Monday, 17 January 2011

What is horror?

How would I define a work of horror?

I've taken part in a few, and read or heard many more, discussions on this subject. None of them have precisely expressed what I think makes a horror story. So here is my opinion, for what it's worth. 

For starters, there is no one definition of horror.

Oh, that's really helpful, isn't it?

Yes, but there's more.

Many people have said that if an author intends to scare the reader, that makes the work Horror. More have said if the material scares the reader, the work is Horror.

If that were the case, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer would be a masterpiece of surreal horror, set in a society like ours.

Oh, no, wait, that actually happened, didn't it?

No, horror, as I define it, is a work of fiction. And horrific fiction quite happily divides into three types.

Type One

Works set in our world, as we know it, with few, if any, changes. Examples might be The Silence of the Lambs or The Girl Next Door. Now, to me, while horrific, these are not works of Horror. You might call them thrillers, or suspense, or anything else you like, but not Horror. I class these as books about things that do happen. There are cannibals, serial killers and neighbourly torture clubs.

Type Two

If Type One is things that do happen, then Type Two is things that could happen, given a few changes.  Aliens conquer the world. Crazed military scientist unleashes a Doomsday virus (or it escapes). Neural networks become self-aware. Consider The Puppetmasters or Prey. Again, to me, not Horror. Call it action sci-fi, or speculative fiction.

So what does that leave?

Type Three

Things that could never happen. I'm really, really sorry, folks. There are no vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, dragons, djinns or zombies. It's a great shame, 'cos I love them too. But they aren't real. Never could be, never will be.

That doesn't stop us writing about them. This, to me, is Horror. Supernatural, playing with death and beyond.

There is a caveat here - the action must take place in a world that is recognisably ours, but with nasties added. For example Bag of Bones, Rosemary's Baby and Dracula. If it takes place on another world, it's probably fantasy. If there is a large element of magic used routinely, it's fantasy.

So there you have it - a story about something that could never exist, added into our world, and scaring the crap out of us, because we've suspended belief and accepted that there are vampires and evil deities resurrected from the dawn of time.

Now that's proper Horror.

Monday, 3 January 2011

This editing year - 1

It seems like a long time ago I last wrote about editing. OK, it was a long time ago. Must have been June last year. Then I advised myself and you, constant readers, to make a spreadsheet of beta-readers' comments.

'OK, did that, now what?' you cry.

I went through the book in question, adding notes to the manuscript (Word: Insert: Comment) in all the places my readers had found something to remark on. Plus, I added my own comments here and there - pithy little notes to myself like 'Move this bit six months forward' or 'Add some action here - perhaps flashback'. Most of the time I read the book with great pleasure, often remarking 'Oh! Great writing here.' Then, with regret, I added a note: 'Flowery - rewrite.'

The entire process took about four hours - remember, this is a standard-sized novel. (Well, actually it's currently some 57K words, so needs fleshing out here and there.)

Next comes the tricky bit. Going through the manuscript a second time, when I come to a note (highlighted in yellow on my system), I read it.

Then I do it.

For example, the words 'Chapter One' had a note attached. It read 'Add prologue'. When I'd got over the shock of having to make a change so early in the book, I got on with it.

The tricky bit is writing a prologue in the same style and tone as the rest of the book. Remember, I wrote this manuscript about ten months ago. The person writing this prologue (me) is not the same person who wrote Chapter One (me-in-the-past).

Having written the prologue, I deleted the note and moved on the the next one. Read-do-delete note.  And so on...

Some of changes require great attention to detail. Moving chunks around in time has a knock-on effect on many other sections of the book. It may also require additional research. What time is sunrise in mid-April in Mid-Wales? What is the weather like generally? Then there are questions like 'If this happens in April and not October, what effect does that have on characters X, Y and Z?'

With flashbacks, it's the same. What was my protagonist supposed to have been doing three years ago? If I have him in action in East Africa, do I say somewhere else that he was in Afghanistan at the time?

This has pointed out some useful tips to bear in mind for future novels. One is the importance of a detailed timeline and back-story for all the characters. I thought I'd done that with this manuscript, but I was wrong. Yes, I'd itemised significant events - date, time, place, summary - but what about the rest? What about that vast collection of apparently insignificant events and activities that form the great bulk of everyones' lives? I didn't have them.

I'm not saying write a day-by-day diary for each character:

Fred, January 3rd, 1989. Got up 06:00, had toast for breakfast. Still staying at 2437 Pacific Heights Boulevard. Broke a vase this morning. Good bowel movement at 0746. The Presidential assassination was postponed again. It's raining. 

That would be ridiculous. But a note like 'Jan 89, Fred in California. Did not assassinate the President. Pete in East Africa, killing Chinese sponsored guerrillas. Feb 89 Fred and Pete back at base. Training. Mar 89...' would have been helpful.

When I've finished the big - the macroscopic if you like - edits, I'll be reading and re-reading the manuscript looking for inconsistencies. Then I'll be delving into the minutiae of the language itself. I'll cover these topics later. 

Until then - enjoy!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Dark and Secret Writes: Hello, 2011

Dark and Secret Writes: Hello, 2011: "So, a year has come and gone, not with a bang but with a whimper. It seems to have passed in a haze of work, more work, pressure and not eno..."

Hello, 2011

So, a year has come and gone, not with a bang but with a whimper. It seems to have passed in a haze of work, more work, pressure and not enough sleep. (Of course, that could be a function of alcohol and declining cerebral function due to age.) I enjoyed writing during the last twelve months, and, looking back, I did actually manage to produce quite a volume of work - several full length first drafts of novels, a few film scripts, multiple short stories.

That's the good news. The bad news is those works now sit on various hard drives and memory sticks leering at me; they issue the taunting cry - 'Go on, scribbler. Edit us - if you dare.'

Well, I dare. I can't resist a challenge like that. Am I a man or a mouse?

Now, where did that cheese go?

Who will win? Me or approx. 3,200 pages of manuscripts? Only time will tell. The pity is, I have at least four projects I want to start this year, but I think they're going to have to sit on a  shelf somewhere in the subconscious becoming mouldy. Or perhaps maturing like fine wines and cheeses.

OK, I've looked back and there's no one creeping up behind me with malicious intent and clutching a sharp object. Now, let's look forward.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel. This is good, because it means there's no one up ahead with a torch bringing me more work. So, ignoring the average four hours every day I spend earning money to pay the bills, and the six hours a day I spend sleeping, and the two hours a day eating, washing, dressing and the like, it means all the rest can be devoted to writing and reading.

So editing it is. Beta readers (yes, you know who you are. Don't hide at the back. There is no escape,) prepare to be deluged with manuscripts over the next few months.

A word on some changes to the format of this blog. I've joined the Amazon affiliate program, so when I review books, if you click on the link you can go straight to Amazon and buy them. Yes, I will receive a commission if you do that, but believe me when I say I will only recommend books I have actually read and enjoyed. If I read a book and dislike it, I'll make that fact clear in the review. I may have lousy taste, but at least I'm consistent.

Finally, may I wish all readers a happy and fulfilling year. I hope you all enjoy yourself as much as I hope to in the next twelve months.