Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Problematic horrors

Innocence and isolation
I've heard it said that the cornerstones of horror are innocence and isolation. The innocence aspect is supposed to encourage audience sympathy, but personally? I know I'm no innocent and I'm not invested in protecting innocence the way, say, a parent might be.

It seems to me the "innocence" aspect leads to a tendency of horror being inflicted on somebody just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time: they moved into a haunted house, their car broke down in the boonies, etc. I have never found that particularly compelling because the story is not about the characters, it's about a series of horrible things that happened.

Isolation can be physical, social, or psychological and ensures that the hero/ine faces the enemy alone. Often, they are outgunned by the villain(s) as well. This can lead to Bambi vs Godzilla syndrome, in my opinion, and solutions being handed down by the god in the machine (the author). Those aren't satisfying endings, since the heroine did not "earn" anything in the story.

This may be why I'm not a fan of horror -- on top of any additional writing problems manifesting in bad dialogue, illogical plot lines, and cardboard characters. Horror is as prone to those problems as any genre. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that any genre is as prone to that as horror is.

A proverbial virgin being chased by a serial killer, or haunted by the angry ghost of some old house? That's just a cosmic misunderstanding. An oversized pain in the ass.

Darkness
In my opinion, a dab of gore will do ya in most situations. If you've read my stories you know I'm willing to get explicit and horrible when the characters are willing to do that. Horror as a genre is a different beast, though. I'm treading closer to it than usual in my current WIP, which is turning out to be a dark fantasy.

What makes the story dark, in my opinion, is not the gruesome things that happen but why those gruesome things happen. It's also the hero's temptation to let those whys infiltrate him and lead him to begin inflicting horrors himself. The drama of resisting corruption has a particular attraction to me.

If you were going to write a horror story, how would you make it compelling to yourself? What makes you shudder?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Seeking new experiences, for a writer

It's been almost a month since I posted, and I apologize. June 2014 has been pretty crazy for me. I've been out experiencing new things, to put it simply.

As a writer, I'm often trying to convey things -- events, situations, emotions -- that I've never experienced personally, and there's nothing unusual about that. I've never had to fight for my life with a sword. I've never stepped outside a spaceship in just a plastic suit. Because human emotions are the same for us all, I believe I can apply the few moments of genuine panic (when I realized I was skidding down an icy mountainside at 50mph) or awe (when I stood inside the gallery of the Great Pyramid) that I actually have experienced to what my characters are experiencing.

The tougher part is knowing which emotions fit the scenario and how they're flavored by the character's exact situation. Also, whether anything I've experienced truly fits.

I've been a shy person all my life. That's not unusual for a writer. I've been a homebody, but not a complete shut-in, who took a pass on having a crazy youth or doing anything too risky. But over the past year, I've been getting out more and putting the shyness, the worries, everything that's kept me from being wilder, aside.

Get out there. It's worth it.
And having been a little wilder, having survived and learned a lot from it, I wish I'd done it sooner. Both personally and as a writer. There really is no substitute for experiencing things yourself.

What you notice in the midst of those experiences, what stands out to you, is as individual as your fingerprints and that will only add to your personal voice as a writer when you apply it to a story. As writers, everyone we meet and everything we experience goes into our stories. Shutting ourselves away will limit our supply of those raw ingredients, in the long run.

So, my fellow shy, reclusive writers, I'm going to say get out there and do something this summer that pushes your personal envelope. Something new. Something that leaves you exhilarated, exhausted, and possibly ecstatic.

I experienced all of those on a whole new level when the Mothership 2014 tour came to town. Now, I love electronic music and I've mentioned before how I've been going out to hear it in small clubs. A six-hour dubstep festival on the lawn of a racetrack was something else entirely, of course. I had never been brave enough to go to one of those before, let alone work my way down to front and center in the crowd where it's all drunken college boys, crowd-surfers, and constant bouncing.

Scary? A little. I'm not small or fragile, though. What I took away was a new understanding of exhaustion. Of the role of sensory overload in inducing a trancelike state. Of the dynamics of a close-packed crowd of people jacked up on adrenaline and various intoxicants.

Was I really thinking that clearly at the time? No, but I've put in the analysis time since then. The memories will be useful in a variety of crowd-based situations and individual experiences of transcendence -- exhaustion and extreme situations can give rise to powerful religious experiences and also the sorts of extreme survival stories that come out of war or natural disasters.

I also briefly met a handful of colorful characters, needless to say. It's all good story ingredients, well worth the money, the time, and the emotional risk of going into such a thing trusting the universe to give me what I need. This was an instance of going out to find that, as I talked about in this post.

Get out there. Climb a mountain, take fencing lessons, go skinny dipping at midnight, whatever it is you've always wanted to do. What unusual things have you experienced recently?

If you're curious, I've found some videos from the concert I attended that do a fair job of conveying the experience when the headliner, Skrillex, took the stage five hours into the festival. You do have to imagine the bass pounding on you like you need CPR, though. iPhones completely fail to capture that.

Opening of Skrillex's set. First big drop is 2 minutes in. He gave us that long to catch our breath after Dillon Francis, lol. Another 18 minutes of the set. Jump to 12:15 for an especially potent buildup and explosion.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Eating the elephant update

I compared building a new story universe to eating an elephant, back in October. What I didn't mention, in hindsight, was that I was in fact sitting down to eat a new elephant just then. The muse had inflicted a large-feeling idea on me (the brutal muse) and I was just starting to put my teeth on it.

It's coming up on eight months later. Working on this idea (codename: Bloodmagic) has been squeezed in between other projects and has occasionally busted out and asserted itself. Things are getting to the point where I should start doing the writer's equivalent of 15-second sketches. If I were a mad scientist, I'd be watching the skies for the thunderstorm I'll need to jolt this monster to life.

Research
I love research. Over Thanksgiving, I read a couple strategically chosen books on the cultures that were providing a lot of the visual inspiration -- Aztec and Maya -- and tried to wrap my head around how such a culture becomes "normal" in the minds of the people living inside it. How does it mesh up with the reality around them?

There were also the ecology and technology aspects to work out. This will be a big change from the medieval New England world of Disciple and that's part of the elephant that I haven't chewed on too much yet. More research to do!

Trusting the universe
I've mentioned before that the universe will bring you what you need for your art. Lately, one thing that's been given to me is local music performed in small venues to small audiences. The DJ's know me as a regular, and they've often seen me scribbling down thoughts with pen and paper. For me, music is a shortcut to emotions and I collect those for each WIP.

I maintain playlists for my writing projects and yes, Bloodmagic's playlist did pick up some dark, hard-driving electronic music. It's turning out to be a dark story, so that's easy to understand. There are a few tracks whose reasons for being there isn't obvious, though. There always are a few of those. Keeps things interesting.

The universe also pointed me toward a couple horror influences: one old and familiar, and Hellraiser.

Guided brainstorming
Another way to "trust the universe" is to look at whatever the universe brings you and find a way to incorporate it into your art. So, sometimes I decide that I'm going to watch/read/do something and whatever it is, it will inform my WIP. How? Don't know. I'll roll with it, however irrelevant it seems.

I don't remember exactly why Hellraiser became an influence on Bloodmagic -- aside from being a classic horror franchise. I've watched several of the movies now and its influence has trickled into far more than the obvious blood and gore.

Well, the good movies have. The bad ones were just bad.

Applying craft
Piles of ideas are all well and good but this needs to be a story. Beginning, middle, end, rising tension, climax, character development, the whole nine yards. Unlike real life, fiction is supposed to make sense, as they say.

So I also used some tools in eating this elephant. The outline got built alongside the universe and the core characters. I've got a sense of the character arcs and the central theme. I've installed an engine: that abstract central question that these characters are wrestling with on my behalf. There will be sudden gear changes and a literary flourish or two. It'll be fun.

Don't wait too long
When is it time to start writing? That's always a tough question, but I've found that sooner works out better than later. Writing always clarifies things, and when you start earlier in the process it contributes to the WIP's development rather than potentially conflicting with what's already there.

Have you been working on a new elephant?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Real world sales numbers, Part 2

This is a follow up post to the sales numbers I talked about in November. It's been about six months so let's see how things have been going for my Disciple series.

Does not include Storybundle sales. Does include both ebooks & paperbacks, across all sales channels
  • Definitions: "units sold" includes both ebooks and paperbacks, across all sales channels (except Storybundle), for a given month. Starts with October 2012, when I released Disciple, Part I. Since Oct. '12, I have sold about 195 books in total. 
  • In the last six months, I've added two new titles to the series: Disciple, Part IV, and the Half-Omnibus which collects the first three parts. 
  • The spike in sales of Part II and Part III was a result of briefly getting Amazon to give Part I away for free. They quit before the end of January 2014.
  • To ask the same question again, am I thrilled? Well, the spike was exciting and getting the royalty check for that was nice. Sales have been creeping back down, but they do that. I'm going to keep moving and get Disciple, Part V out later this year.
After a conversation I had where a self-publisher expressed concern about working with Amazon because of its 500-pound-gorilla-ness, I put this graph together from my data:


That is books sold, per week, broken out by sales channel. Start date is September 1, 2013 (when Part III was released). If you don't want to play with Amazon because they're getting too big for their britches or whatever -- you certainly can, but you're missing out.

As you can also see, Smashwords hasn't exactly been worth the trouble even though they do distribute me to several other outlets like Sony and Diesel. Draft2Digital hasn't exactly wowed me either -- they're slow and I don't like how their sales reports are organized. Then again, I haven't had enough sales to really look at...

I hope these graphs help my fellow self-publishers by giving them something to compare their own sales numbers to. There are plenty of stories out there focusing on the writers who've made it big in self-publishing, and those of us who are slogging along in the trenches don't get much attention. It's no mystery why: these numbers are not exciting. The income I'm getting from this is not a livable wage -- heck, it's an open question whether I can afford to produce Part V off this income.

Care to share some of your numbers?
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