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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.


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.

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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.












How to Study Fiction, Part 6: Words of Wisdom

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.

I’d like to take a moment to interject something that came up in the middle of writing these posts.

I talked to multiple other intermediate- and higher-level writers on this topic, and what they mainly wanted writers going through a transition from beginning to intermediate writing to know was:

  • There is no finish line when it comes to learning about writing.  You will never run out of things to learn or relearn.
  • You will need other writers for sanity and support and getting better as writers more than you can imagine.  Invest in networking.
  • No words are wasted; nevertheless, there is an immense power in throwing out words.
  • Being able to write on command is an essential part of growing as a writer; “mood” can go to hell.  If you can’t write on command, you’ll never get in the zone where writing is easy.
  • On the other hand, you can’t rate everything about writing in terms of words per minute, or dollars per word.  Part of the journey here is becoming as much “yourself” as a writer as possible.  In other words, writing isn’t just craft; it’s an art.
  • You can’t see the patterns in what you write and what you love to write without a body of actual, finished work.

They also made a lot of smartass comments, but I’ll skip those 🙂

I felt like the journey from being a beginning writer to an intermediate one was very emotional and transformative.  There were days when something in my subconscious was running in overdrive so hard I could barely process the world outside me.  I went through terrible mood swings on a regular basis–great writer, terrible writer.  Great writer, terrible writer.

I believe that any field that is sufficiently complex and creative has a kind of process like this–cooking, music, woodworking, programming, martial arts–where you move away from the limitations and structure of following rules and head out into the wilder territories of, “We’re not sure, but try this…”

I firmly believe it’s a kind of magical process, and should be respected as such.  That is, a lot of work that occasionally produces sparks of something that are more than what they came from.  It’s wonderful.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 5: Productivity and Speed, Part 3

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.

Resources related to productivity/speed issues:

  •  Look for good general productivity, happiness, and habit-changing books and websites, like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Eat that Frog.  They often talk about how to practically juggle conflicting priorities.
  • Look for good writer’s habit books, like The Artist’s Way or Bird by Bird, not to teach you how to write so much as to teach you how to survive the long haul as a creative person.  These books will help you dig down to your emotional fears about writing.
  • Sign up for a writing challenge that will definitely stretch you from your current habits, like National Novel Writing Month, in order to test your skills.  It doesn’t have to be NaNoWriMo, and failing one just means “this is not for me.”  Don’t harass yourself about failing any writing test.  Identify why you didn’t succeed, and look for a different writing test.
  • Start tracking your word count using different periods of time:  five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, etc.  When your words per minute peak, you’ve found your ideal writing session time.  (You can often string several shorter sessions together, with a short break to refill a cup of coffee between them.)  If you are totally against wordcounts, you can track pages per day–or stories per month.
  • Look for good books on building writing speed, like 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.
  • Make a note of any distractions that occur in your writing sessions and decide how to get around them.  To block selected sites on the Internet, for example, try Freedom software.  Make part of your writing routine handling distractions before they can occur.
  • When you write a piece of fiction, allow yourself to spell-check the work and look it over one time to review for missing pieces, oopsies, or extraneous pieces.  After that, send it to an editor for submission or a freelance editor to get it ready for indie publishing.
  • You don’t have to be perfect.  Intermediate writers are still better than 90% of wanna-be writers.  You are writers.  But, well, you’re not master artisans yet, and nobody expects that you magically turn into ones.
  • Other technical issues should be addressed later in the series 🙂

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Think Like a Librarian: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

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.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a war novel about the Iraq War.  The characters are caught on a Fox News camera doing something bloody, desperate, and heroic, and, as a special treat-slash-promotional opportunity, are brought back to the U.S. for a brief period to go on a “Victory Tour.”

There is nothing like a war novel for irony.  There really isn’t.  If a reader’s tastes run in that direction, sending them toward sardonic novels like Catch-22Slaughterhouse-FiveJohnny Got His Gun, The Manchurian Candidate, and other such war novels will do them no disservice.  These novels are also great for character voice, and Billy Lynn is no exception.  The clear, funny, and painfully human voice of the main character is a masterpiece.

Few elements of American culture are left unskewered, from family to football to Beyoncé.  Dragged out for particular punishment are hypocrites in religion and politics.  It’s a strange world when Hollywood is more sane than the man on the street, but that becomes the believable world of this book.

I recommend the book mainly for older teens and adults with a taste in irony, possibly also for those who need to be able to cope with a situation out of their control and have a black sense of humor.  If a reader is a fan of something like Shaun of the Dead, this will probably be a most enjoyable book.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 4: Productivity and Speed, 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 productivity/speed issues:

  • Discovering and resolving fear issues around writing (I’m not good enough, I’m taking time for myself when I have too many other responsibilities, etc.).
  • Discovering what triggers writing techique-based distractions and using focused study to progressively resolve them.
  • Discovering when a story is “finished.”
  • Controlling your physical environment.

It’s important to probe into any emotional issues surrounding writing.  Finding a practical balance is never easy, but if you don’t start making a space for your creativity, you’ll suffer.  You’ve made it this far; by definition, you’re someone who needs to express themselves creatively, even if you don’t get off your ass and do it.

Other sources of “writer’s block” come from technical problems–the principles of writing at an intermediate and higher level.  The rest of the series will help start breaking those technical problems so you can start studying whatever problem is the priority of the moment.  Tackling one writing problem at a time will help make the process seem less overwhelming.  I hope.  Once I figured out that there were a lot of things to master, then tackling a couple of key elements helped me write a lot faster.

Finding out when a story is “finished” is an act of faith at every level of writing.  People often rely on beta readers, editors, and other “gatekeepers” to tell them whether a story is done or is good enough.  However, most “gatekeepers” aren’t professional, master-level writers, and are mostly just telling you whether they, personally, liked the story or not.  Learning writing techniques at an intermediate level will tell you whether your story is finished or not.

Your physical environment when you write has to allow you to write for your ideal amount of time without anticipatible distractions.  My idea amount of time is ten minutes, a short break, repeat for about three hours; yours might be “until this novel is done, I mean, no sleep or anything.”

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How to Study Fiction, Part 3: Productivity and Speed, 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.

Productivity and speed are key issues for intermediate writers.  If you can’t get your butt in the chair and the fingers typing, you’re not going to get much accomplished–and it very quickly becomes obvious that you’ll need to practice a lot if you want to get any good.

Practicing faster and more regularly will automatically make you a better writer.  You don’t necessarily have to write ever day.  Whatever works for your brain to output more words is the right way to do it.  But, conversely, if your beginner writer routines aren’t regularly increasing in words,

that is the wrong way to do it.

And your excuses can suck it.

Productivity/speed issues at this level:

  • Having the discipline to sit down and write without being distracted.
  • Staying focused during writing.
  • Finishing what you start.
  • Getting what you finish out into the market.
  • Building writing speed.

The main block to productivity is fear.  We fear that we’re not good enough and we don’t deserve to take the time to learn how to write.  We fear that we’re wasting our time.  We fear that we’re taking something away from the ones we love.

The first thing to do, if you’re not getting the writing done that you have the time to do, is address any possible sources of fear.

Other blocks to productivity include just not knowing how to use a particular writing technique (or usually several)!  For example, if you don’t know how to structure a scene, you won’t know whether you’ve written a good one or not, and your subconscious may resist moving forward, either to finish what you’ve started or to move your work into the market.

A third level of issues generally relate to one’s physical environment.  Are you being interrupted?  Are you able to keep the world outside your door?  Do you need music to stay focused?  Are you comfortable?


Just sitting down and admitting that sitting down to write is hard is…kind of a relief, actually.  When you first start addressing your difficulties, they seem overwhelming; as you pick them apart, though, it usually comes down to a very few things that are bringing you down, but that your brain doesn’t like to think about–so it seems like it’s a million things going wrong when really the million things are just your brain kicking up excuses.


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How to Study Fiction, Part 2: What to Study?

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.

I’m going to assume that you’re an intermediate writer (as discussed in the first post of the series).  We’re going to start with…what to study.

In some cases, you may have no idea what I’m talking about.  In others, you may have heard completely contradictory advice to what I’m going to set out.  In still others, you may do things completely differently.

That’s all okay.  In the beginning levels of writing, writers tend to see the world in terms of rules that they follow–and assume that if they follow the rules, they should be able to sell their work.

But the idea that writing has rules or even guidelines that need to be followed is a false one.  Writing has readers who need to be entertained.

And that’s it.

But that’s kind of a master-level approach to writing, and the implications are too many and too varied and require too much experience to simplify the process down to that level for most writers.

So we slice up writing into pieces, quite artificially and randomly, in order to make it easier to talk about.

Here are my slices for the purpose of this series:

  1. Productivity and speed
  2. Reading
  3. Putting a character on the page
  4. Putting a setting on the page
  5. Conflict and beats
  6. Beginnings and endings
  7. Story structure
  8. Plot
  9. Pacing
  10. Depth
  11. Editing and feedback
  12. Ruts and comfort zones
  13. Identifying strengths and weaknesses
  14. What is story

In each of these slices, I’m going to try to break down:

  • What the issues are at the intermediate level.
  • Some techniques for studying those issues.
  • Other resources related to those issues.

If you have more techniques and resources you want added, contact me–I’ll add them to the posts if I think it’s appropriate.

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FYI: Zenna Henderson and Quiet Horror

(Please note:  This post was originally guest-posted on Shannon Lawrence’s The Warrior Muse blog for Women in Horror Month.  I’m reposting it here so I don’t LOSE IT!!!)

The sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson died in 1983, which was years before I was given the short story collection The Anything Box by my cousins, and devoured it with such a passion that the front cover fell off. I eventually read the stories she was more famous for, her People stories, but I never really gelled with them the way I did with the stories in The Anything Box. 

Here’s the general idea behind most of the stories:

Once upon a time, there was a teacher. (Or a housewife, although in one particularly memorable case it’s a husband.) Something strange intrudes into her perfectly ordered life. She doesn’t know what to do about it. So she tries to pretend it away. This doesn’t work. Jeez Louise, this is weird, she thinks. I mean, if this is true, it changes everything. She tries to make it go away again…and again…but in the end, it’s useless. It’s not going to work. In the end, she either admits that the world wasn’t what she thought it was, or she gets killed.


But usually offscreen. The stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s. Slasher films and splatterpunk hadn’t happened yet. But there were definitely gory, shocking horror stories back then. Psycho was written in 1959. Lord of the Flies was even earlier, in 1954. The pulps were still popular, and they practically dripped with blood.

So what was going on?

Zenna Henderson was writing what we would now call quiet horror—a horror where all the important things are happening inside the mind and spirit, not outside with a serial killer and an ax. It may or may not be relevant that one of the places she taught—she was a teacher—was in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. And if that’s not a setting of quiet horror, I’m not sure what would be.

Quiet horror never really becomes terrifying; it never really gets loud or outwardly, obviously violent, although if it does, the character assumes it was all a dream or something so they can more or less stay calm about it. Quiet horror just sits there at a low-key level, humming to itself in a corner, as it were. And often it’s just plain weird. Reality is broken and things have gone off the freaking rails, not that you’d really know it, since everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual. John Harwood’s books, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” Charles L. Grant’s stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Peter Straub’s novels, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Robert Aickman’s supremely odd novelettes, Rosemary’s Baby

On the surface, quiet horror just putters along. It’s not until you take a step back that you get struck by what’s going on.

The essence of quiet horror seems to be the statement, “Wait…what?”

In “Hush!” a woman’s vacuum cleaner comes to life and murders her. In “The Last Step,” a teacher interrupts a group of children playing in the mud as their community prepares to evacuate from an alien invasion, not understanding that the children’s play directly controls everyone’s future, and she’s doomed them all. In “The Anything Box,” a teacher literally takes away a child’s imagination and shoves it in her bottom drawer. And in “The Grunder,” a husband who is becoming physically abusive to his wife is driven to catch a possibly magical fish that might take away his urge to hurt her ever again, rather than have to change.

Each situation, when you step back from it, is monstrous, horrible, intolerable. But on the surface, the characters tolerate their worlds with almost perfect equanimity. Definitely nothing gets as tense—let alone as bloody—as a single throwaway murder in something like the Saw series, even when the vacuum cleaner reaches for the housewife’s throat.

I think this is because Ms. Henderson, like most quiet horror writers, laid the responsibility for feeling horror on the reader. She was willing to provide the story, but if you wanted to get wound up about it, that was up to you. Take it or leave it.

I chose to take it. The quiet horror stories of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box are still some of my favorites.

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