Recently I was looking over a document that chronicled my job search a few years ago.  I had made notes for all the ads I answered and added to them as I received responses—or didn’t.

Some of the ads made me wonder why I even bothered to write to them.   When writing advertisements, you must include informative details if you want a targeted response.  Many of the ads didn’t.

Example:  Administrative assistant.  Send resume to PO Box XX, City, State, Zip.

Nothing about the company, no name, no way to find out anything.  I sent off a couple of resumes to ads like this, and of course, I heard nothing back.

My perception of whoever had placed that ad was that they didn’t want a response.  Maybe they were trying to avoid phone calls.  Perhaps it was bogus.   Either way, they gave jobseekers no information with which to tailor a resume to the company’s needs.   I had no way to see if it was even a company in my area, even thought the PO box was local.

I saw another in a freelance writing job listing.  A link led to the ad on Craigslist, where the poster, in describing what he/she was looking for, said something like “I want someone quirky and cool, blah blah, etc.  If you’re all businesslike and serious, you’re probably not good enough.” The ad was so snarky it turned me off.  Who would want to work for someone like that?  I’m sure the person who wrote it thought the ad was clever and snappy, but that’s not how it came off at all.

Be careful how you present yourself in writing.  In emails and online communication, nuances of speech like tone and expression don’t come across.  If you want people to take you and your work seriously, you can’t write as if you’re texting your BFF.  Your emails, blog posts and advertisements, even if they are only a postcard on a bulletin board, are representative of your work.

  • Watch your spelling and grammar.  Someone looking for a writer or other professional isn’t going to perceive you as one if you can’t spell or your email answering an ad is full of slang.
  • If you’re posting a job advertisement, give prospective candidates a bit of information.  It’s wasted time for them if they can’t target their job search to appropriate venues.  It’s a waste of your time as well to go through a stack of inappropriate responses.
  • Tone is important.  The snarky ad I mentioned was amusing, until it got to that line about businesslike not being good enough. Although I’m hardly an uptight business type, it gave the impression that the person might be overly critical of someone trying to present as a professional.

If you have any good examples of miscommunication or misperception in email, ads or online communications, please share them in the comments.


When I was a little kid, my grandparents lived for a time in Corpus Christi, Texas.  We visited them several times, driving down through Oklahoma and Texas to the coast and they took us to Padre Island.  To a kid landlocked in the Midwest, the ocean was magical.

I didn’t mind the man-o’-wars we were told to avoid even after they were dead, their milky bubble bodies filmed with translucent rainbows like a white oil puddle, tentacles spread limply on the sand.   The bits of seaweed floating on the tide were exotic to me.  They stuck to my legs and one peculiar type with tiny bladders all over it had a tendency to prickle.  We tried to swim away from them but they would follow us, waves inexorably washing them toward our frantically flailing limbs.

My dad took us out to “jump” the waves.  We stood in waist-deep water and as the swells rolled toward us, we jumped up, allowing the crest to pass beneath us.  In the water you could jump a bit higher than on land, and it was really fun.

One time we went out chest deep, a bit farther than before.  As we were going back, Dad got ahead of me, and the undertow began to suck at my legs.  I splashed and fought, so terrified I was unable to scream, and finally got hold of the back of his swim trunks.  He turned, irritated that I had grabbed his suit, and I regained my footing.  I don’t think he even realized what was going on.  I forgot about it the next time we played on the beach but didn’t go out that far again.

My grandparents lived in a little house with a tiny yard and I remember big flowers in the backyard.  I remember a pan full of shells Granddaddy had put in the sun to dry.  The tiny animals in the shells were decaying and dessicating and the smell was awful.  We took handfuls of clamshells home in our bags and poked holes in them, strung them on chains and ribbons and made necklaces.  I felt slightly superior to the kids in my class who had never been to the sea.

The Texas coast is on the Gulf of Mexico, and the water is fairly warm.  I’ve been to the beach on the east coast, but stayed out of the water.  I didn’t spend much time there.  For about four years in the early ‘90s, the west coast became my home.

The Pacific Ocean is cold.  If you’re going to spend any time in it, you need to wear a wetsuit.  I played in and around Monterey Bay, California.  The bay is full of sea life in forms from tiny jellies to huge elephant seals, sharks and grey whales.  Surfing is big there but I never tried it.  Lessons and equipment cost money, and I didn’t have any.  Someday, though, I would like to learn.

I loved living there, even when the fog rolled in off the bay and the evening grew thick and cool, and jackets were required.  Sometimes the bay smelled fresh and clean, and other times the air was redolent with fish from the harbor and the boats offloading their catch of the day.  I liked going to the wharf and buying fish that in the morning had been swimming.

Santa Cruz is a tourist town, and the Beach Boardwalk was a fun place to hang out.  We spent time there eating fried prawns and churros, riding the Giant Dipper—a wooden roller coaster—and the merry-go-round, playing games in the arcade.  I miss Santa Cruz very much.  You can see the Boardwalk in several movies, notably The Lost Boys, where it gets a lot of exposure and some great aerial shots.

Over it all you could hear the deep boom of the waves, the swishing susurration as foamy water ran up the sand and slipped back again.  I made a sand castle with a friend.  We left it vulnerable to the waves, a miniature flag made from a toothpick crowning its peak.

The best pleasures in life are simple ones.  To hear and smell the ocean again is a deeply-felt goal of mine, and one I hope I don’t have to wait too long to fulfill.

Please feel free to share your ocean stories in the comments.

Nom de Plume

A pen name, or pseudonym, is an alternate name under which a writer publishes, something like a stage name for an actor or musician.  There are many reasons why a writer might decide to use a pen name.

A writer’s name could be too long, or she doesn’t like it.  My pen name is a shortened version of my real name, which would never fit on the cover of a book.  It barely fits when I sign a receipt.  If I don’t get married in the next few years, I think I’ll just change the damn thing.  Of course, now watch me marry someone named Smitty Wermenyagermanjensen* or something.

Another reason is to maintain relative anonymity, to protect the writer’s own and his family’s privacy.  This one is a bigger concern nowadays, with media everywhere you look.  If you’re not in the bestseller category you won’t be getting tons of exposure—and maybe not even then—but it’s still possible to be recognized.  Loved ones may not be comfortable with this.  If the writer’s work is controversial, a pen name may protect the writer against retaliation for his views.

And it’s possible to publish in several different genres and write each book under a different name to avoid confusion.  A writer who did this could be free to explore other story types rather than getting locked into one category.  How an agent would handle that, I really don’t know.

Some famous pen names are:

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) – American humor writer and novelist.  Coined the term “The Gilded Age.”  His most famous books include Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Roughing It. His pen name is taken from his time working on a steamboat on the Mississippi.  Mark Twain is a term meaning two fathoms, or twelve feet, of water, a safe draw for a steamboat.  It does sound like somebody’s name, doesn’t it?

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) – Victorian era author of Silas Marner, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. She wrote under a male pen name because women weren’t thought of as serious writers then.

George Orwell (Eric Blair) –English writer who penned Animal Farm, a political allegory, and 1984, one of the most famous dystopian novels ever written.  The term “Big Brother” from the latter, referring to a watchful government figurehead, has become familiar to everyone, even people who have never read the book.  I’m not sure why he chose George Orwell for his pen name; if anyone knows, please tell us in the comments.

Avi (Edward Irving Wortis) – a contemporary author of children’s and young adult books.  The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth are two of his books.  The first one is a favorite of mine.  Avi is a childhood nickname his sister gave him.

Richard Bachman (Stephen King) – If you don’t at least know who Stephen King is, you’ve been living under a rock.  For a while, King seemed to have cornered the market on bestsellers.  He wanted to see if people would indeed buy his work if they didn’t know it was him and so he invented Richard Bachman.  An alert reader outed him, however.   According to Bachman’s Wikipedia page, the name is a combination of Donald E. Westlake’s character Richard Stark and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  Some of Bachman’s works include Blaze, The Long Walk, The Running Man and Thinner.  King’s novel The Dark Half, written under his own name, is about a writer whose pseudonym terrifyingly comes to life.

A pen name is a personal choice.  If you choose to use one, take your time to consider how you wish to be known.  If you have a pen name and a neat story about where it came from, or know of any writers who do, please share in the comments.  You need not give your real name.



This handy literary terms website defines a meme as “an idea or pattern of thought that ‘replicates’ like a virus by being passed along from one thinker to another.”  Everyone is familiar with Internet memes:  the squirrel vacation photo, the Star Wars kid and all the spoofs that followed, and LOLcats.  Like television commercials, they get overexposed and people get sick of them.

I think the definition of memes should include current slang and topics as well; you often see a spate of novels about the same type of character—for example, a reluctant superhero, or aliens, or currently, vampires.  Television is overrun by issue-of-the-week movies.  Memes fall in and out of fashion incredibly fast, and before you know it media has moved on to the next.

Writers who include memes in their stories run the risk of dating them.  Publishers and agents are looking ahead in terms of what they think might sell.  Given the time it takes to write, edit and print a book, this is merely practical.  Agents and acquisition editors don’t have crystal balls (at least I don’t think they do), but they have to know their market well and be able to spot a potential trend long before it actually becomes one.   They probably won’t want something so loaded with current memes that it’ll be dead before it ever gets out of the gate.

Slang is a special case.  Used as part of a period setting, it can work.  A character in a novel set in the 1980s might say “Gag me with a spoon!” in Valley-speak, a remark that tells us her sex, age and possible geographic location.   If the slang is peculiar to the time period and well-known, it brings the period to life, establishes character and lends color to the writing.  But don’t rely on just that.

If you don’t know current slang, please don’t use it.  Your teenage character can make do with cleaner dialogue and we’ll still know it’s a teenager by speech patterns and the things he/she says.  Kids don’t talk in slang all the time anyway.  Similarly, business-speak has phrases and words that are popular one minute, passé the next.  You’re risking dating your book by using them.  And it makes you look clueless to use them wrongly, or have a contemporary kid say something only someone from the 1960s would have said.  Unless he’s  a time-traveler, it won’t fly and readers will roll their eyes.  If your story even gets into their hands, that is.

I have a character in a WIP (work-in-progress) who is from the 1970s.  He says things like “ya dig” and “groovy.”  I remember people saying those things when I was a kid during that time so they are at least authentic.*  That’s not all he says, of course.  He talks like a normal person the rest of the time, just like most people back then.

A book could take years to land in the bookstore.  Techno-thrillers have to not only keep up with the times but be slightly futuristic and innovative.  The genre relies on reality-based technology’s advantages and failures to create and maintain suspense.  Future is always better than past because it’s the great unknown.  If you wrote your book three years ago, by the time you find an agent and a publisher and go through the whole process, your computers could be hopeless dinosaurs.

Enjoy memes for what they are, short-lived cultural fads.  They’re like cotton candy, fun while they last and gone before you know it.

*Yes, I’m old; so what!!!


Thanks to leviathan12 for this topic suggestion!

People love lists.  They make lists to keep themselves organized, to categorize stuff, to weigh the pros and cons of things, even for entertainment.  A popular website, Listverse, publishes lists related to all kinds of trivia.  When I was a kid, there were similar hard-copy books of lists.  And everybody loves David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists.

I like to make lists to organize things.  When I edit, I write one of all the scenes in a book, in each chapter, like this:

Chapter 1

1.  Batman kills the Predator.

2.  Everybody panics because there are more of them.

Chapter Two

2.  The Mayor calls for action.

3.  Joker and Batman team up to fight the army of Predators.  (Hey, it could happen.  Batman would do it to save Gotham; Joker would do it for fun.)

Doing this when I start a book gives me a rough outline to work from.  Since I tend to write haphazardly rather than chronologically, reordering the list helps me divide the book into chapters that make sense and are a good length.

I can also make notes on the later list so I know what revisions I need for each chapter or scene.  Then it might look like this:

Chapter Four

1.  Batman and Alfred invent a gas machine to kill Predators with.

a. Make Alfred have to get a part for it from some underground supplier that will enable it to work without backfiring on the user.

2.  Joker breaks into the Batcave and steals it, intending to use it on Gotham’s hapless citizens.

b. Since Joker doesn’t know he can’t use the machine without it backfiring, he is in danger.  Make Batman try to save him because he can’t technically kill Joker.  Moral quandary here!

As I said in a previous post, please please SAVE YOUR WORK AND BACK IT UP.  If you save multiple copies, make sure you update everything at the same time, too.  Once I copied and overwrote a previous save, accidentally deleting a big chunk of my notes, which I hadn’t copied over to my flash drive during the last session.  GAH!!!

Now you’ve seen a little bit of the inside of my brain.  I hope it helps you.  If you have any useful tips about lists and how they help you, with writing or anything else, please share them in the comments.


There’s something inherently satisfying to us about watching people get what they deserve.  When the movie bad guy gets skewered by the hero and falls screaming over a cliff to his death, we cheer, even if we aren’t violent people in our ordinary lives.  In fact, in our heads, the bad guy might stand in for some slight, real or imagined, and to shout and clap at his demise is cathartic.

Simplified, the concept of karma is better known to us as what goes around, comes around.   In stories, especially on television, the cops solve crimes in record time.  They always find the perp, he gets the maximum sentence and the victim has closure.  People do the right thing and their actions are rewarded.  Those who do wrong receive retribution.

Real-life cops and victims know this hardly ever happens.  Sounds like great material for a story, huh?

If your readers are accustomed to everything working out in CSI-perfect fashion, a messy or incomplete real-life ending could turn them off.  Does it serve your story?  If it does, go right ahead.  Readers are important, yet you have to consider your writer’s karma and satisfy your soul.

“But,” you may cry, “the rules of my genre say I have to have a happy ending!”  Okay, maybe they do.  Read books in your genre.  Do all of them have happy endings?  I bet not.  The point is, there are times when rules can be broken, if the protagonist can satisfy his goal.

So your hero, with his last dying breath, delivers the medicine to the Native Americans on the other side of the hills and saves the tribe, who then rally together and ride forth to help the settlers fight the corrupt army general and his troops who want their gold.  Maybe the readers have grown to love the hero but it’s not important whether he lives; what’s important is the rescue of the settlers, because that’s what’s important to the hero.

Make the story end so that the beautiful chief’s daughter, apprentice to the shaman, heals the hero and he can lead the charge to save the settlers, and it won’t necessarily suck.  That would be a Hollywood ending.  The hero’s death, however, would lend your story a poignancy that makes the settlers’ victory all the more bittersweet.  It would have emotional resonance.

If it makes sense, both you and the readers will likely be satisfied.

I’ll use a couple of cinematic examples, because they are relatively rare in homogenized Hollywood, and because they were beautifully written, especially the second.


The Good Son is a typical thriller where the protagonist learns a terrible secret and no one believes him.  The film ends with the mother hanging over a cliff, clutching both her nephew (the protagonist and good kid) and her own son (a psychopathic monster whom she has just realized killed his baby brother).  She can’t save both.  What to do?  A compromised ending would have had someone come running up from out of nowhere, grab the mother’s legs and haul everybody back over the cliff to safety.  The psycho kid would go to a shrink and all would be well.

Nope.  Mom makes a choice.  She drops her own son.  When she did that, my movie buddy and I actually cheered.  We were so happy we didn’t care that we were in the middle of a crowded theater.  FINALLY, a movie that ended as it should have, without a cheat!

Another example is District 9, a sci-fi thriller about space aliens living in a shantytown in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The aliens are treated terribly:  heavily regulated, confined to their area and derided cruelly.  Our protagonist is Wikus, a bureaucrat sent to evacuate the aliens to another area that has been prepared for them.

When we first see Wikus, he’s a jerk.  He teases the aliens and throws his weight around.  After an accident turns the tables on him, he becomes more sympathetic.  His new alien friend promises to help him if he can only get him to the ship stranded high above the area and back to his own planet to seek help for his fellow aliens.  As the movie ends, we see the transformed (literally) Wikus waiting as patiently as he can for help that may come in three years, or not at all.

What happens to Wikus is deserved, brought on by his own boorish actions.  It is decidedly not a happy ending, especially since he does learn his lesson.   But it fits the story, it makes sense and it accomplishes the protagonist’s goal.  If he helps his friend, his accidental transformation could be reversed and he can go home.

Characters get what they deserve, mostly.  Fiction likes tidy endings unless you’re planning a follow-up.   Readers might like the Hollywood cheat.  They might want the dying hero to be saved at the last minute.  If he isn’t, there had better be a reason, and it had better be good.

The cheat dumbs down the story and compromises credibility.  It’s not good karma for the writer.  When a writer has to kill off a popular character or leave an ending ambiguous, it’s mostly done to serve the story, as it should be, because the story comes first.


Let’s face it; public speaking sucks.  To get up in front of a group and extemporize is many people’s worst fear.  What if I trip and fall? What if no one listens to me? What if I say something stupid and they all laugh? Scary, no?

Anyone who performs in any capacity has to deal with stage fright.  Your mouth gets dry, your fingers tremble and your knees quake.  Your guts twist in a knot and you feel like you did when someone told on you in third grade and the scary teacher’s cat’s-eye glasses skewered you to the wall.

Writers have to speak sometimes.  They speak in front of groups, in interviews, teach classes or lead seminars, participate in Career Day activities, and of course, read their own work.  If you are a shy person unaccustomed to public speaking you may be paralyzed.

You’ll be fine.

Mostly, the people you will be talking to will want to hear what you have to say.  Even if they don’t, act as if they do.  There’s an old saying:  fake it ’til you make it.  A famous skating choreographer, Ricky Harris, told us when we attended a class she taught at our rink, “If you smile like you mean it, pretty soon you will mean it.”   She’s right.  People will be more amenable to you if you smile at them, and some might even smile back.

I’ve been performing since I was five, so I have an advantage over someone who may never have even sung in the church choir.  I still have moments where the Jitterbug gets hold of me, mostly when I’m in a class and have to go to the board, or right before I skate a show or a test.  The tricks of the trade are these:

  • Take deep breaths.  Try the technique I told you about in Freak Out, Baby! Slowly in through the nose, out through the mouth.
  • Be prepared.  Make sure before you arrive at your engagement that your notes are in order, you have the right piece you’re supposed to present, and any handouts are included.  You might want to read your piece aloud to yourself, your family, the cat, etc. so you’re comfortable with your material and any words whose pronunciation is unfamiliar.  Double-check if you’re unsure.  Usually online dictionaries have a pronunciation feature; just click on it and a voice will say the word.

Pronunciation, you say? Wouldn’t I know the words I used? Well, I once said “succumb [suh-KUHM]” as “soo-cyoom” and sent my mother into gales of laughter.  Okay, she didn’t actually laugh at me but it was still embarrassing.  I knew what it meant and how to spell it, but I had no earthly clue how it was pronounced.

  • If you’re doing a PowerPoint presentation, get there early and make sure all the equipment you’ll need is set up and ready.  Cables, computers, screens, etc.  It’s convenient to carry a presentation on a flash drive if you’re not using your laptop.  Wear it on a lanyard so it won’t get lost if you’re traveling.
  • Smile at everyone!  If you get a chance, say hello to them as they are being seated.  Sometimes you won’t get to until you actually take the stage.  In that case, begin with a smile and a friendly greeting, like “Hello, it’s very nice to see you all here today.  Thank you for coming.”
  • An old stage trick is to look out just above the heads of the audience.  Everyone will think you are looking at them in particular, especially if you don’t stare blankly right down the middle.  Some lecturers like to look directly at random audience members and smile warmly as they are speaking.  You can practice this; if it’s too scary, don’t worry about it.
  • If you don’t have a microphone, remember to project, so that people sitting in the back can hear you.  Take in air deeply from your diaphragm, and intensify your voice so it travels out from your body and through the room.  Don’t shout or force it.  Imagine your voice rising on a column of air that goes up until it reaches your mouth, and through a megaphone as it leaves you.  Still confused?  See if you can get a theatrical friend to help you with this.

Remember to relax and not fret before your appearance.  There are websites all about public speaking, and you can get help from anyone you know who does it.  Take a speech class or ask a friend to pretend to interview you.  The Jitterbug thrives in the dark, moist caverns of fear deep inside your mind.  Drag him kicking and screaming into the light, and like most creatures of the night he will self-destruct.

If you have any hints or tips on dealing with the Jitterbug, please share them in the comments.


I can’t believe I couldn’t think of anything to write for the letter I, and here I spent an hour and an half this morning at the rink!

Following Saturday’s tradition of writing about anything I like, today’s topic is ice skating, figure skating in particular.  I’m no expert and I’m not great at it, but I enjoy it.  I must, to spend all the money on lessons and every weekend at the rink busting my ass!

The Olympians and other skaters you see on TV all started very young, and they train obsessively, several hours a day.  Skating is not an intuitive sport; it’s very technical, and you must ask a great deal of your body in order to do it at that level.  Pro athletes have very short careers, because their sports are so punishing, and skating is no exception.  All that jumping is very hard on their joints.  Many of them end up with cumulative hip, back and knee injuries that plague them lifelong.

However, people can skate well into their old age, and in fact, many skaters don’t even take up the sport until they are adults.  Injuries do happen, but since most adult skaters aren’t training at the intensity elite skaters are, they tend not to be as serious.  I fall all the time, and I’ve only gotten actually hurt twice in eight years.

The United States Figure Skating Association has an entire division just for adults.  There are tests and levels designed for adult skaters.  There is even a National competition.  It’s a dream of mine to attend.  Another adult skating friend has gone, and she reports it is great fun.  There is a lot less pressure on adults to be competitive and it’s mostly camaraderie.

Skating is creative as well as technical.  For those interested in dance, studying ballet is very helpful in skating.  Programs (not routines) may be simple or very elaborate, depending on the music and the skater’s skill level.  Most higher-level skaters perform multi-rotation jumps, but single rotation jumps, when executed properly, are very beautiful.

As I learn, I choose more sophisticated music.  For example, when I began skating, I chose very slow music, because I couldn’t move very fast or stop well at all.  Now I’ve gotten MUCH faster, and I can do my elements at a higher speed, and better.  A lot of younger skaters let their coaches choose their music, but I choose my own.  I only pick music that I truly love or that speaks to me in some way.  Right now, I’m skating to music from Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight, because it is my favorite movie.  I believe that skaters should be very familiar with the themes and emotions in their music so their interpretations will be more expressive.

I’ve been skating for about eight years, but I’m not very good because I only get to do it on weekends.  Also, I’m not the most coordinated person in the world, ha ha.  When I began, I really just messed around and skated in our rink’s ice shows, but lately I’ve gotten more serious about it.

My singles skating, or freeskate as it’s more commonly known, level is Adult Bronze, because that’s the level of testing I’ve passed.  In moves in the field, which has replaced figures for learning edges and turns, I am working on Silver.  I can do the following elements:


  • Waltz – this jump is only a half rotation.
  • Toe loop
  • Salchow – named for Ulrich Salchow, who invented it.
  • ½ Lutz
  • ½ Flip

The Flip and Lutz are the same jump, but the entrance and the takeoff edge are different.  I can only do a half on those because they are hard.

  • Loop – but it’s two-footed; instead of landing on one foot, I galumph down on two.


  • Spiral – this one I OWN!!!  The skater glides bent over on one leg, with the other leg exended behind her.  There are many variations.  I can do a spiral all down the rink where I change my edge and make a big S shape.  I can also do a catch-foot spiral, where I grab my foot up behind me.
  • 3-turns – called that because they make a 3 on the ice.
  • Counter – a turn that is like a reverse 3-turn.
  • I just learned a twizzle!  It’s a little spin turn. You see ice dancers do them all the time.
  • Mohawks – I hate these.  I’m having a hard time with them.


  • Forward scratch spin – aka one-foot spin.
  • Sit spin.  For my Dark Knight program, I have a variation where I hold my arms out one in front of me and one behind, so the wings I sewed on my costume will flap out as I spin.  It’s really cool.
  • Layback spin – this is the one where the skater leans backward with her leg tucked up behind her.  Men almost never do this spin.

A camel spin, in which the skater spins leaning forward with one leg extended out behind in a spiral position, is actually HARDER for me than a layback.  I have not quite got the hang of that one yet, nor the back spin, which is on the opposite foot from the one I normally spin on, in the same direction.

I love skating, but I’ll shut up now, because I could go on about it forever.   I’d like to put a skater in a book someday.  I wish more adults would do it at our rink.  It keeps me healthy and keeps my creative juices flowing.   If you have a rink near you, schlep on down there and check it out.

See Wikipedia’s entry here for more about the sport.


This post is a bit of a cheat; I actually wrote it for an undergraduate English class. I apologize in advance for the length—I did edit it quite a bit—but it says exactly what I want to say about today’s H word, Horror.

What makes horror in a story work?

Stephen King is one of the country’s best-selling writers.  Most of his past works are horror, in short fiction and novels.  In  1981’s Danse Macabre, a nonfiction analysis of horror in print and film, he wrote regarding substance:

The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration…but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again.

King essentially stated that by scaring ourselves, we gain control.  In subsequent chapters, he detailed what scares people in various time periods.  When examining different works by authors from Bram Stoker to Richard Matheson, he focused on the elements of horror.

These vary through different times, according to what people perceive as a threat.  If one examines the themes, they are remarkably similar; the foremost issue is the fear of death.

During the emergence of the Gothic novel in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the primary threat came from outside victims, in the form of vampires and other monsters who acted upon people.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, brought a futuristic element of science fiction into the horror story.  Mary Shelley was fascinated with the latest information on galvanism, or the animating of dead flesh by means of an electric charge.  Her scientific interests and a stormy night of ghost stories with her peers in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 combined in her imagination to produce a nightmare that has become an archetype.

In the twentieth century, the blend of science fiction and horror became the creature from outer space, as in Jack Finney’s marvelously creepy novel The Body Snatchers and the film The Blob.  The monster is still an outside threat, however.

The Victorian era, named for revered Queen Victoria of England, encompassed her reign from 1837 to her death in 1901. It was an age of manners and morality.  Social codes were incredibly strict.  With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the vast amounts of money to be made from it, the gap between the haves and the have-nots increased.

The Victorians were also extremely religious.  Their devotion to morals, correct social behavior and the improvement of oneself is reflected in their literature.  In horror stories of the time there are plenty of ghosts and other entities that come at a whistle, or leer around the neighborhood “haunted” house.  But the inner evil of man was beginning to emerge as a frightening element.

The scariest thing to a proper Victorian was losing one’s place in society or in heaven.  In Bram Stoker’s1897 novel Dracula, the evil Count threatens not only the protagonists’ lives, but their afterlives.  He dooms the hapless Lucy Westenra to a soulless existence as a parasite, until her fiancé Arthur Holmwood frees her with a well-aimed wooden stake.  Interestingly, Dracula proved so popular that in over a hundred years, it has never gone out of print.

Changes in lexicon over the years date a piece of literature.  One could look at Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with its elaborate prose, and definitely say that this was a writer of the nineteenth century, while Robert Bloch’s story “Floral Tribute” would be obviously of the twentieth.  The Poe story sets its reader in a murky, gas-lit world of dark, musty corners, black cats and eerie mystery:

During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

And Bloch’s matter-of-fact language is more like the brightly lit, modern parking lot in a suburban mall, spare and revealing:

They always had fresh flowers on the table at Grandma’s house.  That’s because Grandma lived right in back of a cemetery.

“Nothing like flowers to brighten up a room,” Grandma used to say.  “Ed, be a good boy and take a run over.  Fetch me back something pretty….”

Both writers have created atmosphere with words; both opening passages tell us where we are immediately. The difference is in the use of the language.  In one, circumstances are labeled; in the other, they are not.

Poe used many descriptive and emotional words to establish the setting – dreary, dull, soundless, oppressively, melancholy.  Bloch did the same thing with fewer words.  All he tells you is that it’s a cemetery. Your mind fills in the rest.

Would Bloch’s minimal prose be difficult for a Victorian reader?  “Floral Tribute” is a story so subtle I had to read it several times before I understood that the main characters, except for Ed, were dead.  The house behind the cemetery would scarcely be imaginable to a reader used to being told exactly where everything is, what it looks like, feels like, smells like and so forth.  Without the help of the lexicon he was used to, the Victorian would be lost.

The writer’s task is to set the imaginings down in such a way that the reader is able to recreate his imaginings easily.  By using elements of style and themes aimed squarely at the state of mind of the reader, the writer can touch the emotions and leave an impression that may stick around long after the lights are out.

So settle in bed and read W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” or Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” After lights-out, you may lie awake, staring into the dark, visions of resurrection and haunted groves of trees clashing through your frightened brain and wait for dawn, or sleep, or whatever comes first for you…

Share your recommendations for scary books or short stories, classic or contemporary, in the comments.


I was reading through some of my very old work recently, the stuff I scribbled in high school comp class and in college, and I was puzzled by it.  The old stuff, silly as it was, had zing and verve.  My current writing had changed a great deal, gotten better, but there was something missing.  What was it?

My subjects tended to be more outlandish than they are now, with stories about vengeful tornadoes, demons, space cowboys–a blatant Star Wars rip-off that never went anywhere–and ghostly, ironic, scary twists, which Roald Dahl did better than I ever could.

My first novel, written in high school, was a crime novel about a rapist.  I not only knew nothing about rape but nothing about adults and although I finished the book, it ended up in the proverbial writer’s trunk.  There is some good material in there, however.  Potential.  Next to it sat a rewrite attempted in college that turned the rapist into a vampire, which tanked a few chapters in.  I didn’t know any more in college than I did in high school, apparently.  An opportunity lost.  I cringed as I thought how I could have beaten Stephanie Meyer to the punch, if the story had been better.

There were articles, firmly tongue-in-cheek, essays about whatever topic I chose that day or my English teacher had assigned.  I didn’t know then that what Mrs. Burns had us do at the beginning of class was called freewriting. In ten minutes, she would collect the pages and then read them aloud anonymously.  Sometimes it was easy to guess who wrote what (like my stories), and other times we were surprised when the author was revealed.

I liked that teacher.  Once, when we were studying Poe, she allowed one of the tough, disinterested boys in the class to bring a stereo and play for us The Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination album.   That is one of my favorite albums now, because my classmate was right; it’s brilliant.   What a fantastic way to engage a reluctant student, and a great example of lateral thinking!  Wherever you are, Mrs. Burns, I love you and I wish you well.

Eventually I wasn’t a child anymore, and I had responsibilities.  Becoming an adult tempered my sense of the absurd, the freedom to allow my mind to roam unfettered.  I still write about adventure, but in a more realistic, grown-up way.  To get that zing back, I need to let my mind unfurl its wings again.

Maybe I can’t write about demons and spacemen any more.  They were the products of a mind that had no boundaries, one that welcomed everything and put it to use in its work.  But I can still imagine them.   I can try.  If it doesn’t work, no problem.  There will be another silly idea, and maybe that one WILL work.

I have to allow the experiments.

As we grow, we should stretch.  I put that aside for a long while and it showed in my writing.  It showed when I couldn’t think of anything to say.  It showed when I stopped being creative and used writing only to complete school assignments and business correspondence.   Creativity curled up in a little ball inside my brain and threatened to leave me forever.

It’s coming back now.  I finally realized that I was stifling my growth by not letting it push my imagination in new directions, by trying to be perfect, trying to be an “adult.”  There’s no need to stop playing.  And as we get older, we begin to realize other people’s opinions of us matter far less than our own.

Never be afraid to push your artistic boundaries.  Let your imagination run free.  Those little fantasies you engage in while standing in line at the post office are the phantasms of your creative mind.  They are ephemeral; don’t let them get away.  You may think you’re too mature to do so, but writers and artists need to hang on to that wondering view of the world with everything they have.  If you’re not a writer or artist but you have them in your midst, nurture them as best you can.  The rewards will be there for all of us.