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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


It was 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 hadn’t 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 inspiration?

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. I’ve 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 the occult.

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 “powerful…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 Dickinson.

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, we’re all liars. Tell the truth as you see it. Cut open the emotional apple and find the core, not the skin. It’s not the event, it’s how you feel about the event… This way, you’re writing a life, but you’re telling a greater truth.

Or turn to page 99, in a discussion about Engaging the Environment:

The key is to find artifacts in the environment… 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 reader. …Which is the object of all literary technique, right?

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 can’t believe, now, that I thought I wouldn’t 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 you’re going to notice. But take a walk in the same park just once during the night, and paradoxically, you’ll 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 can’t be a very effective education unless we accept that there is always more to learn.

For instance, Tracy Knight’s 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 writer’s 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, couldn’t 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, that’s a lit-crit term if I ever heard one) makes the book extremely accessible, something worth turning to again and 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 Matheson.

For me, the sections on crafting horror and on genre and subgenre were immensely illuminating as well.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I have since revised my idea of what writing horror is all about. No, I still don’t 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 O’Connor 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 I’m done with my fast-food massacre essay, I think I’ll 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, there’s 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


REVIEWED:
On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
Revised Edition 2007 Writer's Digest Books
Mort Castle, editor
ISBN-13: 978-1-58297-420-0
260 pp., trade paperback, $16.99




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