Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a great line from William Goldman’s novel The Color of Light: “Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it.”

William Faulkner maintained that any child who managed to live past the age of seven had enough material to write books and stories for the rest of his or her life and never see the well run dry; Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you encounter any authors who insists that their work isn’t in some form autobiographical, they’re lying through their teeth.

It’s not only outward, chronological events that shape our psyches and determine who we become, but our own internal worlds; imagination, impressions, prejudices, fantasies, regrets, passions, likes and dislikes, all of it is eventually filtered through the writer’s sensibilities to make an appearance in their work.

Sometimes a writer has to wait until he or she has gotten enough distance, both emotionally and chronologically, to turn a fiction writer’s objective eye on an event. You can’t use an actual occurrence from your own life and then defend it to people by saying, “But that’s how it really happened.” Fiction cares nothing for how an event ‘really’ happened, only how said event or events fit into the natural progression of the story you’re telling.

You have to learn to put your ego aside when you write a story or novel, even if you’re using something from your life as fictional fodder; you have to care enough to be quiet. Let the story be your guide, not your desire to inflict yourself and your views on the reader.

On writing about child abuse

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus’s shield, protecting them from Medusa’s deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ….

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’ll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader’s emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, “Oh, I’ll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth.” To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there’s room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story’s characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called “whacking material for pedophiles.” It’s a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating — and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take “Some Touch of Pity,” a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg’s Werewolves. Anyone who’s ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn’t want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story — the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it’s what defined his view of himself, and it’s what keeps him standing at arm’s length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That’s the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn’t pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character’s suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I’m relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.


Why I became a writer

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.

I was not — big surprise here — a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.

One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C — a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.

Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.

Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I’m still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.

It was a child’s first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn’t discover it until he’s developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.

I figured the story was going to get me in trouble — I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty — nuns and otherwise — thought I was “disturbed.” (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara’s office for a “chat” about “my problems getting along with the others.”)

The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass “A+” in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: “Great story. You should do more.”

I had written stories before that I’d kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine — and an adult, no less — and they’d really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn’t useless.

That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don’t know where I’d be now if I’d gotten the reaction I expected to get.

On horror personas

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I don’t know about you, but if I encounter one more horror writer (in most cases, this would be a new writer) who prefaces his or her name with:

  • “The New Bad Boy/Bad Girl of Horror”
  • “The New Queen of Terror”
  • “The New Prince of Dark Fiction”
  • “The New Court Second-Scribe in Charge of Queasy Sensations at The Pit Of Your Tummy”

… or some-such other b.s. handle designed to draw attention to the writer rather than the work, I’m going to climb a tower with a rifle, I swear it.

(Wouldn’t it be interesting to have someone call themselves “The Nice Guy Of Horror” or “The Courteous Queen Of Terror” or “The Really Swell Dude of Dark Fiction”? I’d actually remember that, and would probably seek out their work to read just because they were clever enough to do it.)

Sometimes — dash, repeat, italicize — sometime these monikers are created not by the writers themselves, but, rather, by reviewers.

One case of a writer who’s employed a moniker he or she didn’t create her- or himself is that of John Paul Allen, one helluva nice guy and author of the novel Gifted Trust. A reviewer for that novel dubbed Allen “…the father of nightmares.”

An interviewer who read that review used the phrase to introduce Allen, so it comes as no suprise that Allen has used that phrase in publicity releases — and why the hell shouldn’t he? It’s an eye-catching, memorable phrase that is going to go a long way in helping potential readers remember his name. He didn’t come up with it and decide to label himself, and any writer who’s handed an unsolicited blurb like that is a fool not to get as much mileage as he can out of it. Yes, writing a strong novel is damned important, but once the work is published, it all boils down to bidness and marketing, and anything that draws attention to your work can and should be used to your advantage. So, good for John Paul.


I have come across (or been introduced to, unsolicited) a number of writers who, both on-line and at conventions, assume a “persona” not only for the benefit of their readers (assuming they actually have any, as they claim), but for that of other writers and editors, as well.

When asked why they insist on assuming these personae, every last one of them (at least, to whom I have spoken) have answered with something like: “Because I want readers/editors/other writers to remember me. It’s a way of making a strong impression.”

On the surface, it might be seem like a good answer, but it reminds me of a snippet from a Bill Cosby routine wherein two guys are talking about cocaine usage; the first guy asks the second one, “What’s the attraction?”, and the second guys answers, “Well, cocaine intensifies your personality.” To which the first guy responds: “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”

If you focus the majority of your energy on perfecting a “persona” so that other writers/readers/editors/artists will remember you, then I guaran-flippin’-tee you that you’ll succeed; they’ll remember you.

But ask them to name a piece of your work and see what happens; you could probably hear a gnat fart in the silence that will follow. Which is precisely what you’ll merit; if you choose to make it all about you rather than the work, then you richly deserve the disdain and/or obscurity that is coming your way.

I can say this without fear of reprisal because I do not have a persona; I barely have a personality. Trust me on this.

Writing horror: the devil’s in the details

by Gary A. Braunbeck

A writer friend of mine was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology. He asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.

Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was over-baked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to him what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway. It had to do specifically with the nature of a central character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis mid-way through on which the rest of the story’s events were hinged. The precise nature of this metamorphosis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and — I felt — because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact; instead, they had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.

I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character’s ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.

“What exactly is the nature of this change?” I asked.

“It’s a supernatural transformation,” was his reply.

“But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?”

“I don’t know…it’s just a supernatural transformation,” he again said.

“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character’s psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character’s ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed.”

Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of criticism. My writer friend, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: “Dude, it’s just horror! It’s not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!”

No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that they had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life’s work.

I don’t know anyone who would enjoy hearing their life’s work reduced to a triviality, do you?

Now, in my writer friend’s defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving them problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.

I would also add that this writer has not written or read as much horror as he have science fiction and fantasy.

I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking them.

That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark — however off-hand — had offended me), his comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.

It’s because too many writers think, Dude, it’s just horror! Too many writers think that it’s okay to just say “…it’s a supernatural transformation”, and leave it at that, because once you’ve let the demon out, you don’t really need to think about the Hows and Whys and How-Comes; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don’t matter, just so long as it’s exciting or suspenseful or horrific.


It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story — no matter how believable or outrageous its premise — must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn’t necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.

Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he’s a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper’s precise nature; we don’t know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper’s nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.

That’s not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audience nor the characters in the film know the Creeper’s precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense…but it doesn’t quite work. It’s the very unpredictability of the Creeper’s actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper’s nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn’t have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.

It’s sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

Conversely, the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better-written movie was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper’s nature, what it wanted, why, and — an old trick that always works — that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain’t Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it’s light-years ahead of the first movie.

If you think I’m making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected.

He did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next questions: What is the true nature of the beast? Why does this happen? What does he or she want? What brought them here? Etc.

No, you don’t have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you’d be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.

The details are important, folks. They are vital. They are not to be dismissed off-handedly, because it ain’t just horror: it’s a question of careful storytelling, because it’s only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than just tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.

Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a certain type of story, one that I have come to call the After-the-Fact story. I have not seen many After-the-Fact stories written in the horror genre; mostly, they’ve stayed in the neighborhood of “literary” fiction. So, why haven’t we seen more of this type of story in horror?

After-the-Fact stories are tricky little bastards, because the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence. After-the-Fact stories do not employ flashback, nor do they resort to the obvious mechanism of having a character offer a quick recap of what happened before the reader came into it; no, in these stories, you’re presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters. They’re a little like walking into a room just after someone’s had an argument or gotten a piece of bad news; even though you know something’s just happened, no one will tell you what it was, so you have to figure it out for yourself by observing the effect it’s had on those around you: you have to pay attention to the detritus, because that’s all you’ve got to go on.

A classic example is John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer”. On the surface, it’s about nothing more than some rich guy in suburbia who’s spending a Sunday afternoon running from neighbor’s house to neighbor’s house to use their swimming pools. “I’m swimming my way home,” he tells his friends and neighbors, all of whom laugh and remark on what a card he is as they go about mixing their martinis and discussing events at the country club. Occasionally someone remarks, in passing, ” … he’s looking better, don’t you think …” or … I’m really surprised to see him out like this, after, well …” Then the main character comes over to them and that line of conversation is dropped. This goes on for a while, each successive neighbor becoming more surprised and anxious at seeing him, offering more whispered comments when he’s out of earshot — ” … didn’t realize he was back …” etc. — until it becomes obvious that something fairly awful has happened to this guy sometime before the story began, and though Cheever never once directly states what happened, everything you need to know is there.

The first time I read “The Swimmer”, its sudden shocker of an ending seemed to come out of left field, so I went back and re-read the story, much more slowly than the first time, and realized that Cheever had, indeed, dropped a ton of clues; unfortunately, the majority of them were hidden in the detritus, given only through subtext.

Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe, the hero of such classic novels as The Big Sleep and The Little Sister) once gave the best example of what constitutes subtext that I’ve ever encountered (and I am liberally paraphrasing here):

A man and woman, both middle-aged, are waiting for an elevator. It arrives, and the man helps the woman get on. For the first several floors they are alone, watching the blinking lights. They do not speak and stand well apart from each other. The woman wears a very nice dress. The man wears a suit, tie, and hat. The elevator stops — not their floor — and a young woman gets on; she smiles at both the man and the woman, who smile at her in return. The man removes his hat. The ride continues in silence. The elevator stops, the girls gets off, the man puts his hat back on. A few floors later, the man and woman get off and walk together toward a door at the end of the corridor.

It was usually at this point that Chandler would ask the listener: “What’s written on that door?”

So I’ll put the question to you: what words are written on that door which our middle-aged couple are heading toward?

How the hell am I supposed to know? some of you may cry. No one in that freakin’ elevator said word one to anyone else, and on the basis of all the nothing that happened during that boring, boring, boring ride, I’m supposed to guess what it says on that stupid door?

Yes, you are.Because an awful lot happened during that elevator ride:

  1. The man and woman never spoke to each other, even while they were alone;
  2. They also made it a point to stand well apart from each other even though the man helped her get on;
  3. When the young woman got on, the man, obviously out of respect and courtesy, removed his hat;
  4. Once the young woman disembarked, he put the hat back on; and,
  5. The man and woman got off on the same floor, and are heading toward that door together.

Still say nothing happened and that you have no clues to go on?

Detritus. Subtext. The unspoken information that is conveyed to a reader through a character’s behavior, actions, speech, or lack thereof. In acting, it’s referred to as “nuance”. It’s subtle, but its implications are quite direct if you care enough to pay attention.
That is, in my opinion, what the horror field has lost over the last few decades: a willingness on the part of both writers and readers to (respectively) employ and appreciate the quieter, more delicate, and less obvious details of character and scene that can make fiction so much richer and rewarding.

Last chance; take a guess what it says on that door.

Try: Marriage Counselor.

That was an After-the-Fact story; tricky little bastard, wasn’t it?

There’s usually very little action in these stories; nothing much seems to happen at the core — it’s on the periphery that you have to watch out for yourself.

A handful of other After-the-Fact stories you’d do well to search out and read include Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”; Raymond Carver’s “What Do You Do In San Francisco?”, “Popular Mechanics”, and “Why, Honey?” (these latter two being arguably horror stories); Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”; Michael Chabon’s “House Hunting”; John O’Hara’s brilliant “Neighbors” (a horror story if ever there was one); and a personal favorite of mine, Russell Banks’s “Captions” — perhaps in its way the most extreme After-the-Fact story I’ve yet encountered –wherein Banks details the agonizing disintegration of a married couple’s existence through captions taken from newspapers or written underneath pictures in photo albums.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that the above list contains no horror writers. There is a reason for this: not many have attempted an After-the-Fact story. Maybe it’s because the structure of this type of story seems to self-consciously “literary” to them; maybe it’s because horror readers have become far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to them and don’t think they should have to work a little while reading a story, and so horror writers just automatically assume that All Must Be Revealed as quickly and in as simplistic of terms as possible. I don’t know, I’m guessing here. But I’ve been going through my books searching for at least six examples of a successful After-the-Fact story in the horror field, and here’s what I came up with:

  • “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” by Dennis Etchison
  • “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein
  • “Red” by Richard Christian Matheson
  • “Snow Day” by Elizabeth Massie
  • “Taking Down the Tree” by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • “Gone” by Jack Ketchum

… and that was it (even with this small a list, Klein’s, Matheson’s, Ketchum’s, and Tem’s stories almost offered too many concrete hints to qualify).

I thought perhaps Peter Straub’s “Bar Talk”, “The Veteran”, or “A Short Guide To the City” (all from his magnificent collection Houses Without Doors) could be used to beef up the list, but that would have been stacking the deck (pardon my mixed metaphors); Straub’s work is the result of an exceptionally well-read literary background, so of course the sensibilities of his work are informed from countless sources, resulting in fiction that is challenging in its approach to structure and subtext — no more so than in the “Interlude” fictions sprinkled throughout Houses.

So no Straub; it wouldn’t be playing fair on my part. Same goes for Stewart O’Nan, whose wonderful collection In The Walled City contains not one, but two After-the-Fact stories, “Calling” and “Finding Amy”. (I exclude O’Nan because, though he does sometimes dabble in the horror field, he is not primarily a horror writer.)

So I came up with six stories, four of which (though superb) just barely made it onto the list. I’m sure there are other After-the-Fact horror stories out there that I missed, but my guess is, not that many.

Horror may be trying to outgrow its popular definition, but it’s still suffering from a case of arrested literary adolescence — and I’m not one who apologizes for using the term “literary” when talking about horror. It can be among our most literary forms of storytelling; emphasis on can be; we still need to take chances, even if we fall flat on our faces in the attempt.

On Book Advances

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many dim moons ago, when Reagan had just taken possession of the White House and I’d taken possession of my 20s, I decided on fiction writing as a career, unaware at the time that my decision was due to undiagnosed brain damage, the extent of which is still being determined. I was cranking out bad short stories and even worse novels on a magnificent (and if used as a weapon, potentially deadly) Olympus manual typewriter. Its loud, metallic clickitty-clack-clack became the underscore of my Grand Opera of the Imagination, a march, a rally cry, a battle hymn, always singing out You can do it! You can do it!

Yes, we all recognize the above as being Inspirational Bullshit Designed to Make You Urp on Your Shoes. The truth is, that sound used to drive me crazy, because eventually it began to sound like the Failure Police were mocking me as they danced and sang before my eyes in a Kick-Line of Coming Calamity: You’re going nowhere/You’re doing nothing/No one will read you/You’ll die unread. Boogie-oogie-oogie. Sisyphus had nothing on me.

One of the things that used to keep me going was the thought that, if I kept at it and listened to the advice of pro writers whenever I could corner them, I would start to publish, then be paid, then be able to support myself on writing alone. Well, I did keep at it, I did listen to advice from the pros (especially a marvelously encouraging letter from Harlan Ellison to the 19-year-old moi), and I began to publish. My first short story appeared in a small press magazine when I was 22, and now–almost exactly 25 years later–I have somewhere around 200 published stories to my credit, as well as 10 novels, 10 short story collections, 1 non-fiction book, and 2 anthologies that I have co-edited. And there are nights when that chorus line from the Ninth Circle of Hell still puts on its little show, with a Sunday matinee thrown in for good measure. And I wonder why I’m on anti-depressants.

One thing that often appears to beginning writers much as the vision of the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur is the concept of the Advance. Ah, so elusive she seems, waiting somewhere Out There in your future, wagging her finger seductively, lips moistened and eyes gleaming with yummy promise: I’m here for you, you’ll see. Some day, we’ll be together.

Cue soft focus, Writer embraces Seductress, Fade Out as echoing voices sing: You finally got here/Don’t need to punch the clock/But you remember/There’s still Writer’s Block!

Ahem. Yes, the last and deadliest phase of going from part-time to full-time writer, from would-be pro to flat-out slave of the muse: the advance.

As I write this, I have a stack of book contracts within easy reach. All have been signed by the proper parties, and all have been accompanied by advance checks. There’s just one little glitch in this portrait of the Writer’s dream Come True.

I haven’t written any of these books yet.

(Not entirely true; work has begun on all and is nearly finished on two; the point is, I’ve got until October to deliver all five. Boogie-oogie-oogie, cue the kick-line in the wings.)

That’s the part of the Pro Writer Fantasy sequence that never enters the picture when the young You imagines that provocative seductress beckoning to you from your future. Yes, it’s great to have someone hand you a stack of cash for something you haven’t written yet (it’s still one hell of a confidence booster), and when you’re younger it’s easy to think you’ll never, ever, under any circumstances, have trouble producing that book you’ve already taken money for, but somewhere in the theatrical wings of your subconscious Jung and Freud are rolling on the floor, howling with laughter as the Failure Police don their black fishnet stockings ala Dr. Frankenfurter and wait for their cue.

I once promised myself that I would never, ever accept money up front for something I haven’t written. As far as my books go, I’ve broken that promise every time, and so far I haven’t locked up, freaked out, melted down, climbed a tower with a rifle in my hands, or taken to reading John Grisham.

But ….

But there’s always the waiting chorus line in my head, kept in place by a stage manager who every so often calls: “Places for the Dance of Doom and Despair! Places, please, he’s gonna crack this time, I just know it!”

Taking advances up front for something not yet written is a sure-fire way to keep you on edge, and adds (as I’ve found so far) a certain, feverish, almost desperate quality to the work itself, which gives definite intensity to the telling of the tale. I’ve had many people say one of the things they like best about my work is its strong emotional content. I appreciate that, because I do like to engage readers’ emotions as deeply as possible (there just isn’t story without feeling), but to be completely honest, sometimes that intensity comes not just from my imagination, but from the realization that Dear God, I’ve already taken money for this thing and I Have to finish it, I Have To, Dear God I HAVE TO! What if I can’t? What if I go blank, become blocked, flip out, have to take a one-way ride in the Twinkie Mobile to the House of Good Pudding? What Then? What? WHAT THE #@!* WAS I THINKING?

And one lithium later I remember the why I got into this in the first place.

To meet women.

As long as they’re not part of certain chorus….

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.