Monthly Archives: October 2015

Genre Lessons: Horror


Image from Pixaby

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month, in honor of Halloween, we’re reading horror. Masters of horror are masters of pacing and mood. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from studying these stories.

1. Close narration (either first-person or close third-person) can create suspense, because we don’t know what’s happening outside the narrator’s immediate vicinity. A three-headed saber-tooted man-eating monster can be pretty terrifying; but what’s even scarier is not knowing where that monster is. If we know Fluffy’s somewhere in the house, but we don’t know where, and our narrator is in a closet upstairs… Readers will keep turning pages, desperate to figure out where the monster is and if/when it will find the protagonist.

2. Use setting to convey mood in your stories. Try to go beyond the basics of fall = change, dying; winter = cold, dead; etc. A story about someone whose parent just passed away could have the winter setting reflect the character’s grief. But the way the character views the setting can be just as telling as the setting itself. Someone who’s feeling content might say, “ice glittered on the tree’s branches, an armor that dazzled anyone who stopped to take a look,” while our depressed character might describe the same scene as, “ice clung to the lifeless branches, making them droop, the watery knives threatening to crack and cut at unsuspecting passersby.”

3. On a more structural level, spacing can have a big impact on suspense levels in a story. One of my horror reads kept a quick pace during tense scenes by having a lot of white space between paragraphs. Sometimes there would be just one sentence, or even one word, to a paragraph. The extra space forces readers to slow down just a little, even as they want to race to the big reveal, which adds to the overall tension.

4. Onomatopeia is great in horror. Don’t just say the door squeaks, have it CREEEAK in the otherwise silent house. Spell out the AIEEEE of a character’s scream. Use words like “woosh” and “swish” to create the feel of flapping wings or a villain’s cape.

So, those are my main takeaways from reading horror. What would you add to this list? Have you read any great horror stories recently?


Three reasons to do NaNoWriMo (and why I’m not this year)

NaNoWriMo crest.For many people, November means Thanksgiving dinners; Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday shopping (only in America can we make so many holidays that honor consumerism); and season-changing football games. For writers, November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when people of all ages and experience levels across the globe commit to writing a novel (traditionally defined by NaNoWriMo as 50,000 words, but you’re welcome to set your own goals) in thirty days. It’s a frenzied month of writing sprints and inspirational tweets and writers cheering each other on, celebrating every time another Wrimo wins. It’s a time of highs and lows, of loving and hating characters and plots, of writing until fingers cramp and staring at blank pages in frustration. To sum up, it’s pretty awesome.

But if you need more convincing, here are just a few of the many reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo:

  1. Fast drafting helps you turn off your inner editor. If you’re someone who will revise a scene to death before moving on, NaNoWriMo will force you to accept the less-than-perfect. You don’t have time to fix typos, let alone plot holes, when you’re writing 1,667 [or insert your own word-count goal here] words a day. NaNoWriMo gives you permission to change that one character’s name three times, or add someone new half-way through the book. It lets (forces?) you stay immersed in the story, rather than pulling back to revise or do more research. Yes, absolutely, revise and do research. But save it (at least the major revisions and minor research) for after November 30.
  2. NaNoWriMo comes with its own built-in community of cheerleaders, mentors, and supporters. There are NaNo veterans who will happily offer advice and encouragement. Published authors give written and video pep talks practically daily. There are NaNo forums to meet others who are writing in your category and genre, who could become future critique partners and friends. There are also NaNo forums for just about every aspect of writing, so if you have questions, you can easily get answers from thousands of other Wrimos.
  3. For those who want to make writing a career, NaNoWriMo forces you to write on a deadline. It’s not the same as having an actual deadline for a novel, because if you have a deal with a publisher you’ll have to factor in time to revise and get feedback from critique partners, but it will give you practice setting goals and budgeting time to write. You’ll have the added motivation of everyone else being on the same deadline. And even if you don’t reach your target word count on November 30, you’ll probably have written a lot more than you would have without pushing yourself.

So, after singing NaNoWriMo’s praises, why am I not participating this year? As great as I think NaNo is, I rarely end up drafting in November. I’m usually busy with family around Thanksgiving, and revisions the rest of the month. This year, I had a project I was going to make my NaNo book, but I felt ready to start it in October and didn’t want to wait. I’m still working on zero draft right now, so I won’t say much about it, just that it’s a contemporary YA that’s very different from everything else I’ve written. There are so many things about doing this that scare me, and I knew if I waited too long to start writing I’d talk myself out of it. So October is my own personal NaNo month, and then I’m going to go back and tackle revisions on an earlier project based on feedback from Pitch Wars mentors. (Yes, contests can be really helpful even when you don’t get picked.)

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you done it in the past? Any advice for newbie Wrimos?

Three presentation tips from TED

Talk Like TED. I recently picked up Carmine Gallo’s Talk Like TED: The Nine Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds to try to improve my presentation skills. (For those unfamiliar with TED, or Technology Education Design, talks, check out the website.) This book has some great advice with memorable examples, and I’m looking forward to applying these in my own presentations. As I prepare to teach a teen writing workshop, I thought I’d share three of my favorite tips from Gallo’s book.

1. Whenever possible, tell a story the audience can relate to. If you connect what you’re presenting to a personal story, or a story about a friend or family member, people will be more effected by your talk. Think about why the topic or idea is important to you, and work that into your presentation. For example, I’m opening my teen writing workshop with three “writers’ secrets” to inspire teens who may talk themselves out of writing because they’re afraid they won’t be good enough. Since I’m not published yet, I chose to share the story of a published, New York Times bestselling author to show that even professionals struggle on this journey.

Unicorn farting a book.

This is not how it works. Unicorn image by DeviantArt user GremlinLegions.

2. Use humor, but don’t try to be a comedian. People like and remember funny presentations, but that doesn’t mean you personally have to be funny. You can share a funny quote or image (make sure it relates to your topic, of course!) and let those tools get the laughs. One of my slides for the teen writing workshop includes an image of a unicorn farting a rainbow that turns into a book. I plan to pair this with “writers’ secret” number two: all first drafts are bad (in other words, it doesn’t work like this).

3. When using PowerPoint, Prezi, or their equivalent, aim for fewer words and more pictures. People remember images much better than they remember words. If you can pair what you’re discussing with a powerful image, it will have a greater impact on your audience. For example, I plan to show a picture of Andrew Luck as I remind writers that, just as star quarterbacks weren’t born throwing touchdown passes, no writer should expect her first draft of her first work to be a masterpiece.

Hopefully you’ll find these tips helpful as you prepare your own presentations, by they writing-related or otherwise. If you haven’t read Talk Like TED, I recommend you pick it up. Some of the tips Gallo are no-brainers, but some will probably surprise you.

Do you have any presentation tips to add? Please share in the comments!

Guide to YA Horror

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. For October, it seemed only fitting that we read horror. I don’t read a lot of horror, so I took the opportunity to read a lot of blurbs and reviews, and I’ve come up with a guide to YA horror to recommend books for readers who normally choose other genres. Some of these books I’ve read, others I’m reading right now, and still others are on my to-read list.

The Dead House. For fans of Psychological Thrillers:

The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich

Welcome to the Dead House.

Three students: dead.

Carly Johnson: vanished without a trace.

Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, “the girl of nowhere.”

Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t — because she is the alter ego of Carly Johnson.

Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.

Debut author Dawn Kurtagich masterfully weaves together a thrilling and terrifying story using psychiatric reports, witness testimonials, video footage, and the discovered diary — and as the mystery grows, the horrifying truth about what happened that night unfolds.

If you like psychological stories, you may also like Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls or Patrick Ness’s More Than This.

Far Far Away. For fans of Fantasy and Fairy Tales:

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Jeremy Johnson Johnson hears voices. Or, specifically, one voice: the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of The Brothers Grimm. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next.

But Jacob can’t protect Jeremy from everything. When coltish, copper-haired Ginger Boultinghouse takes a bite of a cake so delicious it’s rumored to be bewitched, she falls in love with the first person she sees: Jeremy. In any other place, this would be a turn for the better for Jeremy, but not in Never Better, where the Finder of Occasions — whose identity and evil intentions nobody knows — is watching and waiting, waiting and watching … And as anyone familiar with the Brothers Grimm know, not all fairy tales have happy endings.

Veteran writer Tom McNeal has crafted a young adult novel at once grim(m) and hopeful, full of twists, and perfect for fans of contemporary fairy tales like Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Holly Black’s Doll Bones.

Anna Dressed in Blood. For fans of Historical Fiction:

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Cas Lowood has inherited an unusual vocation: He kills the dead.

So did his father before him, until he was gruesomely murdered by a ghost he sought to kill. Now, armed with his father’s mysterious and deadly athame, Cas travels the country with his kitchen-witch mother and their spirit-sniffing cat. Together they follow legends and local lore, trying to keep up with the murderous dead — keeping pesky things like the future and friends at bay.

When they arrive in a new town in search of a ghost the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas doesn’t expect anything outside of the ordinary: track, hunt, kill. What he finds instead is a girl entangled in curses and rage, a ghost like he’s never faced before. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, now stained red and dripping with blood. Since her death, Anna has killed any and every person who has dared to step into the deserted Victorian she used to call home.

But she, for whatever reason, spares Cas’s life.

If you like spooky historical fiction, you may also like Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. For fans of Paranormal (and vampires that don’t sparkle):

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

If you like books with creepy creatures, you may also like Ilsa J. Bick’s Ashes or Max Brooks’s World War Z.

Through the Woods. For fans of Comics and Graphic Novels:

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Discover a terrifying world in the woods in this collection of five hauntingly beautiful graphic stories that includes the online webcomic sensation “His Face All Red,” in print for the first time.

Journey through the woods in this sinister, compellingly spooky collection that features four brand-new stories and one phenomenally popular tale in print for the first time. These are fairy tales gone seriously wrong, where you can travel to “Our Neighbor’s House” — though coming back might be a problem. Or find yourself a young bride in a house that holds a terrible secret in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” You might try to figure out what is haunting “My Friend Janna,” or discover that your brother’s fiancée may not be what she seems in “The Nesting Place.” And of course you must revisit the horror of “His Face All Red,” the breakout webcomic hit that has been gorgeously translated to the printed page.

If you like creepy comics, you may also like Black Magick by Greg Rucka with art by Nicole Scott or Madame Frankenstein by Megan Levens and Jamie S. Rich.

Those are my recommendations. What would you add to this list? Are you reading a spine-tingling story right now?