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A WALK IN THE PARK (IN THE DARK)
How writers can benefit from strolling outside their
genre comfort zones
by Tamara Kaye Sellman
something of a fluke that I turned to a book from the
Horror Writers Association for advice on writing about
suburban violence. I had been incubating an essay, about
my second-hand experience living in a small town that was
the site of a senseless fast-food massacre in the 90s,
and needed help with characterizing the violence.
Last July, I attended the Port Townsend Writers
Conference last July, having packed a basket of books to
take along, for the week offered ample reading and
writing time. My plan? To work on some short pieces that
leaned toward both the macabre and the violent. As an
afterthought, I packed On Writing Horror.
What the heck, I thought; I hadnt visited the
horror genre as a writer since I had soaked up all those
Stephen King novels back in the 80s. It made sense to
think of violence and horror as literary bedfellows. Why
not check out the current brew of horror writing for
At the conference, I gleaned piles of notes from my
workshop, which was led by instructor, Brian Evenson, a
writer notable for excelling across a variety of
storytelling landscapes that include speculative,
literary, mainstream, horror, and magical realist
writing. It came as no surprise that his instruction
served as a perfect match for my needs.
What did come as a big surprise, however, was how a
handbook on writing horror could be equally instructive
to me over the course of that week.
To clarify: I value writing manuals. Ive read my
fair share and often recommend them to others. Nor do I
eschew genre writing or believe that literary work is
more essential or valid than work that is targeted more
commercially. Quite the contrary. I enjoy reading science
fiction and fantasy, and before I went to college, I
consumed countless books of horror, the supernatural, and
I was surprised because, as a writer, I tend to compose
stories which are more character-centered and less
plot-driven. There is a typically unspoken assumption
among literary writers (a bias leftover from studying
creative writing in college? I wonder) that genre work is
somehow less about character and more about plot.
Imagine my pleasure, then, to discover Joyce Carol Oates
in On Writing Horror expounding upon the fluid and
indefinable boundaries between realism and
surrealism, and the so-called
genre of the Gothic, which she describes as a
vehicle of truth-telling
because there is no wilder region for the exercise
of pure imagination.
Wow, this was literati talk, straight off of page five!
Oates spent her entire essay touting the virtues of
several authors more typically esteemed as literary:
Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, even Emily
I was thrilled. I had chosen this book believing I was a
genre outsider. But just a few pages in, I was reminded:
regardless of genre, all writers have the same challenge
before them. The challenge to write well.
The purpose of On Writing Horror, after all, is to guide
writers in mastering the craft. Editor Mort Castle is
nothing if not true to the aims of the genre, for his
book honors the roots of its writers while examining the
myriad ways in which new writers can produce manuscripts
possessing their own dark brilliance.
Most of the advice within this manual is, in fact,
applicable to every writer. On page 76, for instance:
As fiction writers, were all liars. Tell
the truth as you see it. Cut open the emotional apple and
find the core, not the skin. Its not the event,
its how you feel about the event
youre writing a life, but youre telling a
Or turn to page 99, in a discussion about Engaging the
The key is to find artifacts in the
and integrate them into the action.
you can build your scene by logically asking
yourself what parts of landscape would be impacted by
this chase or fight, or gunplay, or attack. Not only does
it reinforce the authenticity of an action scene,
but it also intensifies the experience for the
Which is the object of all literary
Right! And here I was, thinking I could just scan a
couple of the chapters relevant to my needs and skip the
rest. Oh, the arrogance!
I hold the book in my hand now; there are no less the six
dozen page flags sticking out, marking my notes. I
cant believe, now, that I thought I wouldnt
need all 260 pages of this book.
This is, in fact, what all writers risk doing, if they
find themselves lodged (comfortably, usually) inside one
narrative genre or another: they automatically assume
that the needs of writers outside their own genres can
only be of tangential use to them.
The lesson I learned that week is far more dramatic: if
you take a walk in the park only during the day, there
are only so many things youre going to notice. But
take a walk in the same park just once during the night,
and paradoxically, youll see so much more than you
ever did when the light was bright and natural.
This is, above all, the reason why any writer should step
outside her chosen worldview from time to time. We all
have much to learn from each other, but it cant be
a very effective education unless we accept that there is
always more to learn.
For instance, Tracy Knights chapter on the mistakes
writers make in using mental illness to shape their
characters goes well beyond a simple discourse on the
difference between the neurotic and the psychotic. In
fact, Knight promotes the writers careful use of
the best reference available on mental illness, the
DSM-III, hoping that through the thoughtfulness of
creative writers, certain enduring stereotypes about
mental illness might be avoided.
What writer, regardless of genre, couldnt use this
kind of guidance? All writers benefit from a better
understanding of the inner workings of human nature.
On Writing Horror covers tremendous ground, and its
organization belies its success as a writing manual. The
book is divided into broader sections addressed by
various essays on the subject. Part One, Horror,
Literature, and Horror Literature, offers three
very different overviews of the genre from Joyce Carol
Oates, Stephen King and Michael McCarty. This
deconstructionist approach (yes, I know, thats a
lit-crit term if I ever heard one) makes the book
extremely accessible, something worth turning to again
Besides the guest essays, the book also includes an
excellent canon of 21 must-read horror works, both
classic and contemporary, from prolific author Robert
Weinberg. This list cites heavyweights recognizable not
only in the horror realm but in the literary realm as
well: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Ray Bradbury, Richard
For me, the sections on crafting horror and on genre and
subgenre were immensely illuminating as well.
Yes, Ill admit it: I have since revised my idea of
what writing horror is all about. No, I still dont
go in for splatter and I will probably never write a
piece of so-called redneck horror. (Question: Might that
be what literary author Flannery OConnor birthed
when she wrote A Good Man is Hard to Find?)
What I will do is assign more respect for genres outside
my typical purview.
And once Im done with my fast-food massacre essay,
I think Ill take a look at both romance and mystery
writing for ways to inform other projects. All good
storytelling employs elements of mystery, right? As for
romance, I have a feeling that, just as I have learned
from the horror category, theres far more to
explore than the simple rip of a bodice.
It never hurts to look beyond what you imagine. What we
understand about genre is always in flux, but it's from
that amorphous territory that we, as writers, can expand
our abilities, if only we are willing to learn.TKS
On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers
Revised Edition ©2007 Writer's Digest Books
Mort Castle, editor
260 pp., trade paperback, $16.99
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