorite colors make you look like an ass, but there it is.  Learn the rules, break the rules.
  2. Then move to body shape.  Google “what is my body shape” or “what body shapes for men.”  Find out what your body shape is.  The goal of most fashion sites is to “balance” women into an hourglass shape, with shoulders and hips about the same visual/physical dimensions and a narrower waist.  For men, it’s an inverted triangle shape with broader shoulders and narrower hips.  You get to decide what works for you.  Again, learn the rules, break the rules.
  3. A third element to learn is proportion.  That is, how much top vs. bottom and side-to-side you should have, visually, with respect to your body.  Look up “proportions in men’s clothing” or “proportions in women’s clothing.”  This is where dealing with short legs or a works-at-computer-all-day gut comes in.  In case of almost-but-not-quite fitting clothes, dry cleaners generally will do minor tailoring stuff.  It’s fine.

There are a bajillion other little tricks to learn, a lot of history, and a broadening of tastes that comes from researching fashion.

Once you have a general idea of what will actually look good on the body you actually have rather than on a runway model or a covermeister of GQ, you will:

  • Spend far less time shopping.
  • Be able to shop online without panicking about what you’re getting into.
  • Actually like wearing the clothes you do buy.
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror more.
  • Care less about other people’s opinions.

What about your style, though?  You can literally just google by “types of men’s styles” or “types of women’s styles” and start picking things.  You can also 100% go, “I think I’ll dress like my favorite contemporary TV character,” and most people won’t even know.  What makes it look good or bad are those three things I listed above.

You should also take into account your comfort level on attracting attention.  Making choices that are obviously part of a costume or are outside the current norms will attract attention and possibly trigger some people to treat you disrespectfully–because people who don’t speak the language of fashion often try to bully people who do into conforming with “normal” fashion.

Not to say you shouldn’t dress to please yourself, even if it pisses other people off.  But know the rules before you break them, and understand what you’re getting into.

Let’s get back to “appropriate” dress, as in, what to wear to the writer thing.

Aside from being far more comfortable in your clothing choices and wasting less time on picking them out, learning the language of fashion has another benefit:  you can learn to express your personality through any given set of constraints, whether it be a hospital uniform of a black-tie affair.

First, know your three main things about fashion (color, body shape, proportions).

Then, google “What to wear at a X” (e.g., what to wear for a wedding).  In this case, “what to wear to a writer’s conference.”  Disregard any obvious b.s.

Finally, apply your style to the remaining constraints.

It’s more complex than that.  Writing is more complex than that.  But it’s the same kind of process.  Simply speaking, what you like, within the expectations of the genre you’re writing, is your writer style.  Fashion is the same.  No need to go out of the way to change yourself.  Just be yourself, as clearly and effectively as possible, within the constraints of your abilities, strengths, and history.  This applies to both writing and clothes.  The main difference is budget.**

As a writer, you ideally want to look like you.  What you are selling in a book is the way you see the world and interact with it.  Not your genre, not a plot twist, not a character–per se.  You.***

I also recommend looking up “capsule wardrobes” if you have a moment.  This is the art of making your clothes go well together, planning by overall wardrobe rather than by single outfit.  Also, if you end up having to ditch most of your closet when you’re getting rid of the crap, this can keep you from having to drop a ton of money to fix everything all at once.

And finally, take a moment to look at the people around you.  Complimenting people for things they can’t control is a waste of time.  But noticing people’s fashion choices, especially the ways in which they have broken the rules, and complimenting those choices, is almost always appreciated.

And always check out the earrings of admin assistants.  Almost always 100% sass.

*Unless you’re doing the costuming thing or know something about fashion and therefore have weighed your options in an informed manner.  But most writers aren’t going to want a corset.

**Fashion delivery services:  I use StitchFix.  But look up the company’s name on Pinterest and see what their actual customers are posting for looks.  I’ve seen a couple of companies that showed completely different clothes on their ads than they sent to their customers.  But being able to try things on at home is niiiiiiice.

***Chances are that the characters you love in TV/film are played by actors who project the character very well through their clothing.  Watch a Gary Oldman flick and see the way his physical performance changes to work with his clothes.  He performs his clothes.  Other actors are so close to the characters they play that they look like “themselves” in the same types of outfits that their characters do.

 

 

 

Think Like A Librarian – Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

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.

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Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that centers around the horrific in a kind of fairy-tale way.  (I recently talked about the relationship between horror and fairy tales here.)  The writing is clear, elegant, and readable.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who…” is the main format of the stories, although I don’t recall the phrase “once upon a time” actually being used.

The stories do not stay with the usual territory of “once upon a time, there was a woman who stepped out of bounds in the deep, dark woods and got what was coming to her, only to be rescued at the last minute,” or “once upon a time, there was a woman whose home was more of a danger than she thought, and she got out at the last minute with the help of a prince.”

I think it’s fair to say that this book covers territory even further out of bounds than the normal run of fairy tales.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who liked sex, and…”

The women in these stories have to deal with the consequences of their own desires, in a way that goes beyond a mere caution not to have them in the first place.  They don’t always walk away from that reckoning, and they never walk away unchanged, although sometimes they do end up with someone who feels right.

I would especially recommend this collection for women, queer, and non-binary readers who are exploring their sexuality at any age, and who don’t want to be lectured.  I would also recommend this for male readers who are feminists or who are exploring the issue, or who have a broad range of tastes in the horror genre.  This book would make an excellent book club book as well–there are a thousand and one discussions to be had about this book among readers of horror, but also romance and crime stories.

I should give a caution about one particular story in the book, “Especially Heinous.”  The structure is of an alternate Law & Order SVU TV episode guide, and really does include 272 episode descriptions of same.  The plotlines build and interweave with each other, becoming increasingly strange, yet meaningful.  The first few pages are necessarily not as rewarding as the rest of the story.  In other words, stick with it; it becomes something truly memorable.

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

What Makes Horror Worth Reading?

I lost a major client (his sales died before the first of my books for him came out waaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!) and am slammed with other things at the moment, so I’m probably going to be a bit spotty until May.

But I had to get this off my chest.

I have been struggling with the question of what makes horror worth reading for some time now.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a screed of why horror was a) dead, and b) was a waste of time anyway.  I’m not going to link to it.  People get to have their opinions, and his wasn’t exactly wrong, because horror doesn’t sell like it used to and probably never will again, and I think the genre made some huge missteps, from what I can reconstruct (and also from the general behavior of more than a few people involved in the genre).

So this is more of a personal rebuttal, not to this other author, but to myself.  Every time I read a horror book that’s just flat-out terrible, I wonder, Why do I do this to myself?  Here’s my answer, for me.

I’ve read a fair amount of horror lately.

A lot of it has been shit.

It glorifies destructive, malicious, abusive, and contemptuous behavior.

And I hate it.

With the fire of a thousand suns.

But that is not all that horror is.

That’s just the trash end of hitting the self-destruct button.

That’s just going, “I have fantasies about hurting people, and here are my justifications.”

Oops, the black character died.

Oops, the slut died.

Oops, the fat/disabled one died.

Everyone gets weeded out until it’s the white guy hero and the white chick heroine.

Then the white guy hero throws himself away so the white chick can escape.  Yay.  So much for self-rescuing princesses.

Or maybe it’s the end of the world, hahaha, let’s burn it all down.

Probably because there are too many hicks in this backwoods town.

Which just happens to resemble the place where the author grew up.

Simmering with hate.

But that’s not horror.  Just hate.  Not even catharsis.  Just wanting to punish.

That isn’t what I love about horror.

It is possible to love horror.

It is possible to love the horror that digs down deep into the soul and brings out ugly sludge.  This is mine and I own it.

It is possible to love the horror that captures the ugly hot tingle across the backs of your hands when you realize that you’ve fucked up once again, and good this time.

It is possible to love the horror that faces the situations where “good” and “bad” don’t mean shit.  Now what?  When you’re trapped between can’t do and must do, what do you do?  To love horror is to have a passion for dilemmas.

What is worth dying for?

When is dying a fucking cop-out?

When is dying the best gift you can give yourself?

Nobody else will talk about this, not the way horror will.

Horror talks about toilets.

Horror talks about everything your parents ever told you to shut up about in polite company.

Horror has a terrible sense of humor, and I love it for that.

Horror, when it is not busily dumping the question of “evil” onto mental illness when mostly the question of “evil” should be dumped on assholes, does talk about mental illness.

And unfairness, when it is not being completely unfair as a genre.  And horror is unfair.  Just check out how much of it is about straight white men who are sad that they aren’t being appreciated the way they deserve to be.

Which, all right, maybe one book out of a hundred should be about that.  The Shining.

But the best horror is about how, in order to get something worth having, you have to walk into the scary woods.  Where maybe you discover that the something worth having, wasn’t.

Or how the place that should have been safe never really was, and if you don’t get out, you’ll die.

Or, worst of all, what if I was wrong?

It’s not coincidence that horror sounds like fairy tales.

What should I do when the unthinkable happens?

Be polite and kind, even to the people who you think don’t matter.  Trust your gut.  Swallow your pride and do what you have to in order to survive. Don’t lose your temper.  You don’t deserve to have other people give you what you want; if they do, it’s too good to be true.  Say you’re sorry.  Don’t be a bully.  Make the most of every opportunity. 

And never, ever sleep with close family members, because hoo boy, that’s never going to go well.

Horror is a bunch of lifehacks.

I know, go ahead and laugh.  But there is it.  Sometimes the lifehacks come from assholes.  “How to be a better asshole, the movie.”  Sometimes the lifehacks come in the form of what not to do.

Horror isn’t moral.  It’s not an Aesop’s Fable.  It’s about how to best get through an unfair world.  Everyone has a different answer to this.

“PUNISH THE PEOPLE I DON’T LIKE” is one of those answers.  I think it’s a bad one.

“O WOE THE BAD GUYS ARE HURTING EVERYONE” is another.  Another one I think is pretty much terrible.  Horror isn’t about the forces against which we struggle.

It’s about you.

Did you give up?

Did you eat humble pie where necessary?

Did you love?

Did you become a monster in order to get what you wanted?  Did you yield to the ugliness inside?  Did you nudge things for your convenience, even though someone else suffered for it?

Those are the good questions.

I already know the world can be a bad place.

What I love about horror is adaptiveness and perseverance.

I should be dead by now but I am not.  I may not be what I once was.  But here I am.  Still hanging on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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