Writing Advice

Why is Little Timmy’s Face on Fire? (aka how to write a good book description)

One of a potential reader’s biggest “sell” points is your book description. Sadly, it’s also one of the things that I most often see get mangled by authors. But fear no more! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the elements you need for great cover copy.

 

 

To establish my bona fides: I’m an internationally-bestselling author in everything from horror to science fiction and fantasy to (I kid you not) Western Romance. I’ve sold tens of thousands of eBooks on the strength of my back cover copy. I have literally had Hollywood producers call me with variations on this conversation:

 

 

Producer: Hey, are the rights for [cool Michaelbrent book title here] available?

Me (in needy tones, because Author): You bet. Did you like the book? My mom liked it and she says I’m handsome and talented and –

Producer: What, you think I’ve read it? [Sharp, barking laughter.] No, I just read the description. That’d make a great movie tagline! So is it available or not? Answer quick, ‘cause I have to go for a swim in my McDuck-style pool of ducats.

 

 

This should clue you in on how critical back cover copy is.

 

 

But too many authors don’t know how to do it. In fact, when I go to comic cons and writing conferences one of the first things I notice is that few authors know how to sell a book. They know how to tell their story, but guess what (and this is important): no one cares about your story. Not yet.

 

 

Your story is the equivalent of baby photos by that obnoxious coworker you barely know. Sure, they’re kids. Sure, they probably have some level of worth. But you don’t know them. You don’t care about them. You have no stake, and just want the microwave burrito calling your name in the break room.

 

 

But what if that same coworker sidles up to you and says, “So Little Timmy’s face spontaneously caught on fire yesterday.”

 

 

Now you’re in. The coworker can say, “The story starts with Little Timmy in his mother’s fallopian tube,” and go through every day of Little Timmy’s life in agonizing detail and you will hang on every word because HOW DID LITTLE TIMMY’S FACE CATCH FIRE?!

 

 

Note that the thing that worked wasn’t the story. It was a) the hook, and b) the emotional attachment that created.

 

 

That’s good back cover copy, which does three things:

 

 

1) Establish what the hook of the book is – that thing that makes your story utterly unique.

2) Provide an emotional(not cerebral) response.

3) Show that you know how to write, because holy crap look how invested I am in this back cover copy and if you know how to do that in 100 words, then I. AM. SO. IN.

 

 

A quick example:

 

 

You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home.

The doors are locked, the windows are barred.

THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family.

A game with no rules, only consequences.

 

 

So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?

OR DO YOU DIE?

The above is the entirety of the description to my novel, Strangers. It immediately shows what the hook is – a family that’s been sealed in their home with a killer. It draws in the reader emotionally, both by providing a quick snapshot of the stakes (“DO YOU DIE”) and also, in this case, by the sneaky, underhanded author making the story about the reader (not only is Little Timmy’s face on fire, but it turns out Little Timmy is your secret love child! Oh no, poor baby! Poor me!).

 

 

62 words, and I’ve got ‘em.

 

 

A lot of authors don’t want to reveal their hook, because they’re “giving away the coolest thing.” But that just means you need to retool your book/story, because your hook should not be the only – or even the most important – twist and turn in your story.

 

 

With Strangers I’ve told you the most basic part of the first hundred pages of the novel. But you don’t know the mechanics of how the killer got in, or why he chose this particular family, or whether they get out, or, or, or, or…

 

 

Your hook isn’t the story. What it is, is the thing that tells your reader that there’s something in it for them. That they can plunk over five bucks and get a good value, because in here is something they’ve never seen (or never seen done this way).

 

 

Then you set that hook good and tight by making them feel. You don’t have to write the story as actually happening to them to do this. The tried-and-true way is to describe the characters in a way that makes them important/sympathetic/relateable to the reader. Another example, this time from my book Predators:

 

 

She is one of the only animals
who can chase a lion from its kill …

Evie Childs hoped the all-expense-paid trip to Africa would give her a chance at adventure. Maybe it would even let her forget a past that haunts her, and find safety from a husband who abuses her.

Her jaws can crush bone to powder…

But when a group of “freedom fighters” kidnaps her safari tour group, intent on holding them for ransom, the adventure turns to nightmare.

She knows no mercy, only hunger…

Now, Evie and the rest of the survivors must travel across miles of the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth. No food. No water. No communications.

And they’re being hunted.

She is the only animal alive
who laughs as she hunts…

A pack of Africa’s top predators have smelled the blood of the survivors, and will not stop until they have fed. Because in this place, you can be either one of the prey, or one of the…

… PREDATORS

 

 

Again, it’s short (167 words). Again, it sets a hook (“What kinda scary animal can chase away a lion?”), then invests the reader emotionally (a woman with an abusive husband and secrets from her past, we’re already torn between rooting for her and being curious). It then sets the hook even tighter (“You mean they got kidnapped and then things got bad?”), and gets us further invested when it talks about Evie and “the survivors” (a phrase we are hard-wired to root for and you bet I used it on purpose!).

 

 

Too many authors resist “giving away the good parts” without telling the whole story. So at those comic cons and conventions that I mention, I’ve run through descriptions – a quick hook, a brush stroke of the characters and stakes – of all forty or so of my books before the author at the next table has gotten through chapter one.

 

 

Who do you think gets the sale?

 

 

I’m not boring them with baby pictures. I’m quietly setting Little Timmy’s face on fire, then pointing out the blaze.

 

 

Set the hook. Make it matter to the reader.

 

 

And sell that book.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
A Review of Book Reviewers

A Review of Book Reviewers

I want to talk about book reviews and book reviewers for a second.
 
Here’s a bit from one Amazon review of my work:
 
“So many twists and turns, you’ll think you’re at Six Flags. Michaelbrent Collins is the type of author that will make you put down that Robin Cook novel, that Stephen King book, and that Clive Barker story, and pick up his book instead.”
 
Here’s another:
 
“GET ON WITH IT! Incredibly exhausting and frustrating watching the main character bumbling around and thinking, what an idiot…”
 
Both, FYI, are for the same title on Amazon.
 
So that’s one thing to remember: just because you get a “bad” review doesn’t mean you’ve written a bad book. It reflects the wonderful reality that we are all very, very different. If EVERYONE hates your book, then you might want to go back to the drawing board. But failing that, a bad review isn’t the end of the world. It is GOOD news: it means your audience is expanding. You are rubbing up against bigger and bigger circles of people, which means the odds go up that some won’t like your work. That’s just statistics.
 
The other, more important thing, though, is this: that reviewer took time out of their life to read your book. And cared enough to write their thoughts down. We as authors think our thoughts are worth a great deal – even when we are telling a story about things that have gone wrong in our world. We as authors get to point out flaws and detriments WE PERCEIVE because “I am an AUTHOR and what I say MATTERS, even if it hurts!”
 
So… why do so many of us treat reviewers like they aren’t worthy of that same respect? Why do we think that obviously the ones who hate us are evil, or mean, or just idiots?
 
Not cool.
 
My work has been reviewed on Amazon and Goodreads thousands of times. Of those, there are one or two that engage in personal attacks. A few of them WERE mean, and several were obvious attempts to hurt me. But those are the outliers. They can’t make us (authors) react as though reviewers are the enemy or every “bad” review is born of ill will.
 
Oh, and by the way: I put “bad” review in quotes because I know far too many authors for whom a “bad” review is anything other than five stars accompanied by gushing about the writer’s genius.
 
Also: not cool. And shortsighted.
 
In addition to having a good number of reviews on Amazon and GR, I’ve also been reviewed hundreds of times by book blogs and review sites and magazines big and small. And I get asked with some regularity, “How do you get those folks to read you?”
 
To which I will answer, first and foremost, I LIKE these people.
 
I’m not talking about Amazon and Goodreads now, but “pro” reviewers. By pro reviewers, I’m talking about book bloggers and book reviewers for sites devoted to reviews. This can be big ones, like Kirkus or Publishers Weekly or The New York Times, genre-specific ones like ScreamFix or The Horror Fiction Review (or others in other genres), or folks who have blogs titled “My Book Review Which I Read and Also My Mom Reads When She’s Not Too Busy” or things like that.
 
Pro – not “paid” necessarily (most reviewers get no money at all), but folks who do it not as a byline on a review agglomerator like Amazon or LibraryThing, but as ITS OWN BIZ. It’s their hobby, their passion.
 
THESE.
PEOPLE.
ARE.
AWESOME.
 
Have I gotten gushing, loving reviews from some of these people? You bet. And I email every one of them to let them know how I appreciate their time and I make sure to put their name in a file to keep in contact with. I try to follow them on Twitter and Facebook and read and retweet and share their reviews. They deserve it.
 
But what about the mean ones?
 
I got reviewed by Publishers Weekly lately. The reviewer said my prose was great (yay!) and hated pretty much everything about the book. Okay, groovy. I’ve gotten that before.
 
The reviewer said it focused too much on barbarity and even hinted (not so subtly) that it had racist overtones. Now, for the record: this is a book that’s been reviewed dozens of times and no one else has pulled out either of those, so the first thing I’m going to do is assume that those points are less about the book than about the reviewer’s own background.
 
And the second thing I’m going to do: thank that person.
 
Publishers Weekly doesn’t publish the bylines or contact info of their reviewers, so I haven’t been able to do it directly, but I’ll do it here: Thank you!
 
And I mean it, too.
 
Even if they read things into the book that weren’t there, they TOOK THE TIME TO READ THE FRIGGING THING. They alerted me to issues that, even if they DIDN’T appear in this particular book, I should be aware of. They let me know things I hadn’t thought of, and provided a viewpoint that I will certainly have in mind in the future.
 
Most of all, though, THEY CARED ENOUGH TO READ THE BOOK AND WRITE ABOUT IT.
 
Again, to that unnamed reviewer: Thank you.
 
And, incidentally, I suspect there’s a reason that reviewer is unnamed: because so few authors act like adult businessmen and businesswomen and instead act like huge toddlers when they get words they don’t like.
 
A third time: not cool.
 
If a “reviewer” is doxing you or trying to ACTUALLY HARM you, then there’s action to take. But short of that, bad reviews don’t mean bad people.
 
Again, those crazy folks ARE out there. Sure. But you can’t treat everyone who cuts you off in the road (a fairly regular occurrence) like they’re a murderer with a grudge who is specifically trying to run you off the road (a lot more rare). After they take a swipe or two, sure, and drive by spraying automatic gunfire through your windows while screaming for the blood of your progeny… there are definitely things that have to be done. Call the cops. File reports. Hire a guy to “visit” that person (don’t really do this).
 
But normally… nope. Sorry. And anyone who DID treat the world like everyone who cut them off was out to get them, outfitting their car with Mad Max style rollbars and cages around the windows and a spike in the front and “WILL MURDER YOU IF YOU CUT ME OFF” in blood on its side would quickly be labeled as a loon.
 
Yet we authors get that way with bad reviewers. It’s rarely, “Well, that was their take… I don’t see it myself, obviously, but it’s good to know that some people are reacting that way!” but instead, “That &*(^$&*#* is evil! And obviously out to get me!”
 
But usually… it just isn’t so.
 
Especially with the pro reviewers. In fact, guess what? The “pro” reviewers who have given me bad reviews… in every single case where I’ve had their emails available, or other points of contact, I have reached out to them. I have thanked them for their time.
 
A lot of them responded with a HUGE appreciation for that action. A good chunk then said, “I didn’t like this book, but please send me the next one!”
 
Why? Not because they decided to love my writing all of a sudden. But because in a very hard job that pays zilch and fills their lives with the constant potential to be yelled at, a large chunk of the reviewers out there are every bit as open to reviewing a book for someone they think is KIND and COURTEOUS as they are to reviewing a book that genuinely looks like THE NEXT BIG THING.
 
Ultimately, we can’t control most of the world around us. But we CAN control how kind we are. We CAN act like mature adults. So…
 
To the reviewers who have said nice things about me and my books: thank you.
To the reviewers who have said I was just okay: thank you.
To the ones who straight-up hated my work: thank you.
 
There ARE a few bad ones out there. But I have chosen to assume that reviewers – on Amazon, magazines, or everywhere else – are mostly good folks who hope my book is great almost as much as I do. They aren’t in it for the thrill of destroying people, but for the thrill of finding something to LOVE.
 
That’s a good thing. That’s a thing that draws us together. Even if we don’t agree over what book is good, what book is bad, we’re both reading, we’re both actively searching to create, find, and let others know about the most beautiful things we have: our stories.
 
And a quick note here: there are people who might respond with, “Well, you’ve gotten thousands of reviews. Of COURSE you can afford to disregard the terrible/mean ones.” But I didn’t START with all those reviews. And some of the first ones I got were pretty awful. Which makes sense, because I just wasn’t as good as I should have been with some of the skills I was trying. None of those facts automatically mad the reviews “bad.” They were different viewpoints. They taught me something. Some of them I even agreed with, and used to find and shore up the weak points in my writing.
 
So…, thanks, reviewers. Keep up the great work. That’s my review of YOU, and it comes with respect and appreciation for being the front lines of folks who get the word out about us weirdos who live in dreamworlds.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

So since the title of this is “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?” I am going to focus on a thing that is REQUIRED in horror, for it to actually BE horror, but which is glossed over (or missing entirely) from far too many thrillers.

 

Now before I get to the meat of it, I want to say clearly: I’m NOT saying that thrillers aren’t as good as horror, or vice-versa. I’m NOT saying that all thrillers miss some imaginary mark. I’m NOT denigrating any author or any book. Just gotta front that because people tend to read things like “here’s something horror HAS to nail and which thrillers have a bit more leeway with” as “here’s something horror does right and thrillers don’t and also thriller readers suck and thriller writers are morons” etc. etc.

 

I have nothing but respect for both the thriller and horror tropes, and I run back and forth between the two in my own writing with gusto and a real appreciation for both.

 

All right. Caveating and hemming-and-hawing over. On to the meat:

 

There are a number of things horror HAS to do in order to work, to function AS horror. Of them, the one that is most useful when writing thrillers is this simple fact: horror has to matter.

 

Horror, at its core, is something that frightens us (the readers). It does this by putting us in someone’s shoes, and giving us as much (or as little) information as they have. Then, firmly planted in the path of the book (or story or movie or whatever) protag, the reader screams when the terror reveals itself. The terror is real in that moment, not just for the characters in the story, but for the audience.

 

Whenever you go to a horror movie, you’re sure to see a scene where the hero is backing away. The shot is tight, showing her face, the expression of fear, the knowledge that IT is out there, that IT wants her blood. She backs up a step. Another step… turns…

 

AND IT IS RIGHT BEHIND HER!

 

I often hear people talking about this “cheap trick” – as in, “Like we don’t know that there’s gonna be something behind her. What do those Hollywood guys think we are, morons?”

 

The people saying that miss the point. That moment isn’t about a “trick” – no one at the production company hinges their career on the fact that “this time we’ll get ’em with the ol’ ‘Closeup and then she turns and BLAMMO!’ trick, fellas!” No, what they’re doing with that tight shot, that closeup of her face, is PUTTING YOU RIGHT THERE WITH HER. The audience has no choice but to walk in the hero’s path, taking the same steps she takes, and suffering the same terror she suffers.

 

In horror – or at least the BEST horror – the audience must fear. For that to work, the audience must stand in the shoes of a character who fears as well. The character’s terror becomes ours (the audience’s) and voila! Horror!

 

Now here’s the fun part: fear is intensely personal. You get a bit woozy at the sight of blood, don’t you? Not me. I laugh at your weak stomach. Laugh, I say!

 

But you probably don’t freak out when you get in the ocean past your kneecaps. And I do. (Cue your laughter now, because revenge is a dish best served cold… and as a part of the ITW roundtable discussion.)

 

In sum, what terrifies you does NOT terrify me (necessarily). That’s WHY people who write horror novels or direct horror movies take such pains to keep everything in dark places, in extreme closeups: to hobble the audience; to shackle their experiences to those of the story’s characters.

 

Then, thus shackled, when the character runs breathlessly through the airplane-hangar-sized tool shed full of rusty pitchforks and idling chainsaws and dismembered body parts, so do we. When the character trips and falls over an unlikely root, we tumble to the ground and hurt ourselves as well. When the character screams, our own shrieks follow close behind.

 

The horror is real, because it matters to us. It matters to us because it matters to THEM, the characters. Without the twin steps of a) association by the audience with the characters, and b) something that is terrible in a specific and unique way TO those characters, horror cannot be achieved. The movie or book is a bust.

 

And that’s something that thrillers are more likely to miss: a uniquely personal tie between what is happening and the characters in the story. Thinking about the typical thriller series illustrates this problem: in the first book, the detective has to find the Big Bad, because the detective lost his father in a tragic combine accident, and now the police have come to him, stumped, because they can’t figure out who the newest serial killer is. The killer has been dubbed The Combiner by the press, because he chops people up in a combine and leaves them on the lawn of the various towns where the killings occur.

 

The detective resists taking the case. But he will. Because there’s that question: is this how his dad REALLY died? WAS his father’s death an accident… or was it early practice by a blossoming serial killer?

 

He gets deeper and deeper, the hunt moves faster and faster. NO! The killer didn’t murder his father. The killer IS HIS FATHER! (cue trumpets)

 

Fast-forward to book seventeen. The cops are stumped. A killer the press has dubbed The Retainer – so named because he wires his victims’ jaws shut and makes them watch old reruns of Everwood until their souls just give out – is on the loose. The detective resists the case… but he’ll come around. Because as was revealed in a fascinating flashback during the prologue, the detective’s favorite niece once had a best friend whose dog peed on a hydrant outside the local dentist’s office, and the dentist threw a retainer at the dog to get rid of it. Trauma for all.

 

So yeah… this time it’s personal.

 

Obviously, I’m saying a lot of the above tongue-in-cheek. But there’s some truth to it. I mean, you’ve cycled through all the protagonist’s most deep-seated fears in the first book. You caught the man who killed his father… and who WAS HIS FATHER! Book two: the rapist who came after his sister. Book three: the trilogy moment where you find out The Combiner WASN’T HIS FATHER AFTER ALL, and his REAL father is being held captive in a grain silo slowly being flooded as a result of the tornado that just hit, so our hero only has two hours to solve the mystery of where he is and who put him there! Book four: I dunno, something about his sister again? Book five: we’re definitely moving from family to friends at this point. Book eight: I think that one’s got something to do with the local grocer.

 

My hat is off to those thriller writers who manage to keep wringing painful memories out of their heroes, book after book after book, and so craft a story that MATTERS to the character. But it doesn’t always happen. Far too often, in fact, thrillers are thrilling only as a mental exercise of sorts: there’s nothing that matters to the detective, or the doctor, or the Everyman at the heart of the story. The thriller becomes more of a crossword puzzle: something to be solved, and the victory to be savored. But the suspense comes more in the form of “Can he/she (the hero) figure this out?” rather than in the nail-biting-knowledge that the stakes are simply victory on the one hand, and destruction on the other.

 

Horror MUST have those kinds of stakes. No one comes out of a horror movie raving about “the movie of the year where if the hero didn’t get away he was faced with the very real possibility of BEING SET BACK A DECADE IN HIS CAREER!” No. That is a FAILED horror movie, and it has failed from the start.

 

I’m not saying that a thriller has to have blood and guts, or even a life on the line to work. But the best thrillers DO remember the lesson that horror imparts: the story has to matter. It has to matter – deeply, profoundly, irrevocably matter – to the characters. It can’t be an interesting mental exercise, or even a question that will bring shame or unhappiness if not answered. It must be MORE.

 

A good, competent, fun thriller will take us on a roller coaster ride. A heart-pumping, blood-pounding, arms-in-the-air-and-screams-on-our-lips adventure that has us smiling as we get off because of the sheer exuberant madness of the experience.

 

A GREAT thriller takes us on that same roller coaster. And reminds us – subtly sometimes, overtly others – that somewhere, the roller coaster is on fire. That somewhere, the rivets are loosening. That if we ride the roller coaster just right, then we will pump our fists and shout for joy that WE WERE THERE… but that if we fail to do it, destruction will follow.

 

Thrillers must thrill. Of course. But there are different kinds of thrills. One is the the thrills-by-proxy we experience when someone tells us of an extreme event, an unusual occurrence. It could be anything from winning the lottery to the time they almost fell down the stairs right in front of the Girl/Boy Of Their Dreams.

 

Another kind of thrill comes when we witness someone escape a situation that could have ended in death or madness or damnation (the extremes of body, soul, and mind).

 

And the third kind of thrill – the best kind, and the ONLY kind acceptable in a good horror story – is the one where we witness that same situation… and forget we are merely the audience. We fall into the story, and become the characters, and the doom that looms is our own. Then, at the end, we feel our wet palms and totter unsteadily to the shelf, where we return our book. We pause. We breathe. We smile.

 

And we pull the next title in the series from the shelf. What has happened in the story happened to us. We survived. And a thrill like that is addictive. A thrill like THAT – one that, like all good horror, is based in things that MATTER to us – is one we will pay dearly and eagerly to enjoy.

 

This article originally appeared as part of an online roundtable discussion for the International Thriller Writers website.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
Why I Love Horror

Why I Love Horror

“Why do you love horror?”

 

Better yet: “Why do you write horror?”

 

This last is a question that I hear often – even more often than most horror writers, probably, given that I’m a guy who doesn’t look like he’s planning on how to make a wallet out of your face-skin, have no terrifying scars or eyes that have “Will Kill For Food” written across them, and (most of all) that I am a deeply religious person who teaches Sunday School in between writing about monsters.

 

Yet despite these incontrovertible facts, I’ve not only read and watch horror, I actually make my living writing stories that make people cringe and shudder.

 

So… that question makes sense. Why do I write – and read, and watch, and just plain love – horror?

 

My answer: I write horror because horror is the genre of morality, and the language of hope.

 

When was the last time you read an involved discussion of good vs. evil in a piece of literary fiction? How often do you find a discussion of the possibility of something infinitely greater than ourselves, and of our relationship to such a thing, in a science fiction epic? Not just a strawman discussion, either, but an honest-to-goodness throw-down over questions that have plagued us as a species since the first moments we learned to speak: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What, if anything, happens after?

 

Horror is uniquely positioned to ask these questions. And not just that, but to discuss them on a deep level that both assumes their importance and (just as critical!) states that those huge, radically important questions actually have answers.

 

In other words, horror matters. Which is also why it is so polarizing, because things that matter… well, people care about them. That means they get angry if you disagree about the importance of those things, or think you are caring about the wrong things (or even about the right things in a wrong way). Things that matter are things close to the heart. Things close to the heart are, by nature, the ones that can hurt us.

 

And the things that hurt us… well, of course, they’re the things we most fear. And, more often than not, they’re also the things we most love.

 

There’s the dichotomy of horror: it is a genre that finds its footings in blood and fear – and some horror positively wallows in those things – but which, ultimately, is a kind of storytelling that defines goodness for the reader.* Horror tells us stories of morality: of the dangers of walking dark paths; and, ultimately, it reminds us that we live in a world of hope.

 

Some will read this and scoff. “But I read [insert name of book/story/movie/whatever here], and it was just blood, blood, blood!” Or, “What about every movie that came out of the 1980s? Just one kill after another, with the occasional pause for teens to get it on and show some skin!” Or even, “How can you claim that something like Hereditary (one of the darkest movie scripts ever written) is hopeful?”

 

But here’s the thing: horror, in order to actually be horror, must cause fear in the reader. It has to evoke a sense that what we are seeing or reading or hearing is deeply, unsettlingly wrong. But “wrong” (and its far darker offspring, “horrifying”) does not exist in a vacuum. “Wrong” is something that cannot be understood or even noticed unless we first understand – at least a little – that thing called “right.”

 

Horror stories, by nature, exist to show us the opposite of the way “things should be,” and so implies that there is a way things should be. A place where killers do not come for the innocent, where people can tuck their children in bed and be secure in the knowledge that no ghost or demon will come to steal them away (or, even worse, possess them).

 

There is a rightness in the universe. There is a thing we call “good,” and competent horror stories show us that good by demonstrating what happens in its absence.

 

Competent horror tears out the hearts of its readers. It throws those hearts in a ditch, the readers’ silent screams echoing in the authors’ ears as they bury their bloody treasures deep in the earth, one shovelful at a time. Violence, loss, fear… each adds more dirt to the grave, each further cuts the hearts off from the rest of the “right” universe. Yes, competent horror does that.

 

Competent horror buries your heart. It kicks you and knocks you down. Then it leaves you gasping, dying, alone. The story is a moral one, for – again – it must be moral to matter. A sense of what is “right” must exist for the “wrong” to matter at all, let alone for it to terrify us. But competent horror only exists to assert this fact: there is what is “right,” and there is also that thing called “wrong.” Then, its basic lesson taught, it leaves.

 

But great horror does more. It cuts out the reader’s heart (oft-times more cruelly and painfully than simply “competent” horror), and buries it deep (oft-times even deeper than “the good stuff” does). But – and here is the difference between competence and greatness – great horror adds one more step:

 

Great horror remains to see what will happen next. For the great horror stories know that the burial is not the end. For in horror, the burial does not signal the end of the story. After all, one of horror’s great lessons is that the monster, once vanquished and buried deep, will eventually rise again to terrorize and maim.

 

But if the monster does this… then why not us?

 

Great horror stories tear us apart and bury our still-beating hearts. And then it waits, knowing that given time, given encouragement, given (dare I say it?) a bit of grace… we can rise again. Our hearts will not only beat, but beat all the stronger because of what they have been through.

 

A decent horror story destroys us. A great one then helps us through the painful process of resurrection, and leave us with souls stronger than they were before.

 

Horror talks about ghosts and goblins, madmen and monsters, freaks and fiends. But what it actually does is this: it gives us the language to understand what we are seeing when we witness evil, it gives us the tools we need to confront that evil, and it reminds us that in the end – if we are smart enough, brave enough, true enough, good enough – we will triumph.

 

There are stories where evil appears to win. But great horror shows us that the battle goes on. In my own books, the “good guy” doesn’t necessarily make it to the final page. In fact, some important stories demand an unhappy ending. My novel Twisted, for example, is a ghost story… but it is also a story about child abuse, and the horrifying effects it has on the evil and innocent alike. Such stories cannot finish with “they all lived happily ever after.” Evil always leaves scars in its wake, and to ignore that fact is to do a disservice to those of us who have lived through darkness, and learned to survive and even thrive in spite of those scars. Some stories must end “badly,” if only so we may know how to avoid becoming the monsters they have described.

 

Besides, even in stories where evil appears to triumph, the reality is anything but. Because the moment after “the end” happens, the reader proves those two words to be a lie. The reader closes the book. The reader turns off the Kindle. The story is done, but the reader… the reader does not end. For the reader has survived. The reader will continue and, hopefully, continue forward stronger.

 

All horror shows us the darkness we are capable of. Great horror reminds us of the miraculous creatures we already are.

 

And that is why I write – and read, and will always love – horror.

* Or viewer, or whatever. I’m a screenwriter and author, so I deal with people reading, listening, and watching, but for ease of use purposes I’m just going to refer to “readers” from here on in. After all, you’re reading this right now, so it seems apropos.

 

This article first appeared on the website of RA for All.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, Writing Advice

I guess I’m not a writer

Readers of my articles will know that as a rule I tend to eschew profanity. Not judging those who use it, just it is not part of my personal style.

This article is going to use several Family-unfriendly words. Be warned.

I recently read a Facebook post encouraging someone to write a story that the author was worried might offend people. The advice boiled down to, “Write what you want, follow the story wherever it goes, and never worry about offending people. Anyone offended has the problem, not you.”

This is unmitigated horseshit.

The greatest, most important power a writer has is to create communities. Writing — indeed, any artistic form —IS  emotive; one of its strengths is to create emotion where none existed before, or to strengthen pre-existing emotions. But that is not its primary purpose; it is a tool through which its purposes are achieved.

Writers wield the extraordinary power to tell stories which (when done correctly)  weave themselves into the DNA of our psyches. They become a part of us in a way no less real than our eye color, or the shapes of our cheekbones… and in a way that is far more influential in our lives then a great many chromosomal markers.

Storytelling is the oldest non-biological practice in which humans have engaged. The religious speak of the origins of our species as outlined in holy writ. From a scientific standpoint, the earliest examples of humanity survived and thrived not because of their hunting prowess or their physical attributes — people are quite clumsy and weak compared to other apex predators — but because they could tell stories of where to find food, how to build weapons, and the like.

Eventually those stories grew to include great questions — where does lightning come from? Why does this animal attack us? Where did the world come from? And from those questions grew mythologies, creation stories, and more. Stories that did more than influence cultures, they CREATED them.

Storytelling is, without doubt, the greatest human power.

Even today, the greatest decisions are made based on stories: we should attack such-and-such country because we are Good and they are Evil. We marry this person instead of that because this person has stories similar to our own, or that complement our own in ways we deem important. We send a child to a particular college, because it has an important place in our own story, and we will wish that story to live on in our children.

The greatest power we wield. Bar none. And to quote the great poet-philosopher, Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Writers MUST think about what the effect of their stories will be.

And, like it or not, that includes questions of whether or not others will be offended. If for no other reason then because an offended person is less likely to listen to our stories, and certainly less likely to believe them. Alienating a person literally means we make of them The Other — the outsider; the one we fear and, if we feel threatened enough to buy them, the one we kill or who will try to kill us.

More than that strictly pragmatic consideration, however, is this: writers are storytellers — every last one of them, for what it’s writing if not a means to convey information: the important stories we wish to have passed around, and those most likely to outlive us?

And again, the greatest power of the storyteller is to create community, which means they CREATE THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE.

It then behooves us to consider every possible result of the stories we tell. Sometimes offending is a necessary part of telling a story… but that should not happen as an unthinking or unintended outcome, rather as a predetermined part of our purpose in telling the story. It is not nearly that we should consider whether others will be offended, it is that we MUST do so. Because that and other results, again, forge the path not only of our world, but that of others. To say we deserve to hold that power without considering its effects has the moral equivalency of saying anyone with the physical ability to hold a gun deserves to pull the trigger at any time, on any whim, to any effect.

Actually, the above comparison is wrong. It is a far MORE reckless, negligent act to toss out stories without considering the result or the effect on other people. Because ultimately, if I go around shooting a gun, I WILL run out of bullets. I WILL only be able to hurt or kill a certain number of people. And that number is relatively small compared to the potential effect of a story loosed.

A story loosed can hurt or kill MILLIONS. Anyone who doubts this need only look at history, filled with powerful men and women who slaughtered millions in pursuit of whatever mad story they peddled. “All Jews are evil, and they caused the damage we suffer here in Germany.“ “Those people are all enemies of the state, and to let them live will result in our way of life disappearing.“ “That religion is full of heathen, evil creatures who deserve death because they refuse to acknowledge the power of our God.”

A story loosed could destroy all of us: “If we don’t nuke them, they will do it to us, or perhaps they wouldn’t, but they deserve it” (the words “they deserve it” always carry with them and implicit story meant to validate our assessment of their punishment).

If your only intention in writing a story is to write it, and you burn it immediately after and never tell that story again, then you have much greater support for your claim that the offensiveness or other effects of that story need not be considered — though even then I would argue that it’s a reckless behavior. Cemeteries are full of the bodies of those who told horrible stories about themselves until the only rational response was to destroy the life those stories taught had no value or was a blight upon the earth.

Whenever I hear someone who says, “I never consider what this story will do; it is my art, and I follow my art for its own sake,” I cannot help but think that that is someone who either does not know or understand how powerful they are, or who simply is an asshole.

And yes, I use that last word purposefully. I use it knowing its possible offensiveness, and deeming that offensiveness necessary for the purpose of the story I here tell. Which purpose is NOT  to offend for its own sake… but the fact is that anyone who blindly holds to their “principles” (artistic or otherwise) without considering its resultant effects is a zealot. And such a person, willing to inflict harm because of no better reason then their own desire and determined never to control themselves, is someone whom I believe should be clearly labeled as something anathematic, so that others will know to avoid a rabid wolf in their midst.

Writers can change the world. We do that with infinite possible stories. No tool is off-limits, but some outcomes hurt the world, and should be avoided.

To anyone who says, “Someone who doesn’t follow their art for its own sake isn’t a real writer,” (something that I hear often in conjunction with the “follow your story” idiocy), I guess I am not a real writer. Which will probably come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of people who have read my books and articles, seen the movies I have written, or who voted to make me a finalist or semi-finalist or the like in things like the Nicholl Fellowship (arguably the most elite screen writing competition in the world) or the Bram Stoker Award.

And if being a “writer” means sacrificing my responsibility to leave the world a better place than it was when I entered it, then I am and always will be PROUD to not be a writer.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice, MbC Must-read, Writing Advice

Sneaky themes and those darn criminal interior designers…

Lit agent Angie Hodapp: “When we get a query that says, ‘People who read this book will learn…’ or ‘The theme of my book is…,’ it’s kind of a red flag for us.”
 
People who decided to teach a lesson from the outside generally (not always) spend more time teaching than telling us stories. But as a rule, overt pedagogy works better in church than in your story.
 
EVERY story teaches a lesson – or many. Stories are written by people, and no one does ANYTHING without letting slip the lesson they hope to impart.
 
But STARTING with a lesson for fiction is definitely a red flag.
 
Can it be done? Sure. But for the most part stories work best when they cloak truths in lies.
 
Stories are sneaky, subtle, and insidious. When they creep in through a rear window in your mind, they will rearrange every bit of furniture they find. Then you come home and realize that everything is different and – at the hands of the best trespasser-stories – better. The best trespassers are often also the best interior designers.
 
But we don’t typically let strangers come in and rearrange our stuff. Not only that, but as soon as we find out that’s the goal, we cast them out and put our internal thought police in notice: “Stop hat story at all costs. Don’t let it in because I already have people I trust to teach me, and I don’t need more of them.”
 
So stories can’t knock politely and shmooze their way in. They gots ta be sneaky.
 
So be pedagogical. But make it almost an afterthought. Or if it’s a forethought, dress it up.
 
Storytellers lie. And when they do it well, the results can be magical.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Should I post my book to Amazon even though I know it’s not quite “done”?

Answer:

 

Sure, if your goal is to watch the wreckage of your career go down in flames before having a chance at life.

 

Amazon has MILLIONS of books. Asking someone to read part of yours, or read the “almost finished” edition not only guarantees you’ll make few sales, but that anyone who DOES read your work will absolutely never look at you as a possible reading experience ever again ever ever ever.

 

I put this last because it’s serious. If you’re an indie author, you already face an uphill battle since a lot of people assume that if you’re an indie you weren’t “good enough” to get a traditional publishing contract – an assumption that is all-too-often correct. So if you’re indie and you want to actually have a shot at selling your book, it has to be not *just as good* as the traditionally-published works out there, but better.

 

Why should someone read Michaelbrent Collings if Stephen King is sitting right next to it? It’s absolutely *not* because they have some need to see what a second-rate writer is capable of. My fans read my work because it’s their favorite.

 

The average self-pub author sells (and this is true) around ten copies. TOTAL. Mostly to family and the few unlucky friends the author sees every day and who will feel guilty until they plunk down their three or five dollars (or whatever it is). If that’s your audience, you could write the word “dumb” a hundred times and probably sell the books to them, so quality isn’t a real high priority.

 

If you want to write for a general audience, you put your best work out there. And if your best work isn’t up to snuff, then you WAIT UNTIL IT IS. A good rule of thumb is that your first million words are terrible. My opinion is that by the end of the second million, you’re probably getting ready to be publishable – and that’s been born out by a lot of the experiences of my friends and colleagues who are successful to ridiculously-successful in this business.

 

Last thing: if you go up to someone and dump your second-rate/unfinished work on them, that’s not writing professionally – that’s a therapy session. That’s you saying, “Here’s what I care about. Talk to me about it.”

 

You know what all therapy sessions have in common? Answer: YOU PAY THE THERAPIST, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

 

Do your best work. Then throw it away and do even better work. Then keep on doing that until you’re not just an “okay” writer, but one who will command attention, admiration… and an audience.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Selling a story by NOT telling a story

Here’s the thing with telling someone about your book – be it in person, or in an ad, or via the back cover copy you’ve spent arduous hours perfecting: almost every author is terrible at it. Because almost every author makes the horrible mistake of thinking that you sell someone on your story by telling them about your story. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

You have to remember you have maybe two sentences before people get bored. So you don’t start off with your story, you start off with a BANG.

 

What I often tell new authors — or even old authors — is to imagine your sales pitch as pictures of your kids (if you don’t have kids, imagine you do — you’re a writer, it should be easy). Every single human above the age of 20 has had someone approach them with that person’s pictures of their kids. They start showing off the pictures and yammering on about things that matter incredibly to that person, but not at all to us.

 

Your story is your baby in some ways. Especially in that nobody else cares at all about it until you give them a REASON to care.

 

Now, if that person who can’t stop showing you their baby pictures walks up and says, “Timmy’s face caught fire yesterday,“ now you are in it for the long haul. They can actually take their time getting to the good part, because they have told you something in the first sentence that makes it clear the story is going to be worth your while.

 

Remember, also, that ad copy and back cover copy is NOT ABOUT TELLING THE STORY. It is about providing potential readers with an idea of the tone and genre of your book, and then the only other thing you are trying to do is pose a question in the reader’s mind that can ONLY be answered by reading the book.

 

The entire back cover copy of one of my books reads in its entirety:

 

What do you do when everyone you know — family, friends, everyone — is trying to kill you? Answer: you RUN.

 

It tells you almost nothing, but it gives you an idea of the tone and general genre – we’re obviously in some kind of tense thriller. More important, the strength of the question it creates is such that most readers at this point will at least click the “look inside“ option on Amazon.

 

The book, RUN (and yeah, even the title was designed to help set up the all important question in potential readers’ minds) sold well – it was a #1 Bestseller in Horror and Science Fiction (the top level, overall categories), got to #2 in Thrillers, and was a top 100 overall seller on Amazon – and this without any kind of promotion behind it — and a huge part of that was simply the creation of a question.

 

And book sales weren’t the only result of that question. Major production companies were contacting me, all of whom said the same things:

 

Them: Is your book available as a development property?

Me: Yep. You read it?

Them (I kid you not on this): No. But your description would make a great movie poster. Can we talk some more in person?

 

The lesson: jettison all thoughts of telling your story in your ads, in your back cover copy, or during the first moments of a sales pitch. Nobody cares about your story at that point. They are in it for themselves, so you have to give them something that matters to them and will improve their lives in some sense – even if that is just the promise of a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a story.

 

Don’t tell about Timmy being born, or his amazing childhood, or that he walked early, or how cute he is. Start off telling your reader, “So, Timmy’s face caught on fire yesterday.“ Tell them something that creates in their mind an undeniable need to know what happens next, and then REFUSE TO ANSWER ANY MORE QUESTIONS.

 

Now the readers will buy your work, not because you told the story, but because you DIDN’T, and they know the only way to satisfy their curiosity is to BUY THE BOOK. Doing anything more is window dressing at best, and offputting at worst.
 

A great irony: people looking for stories are not interested at all in your words.

Not at first. Not until you wow them with your ability to say something extraordinary — not in the course of 100,000 words, but in the course of your very first sentence.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Thrillers: the Mostleastnotatallsortof Limited Genre

I recently fielded the following question:

 

Do thrillers have a more limited story structure than other genres?

 

I thought it was an interesting question, so thought you might think it was an interesting answer. Yes, that sentence makes sense. And so (hopefully) does my response to the question:

 

 

Absolutely not.

 

And yes.

 

And it depends.

 

Let’s talk about this last: depends what you mean by “story structure.” Are you talking about the way the story is boxed up and presented to the audience? In this case, it’s all the same – and it’s all different. Most people utilize a three-act structure (beginning, middle, and end) – which has been around since forever, though Aristotle is mostly credited with being the first one to start its codification and explication in his Poetics. It’s an easy way to provide pertinent information, and it provides the additional element that humans generally require of a story: meaning. It gives us a situation (beginning), then develops the ramifications (middle), then provides an end to the action which generally includes an explicit or implicit statement as to what the actions of the story have meant in the grand scheme of things. So structure-wise, most people write in three acts, and it doesn’t matter whether you are writing a thriller, a horror piece, or anything else – they all follow the same basic pattern. There are “experimental” pieces that try and avoid the three-act structure, but most of them end up either using the structure but then switching around the scenes in editing (think Pulp Fiction), or they end up a jumbled wretch of a mess that no one wants to watch/hear/read.

 

Now, are you talking about the tropes of a thriller? By which I mean, those audience expectations that must be filled if they go in saying, “I’m reading a thriller?” If so, then I’d argue thrillers are actually one of the least-confined genres. Scifi has a set of things audiences expect – chief among them the presence of advanced/alien technology that impacts humans. So does fantasy (magic!). Romance does, too.

 

Thrillers, though, only really require… well, thrills. That’s pretty open – you can, in fact, have scifi thrillers, fantasy thrillers, [INSERT GENRE HERE] thrillers. “Thriller” as a term of art that means that a specific set of audience expectations will be fulfilled is so vague as to be meaningless. Be they aliens, dragons, political rivals, spies, or anything else, the only real expectation for a “thriller” is that the heartbeat of the reader be elevated and they go on a mental rollercoaster.

 

On the other hand (I always have at least two other hands), thrillers can be viewed as very limiting for that same reason. It’s possible to have a scifi book that is hyper-fast, with so much action you want to puke; but also to be so measured as to cause comas in the unwary (I’m looking at you, Solaris!). Fantasies, scifi, romance… they all have variable rhythms, dependent solely on the effect and intensity of effect the author wishes to create.

 

Thrillers, though, require an intensity of effect. There can be no thriller without the thrilling. That’s a pretty tough requirement, and few other genres really share that kind of physiological aspect – in fact, only comedy, horror, and pornography really drill into the visceral stimulation of one’s own body in a way comparable to the “thrill ride” a thriller author tries to provide.

 

Finally, though, I think you are probably asking the wrong question. This sounds like a question that really means, “What kind of things do I have to put in my thriller?” And that, again, is a “depends” answer. Thrillers can be intermingled with countless other genres, or sold as “just plain thrillers” in the bookstore. If the former, we’ve already talked a bit about what readers might be looking for. If the latter, then you have to remember that “genre” is largely a construct of marketing and customer service. People go to the thriller aisle in B&N, and there they find thrillers… whose only single factor in common is that they are in the thriller aisle in B&N. Those genre slots are there for convenience: they provide audiences with a place to look where they might find certain tropes represented in higher concentration, and they provide booksellers with a shorthand way of pushing niche markets to aisles where the customers are more likely to reach for their wallets. But that’s largely meaningless as anything divorced from marketing. If you don’t believe it, then think about how fast Amazon would move Romeo & Juliet to their Historical Western section if they found out it would sell like hotcakes there. The definition of genre in this sense, again, is mostly a question of “How do we (the booksellers) get you (the audience) to fork over your dough?”

 

TL;DR: You can look at the idea of “thrillers” in myriad ways, and each of these viewpoints will yield a different answer to your question.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

The Only Three Rules You CANNOT Break

Writers are fond of finding exceptions. It’s part of who we are, I guess. I mean, if we were people who liked following rules we’d already be in a more “normal” profession. We’d be doctors. Or lawyers. Or terrorists. Anything but these free-wheeling weirdos for whom “Pants Optional” is a huge job perk.

 

So good luck finding a “writing rule” that really IS a rule.

 

IMAGINARY CREATIVE WRITING CLASS:

Imaginary Teacher: In writing we never use run-on sentences.

Imaginary Student Writer: Unless you’re Shakespeare. He did it. Like, all the time.

IT: Yes, well. Of course. So I guess you can use them. Just don’t use sentence fragments.

ISW: Everyone speaks in sentence fragments. And poets pretty much only use them.

IT: Of course. But one rule is that we never start sentences with a conjunction. And the reason for that is –

ISW: Uhhh… you just did that.

IT: Get out of my class before I kill you.

 

And the student leaves, usually makes a comment in his mind about how the teacher is teaching because he couldn’t make it as a writer, and goes off and, you know, writes. Usually breaking as many “rules” as possible for spite.

 

Upshot: no rules.

 

Except there are. There really are. Just a few.

 

Just three. And you can’t break them. Not ever. Not and hope to keep an audience.

 

 

And here they are. There are three. Only three, no more, no less. And every other skill I know, every other technique I use, hangs on the framework provided by one or more of these rules.

1) Bore Me And Die

2) Confuse Me And Lose Me

3) Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone

 

Let’s talk about each…

(on to #1 – Bore Me And Die)

 

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in MbC Must-read, Writing Advice