Author Archive: Gary Braunbeck

Psycho and the power of good film editing

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had the pleasure of spending fifteen minutes at a bar with the late, great Robert Bloch talking about movies, fiction, and peoples’ misconceptions about what they both see and read.

Bloch told me — as he did many other fans over the decades — that he still had people come up to him and complain about how bloody and violent they found the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Bloch’s novel Psycho. (“Thank God I didn’t have her sitting on the toilet,” Bloch always said.)

People complained about Janet Leigh’s nudity and complained that seeing her naughty bits so offended their sensibilities; they complained about the excessive amounts of blood; and they complained, consistently, about the violence of seeing the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body over and over.

Go back and watch Psycho and pay particular attention to the shower sequence. Hitchcock — aided greatly by the work of the brilliant film editor George Tomasini — pulled off a dark magic trick that to my mind has yet to be equaled in American film: they made you believe you were seeing things that weren’t actually depicted.

You do not see Janet Leigh’s naughty bits. You do not see blood splattering all over everything. And you most definitely do not ever, even once, see the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body. But the sequence is so brilliantly filmed and edited that viewers were — and some still are — left with the impression that, dammit, they saw all of that.

More on why self-publishing is (probably) a bad idea

My husband was recently interviewed by a reporter from his hometown newspaper. He got a ton of website traffic from the feature they subsequently ran on him, and he was contacted by old friends he hadn’t heard from in 20 years, and that’s all good.

However, the staffer who interviewed him — a reporter who is not an intern, and who has written dozens of features for the paper — asked a truly jaw-dropping question: “So your books are self-published?”

This was the second question she gave him; she asked it in the same tone as the first, which was to ask if he was from Newark. In other words, it wasn’t really a question, but more a statement of perceived fact she was double-checking.

This question floored us because:

  1. It showed she hadn’t done basic preparation for the interview and taken two minutes to do a Google search and find out that he’s professionally published 20 books, etc.
  2. It showed she profoundly misunderstood the process of becoming a professional fiction writer.

Gary, being the nice guy he is, gently told her that pro fiction writers don’t self-publish and explained why. And he thought that would be the end of it, until he saw the feature in the paper and read this line:

“The author has never self-published because a lot of book stores will not carry self-published authors and it also can be expensive.”

The reporter was likely on a strict word limit, so her including that line struck us as strange and unnecessary. In subsequent discussion on Livejournal, our friend Mehitobel made a comment that I think nailed it on the head:

“See, that’s just a weird-ass line. I can see someone ignorant of publishing, or even so jaded with local author profiles that they expect a local author to have self-published, asking about it in an interview. But the line quoted above from the article suggests to me that the reporter may actually view self-published books as the norm, better, or more ambitious. It’s like she has it backwards.”

It’s possible the reporter had been listening starry-eyed to some life coach who told her he’d sold a ton of self-published books and that self-publishing is the right and proper thing for an entrepreneurial spirit to do. If you are a self-help guru, evangelist, TV star or some other celebrity, sure, you can self-publish a book as an adjunct to your public speaking engagements and do very well. And independent comics artists have long been admired for DIY books. But if you’re a non-celebrity trying to become a pro fiction writer, self-publishing is more likely to hurt than help.

I don’t consider self-publishing to be synonymous with vanity publishing. Vanity presses are scam artists preying on the hopes and dreams of the naive; however there are places like that are straightforward, useful print on demand services.

I don’t consider writers who choose to self-publish their work to be “cheating” or lacking in intelligence or moral fiber or anything like that. Want to make a book of love poems as a Christmas gift for your sweetie? Planning to put together a calendar or anthology to support a charity? Have you written an RPG rulebook or other game supplement you want to get into peoples’ hands? After you’ve done your homework, does or a competitor seem to be the most economical way to get your project into print? Go for it.

But if you’ve got a novel or even a short story collection and you aspire to a larger audience than your circle of friends, you really ought to reconsider.

I know several people who’ve self-published poetry and fiction books. They’re nice people. Most of them did it because they were frustrated by the long, tedious process of submitting their work to and being rejected by traditional publishers. I can certainly sympathize with their frustration.

But 99.99% of the time, if your goal is to establish yourself as a legitimate author and put yourself on a track to a career as a writer, self-publishing is going to be a costly mistake. The only time it’s not a mistake is if you’re an experienced publishing professional and you know you have the resources to produce, promote, and distribute a good book that can adequately compete with the 400 other books that are published every day.

But people who write pro-quality books almost never have to turn to self-publishing; they generally only do it if they have very specific, well-considered publishing plans in mind and want complete control of their projects. If a pro has a book that the big houses deem unmarketable, he or she can usually find a small press willing to get the manuscript into print.

The average advance for a novel is $5K or thereabouts. It might take you months or even years to finish your first book. It could also take you years to squirrel away that much money if you work an entry-level job. So let’s think of finishing a publishable novel as the equivalent of having slaved away to save up $5,000.

If you told me you were taking your $5,000 and going to Las Vegas, I’d probably ask if you were going to splurge on a fun vacation.

If you replied, “No, I need more money; my bank doesn’t pay enough interest, and the stock market’s too darned complicated. I’m gonna hit the casinos and turn this five grand into fifty grand!”, I’d think it was a phenomenally bad idea and try to talk you out of it. Yes, you could get lucky at the slot machines and come home with a fat roll of cash, but the odds are you’d come home hung over and broke.

If on the other hand I knew you were a statistics prodigy with an eidetic memory who’d been consistently winning regional poker games, I’d think you had a real chance. If you then told me how you were sure you could keep the casinos from figuring out you could count cards, but knew you might be wrong and detailed a plan to escape quickly and safely with your winnings, I’d think it was a daring scheme and congratulate you.

The notion of being a rebel writer self-publishing your way to grand authorial success is as bright and shiny as Vegas. But unless you’re very talented or very lucky, it’s just not going to pay off in a career.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But based on the reporter’s questions, some people might need to read this.

On Book Blurbs

by Gary A. Braunbeck

If you look at a book, usually on the dustcover, paperback cover or somewhere in the first couple of pages you will see something like “‘(This author’s) writing is a dazzling bravura of wild imagery and nail-biting suspense.’ – Reed McReaderson” or “‘A wonderful book! I couldn’t put it down!’ – Gush Auteur”.

These little cover raves are known as “blurbs”.

I am a firm believer that a handful of strong blurbs can be just as effective as the same number of positive reviews; they’re shorter, they’re direct, and they reveal nothing spoiler-like about the work in question. This, to my mind, makes them a good alternative for potential readers who don’t want to chance having a review give away too much of the story.

Some — but not all — blurbs are culled from reviews. Probably half the time (or more) a writer will contact other writers and ask them if they would be willing to read something with an eye toward providing a blurb. I have gotten several wonderful quotes this way, and have also provided them for other writers. (I don’t always do this; in the past 4 years I have been asked to read several novels for which, in the end, I couldn’t in good conscience provide a blurb because, well…I didn’t like them.)

Let me quickly address a few misconceptions about writers providing blurbs for other writers:

  1. Yes, a lot of the time these writers know or are at least acquainted with one another — but that in no way means that a good blurb will be guaranteed. A writer worth any blurb value has his or her reputation to uphold, and publicly praising a bad book won’t help that cause one bit.
  2. I can’t speak for others, but I myself do read, from first page to last, each and every book I am asked to blurb. (There seems to be a rather cynical belief that writers don’t bother reading their buddies’ books before giving them a blurb — while I don’t doubt that this happens every so often, it is most assuredly not the norm.)
  3. Yes, any writer providing a blurb is aware that it’s going to be used to entice a reader to buy this particular book, and will slant their blurb to that end — but bear in mind that is because they like and believe in the book to begin with, so its integrity needn’t be called into question.

This is not to say that things can’t go wrong here, as well. If a book is saturated with too many blurbs, one gets the feeling that the publisher is overcompensating and perhaps trying to sell you a bill of goods. The first book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series has ten pages of blurbs inside.

That’s overkill, because the sheer amount of them robs each individual blurb of its effectiveness. You’re so numbed by the time you reach the end of the damned things you almost don’t feel like reading the book — which turns out to be quite a lot of good, old-fashioned fun. But because it starts off by pummeling you with page after page of rave blurbs (almost none of which refer to the book itself), you go in with the creeping feeling that someone is trying to convince you a sow’s ear is actually a silk purse.

My own personal cutoff point is two pages or a dozen blurbs (whichever comes first); after that, I ignore them. With blurbs, less is definitely more. (The ideal for me, by the way, is a single page containing somewhere between five and ten concise, tantalizing quotes.)

I am very careful to make certain that none of the blurbs used for my books are taken out of context — I don’t want readers to feel that these quotes have been employed to mislead them, and I don’t want reviewers to feel that I’ve misrepresented their theses by “doctoring” their comments.

What it boils down to is that strong blurbs can serve as the middle ground for readers who want some sense of what to expect from a book but don’t want to chance having anything “spoiled” for them … and reviewers can write whatever they damned well please without fear of being accused of “spoiling” anything.

I still think the best solution is to read the first few pages of a book to figure out if you’re going to like it or not. But if that’s not possible for whatever reason, then seek out a review; read the first two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs if you want to avoid encountering spoilers. If that doesn’t appeal or work for you, then turn to the blurbs.

Five of a Writer’s Deadliest Enemies

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many of you who read my posts asked for more essays on the business and technical aspects of writing, so I’ve decided to offer a handful of basic — what I hope are common sense — suggestions on how to fine-tune your writing by avoiding certain mistakes that can sink your story in a hurry.

1: “Its” and “It’s”

The first one — and, man, am I getting sick of seeing this one — has to do with “its” and “it’s”.

Look at those two words, will you?

I’m going to over-emphasize this, just to get it through your heads:


They do not mean the same thing.

“Its” is a possessive, as in, “Its components are too complex.”

“It’s” is a contraction, as in, “It’s not my problem if its components are too complex.”

This is not something that is up for debate.

If I seem grumpy about this, it’s (meaning, “it is”) because, in two recent manuscripts sent to me to read for a possible blurb, the friggin’ proofreader corrected the author’s use of “its” (when it was used correctly) for “it’s.”

Once more, with feeling:


“Its” and “It’s” are not the same. Stop doing it. It makes you look ignorant.

2: Profanity

First of all, unless you’re writing Christian Young Adult (and even that’s up for debate), it would be unrealistic to write a novel or short story wherein one of the characters didn’t swear at some point; our lives have become much more fast-paced and frustrating, and a result of that frustration is that people swear more now than they did, say, back in the days of Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons.

However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), there is a difference between the way people swear in real life and how they should swear in fiction. I know a guy who would have a full one-third — if not half — his vocabulary hacked off at the knees if he were unable to say f**k. I’ve passed strangers’ conversations wherein I picked up at least nine different profanities before they were out of earshot.

I remember one instance, while reading Skipp & Spector’s The Light At The End, where in a single line of dialogue, one character used eleven profanities — including all of the Biggies — in one sentence; it was rather impressive … but it was also way too much. Yeah, I have no doubt that there are people out there in the real world who do speak like that, but (and here comes the tip), if you over-use profanity in your dialogue, you rob it of its most important function: profanity is simply violence without action; it should be employed in fiction to either foreshadow or replace violence. If you follow this suggested guideline, you’ll not only use less of it your writing, but what you do use will be so well-placed that it will have ten times the impact of an endless string of curses.

Example: in my novel In Silent Graves, there is a sequence where the main character (who’s just lost his wife and newborn child) enconters two guys on a city bus who are swearing and cursing and spewing the most unbelievable filth (Andrew Dice Clay wouldn’t say some of the things these two guys do); their language is upsetting a young woman who’s sitting nearby the main character, and as the intensity of the profanity and filth builds, so does the main character’s frustration and anger. It’s the only time in the book that profanity of this level is used, and that was a deliberate choice on my part: I wanted it to be as shocking to the reader as it is to the main character, and I wanted it to build along with his anger. Everyone who’s read the novel has mentioned this sequence as being very effective, and
inwardly I cheer; I wanted it to be effective, I wanted their language to be shocking, because the increased intensity of the filth that comes out of their mouths foreshadows the violence that ends this sequence.

So: remember that profanity is simply violence without action, and that it should be employed only to foreshadow or replace violence; you’ll find that you use less of it, and that what you do use will be all the more effective.

3: Exclamation Points

Admittedly, this one is a personal quibble. However: The exclamation point belongs in dialogue and only in dialogue.

Whenever I encounter an exclamation point used outside of dialogue, I am suddenly pulled from the spell of the story (assuming that it was cast in the first place) and made painfully aware of the writer’s intent. It’s the writer telling me, the reader, that this! Is! Supposed! To! Be! Exciting! Or! Shocking! Or! Revelatory! It automatically tells me that the writer doesn’t trust my intelligence and instincts as a reader enough to let me figure out for myself that something is supposed to shock or stun or scare me.

Consider the following examples, all of them lifted from recent horror stories I’ve read:

He realized that he hadn’t locked the door behind him!
And now they were going to kill her!
They weren’t alone in the house!
He was lost!

You get the idea. To say it’s melodramatic would be to succumb to gross understatement. The use of the exclamation point outside of dialogue is, to my mind, a lazy cop-out all too frequently embraced by horror writers (and we’ve all done it, myself included). Think I’m overstating my point? Then try this simple exercise: Pick any of the above-quoted lines, and when you reach the exclamation point, imagine that it’s been replaced by the first four notes of the Dragnet theme. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Makes its use seem absurd, doesn’t it?

They weren’t alone in the house Dum-Da-Dum-Dum.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to use an exclamation point somewhere other than in dialogue.

4: Italics

Like profanity, italics are most effective when used sparingly. From my point of view, italics should only be used to:

  • place emphasis on a particular word or phrase;
  • indicate a foreign word or phrase;
  • cite the name of a book, film, television or radio program, or musical work (as in the name of a symphony or a specific album, such as Mahler’s 1st, The Who’s Tommy, Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, etc.);
  • to insert a brief flashback – be it a sequence of events or a snippet of recalled conversation – within the body of the current narrative; and,
  • to set apart the contents of a letter, excerpted lines from a poem, or a snippet of song lyrics (which could arguably be accomplished with the use of block quotes instead, making this last “rule” more of a stylistic choice on the part of the writer).

(Parenthetical pause here: when citing the name of a song or a story, quotation marks are what’s required, as in: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or Stephen King’s “Sometimes They Come Back”. The title of the album or collection in which the piece is included would be italicized, as in: Simon and Garnfunkel’s Greatest Hits and Night Shift. The differences are subtle, but profound, and not necessarily as easy to discern as one might at first think.)

Remember the Dragnet-theme warning I suggested when it came to using exclamation points? Well I’ve got a similar warning cue to employ when it comes to italics: imagine that whatever is italicized is being either whispered or Shouted Through A Bullhorn (however circumstances dictate); it’s a matter of extremes, like it or not.

An italicized letter or quoted poem? A whisper.

A panicked warning (as in: “Look out!”)? A shout through a bullhorn. (And bear in mind that when you combine italics with all caps — “LOOK OUT!” — it’s overkill; the circumstances under which something like the above is italicized give the words or passage an immediacy that presenting them in all capital letters only diminishes; it’s hitting the reader over the head with your intent: DEAR GOD, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT AND I’M GOING TO MAKE DAMN SURE YOU KNOW IT!. Overkill. Don’t do that, please. (If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll know that there’s a spot in theis very essay where I overkilled with italics; I did that on purpose, to be annoying, just to help me hammer home the point when you arrived here.)

There is another — and less directly acknowledged — reason that it’s a good idea to use italics sparingly: like it or not, a prolonged passage of italics quickly tires the eyes while reading. It’s that simple.

As a writer, whenever I come to a passage that I know is going to have to be italicized (such as a letter or brief flashback), I apply the same rule to my own work that I do to anything that I might choose to read: no more than 3 pages. That is all that my eyes can take as a reader, so I assume that’s my readers’ limits, as well. After 3 pages, it just gets annoying; and the last thing you want is for a reader to become more aware of how you’re presenting something than of its content.

So: a whisper or shouted through a bullhorn, no more than 3 pages, and you just might find that italics can be a useful ally.

5: Sibilant City

Read this and see if you can spot what’s wrong:

“Get out now!” he hissed.

Figured it out yet?

In order for someone to “hiss” something when they speak, there has to be at least one sibilant present.

Too many writers are doing this, and it must stop.

“Stop it!” she hissed. That works because there is a sibilant present. Otherwise, it ain’t hissing, folks.

To recap: It’s a question of sibilants being present in speech before its hissing can happen. (Subtle, ain’t I?)

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 2)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

In Part 1 we discussed an approach to characterization that was based on nuance — specifically, visual nuance. I used an an example how much you can tell about a character from the way he or she eats a bowl of cereal. This time, as promised, we’re going to take a look at how you can get to know a character from the way he or she puts on or takes off a coat.

I know this may seem silly on the surface, but it works for me. Nearly every story I have written has begun with an image of the central character doing something mundane, but it’s the manner in which this mundane task in done that instantly tells me a great deal about them.

Just as a mental exercise, try this: the next you go out to a club, movie, party, or restaurant, over the course of the evening choose five people at random and watch how they both remove and put on their coats. Does this person treat their coat with care, removing it slowly, one arm at a time, and then drape it carefully over the back of their chair (making sure that the lower part doesn’t touch the floor), or do they just all but let it drop off of them, and then thoughtlessly sling it over the back of a chair without a second glance, even though a full one-third of it is now spread out on the floor?

As far as putting the coat back on, watch this, as well. Do they exercise care when they do this (again, one arm at a time, slowly), taking time to smooth it out a bit once it’s on their body, or do they make a bit of a show out of it, swirling it around their shoulders like Zorro’s cape and then jamming their arms into the sleeves with such wide flourish there’s a good chance they could take out someone’s eye should that other person be standing too close?

This can tell you a lot about your character, albeit in broad strokes, but that’s where characterizaton starts. The character who takes care of their coat, who is careful to remove it and hang it off the back of the chair so no part of it touches the floor (and who also exercises quiet care when putting it back on) reveals several things by these actions: this coat is something that has some meaning for them — it may have been a gift from a family member who is no longer alive (it may even have belonged to that family member, it’s your call); it may have been something for which they had to save money every month in order to purchase because they don’t have a lot of disposable income; it may be that this coat is one of the few things they feel they look good in; or it may be that this is the only coat they own. The possibilities are endless.

But here is the one thing that you’ll know immediately: this is, in all probability, a shy person, one who wishes to blend in as much as possible so as not to draw attention to him- or herself. This is a person who will be all to happy to join in the conversation, but will rarely begin one of their own volition.

Whereas the other person — the one who just tosses the coat down without a second thought and then makes a bit of a show when putting it back on — this person is not only an extrovert, but also quite probably someone who, though he or she may have a job, has never really known what it’s ike to work in order to possess the basics (like said coat). The coat may have been a gift from a parent (who is still probably alive, and thus able to provide them with a new coat when this one becomes trashed by having half of it draped across the floor so many times); it may be just one of several coats they own, so what the hell do they care?; or it may be that — like our other person — this is the only coat they own, but because they need to foster this devil-may-care persona among their friends, they treat it with indifference … until, of coursde, it’s time to leave, and putting it back on allows them to be showy, thus making sure they remain the center of attention.

Like I said, these are broad-stroke examples, but it’s a way to begin. Other factors must be called into consideration in order to enrich this scenario; the age and sex of the character in question; the kind of coat he or she is wearing (expensive, something off the rack at Target, something tailored specifically for them, etc.); the circumstances under which he or she is wearing the coat. (I imagine that our first character would exercise the same kind of deliberate care with their coat whether he or she were with a group of people or eating alone — and wouldn’t it be interesting if our second character, when alone, treated their coat with the same care and didn’t make a show of putting it back on? It’s fun how this works, isn’t it?)

Now take it a step further: imagine what’s in the pockets of each character’s coat. Going with the original conceit that our first character is a shy person who, for the sake or argument, was given the coat as a gift by a deceased parent (perhaps the last gift this person ever received from said parent), they’re not likely to stick a used candy bar wrapper in one of the pockets because they couldn’t immediately find a trash can after polishing off … what? (Ask yourself that: what kind of a candy bar would this person prefer, or would they like candy at all? Hmmmmm ….) I imagine that our shy perswon would keep a pair of gloves in the pockets (for when the outside tmperature gets cold) and perhaps their car keys, but little else. Simple and uncluttered.

Whereas our second character would have receipts, loose change, car keys, two or three wadded one-dollar bills they’ve forgotten are even in there, half a dozen phone numbers scribbled on slips of paper, and a half-eaten candy bar from six months ago that has begun to grow a fungus that is starting to breathe and develop a rudimentary language.

I could go on, but I think you probably got the point of this at least three paragraphs ago.

Keeping in mind what I’ve discussed, allow me to present you with someone:

Female. Mid-30s. Her coat is wool, with a removable lining. It’s tan. It’s in very good condition and, in fact, might be thought brand-new until you get close enough to see that it’s at least ten years out of style. She removes it carefully after entering the restaurant (she’s alone) and instead of draping it over the back of her own chair, places it lengthwise across the other chair at the table, so that the collar is just hanging a little over the back of the chair, and the bottom of the coat hangs a little ways past the seat of the chair, nowhere near touching the floor. She’s wearing a wedding ring, but it’s on the ring finger of her right hand. She takes her cloth napkin and spreads it across her lap, then smoothes it out. She picks up the menu, takes a small sip from her water glass, and begins reading. If you watch closely, you can see that her hands are trembling slightly.

What’s her story? Write about her character in a single paragraph.

Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 1)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’ve been very lucky in that readers and many of my fellow writers feel I have a certain skill for creating three-dimensional characters. I’m often asked how I manage to do this, so I thought for my next few columns here, I’d go over some of the methods I employ for characterization. Please bear in mind that these methods are those which work best for me and are not being offered as absolutes or — God forbid — a template that will guarantee you’ll get the same results. There is no such template; creating a multi-layered, believable, sympathetic character is, like everything else one learns about writing, a matter of trial and error.

Before getting any further into this, I need to give you a little personal background so you’ll see how I arrived at these particular methods.

For the better part of a decade — between the ages of 19 and 30 — I worked as an actor, mostly summer stock and dinner theatre, but I actually got paid to pretend I was someone else. During those years, I worked with an assortment of other actors, all of whom had their own approach to interpreting the particular role in which they were cast.

The late Laurence Olivier was a self-proclaimed “technical” actor — he worked from the outside in; he would find a walk, a speech pattern, various mannerisms, etc. through which the character would reveal itself to him. While rehearsing a Noel Coward play in which he played a prissy English lord, Olivier was having great difficulty getting a handle on both the character and how to play him. This semi-famous story reached its happy ending when Olivier, passing by an antique store, happened to glance in the window and see a walking stick for sale. He went in to the store, picked up the walking stick, and the moment it was in his hand, he knew the character. (The walking stick, by the way, was described by Olivier as “…one of the ugliest, most ostentatious things…” he’d ever seen, but knew that his character would think it was classy and tasteful.)

I worked with a lot of technical actors. I was one myself.

I also worked with a lot of Method actors. Method actors are an ongoing gift to the world from Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky, an actor, writer, and director from Moscow who created an approach that forefronted the psychological and emotional aspects of acting. The Stanislavsky System, or “the Method.”

Without boring you into a coma, I’ll try to simplify what “the Method” is. It requires that, if an actor is to portray fear, he must remember something that terrified him and use that remembered fear to instill reality and credibility into his performance. The same with joy, lust, anger, confusion, etc. Stanislavsky’s Method also requires that the actor know everything about the his or her character, usually by having the actor write a short “inner history” for their character, past details of their lives that — while never used on stage — would nonetheless give the performance even deeper authenticity.

In theory, Stanislavsky’s Method is an amazing tool for an actor. It requires the complete submersion of the self into the body, psyche, and thoughts of another person so that an actor’s performance rings of the truth.

I use the phrase “in theory” above because, in my opinion, too many actors use Stanislavsky’s Method as an excuse for self-indulgence masking itself as research. Don’t misunderstand — when you get a Method actor like Marlon Brando (in his prime), Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, Gregory Peck, Johnny Depp, Lance Henriksen, or Bob Hoskins (to name a small handful) who have the discipline and wherewithal to employ the Method to all its power, and you can have something glorious.

But I didn’t get to work with any of them. I got to work with Method actors who would spend weeks researching and writing their “inner history”, demand that I address them only as their character (even when off stage), and never, never make light of anything at any time.

The prime example of how Stanislavsky’s Method can be turned into rampant silliness happened when I was doing a stage production of Sherlock Holmes and had to do several scenes with the actor playing Dr. Watson. (I played a slimy little safecracker named Sidney Prince.) The actor playing Watson had written a 25-page “inner history” for Watson, researched hand-to-hand combat methods used by British troops during the Boar War, studied medical procedures practiced in London in the 1800s … and when the curtain rose each night, audiences were treated to his imitation of Nigel Bruce for two-and-a-half hours.

But that’s not the silly part. The silly part always happened off stage, right before the third scene of the second act (where Watson confronts Prince). As he and I waited for our cues, the actor playing Watson would drink a cup of vinegar. I asked him why, and this, word for word, was his reply: “Because, Mr. Prince, dealing with you leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Time to run, not walk, to the nearest exit.

I finally came to the conclusion that for me, as an actor, Stanislavsky’s Method was useless. Every Method actor I had worked with wound up giving stiff, overly-mannered, obvious performances (in that it was obvious they were “acting”). I don’t know that I’ll ever do theatre again, but if I do, I’ll use the same “technical” approach that I always used.

But I came to realize that, while Stanislavsky’s Method might be useless to me as an actor, it was priceless to me as a writer. I still approach characterization — especially during the early stages of a story or novel — from a technical starting point, but almost always fall back on Stanislavsky’s Method when it comes time to add emotional depth and authenticity to whichever character is coming to life on the page — and I won’t commit a single word to the page until said character is someone I recognize as an old friend.

I always start with two simple questions, questions that are going to strike you as being a bit silly on the surface, but questions that, for me, reveal so much more than what is simply seen; for the purpose of this column, let’s say those two questions are these: How does this character put on his or her coat? and How much milk do they use when having a bowl of cereal?

Since this is already running a bit long, I’ll address the second question, and we’ll get to the coats next time.

Let’s say that this particular character uses just enough milk to barely cover the cereal, thus ensuring that both milk and cereal will be finished at the same time with nothing left in the bowl but the spoon. That’s the technical starting point, the outside. Now, let’s go in and look a little closer. They do this because they don’t believe in waste; they’re not the type to dump the last bit of milk down the sink after the cereal is gone. (And if there is any milk remaining, they either lift the bowl and drink it, or set the bowl on the floor so the cat can finish it.)

Why do they not believe in waste? Because they can’t afford to be wasteful. They work long hours at a job that manages to pay the bills, the rent, and buy a set amount of groceries each week. But no excesses, no luxuries, ergo, no wasting of the milk. This also suggests that this character may not be the happiest person you’ve ever met; after all, if they have to be this frugal with milk, then that frugality has to extend to every other aspect of their existence, as well, and with that comes an endless string of commonplace worries that, taken individually, may not seem like much, but cumulatively drain a lot of enjoyment from life.

This character is sitting at a kitchen table that also doubles as the dinner table, because he or she lives in a 3- or 4-room apartment; a nice-enough place that’s affordable if not fancy. I’m willing to bet that stashed up in one of the kitchen cupboards is a set of china cups and saucers left to them by a dead relative, cups and saucers that they only use on special occasions, like those rare instances they have company. I’ll also bet you that on this character’s chest of drawers in the bedroom we’ll find a jar filled two-thirds of the way with an assortment of spare change — mostly pennies, dimes, and some quarters — that this character is planning on using to buy themselves a nice little something-or-other once the jar is full, maybe a new pair of dress shoes at Target or K-mart.

I could keep going but I think you’ve got the idea. All of this from simply looking into their cereal bowl to see how much milk they used. And it doesn’t matter a damn whether or not any of the information from the above paragraph makes it into the story because I am now well on the road to knowing this person; and the better I know them, the more authentic and believable they will be to the reader, and we will have achieved what Stanislavsky’s Method demands: complete, unflinching, undistilled truth when depicting the human condition of the character in question.

Next time, the coats. In the meantime, you might want to think about what we might find in the pockets….

We Now Pause For Station Identification

I was talking to Gary last night, and he told me he’d just found out that there are still copies of his limited edition chapbook “We Now Pause For Station Identification” available.

In all my wifely bias, I have to say that this is a kick-ass chapbook. It’s not a funny zombie story, but it is a really good one. What’s it about? The narrator, a talk-radio DJ, is trapped in his broadcast booth, low on food and water, dangling at the end of his sanity as the dead walk the earth.

“We Now Pause …” is on the preliminary Stoker ballot, and if it gets on the final ballot, I’m hoping that the publisher will let me put up a movie I shot of Gary reading the story at the Stokers last year. I think that if people can hear even just a bit of the story, they’ll know it’s worth having.

Forget Genre

by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is going to bounce around a bit like a paper cup caught in the wind, but will hopefully come together at the end, so bear with me.

One of the things I promised myself when I agreed to take part in this blog was that I would try to avoid offering advice to aspiring writers. This is not arrogance on my part, nor is it my assigned covert role in some labyrinthine conspiracy designed to make certain that basic necessary knowledge for starting one’s writing career is kept concealed from you, thus eliminating any potential competition you and your work might pose in the marketplace.

The reason I am uncomfortable offering advice to aspiring writers is simple: I’m still learning how to do this myself (and I hope that I’ll never stop learning). Many of the things I discovered through trial and error no longer apply, and I wouldn’t dare try to tell someone else how they should go about managing a writing career.

But there is one piece of advice that, when pressed to, I gladly offer to aspiring writers — and it’s one that is often met by blank, confused stares: Forget Genre.

If you sit down and say, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” you might — consciously or not — start grafting traditionally horrific elements onto a story where they don’t belong, and you can hobble a story by trying to force it to fit within the “traditional” (read: popularly accepted) boundaries of a particular genre, rather than expand those boundaries by not worrying about how it’s going to be categorized. View it only in terms of the story you want to tell, not the one you think readers are going to be expecting.

Two things happened recently that prompted me to revisit this subject for myself: 1) Reviews for my novella In the Midnight Museum and my new Leisure novel, Keepers started appearing, and, 2) A member of a local writers’ group made a statement so naive as to be almost — almost — laughable.

About the former: much to my relief, the reviews for both Museum and Keepers have thus far been overwhelmingly positive, but in almost every case, the reviewers have said something along the lines of “…it’s both horror and not”, or, “…I guess horror is as good as anything to call it…”

You get the idea. Neither work fits easily into any single category, and it’s making some people crazy trying to figure out where to put them. My response is: how about just addressing them as stories and leave it at that?

My guess is that readers and reviewers begin reading a story labeled “horror” (or “cyberpunk”, or “fantasy”, or “mystery”, or what have you) with certain ingrained expectations; they have come to anticipate certain elements to appear to a particular type of story, and are surprised — sometimes not pleasantly so — when those expectations are not met and/or indulged.

Only half a dozen times in my career have I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” and then proceeded to do just that, always bearing in mind what readers expect in a horror story, and making damn sure I worked in as many of those expected elements as I could. Six times I’ve done this, and six times I’ve produced stories that are just, well…awful. And they’re awful because I did not forget genre, genre was the overriding factor in their creation — and telling a good story was secondary.

Shame on me.

Now to the latter point before I bring all this together.

I belong to a local writers’ group that is composed mostly of fantasy and science fiction writers. Many of these folks are unpublished or have just begun publishing; some of the folks have a decent amount of fiction already published; and a small handful of them, including myself and Charles Coleman Finlay, have got a fairly decent body of published work out there.

In a recent discussion, one of the members — who writes heroic fantasy — commented that she’d noticed a “…larger than usual number of horror-type stories” being submitted for critique, and could we possibly cut down on that because she and several other members don’t ‘get’ horror. When prompted for further comment, she also admitted that she’s read “…some Stephen King” but otherwise tends to read almost exclusively in the field of — you guessed it — heroic fantasy.

She is not alone in this; members who write exclusively mystery fiction have quit the group because they didn’t ‘get’ fantasy, and the science fiction folks didn’t ‘get’ mystery.

What’s to ‘get’? Somebody explain this to me — on second thought, please don’t, it wasn’t an actual request.

It doesn’t matter a damn if your story is horror, or mainstream, or fantasy, or erotica, or any other genre or sub-genre — it is, must be, must always be, first and foremost a good story.

Why don’t more readers and writers understand that? Have we become so tunnel-visioned in our expectations that we have given up the hope of ever seeing any genre attempt something new and/or different? Or have we been trained through a steady diet of the same old same-old to want nothing more than journeyman-level storytelling, storytelling that challenges neither the mind nor the heart (forget about those “traditional boundaries” I mentioned earlier)?

If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, I think it’s quite possible that you’re the type of reader or writer who’s come to think in terms of “genre” far too much for your own good.

Far too many writers — both new and established — think too much in terms of the type of story they’re writing — and what’s worse, far too many of them read almost exclusively in the field in which they want to publish. While it is important to be be well-read in your chosen field, it’s vital that you read outside that field as much as possible, otherwise you’ll eventually be writing nothing more than a hip imitation of a pastiche of a rip-off of something that was original two decades ago but has now fallen far too deep into a well-worn groove to offer a challenge to either writers or readers.

I read all over the place, and do not restrict my influences to those giants in the field from under whose shadows I hope to emerge.

As a result, yes, both of my recent works are and aren’t horror; they’re both also fantasy and not; each is and isn’t a mystery, a romance, a mainstream character study. What they are, are two pieces of which I am very proud because they were the best stories I could make them … because I followed my own advice and Forgot Genre.

Approach any work as being simply a story, and you’ll always “get” it; think only in terms of “genre” and you’ll have a hobbled story by the third paragraph.

That is the best piece of advice that I have or will ever have for aspiring writers. I hope you found something useful contained here.

Now go read Theodore Sturgeon’s magnificent The Dreaming Jewels and put someone into brainlock when you ask them to tell you what kind of a novel it is.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

In Praise of Proofreaders

by Gary A. Braunbeck

After a while, regardless of how well-focused, disciplined, and determined you are when writing a book, you just don’t, well… see it any more. It happens to all of us at some point on every project. You spend so much time writing, cutting, revising, and polishing, that you risk either not seeing the forest for the trees or become so over-focused on one particular tree that you don’t notice the forest fire until it’s too late.

Okay, carried that metaphor just a little too far, sorry, but hopefully you’ve already discerned the point: that there comes a time during a book-length project when you’ve spent so much time working on it that you lose perspective.

Here’s the thing: by the time you, as a reader, pick up a copy of an author’s book, the author him- or herself has read it over at least three times — and this is after the countless hours spent writing, re-writing, and polishing. If you want to include all that, as well, then I think it’s safe to say that by the time a book goes to print, its author has read it through, from beginning to end, a minimum of seven times, probably more.

This is a necessary evil. Editorial suggestions and changes must be considered and/or made, the manuscript must then be read through to make certain that these changes mesh with the overall story (tone, narrative arc, continuity, etc.), and if a problem is then discovered, it must be fixed, and the whole process starts over again.

I’m oversimplifying this because to describe the process in painstaking detail would not only rob the reading experience of some of its magic, but bore you to tears.

But when the book is finally out there, and everything looks good, the author and the editor can sit back and smile at having done their job to the best of their abilities. Authors often cite their editors as having been “instrumental” in helping to shape a book that may have encountered some rough spots along the pot-holed road to publication. Editors deserve all the credit that an author cares to cast their way, no arguments here.

But there is a group of unsung heroes in the publishing process, people whose names often don’t appear anywhere in the book, but without whose effort, insight, and input, a lot of us would look like illiterate fools.

I am talking about proofreaders, those folks whose thankless job it is to go through your manuscript once you’ve ceased being able to see it anymore and look for the signs of a possible forest fire (see over-extended metaphor at the beginning). Many people think a proofreader’s sole responsibility is to check spelling and punctuation.
While that is definitely right up there on their list of duties, many of them go the extra mile — hell, many of them go several hundred extra miles — to ensure that the book they’re working on is the best it can possibly be.

And they do this by deliberately searching out those elements that you, the writer, ceased to be able to see somewhere around Draft #3.

Two personal examples: a few weeks ago, right before my second Cedar Hill collection, Home Before Dark was being prepped for the printer, one of Earthling’s marvelous proofreaders noticed that in my story, “Palimpsest Day”, the age of the mother did not add up if one stopped to consider her dates of birth and death. Now, I know that a lot of people tend to read such details with a quick eye and don’t stop to do the exact math … but that’s no excuse for sloppiness, and that is exactly what this mistake was — sloppiness on my part. I had become so over-focused on fine-tuning the story so that it fit into the overall arc of the Cedar Hill cycle that I overlooked a small but significant detail — making sure the mother’s age added up. While a mistake of this sort probably wouldn’t have ruined the story, its mere presence would have lessened the story’s value. I had read through the manuscript so many times that I simply didn’t see this problem any more, and thanks to a sharp proofreader, neither will you.

Second example: up until its fourth round of proofreads, my novella In the Midnight Museum contained a glaring continuity error that, while in and of itself quite small, would have damned near pulled the rug out from underneath the entire story had it not been caught by the proofreader. It was a quick, minor detail that very well might have been overlooked by most readers, but those readers who would not have missed it would have had the entire second half of the story ruined by this nagging inconsistency. (You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that I’m not telling you the exact nature of this mistake? That’s because I am so embarrassed by it that I dare not share the specifics, lest you think me, well … simple. “My God,” you’d say. “A sponge would have seen that.” And I’d prefer you leave this essay thinking I have an IQ higher than my shoe size.)

But, again, this potentially destructive detail was overlooked by me because I had stopped seeing the whole of the moon and focused only on the crescent (I figured it was time to switch metaphors).

So consider all of the above to be a preamble to this: a song of gratitude to all proofreaders, those unsung heroes who labor over our manuscripts almost as long and intensely as we do, whose unblinking eye often catch the flaws that we can no longer see, and whose objectivity gives us a fresh perspective just as we need it the most.

I’m going to end this by getting even more specific: Paul Miller, Don Koish, Deena Warner, John Everson, Ron Clinton, Robert Mingee, Jack Haringa, and — my own personal major domo, Mark Lancaster … thank you. A thousand times, thank you. Thank you for caring about my work enough to go those extra hundred miles and always pointing out even the smallest problem, no matter how testy I get about your nitpicking. You are why I look like a good writer.

My gratitude and admiration knows no bounds.

Now see how many mistakes you can find in this blog entry. Just don’t tell me about them or I might throw a hissy fit.

Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.