Living Up to Expectations

Last December I released WORLD OF ASH, my NA paranormal post-apocalyptic novel. It was the first time I’d ever written a book in this genre (not paranormal, that’s ma bread and butter). The age range was familiar to me because the end of my Elemental series the characters were all 18-19 years old, but post-apocalyptic was totally new for me.

WOA (1)

The book was very challenging to write for more than one reason. First, I attempted to write this book in more of a Sci-Fi vein without magic or supernatural creatures. My readers have heard me say that, after accomplishing this, upon my read-through, I hated the book. I just didn’t enjoy it at all. I am not a Sci-Fi nerd. I enjoy watching Sci-Fi far more than reading it. And really I prefer my Sci-Fi along the lines of Doctor Who – with a mix of fantasy.

So I knew I had to revamp the whole book. After a massive overhaul, research into rare plague bearers of Norwegian myths, and changing the whole damn thing from past to present tense, I had a much better book. It’s a dark horse in my catalogue of books, but it is by far my most well-received book.

And that’s kind of terrifying.

When I was first starting out with my plucky YA paranormal series, I was wide-eyed and a bit naïve. I did my research into the biz, made sure I did things professionally and smart, but, mostly, I kept my head down and wrote and polished and published and hoped for the best. I built a readership and enjoyed my work. And, while each release brought with it a new wave of butterflies and mild panic, I had no trouble writing the next book. Not so with this new world.

WORLD OF ASH has set me up for a whole new world of feels. As I sat down to start working on the outline for book two and sat down to start putting words to screen, I realized I was kind of terrified. In my first series I had a pretty good balance of love, hate and somewhere in between with my readers (luckily there wasn’t a lot of a hate, just enough to let me know that I was comfortably in the middle of “not pleasing everyone,” which is what you expect). But so far, WOA hasn’t had any hate or even any, “Eh… it was okay.” People are excited to read the next. They have a lot of questions and feels. I’ve had writers volunteer to beta read the second book who didn’t for the first because they became fans after reading WOA.

This is a lot of pressure that I didn’t expect.

Merida, Brave, exasperated

Like I said before, WOA is my dark horse. I’m not gonna lie and tell you it’s my best seller, because it’s not, but it seems to be the best received.

So I find myself asking HOW DO I LIVE UP TO THESE EXPECTATIONS?

DeanScreamInternally

I don’t. Plain and simple. I need to go back to my old way of thinking, just put my head down and write the best book I can. Often I find myself thinking about the book and thinking I’m not doing a very good job. That I’ll send it to my betas and they’ll rip it apart and the new volunteers will cringe, wondering why they offered to read. But you know what? Every writer has those doubts. Whether it’s their first sequel, or their thirtieth.

So, how am I dealing with it? I just am because I’m a writer and I want to continue to be a writer and to do that, I have to keep writing. I will just allow myself to have my doubts and my worries, so long as I keep writing. My editor and betas are supposed to help me make the book better, so if they hate it, they can help me build it up to the level it needs to be to live up to the precedent that WOA set.

I’ll drink my coffee, add to my soundtrack, build the outline, and somehow find the end of the book and hopefully people will love it as much as the first book. Hopefully.

(Hopefully this is what my betas and my readership will say when I’m done.)

(And then there will be wine.)

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Listening to Fear

I remember reading once that we are born with two innate fears: loud noises and falling.

Every other fear we have is learned behaviour.

Scary Mask 10-24-2009a
“Let’s go kiss some babies.” Scary Mask 10-24-2009a (Photo credit: Brendan O’s)

I’m not saying go test this out by dressing up as a grotesque monster dripping blood and cooing at some babies to see if they giggle or scream, but when I think about the things that scare me, they are things that I’ve learned.

I learned to fear spiders when I watched Arachnophobia at the age of four. I learned to fear clowns when I saw It at age eight, and I learned that dolls are creepy when I watched all the Child’s Play movies when I was six or seven. All of those things stuck with me because filmmakers and writers created something truly frightening.

creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike
Yup. The little freak still creeps me out. Creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike (Photo credit: massdistraction)

For years, I would read R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books before bed and sleep just fine. Rotting purple flesh, decomposing cheerleaders, bodies hanging like pendulums — none of that scarred me for life, but it taught me to respect fear.

Fear is an emotion that’s made out of many series of psychosomatic impulses. It’s mind and body, working together to give you a wiggins. It’s why the image of a foreign finger tracing an ice cold line down the back of your neck is probably creepier than a knife by itself. Fear is something that is built up in the mind and expressed in responses of the body.

The great writers of horror, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, understand that creepy is a state of mind. Before you can make an audience jump or shiver or perspire, you have to lure them into your world. Here are a few of the ways to do that.

Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd
Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd (Photo credit: vork22)

Isolation

Are the scariest scenes set in crowds of bodies? Not usually. Most real horror involves isolation. Most often this is physical, but sometimes it is mental isolation. One of the first films I remember truly terrifying me was The Blair Witch Project. In that film, the three protagonists are isolated in the Maryland forests. Once it becomes clear that something scary is going on, they can’t seem to find their way out. They are in almost total isolation, stuck with a malevolent force.

This theme is also true in one of my new favourite shows, American Horror Story. In the first season, you have a family isolated in a home filled with dead people. They can’t sell it, and they can’t afford to move. In the second season, the show bridges both the inherent physical isolation of an asylum, but also integrates the mental isolation of the asylum’s masters and those imprisoned within its walls. A great example of mental isolation is the film The Craft, where the protagonist isn’t necessarily physically isolated, but the tension between her and her coven gradually increases her mental isolation from her family, her classmates, and her love interest.

Baby socks
Baby socks (Photo credit: Being a Dilettante)

The Unexpected

Sure, the image above isn’t that creepy by itself. But what if I told you it was taken at a crime scene? That would bring to mind questions. Who arranged those socks like that, and why? Were babies harmed? The unexpected isn’t about startling people into jumping high enough to bonk their heads on the ceiling. The unexpected is about putting something safe and familiar in a hostile context.

Some of the most iconic moments in horror stem from something unexpected. A child twitching a finger and saying, “Red rum” over and over again — who doesn’t remember the first time they realised he was saying MURDER backward?

Museum Collections Centre - 25 Dollman Street ...
Museum Collections Centre – 25 Dollman Street – cages – grandfather clock (Photo credit: ell brown)

Toy With Time

Fear is closely tied to suspense. Both are an anticipation of something to come, though fear has a more negative connotation. As writers, we have the unique ability to slow time and stretch out moments. Where fear and suspense in film are often heightened by details and focus on one thing (a long dark hallway, or silence), in writing you have to tie together multiple elements to create a truly scary scene.

Time can be slowed by zooming in on one detail. A fluttering curtain when all the windows are meant to be closed. Or it can be slowed by concentrating on a protagonist’s emotion, like the slickness of sweat on the back of his neck. The real magic happens when you strike the balance of giving the reader just enough to pull them from sentence to sentence while drawing out the moment of reward as long as possible.

Military Cemetary

Repetition

When done with care, weaving in a repetitive detail to a narrative can increase suspense. It can provide a reader with clues about when it’s time to be scared. In cases where repetition is used with extreme subtlety, it can foster a sense of foreboding without the reader even being able to pinpoint the reason for it.

An example of using repetition is what was done in the film The Ring. By the time you first saw the video in the film all the way through, you already associated the phone ringing with death and violence. When I first watched that film with friends, the phone happened to ring at that exact moment. We all screeched — wouldn’t you? This is one of the more obvious examples of repetition, but it can be a very effective technique no matter where you aim on the spectrum of subtlety.

Creating fear in a reader is a daunting task. It takes drawing on your own experiences as well as an understanding that just about anything can be frightening if you give it the proper attention. As writers, our words and stories can take people beyond the simplicity of loud noises and falling to deep psychological disturbance and pulse-pounding terror. It’s all up to how you use them.

What are your first memories of fear? What experiences do you draw on when you write scary scenes? How do you twist the mundane to push the reader in uncomfortable territory and then over the line into fear?