An Open-Ended Question

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

Consider a favorite book you have read. What question do you think the writer was exploring? Is it an open-ended question?

Now consider a story you are working on. What are you exploring? How would you phrase that theme or premise as an open-ended question? How does phrasing it as a question affect the way you look at your story?

Sex and Setting

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Set a story or poem in the town you’re in right now.
  2. Set a story or a poem in a real place you’ve spent a week or less visiting.
  3. Vanessa Blakeslee said that she doesn’t do a lot of backstory or biography for characters in her short fiction. Start writing the story of a character named Lee who is riding public transportation or driving a car. You know nothing about Lee. Just write and see where you both go.
  4. In a few days, go back to Lee and fill in any necessary biographical information you created while working. How does it change your story, if at all?
  5. Vanessa said that the absence of love and sex in fiction is “as noticeable as an elephant in the room.” Go back to a stalled or abandoned story or poem and add a previous or current sexual relationship or encounter to the action. How does it change the story? How does it change your characters? As an extra challenge, push your scene or backstory out of your character’s (or your) personal comfort level.

What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

Background Image: Glen Zazove/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”


Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.



Tell the Stories You Have to Tell: Interview with Tanya Huff

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff was born in Nova Scotia, but spent much of her childhood in Kingston, Ontario. She eventually moved to Toronto, and later, to “the middle of nowhere,” Ontario. Her first novel, Child of the Grove was published in 1988.

Blood TiesHuff’s “Blood Books” (a series of novels pairing human detective Vicki Nelson with vampire and novelist Henry Fitzroy) were adapted as the series Blood Ties for CBC Television. The series also aired in the US on Lifetime.

The third book in her current series (commonly referred to as the “Gale Girls” series) was recently completed. The second book, The Wild Ways, was released in November 2011.

Earlier this month, Huff’s 2012 novel The Silvered won the 2013 Aurora Award. (The Aurora Awards honor science fiction and fantasy works by Canadian authors.)

We here at Toasted Cheese were happy to have Tanya Huff share her experience and insight with us. (And be warned… a couple of her responses had the interviewer all choked up!)

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that writing was what you wanted to do?

Tanya Huff: The late George Carlin used to answer the question “Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?” with “Not in the womb, but right after that.” I have a letter that my grandmother, who was taking care of me, wrote to my father while he was out to sea, when I was three. In it, she tells him a story I told her of a spider who lived at the bottom of the garden. (He made a web and ate a fly and then he fell asleep and his web got broken. —come on, I was three!) I also illustrated it. Badly.

The year I turned ten, one of my cousins had spinal surgery and had to spend the entire summer in bed. I spent a good portion of my summer telling her stories—and acting them out with our Barbie dolls.

The thing is, I have always been a storyteller but I had no idea you could make a career of it. My family is not exactly… bookish.

TC: How long have you been writing professionally? Did you do anything else before you started writing?

Child of the GroveTH: I sold two pieces of poetry when I was ten—but I don’t think you could call that writing professionally. In 1985 I sold a story to George Scithers at Amazing and then in early 1986 I sold Child of the Grove to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. I went on to sell another four stories to George and another twenty-eight books to Sheila.

Before that I spent a year studying forestry at Lakehead University, took a class C posting with the Naval Reserve (which I’d been in for two years at that point), spent six months in LA where if I’d had any idea of the way things worked, I’d be a television writer today, six months working for a security company, four months working maintenance for the YWCA in Toronto, three months in a coffee factory, then off to Ryerson Polytechnic for a degree in Radio and Television Arts paid for by working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark and selling sunglasses from a pushcart at Yonge and Bloor but graduated the year the CBC had massive layoff so went to work managing Gypsy Bazaar—the first of the flea markets as stores—and, finally, left them to work at Bakka Books for eight years where I was when I wrote the first four of my novels.

TC: We all know that the work of writing often involves just doing the work, regardless of whether or not the muse is in the building. That said, what inspires you?

TH: Hmmm, good question. People, definitely. Everyone has a story and a lot of those stories are distinctly stranger than fiction. And other people’s writing. When I finish a book that really touches me—emotionally, or intellectually—it gets me all fired up to go and write.

TC: Do you have any specific habits or rituals that help you get “in the zone”?

TH: Hot beverages are important. *g* It used to always be tea—plain black tea with milk—but in the last few years I’ve started drinking more coffee and green tea so just generally, the making of a hot drink. Boiling the water. Pouring into the pot. Waiting. Pouring it into the cup. Carrying it into my office. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work on a laptop—I’ve drowned any number of keyboards over the years.

TC: I know that music is important to you. Do you listen to music when you write? How does music inform your characters and their stories?

The Wild WaysTH: The only time I’ve ever listened to music while writing was during The Wild Ways when I had Cape Breton fiddle music on fairly constantly. Usually, I relate to music the way I relate to short stories, each piece is complete in and of itself and isn’t meant to be a creative layer in a larger whole. I listen when I’m running, and in the truck, and doing housework, and it often inspires creativity the way any other piece of another person’s writing may, but when I’m actually working and being creative myself, I prefer silence. Now, if things aren’t going particularly well, then I’ll throw on some music and play spider solitaire for a while until something breaks loose but, generally, if I’m at my desk, it’s quiet.

TC: Where is your favorite place to write?

TH: I have an office with a desk and my desktop and a whole lot of research books and, if I’m home, that’s where I am between one and six in the afternoon. I’ve never understood how people can write in coffee shops—I’d be too busy people watching. That said, I really like to write on trains. I don’t know what it is, but I can sometimes produce an entire day’s word count during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get into Toronto.

TC: I know that this is like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the books (or series) you’ve written?

TH: It is kind of a favorite child question… Unlike a number of writers, I still like everything I’ve ever written. There’s a few structural things I’d like to fix in some of the early stuff—although I think the Quarters books are some of my best writing, particularly The Quartered Sea—but for me, it’s all about the storytelling and I enjoy the stories I tell. I even still like the Ravensloft book I wrote for hire. Now, I can say that Valor’s Choice was the most fun I ever had writing a book. Fitting space marines and evolved dinosaurs into Rorke’s Drift was joy from start to finish.

TC: How about of the ones you haven’t written? (That is, that have been written by someone else… not imaginary ones. *g*)

TH: I adore everything Terry Pratchett has ever written. When there’s a hole in my life for whatever reason, I turn to Pratchett. He sees people, with all their complexities and stupidities and courage and cowardice and potential in a way that no other writer I know does.

I love Charles de Lint’s work and I think he knows secret things the rest of us only suspect exist.

TC: Earlier this year, Stephen King wrote about first lines for The Atlantic. Do you have a favorite opening line from any of your books or stories? How much thought do you put into those first words your reader will see? Are there any opening lines by other authors that you admire?

TH: Sitting here, without getting up and checking, I have no memory of what any of my first lines are. And I just sent my latest book of three days ago. This is not to say I don’t work at getting the first lines right, but once they’re written they’re part of the story and while I remember the story, I don’t remember the words that make it up.

So, let’s take a look at a few…

The Future Falls: 3rd Gale girl book, just turned in… She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a Pina Colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. Hmmm, really needs the next line to make it work. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

We’ve set up the Gale’s appreciation of handsome young men, given enough information that readers of the first two books can identify the character but—hopefully—intrigued new readers, and set up the entire A plot. Not too bad.

The SilveredThe Silvered: 2012’s hardcover release… Senses nearly overpowered by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and cheap pipe tobacco, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. Okay, that introduces a main character, lets you know he’s probably not human, sets the tech level as post-gunpowder, and suggests there’s going to be a military element. Decent set up.

Blood Price: 1991, the first of the Vicki Nelson/Henry Fitzroy books… Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. Well, that pretty much establishes something’s definitely going to happen and that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to Ian given the lack of information about him.

Now, my absolute favorite line in any book ever is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Although honesty forces me to admit that I remember it as: Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb…

TC: What was your favorite book as a child or teen (or both, if you like…)?

TH: As a child, I lived in the Narnia books. I’ve been trying to get through that wardrobe since I was seven. As a teen it was Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson and Robert Heinlein topping the list, but I read everything I could get my hands on so it was harder to have a favorite. Although, I did stand in line for two hours to have Anne McCaffrey sign Dragon Singer so…

TC: Earlier this year on your blog, you discussed an issue with some staffers at a bookstore chain warning readers away from your books due to LGBT content. Was it resolved to your satisfaction? Had you experienced any similar problems previously?

TH: Once I mentioned it in the blog, I was contacted by people from the chain who took it completely seriously and assured me this was an individual not a company policy and it was dealt with. I was impressed by their response and, as I said at the time, well aware that in other stores in the same chain my books have likely been recommended because of their LGBT content.

I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a previous problem with that sort of thing. My editor has never wanted me to change a character’s orientation. The Smoke books, which have a gay protagonist, did have an interesting drop in numbers from book one to book two, but that could have been because of the realization they weren’t continuations of the Blood books not because the gay was front and center instead of safely in the background. I do have to say though, people who love the Smoke books, really love the Smoke books.

TC: Can you tell us anything about any new projects that you’re working on?

The Enchantment EmporiumTH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just handed in The Future Falls, the third Gale Girls book (after The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways). It tried to kill me—never write a book based on a clever idea you and your editor kicked around during a phone call. Or maybe you can. I need a little more mulling it over time. I’m now about to start on a new Torin Kerr book. I can’t call it a new Valor book because if you’ve read Truth of Valor you know there’s been some changes but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that ‘verse.

TC: Finally, any words of wisdom for our readers?

TH: Tell the stories you have to tell. Write a book, write a story, write a poem, write a song, bake cupcakes, bake cookies, bake pie, build a house, dance, sew, paint, draw, rebuild a car, garden, knit, quilt, carve, program a computer, raise a child, make a home, sit around a campfire and start with, “Once upon a time…”

It’s not how the story is told, it’s the telling.

Catch up with Tanya Huff online:
Tanya Huff’s LiveJournal
Tanya Huff’s Twitter

Final Poll Results

Write What You Learn

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a dabbler. I have a lot of interests, and as time permits, I explore them. Singing, acting, science, random online classes, reading… A stopping point in the list is arbitrary. And I discovered something interesting. No matter how varied the list, I always end up finding things in everything I do that apply to my writing.

I don’t mean that the information ends up in my writing, though that also happens. I mean that  with many of  the techniques and skills I learn, I find some way to turn those techniques and skills into writing techniques and skills.

Write What You Learn

Background image: Katrina Br*?#*!@nd/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Acting, for example, has been particularly fruitful for character development. I’ve written several articles on how I’ve applied what I’ve learned in acting to writing (“Point of View: The Director’s Cut,” “See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters,” “Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques“). Even brief forays into graphic design have helped my writing skills–I am better able to write description using some of those principles (“Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details“), and keeping an eye on the big picture while paying attention to the smaller details (“Stepping Back“). I’ve used science for plotting, playing with the energy of the story the same way I would if I were approaching a physics problem (“Struggling With Plots“). And reading, well, that’s a pretty obvious one–I’m always looking at what other authors do that I should, or even shouldn’t, do as I write my own stories. Right now, I’m taking an online course in social psychology. About halfway through the course, I started brainstorming ways to use some of the stuff I was learning in my writing. Anything can be applied to your writing!

Think about all the things that you do that you can use to think about the way you write in a different way. One of the cornerstones of innovation is the accidental collision of seemingly unrelated ideas. In the process, something new forms. A new approach. A new vision. Crash ideas from a completely different area of your life into some of your writing.

Do you play an instrument?

Apply some musical thinking to your story. Does it have movements, like a symphony? How related are they? What are the recurring themes? Where does it crescendo? What key is it in?

Do you knit or crochet?

Apply pattern thinking. How do the different threads of your story intertwine? What color will they be? What’s the final pattern producing? How intricate are the knots and stitches you use?

Do you play soccer?

You’re aiming for the goal. Who’s in your way? What’s the offensive strategy? How do you get around the goalie? Is your kick blocked? Are your teammates helping? Is that the end of the game, or can you try for another goal? Who won?

Are you a photographer?

Frame the story. What do you focus on? What levels of lighting do you need to achieve the effect you want? Do you need a spotlight? Where are the shadows? The close-ups? The panoramic views?

Are you addicted to cooking or baking?

Gather your fresh ingredients. How will you mix them together? Do you need to break some eggs into it so the whole dish will stay together and not fall apart? Should you add sugar? Salt? Pepper? How long do you need to let the mixture cook before shoving a fork into it?

Are you a gardener?

Plant the seeds of your story at the start. Are your growing plants getting the water and sunlight they need? Or do they have to fight for it under the shade of larger plants? Is anything trying to force its way through a sidewalk? Have you weeded out the irrelevant ideas in your story so the ideas you are tending can grow?

I did say anything. I meant it.

Spend all your day making LOLCat images?

That pithy label shows you the way to the heart of your idea. What other odd juxtapositions can add humor to your story? Is your underlying picture a cute cat? An angry cat? What are you overlaying on that basic picture? How will it all work together? And is Comic Sans the right font to use, or should you use Impact Bold to get the shape of your idea across?

I iz gud writr!

Just about anything you do, anything you learn, will have lessons that you can apply to your writing. You just have to look for them. Use all your tools, no matter what toolbox they originally came from.

Write what you learn, and with what you learn. No matter what you learn.

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories: Interview with Janet Mullany

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In her author bio, Janet Mullany states that she “has worked as an archaeologist, classical music radio announcer, arts administrator, and for a small press.” Janet was also one of Toasted Cheese’s original forum hosts. A few of Janet’s stories can be found in the archives, including “Snow, The Seven and The Moon,” which won the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest.

In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in various romance sub-genres. Her books aren’t your typical romances, though; they’re infused with comedic elements and clever wordplay. Even if you don’t consider yourself a romance fan, you might be surprised to find yourself won over by Janet’s witty (erm, dare I say snarky?) sense of humor.

Her most recent book, Hidden Paradise, a contemporary erotic romance, was released in September 2012. I interviewed Janet by email earlier this year.

Toasted Cheese: In your bio, you state that you were “raised in England by half of an amateur string quartet.” I’ve always been curious—how did you end up on this side of the Atlantic? And do you have any musical talents of your own?

Janet Mullany: I marry Americans. Serially, that is. I’ve done it twice so far. As far as musical talent goes, I used to play the flute, but my major skill is being able to identify the composer within a few seconds of hearing a piece, within reason—I can identify most popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire but sometimes only the nationality of the composer. I’m not any sort of idiot savant.

TC: Well, that seems like a talent to me, perhaps even one that might come in handy when writing historical fiction.

When you hosted at TC, it was prior to the publication of your first book. Can you take us back and tell us a little about your first book and how it came to be published?

JM: That was Dedication, which I wrote over a period of a couple of years, and which underwent a lot of rewrites and had some near misses. Then it won a contest sponsored by the Beau Monde, the Regency special interest chapter of Romance Writers of America (R) and I was offered a contract for it as a Signet Regency which was the traditional line. Now this was a bit of a problem. It was a very sexy book accepted for a notoriously “close the bedroom door” line, and when the editor made the offer and asked me to cut 20,000 words, I said, “Fine, but the sex has to stay.” To my surprise, she agreed. I didn’t know then but the Signets were on their way out, and I think they just weren’t that concerned about content; or, in a more charitable mood, they thought having a bit of heat mightn’t hurt. There was quite a bit of buzz about it because it had an older hero (early 40s) and heroine (late 30s)—children, their children—both of whom had been around the block and although they had fallen in love two decades before had since got over themselves and had gone on to have real relationships with other people. Apparently that was something new. Then a couple of years ago I had the rights back and put even more sex in it and published it with Loose-Id (excerpt).

TC: That’s quite the story, and an excellent lead-in to my next question. You write romance, which is known for having rules (or, at least, ‘rules’) about how stories should play out, but you write in several different sub-genres and play with conventions. Clearly you’re not afraid to break rules, but I imagine there are limits. Is working within the constraints of the genre part of the fun of writing for you? Do you have a favorite sub-genre?

JM: I always feel like I’m attempting to crack the romance code. I didn’t “choose” to write romance in the sense that I loved the genre or was even particularly widely read in it, but I was very impressed with romance writers writing to sell and being smart about the market. I also figured out that since it is such a huge genre I could find a niche in it.

The limitations are irritating. One is that readers and many editors are not particularly interested in language, whereas I love playing around with words and admire good, clean cliché-free writing. Also readers and editors expect a moral message (so eighteenth century) with a tremendous emphasis on sexual-emotional healing. To be honest I’m not that interested in people who look to a relationship to solve their problems. I wrote an erotic romance (well, I thought it was a romance! But obviously, what do I know…) called Tell Me More that was quite fantastically filthy with a heroine who screwed anything that moved and suddenly the editor asked what she learned in the course of the story. Um, that she liked sex? Sure enough, some readers loved it but others screeched that they hoped the heroine would get crotch rot and die [Found and read this review. Dying. Laughing, that is. -TF] and that she was incredibly screwed up emotionally. And it was odd, because I saw her as this daring, adventurous, yet very level-headed woman. I tend to like characters who are grown up enough to take responsibility for their behavior but also capable of making mistakes.

Fav sub-genre—to write, oh, I guess I’d say historicals, but so much of the market is obsessed with dukes wearing the wrong sort of shirt. I’m English and I don’t like aristocrats much, and I’m very fond of eighteenth-century shirts with frills and man cleavage.

TC: It’s interesting you mention romance readers expecting a moral message. One of the things I remember liking about your writing back in the day was your sense of humor, which definitely is on display in The Rules of Gentility. In fact, one of the notes I jotted down while reading was “hilarious.” However, when I perused reviews afterward, I noticed some readers seemed perplexed by the comedic elements. Do you think there’s perhaps a mistaken expectation that historical romances will be more serious than contemporary ones? How would you describe your style to potential readers? What reader reactions have most surprised you?

JM: I don’t think readers expect comedy in romance. Falling in love is a serious business! Most books billed as romantic comedies have a few funny bits with a dog or amusing secondary characters, or some snappy dialogue and one-liners. Mine have all that but a lot of physical comedy and I like to make fun of the most overused Regency clichés. My Regency chick-lits published by Little Black Dress did quite well in England because I have a very English sense of humor but sadly my niche in the US remains small.

TC: I’m not English, but I do enjoy your sense of humor, so I’ll keep those in mind.

2013, the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, is a big year for Jane Austen fans. You were a bit ahead of the curve with your ‘Immortal Jane Austen’ series. Mashing up two extremely popular but seemingly-unrelated things—Jane Austen and vampires—was genius. How did you come up with the idea? Do you have plans to write more in this series or do you have something different in mind for Jane?

JM: An editor dangled the challenge of writing something paranormal about Austen, hoping to jump on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bandwagon. So I came up with the most outrageous idea I could, Austen as a vampire—my original titles were Blood Bath (the first book was set in Bath) or Austen Powers. I wanted to tie in the imaginary action of the books with Austen’s life, so I’m afraid she did die in 1817. But I set it in an alternate England where vampires—the Damned—are out and about in society and very fashionable, and I threw in a French invasion too. Why not. But I tried to keep the details about Austen as accurate as I could. I found channeling Austen very intimidating.

TC: Ok, those titles are fabulous. Just so you know, I now have visions of Jane Austen dancing to the Austin Powers theme and admonishing her fellow vampires with “Oh, behave.”

What would you say were the most valuable things you did to get to where you are today with your writing? Who or what have you found particularly helpful?

JM: Reading, absolutely essential, and outside the genre. I had a pretty strong voice right from the start because I’d read so much, and I instinctively knew to trust my voice, particularly when critique partners threw up their hands and cried “You can’t do that in a romance.” I have critique partners on and off, a community of cheerleaders including a very good agent, and a husband blissfully unaware of what I write. He likes books with pictures.

TC: Love the advice to read widely. What’s your writing process like? Are you a planner who outlines meticulously before starting to write or do you tend to write from the seat of your pants? Can you describe what a typical writing session is like for you—or is there one?

JM: I have to be able to write a synopsis to sell on proposal, even though I want to just let things sprawl. On the other hand my synopses are very vague and mercifully short. I usually start with an idea, which is basically a tagline, write a few chapters, and once I get to know the characters a little I can figure out what is going to happen, more or less. I claim to use the phrase “After many exciting adventures…” because god knows what they might be and possibly whatever they are might scare off an editor.

TC: This is a strategy I think many fiction writers don’t consider. Often the synopsis is thought of as something that can wait until the book is complete.

After seeing how many books you’d published in the past few years, I wondered if you were writing full-time now—but then I noticed you’d mentioned your day job in a recent blog post. As you know, many writers struggle to finish even one book while working another job. I’m sure our readers would love to know—what’s your secret to being so prolific?

JM: Ahem. At the moment I’m not particularly prolific, but when I was… I write very clean first drafts so I’m lucky there. On a practical level, I don’t get out much, have very little in the way of family responsibilities, and if I want to write I don’t watch TV. I think TV sucks the life out of you creatively. I use a kitchen timer, set it for twenty minutes and write like crazy, gritting my teeth at the beginning but hopefully getting into the zone by the time the bell rings and I jump out of my skin and keep going.

TC: The timer’s a great idea. I’m a big advocate of making appointments to write.

You have a website, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and you blog at The Risky Regencies. How important do you think social media is for writers? Did social media play a role in the pre-publication process for any of your books or do you find it’s more a place to connect with readers?

JM: Apparently social media is very important although I suspect writers spend their time marketing to each other rather than the readers who probably have better things to do. What does sell books is word of mouth and we have to try to make that happen using social media. I find the general chirpy niceness we’re expected to project online exhausting; I’m not naturally chirpy. I get the most traffic on my Facebook page when I post pics of the cat or things I have baked.

TC: Why does that not surprise me?

What’s next for you? What are you working on? Do you have anything forthcoming this year?

JM: The latest attempt to crack the romance code is a partial for a three-book historical series doing the rounds. There is an indirect duke and the closest I can get to an alpha male hero. I’m also one chapter and a synopsis into a partial for an erotic contemporary; I ended the first chapter on a tremendous hook and am now congratulating myself on a job well done, rather than setting the timer and squeezing out another two chapters. I’m also rewriting a book that did fairly disastrously a few years ago to be self-pubbed later in the year, no title yet, and a couple of novellas, one self-pubbed and a new one to go with the full-length book. So technically I’m very busy.

Thanks so much for the interview, Theryn!

TC: Thank you, Janet! Congratulations on all your success and all the best with your many works-in-progress.

Where you can find Janet:

Final Poll Results

Fish and Ships: An Interview with Traci Chee

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Traci Chee began her writing career in fourth grade, writing and illustrating and experimenting with characters and story-building games. Today, Traci Chee is a middle school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese. When she isn’t teaching, Traci Chee may be spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, mentally mapping her stories and crafting characters as she sits in traffic. She likes fish and ships. (Maybe bridges, too.)

Toasted Cheese: What were you like as a kid?

Traci Chee: My family would tell you that I was bossy as a kid. Tyrannically bossy. They would be right. But I’d also like to think that I was already a burgeoning storyteller. My two best friends and I had a series of three or four games that we would cycle through every couple months or so: Lemmings, that awesome nineties video game in which you try to save as many lemmings as possible but inevitably sacrifice some to stompers and chompers and being blown up; Stuffed Animals and My Little Ponies, which were pretty much what they sound like; and Dogs.

This is how Dogs went: Two of us got to be the dogs, wandering around on all fours, wagging imaginary tails, and begging for treats. The remaining person had to play all the human roles, including the cruel, capricious pet store owner, the kind new owner who buys the dogs, and the boarding school trainer, who now that I think about it was pretty much the same character as the pet store owner but with a whip.

The story was always the same: Pet store owner is mean. Dogs are sad. Kind new owner adopts one dog, then the other a day later. Dogs misbehave. Kind new owner gets fed up and takes dogs to boarding school to be trained. Drive to boarding school is the best part because you pretend the road is really windy and there’s a lot of leaning crazily and bouncing around on imaginary bumps. Boarding school trainer is mean. Dogs misbehave and try to get the best of the trainer. As far as I can remember, we never got to the end of the story because then it would be dinnertime and we’d stop the game to go eat. Yes, it was formulaic, but it became this shared storytelling experience between the three of us, knitting us together, even after months of being apart.

TC: You and your young friends were creating scripts—one might even say that you were child playwrights. When did you make that leap from playing stories to actually writing them?

Chee: I made my first conscious decision to make writing a huge part of my life when I was in high school. I had been playing a lot of video games, all role-playing games with a big focus on story, and I had gotten into writing fan fiction, taking someone else’s characters and expanding or retelling their stories in a way that seemed right, at least to me. However, I quickly realized that fan fiction was too confining—I wanted my own characters, my own world—so I quickly expanded into writing original fiction… and some pretty terrible poetry.

However, when I look back a little farther, I realize that I’ve been writing, seriously writing, with revision and editing and everything, since I was in fourth grade. My best friend and I had this old computer program called Storybook Weaver—released on floppy disk for Mac!—that allowed us to write and illustrate these sprawling stories. Our first effort was about a dragon who rescues a princess using a bomb shaped like a chili pepper, and our second was this epic never-finished story called “The Haunted Castle,” which featured every single one of our classmates as either monsters of the castle or as victims of it. We spent hours mapping out the castle, developing the characters, and plotting each event. Because we kept adding new characters, we had to keep revising the beginning, and we never really got anywhere past the middle of the story. Still, I feel like that was my first introduction to storytelling, and it really stuck with me.

TC: Who are your favorite authors and books?

Chee: My favorite authors are the ones who surprise and delight me with their work, ones that show me wonderful things I never knew existed, or ones that show me things I always knew existed but never had the right words for. Books like this include: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and poetry. So much of poetry does this.

I also like books that are about books. They are curious, powerful objects that can do many things with many media, and I’m interested in the way that the form of the book (electronic, print, codex, fan, etc.) shapes the format of the book (margins, font, font size, etc.) and the content of the book (characters, plot, themes, motifs, etc.). Books like this include: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a lot of work by Jorge Luis Borges crosses both of these categories.

TC: In your short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, there are many themes and motifs, some repeating such as water and music. Where do your ideas come from?

Chee: Music has always been a huge part of my life. On long road trips, my mom used to play “Classical Kids” in the car. It was this series that told stories based on the lives and works of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, introducing classical music to kids in this really engaging way. I begged her to let me take piano lessons when I was little, and with a bit of help from my grandmother, she bought a piano and I started lessons with a piano teacher who lived down the street. Playing the piano is hard! There were so many times when I didn’t want to practice, didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and wanted to quit. But my mom didn’t let me, and I’m so glad, because I stuck with the piano well into high school, and did a little flute, guitar, and choir along the way. Music is such a wonderful, universal way of communicating. Sometimes I feel like it picks up just as we lose the words to express ourselves, which is why I try to work it into my writing, hoping that some of the tones and rhythms will help to capture a story or character or theme.

TC: Yes! Music is so evocative in expressing unspoken emotions and feelings. And song lyrics can also fill in those spaces. Some of the stories in your collection have this added layer.

Chee: A lot of the stories in Consonant Sounds were actually inspired by songs—and not fancy-shmancy classical songs either. If you take a look at the back of the book, there’s a big list of music that has influenced the writing of the stories. While I was working, I would be listening to one of these songs and I would find inside it the kernel of a story: a character, a scene, an emotion. Then I’d put the song on repeat and write and write and write until the character or scene or emotion had become this fully independent creature, with just hints of the music inside it. Sometimes the song is obvious, as with “To Keep Me Awake and Alive,” in which the narrator recites “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he is still alive. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, like with “The Fisherman,” in which I tried to capture some of that sense of melancholy, and small everyday things, and breathing, of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

TC: Also, for this reader, your stories had a heightened sense of being in “the moment.” Was this a craft effect that you created purposefully or did it happen in an organic way, spontaneously?

Chee: One of my favorite things about writing is that readers will notice themes, motifs, and arcs that you never—quite—intended, but that are somehow so perfect and so fitting for what you were trying to accomplish. I hadn’t intentionally tried to create a sense of “being in the moment” in these stories, but I love that it feels that way. Some BIG IDEAS in the collection revolve around dealing with death, searching for God, and being in love—sometimes two of them at once! For me, these tend to be “in the moment” sorts of actions: that blind grasping after the death of someone you love, that feeling of smallness-yet-total connectedness you might get at church, or in a concert hall, that sucker punch of young, stupid love. There’s not a lot of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future in moments like that; it’s more about that feeling of being right here, right now, experiencing this.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you aim for a set amount of words each day? Do you have a special time or space to write? Do you belong to a writing group?

Chee: Have you ever read an interview where a super-established real writer gets this question, and s/he says something like, “Oh, I write eight hours every day on an antique typewriter that used to belong to my great-grandfather.” Or: “Oh, I write in a studio with a bulletin board on which I post all of the ideas that will for sure become award-winning pieces of literature.” I wish I could give you an answer like this.

The embarrassing truth is that my process is very fluid. I think this developed out of necessity. When I was in college, my writing options changed almost daily. Sometimes I’d write in my dorm room. Sometimes in a coffee shop. Sometimes outside on the grass. Those days, I listened to music. These days, only occasionally. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to write longhand. Sometimes I need to draw. Other times—and these are really frustrating—I can’t write a word—well, not one worth keeping—because the ideas and characters are still developing in my mind, still slowly taking on form and shape and color.

The trick to this process, I think, is learning to listen to myself. This means learning the difference between the times when I’m feeling lazy and the times when I really do need a while to ruminate over a scene. This means pushing myself to keep typing, even when my hands are cramping and my wrists ache, because the characters are taking a story where it needs to go. This means that some days—especially those really exhausting ones during the school year, when I’m so burnt out from planning and teaching and grading—the only “writing” I get done is mentally developing a character’s history while sitting in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

TC: I like that image of you on the Golden Gate writing your stories.

Chee: I can’t advocate this process for everyone, because it feels very fickle and sometimes makes me feel a little like I’m just posing as a “Real Writer.” But I think it’s important to figure out how you work best, and go with that for as long as it keeps working. I suspect that my process will continue to change as I come to different points in my life. Maybe one day, when I’m ready to settle down in one place, I’ll have a settled-down process to match, one in which I sit at a desk for five hours every morning and three each afternoon. But for now, this is what works for me.

TC: So, what are you working on now?

Chee: Currently, I’m working on what I can best describe as a young adult literary fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly, it features fish, ships, and a girl with the only book in her entire world.

TC: What an interesting premise. I also like the idea of the novel being literary as well as a fantasy story. I look forward to reading it one day. But in the meantime, I have a burning question: Will you please tell us why you like fish and ships?

Chee: It sounds cool, right?

TC: Curiously cool.

Chee: For some reason fish keep showing up in my work without invitation. A goldfish appeared in “The Flying Fish and the Frying Fish,” then another in “Philematophilia.” Then Jeff, the main character of “Fish Songs,” decided that turning into a fish was the only way for him to cope with the loneliness of being human. Bear fought a shark in “No Place.” I didn’t plan any of this out beforehand, but I’ve realized that fish, and ships, and the ocean are all wonderfully rich metaphors. There’s freedom, and joy, and anger, and wildness, and that feeling of being very, very small but very, very connected to something vast and unfathomable.

Honestly, though, I get terrible, terrible seasickness. My family and I once went whale watching in the Monterey Bay, California—it was just a bay, not even the open ocean—and I was so headachy and nauseous by the end of the first hour that the best I could do when we found the humpback whales was video it for later and try not to throw up. I wonder if maybe my very incompatibility with the sea makes it appear in my work, as if by writing about it I’m trying to understand it, or to bring it into myself—an impossibility in real life.

TC: You mentioned earlier that you are a middle school teacher, how have your colleagues and students responded to your success?

Chee: I told my students at the beginning of the school year that I was also a writer. I don’t think they really believed me until fairly recently, within the last month or so, when one of them Googled me and found out I take up the majority of the first eleven pages of the search. Apparently, one of them posted this Facebook status: “that awkward moment when you realize your English teacher is famous.” Which I’m pretty sure prompted a bunch of other students to Google me, too. Within a day, students were coming up to me saying, “Ms. Chee, you have a Twitter account!?” and, “Ms. Chee, Imma follow you on Twitter!” Naturally, my response to all of this was to tweet about it.


Then it really exploded because someone took a screen cap and put it on Instagram, and they are all little Instagram fiends, so at that point pretty much the entire middle school knew and it became a running joke. Except I’m always serious about studying vocabulary.

TC: Funny! What other advice can you give aspiring authors, young and old?

Chee: I was trying to think of what advice would have sounded relevant and witty to my younger self—you know, maybe go for a metaphor or something cool—but I think writing, for me, comes down to two things, and while they’re not particularly clever, they are what gets me through.

First, hone your craft. For me, this means taking classes and studying with people who are better writers than me and getting criticized—harshly and justifiably—and criticizing back. This means looking at the shape of a book, looking at the shape of a sentence, or listening to the sound of a single word. This means reading books about writing and books about books and books that I would never read again and books that I will always read again.

I think the point is to never be satisfied, and to know that your writing could always be better, sharper, clearer, and to keep grasping after that. Or maybe the point is to always be learning something new about the way words can be put together. I don’t think everyone needs to take classes to hone their craft, but I do think that sharpening your writing until it cuts the paper is something we should all be after. Getting so fine an edge that it’s difficult to say whether it’s beautiful or devastating.

TC: And the second piece of advice?

Chee: The second piece of advice is obvious: Write. I mean, I guess it’s built into the first, but after all the learning and the striving and the refining, it really comes down to just doing it. Putting that pen on paper. Banging out that sentence on your keyboard. Write because you want to. Write because you have to. Write because the stories are a current of electricity running throughout your body and even when you aren’t working on them, they are always there, humming in the back of your mind, waiting in your forearms and fingertips. Write when it’s easy, and especially write when it’s hard. Write when people say that no one reads anymore. Write when people say that the publishing industry is dying. Write when you don’t get published. Write when you do get published. Write when your internal editor is looking over your shoulder and telling you that everything you do is cliché and overwrought. Write about the things that are inside of you, that are desperately trying to find their words.

TC: Those are great reasons to write. Yet, has there ever been at time when you didn’t write—maybe even avoided writing for any reason?

Chee: I make so many excuses every day, every hour, not to write. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m burnt out.” Sometimes I believe the excuses, and I don’t write. This is because writing is hard, and watching TV and checking Facebook and eating are much, much easier. But I write because the writing is inside me and if I don’t write then I become a grumpy, shriveled up shell of a person. Writing fills me up. Writing makes me whole.

TC: How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Chee: Hooray! This one’s easy.

Blog: HELLO MY NAME IS TRACI and this is my blog
Twitter: @tracichee
Facebook: Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs

Final Poll Results

Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

Background Image: Dirk Witte/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results

Point of View: The Director’s Cut

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Most writers are familiar with the various points of view. First person, the “I” view, is the most intimate. The story is narrated by the point of view character. The first person character is often, but not always, the main character of the story. Second person, which is the least used, is the “you” view. This casts a character known to the narrator, or sometimes even the reader, as an intimate recipient of the story. The third person point of view is the “he/she” point of view—it is an external point of view. (For more on the basics of point of view, see “Point of View: Who’s Telling Your Story?“)

Many people wrestle with what point of view is best for the story they want to tell. Usually they can get it down to “first, second, or third” by feel or experimentation. As they work with the story, they get a sense of which point of view is better for that story than the others.

I’d like to offer a different way of approaching the various points of view. What if you thought of your story like a play that was being staged, or a movie you were filming? What would the points of view be? Could using this analogy help identify which one is most appropriate for the job, especially when it comes to picking which of the various third person points of view are available?

Because first and second person point of views are not easily adaptable for stage and screen, I’ll just touch on them briefly. Movies that are filmed through a character’s eyes or camera, such as The Blair Witch Project, are a reasonable equivalent to first person. The only action the audience sees is what the camera character sees. Everything else has to be found out through other characters. Plays in which the audience members are directly addressed by the characters have some aspects of second person point of view.

The stage/screen analogy works best when considering the various third person points of view. The difference between the three is similar to the difference between the actor’s view, the audience’s view, and the director’s view.

Background Image: Pierre Corbucci/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Tight Third Person: The Actor’s View

Tight third is an exterior view that is heavily rooted in a specific character. It’s almost like first person, in that the actions, the interpretations, and the exposed thoughts all belong to the main viewpoint character—the writer just uses third person to describe it. Here is an example of tight third from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn.

Miles woke in a blink to broad daylight, a canvas roof, and a curious feline face staring into his from a cat’s breath away. Glad to discover that the weight on his chest was not some alarming new medical condition, he lifted the three-legged beast off and gingerly sat up. Post-drug headache, check. Fatigue, check. No screaming angels, double-check and an exclamation point or two. His vision seemed clear of all unrealities, and his surroundings, though odd, were not out of any nightmare he owned.

You can think of writing tight third as writing the story as if you had an actor’s view of a play. A good actor will get so into the character’s head that the actor will view all the action in the same way the character would. The actor is not the character, but is filtering everything he or she does through the character. If you are writing tight third, you need to do the same work as the actor. You have to get into the main viewpoint character, and see the world through that character’s eyes. You aren’t writing as the character (that would be first person), but as the person playing the character.

In general, you would expect an actor to be the same character throughout an entire scene of action. The same holds true for tight third point of view. An actor usually views a scene through one specific character. The actor (and thus the character) doesn’t truly know what other actors (and characters) are thinking, only what they are saying and doing. They can guess at others’ thoughts, but they cannot know. The same restrictions apply to a tight third POV character.

If an actor stops acting like their own character, and starts acting like a different character in the scene, this would really confuse the audience. The same thing happens to your audience when you switch tight third POV characters in the middle of a scene. Let your inner actor/writer play out the same part until the scene is finished. But just as an actor can play dual roles, and be another character in another scene, you can focus on a different character—just be that other character, and only that other character, in a new scene.

Objective Third: The Audience’s View

Objective third is much as it sounds: an objective view of what is going on. You present actions and dialogue, but you don’t get into the character’s heads at all. The reader has to infer what the thoughts are from what is presented. The example of objective third below is from The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. ‘They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.’ He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment, he spoke again.

‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’

‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory! Be at peace! Minas Tirath shall not fail!’

Boromir smiled.

‘Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?’ said Aragorn

But Boromir did not speak again.

Notice how everything is external. You aren’t privy to anything that an outsider watching the scene couldn’t observe. You can think of objective third stories as stories that are told from the point of view of an audience member who is watching a play or movie. The audience can see what happens to all the characters as they play out their scenes. They are not limited to one viewpoint or one set of mental interpretations. Objective third offers a broader view of what is going on in the story.

But it’s also a less intimate view. The audience can’t see the all the work the actor put in, the motivations, the thoughts. They can only see the results: the words, the way they are spoken, the body language, the actions, the interactions. Everything else has to be inferred. If you are choosing between tight and objective third, consider whether you want to sacrifice the intimate view for wider access to the broader picture.

Omniscient Third: The Director’s View

Omniscient third is a point of view where the reader can know anything—they are not limited to the actions of the characters, or limited the head of only one character. With omniscient third, you can describe events that none of the characters witnessed, or show emotions or inner thoughts of multiple characters in a scene. Here is an example of omniscient third, taken from Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse. Note that there is no scene break between the paragraphs below, and the two characters end up interacting with each other before the end of the scene.

With an aching sense of what might have been he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they still had been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way of getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.

Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who, it will be remembered, was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when the society of her hostess and her hostess’s relations was something of a strain to Miss Peavy; and she was glad to be alone.

Omniscient third is the director’s view of the story. The director is aware of everything on some level—what motivates all the characters, everything that is going on both on and off stage, the inner workings of the scene. Think of the director’s commentary that accompanies the movie on a DVD: “I wanted him to be really mad in this scene.” “At this point, she realizes that he’s not coming back. It was a devastating performance.” “We cut a scene where the town got razed. He’s just hearing about that now, but she already knows about it.” The director’s view enhances the audience view, providing more insight into what is going on, and what has gone on that the audience didn’t see.

Omniscient third is much more remote than tight third. You are told about the characters’ thoughts, but you don’t really experience those thoughts from the inside. The director is aware of the actor’s motivation for a scene, but not as deeply involved in the scene as the actor is. It is this distance that enables the writer to dip in and out of the heads of multiple characters in a scene. Omniscient third, when done properly, is less jarring than switching tight third points of view midstream. Readers are following along inside the head of the narrator, rather than the head of a character. So they are looking at the scene from a more complete perspective than they would be in a tight third story. With a tight third, on the other hand, the narrator takes a back seat to the character perspective, so shifts are much more unsettling. However, many readers still find the shifts confusing, and omniscient third is used much less frequently than it used to be.

Which View is for You?

Each point of view provides a different atmosphere, and serves a different narrative feel. They also present different expectations for the reader. With tight third, the reader is very involved with the point of view character, and can feel the story along with him or her rather than just watching it. With objective third, there is much more the reader has to infer about what’s inside the characters, but the reader has access to more of the overall vision. With omniscient third, you are taking the reader behind the scenes as they watch the show.

When you are choosing a third person point of view, think of how you want to tell the story. Are you following a character, getting into his or her head? Then stick with tight third, and be the actor for that character. Are you telling the story as whole, and staying out of people’s heads? Think like an audience member, and use objective third. Or do you need to be in complete control of all the action, all the thoughts? Then be a director, and use omniscient third.

Final Poll Results