I completely love this post from Brendan Gannon, where he talks about an unremarkable anthology called 50 Short Science Fiction Tales and the disproportionately long shadow it’s cast in his life:
[... My] taste in sci-fi has been defined by those 50 short stories. My view of the entire genre is filtered through some pulp stories two guys threw together fifty years ago. Not because I haven’t read other sci-fi, but because, for lack of other books, I read 50 Short Science Fiction Tales so many freaking times. Recently I wrote my first short science fiction story, and it could pass for one of the stories in this book.
God, you’re thinking, Brendan sure likes to talk about himself. You’re right, but I also have a point. Your book could be someone else’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales. Any book could be. Right now, there are people at summer camps looking for something to read. People picking up mass markets paperbacks in bus stations. Bored kids on summer vacation, miles from the nearest bookstore and broke besides. They don’t care whether a book was tossed off quickly for the advance or was slaved over for years by a passionate author. They don’t care when the book was published or what the reviewers said. For lack of anything better, they are about to give their undivided attention to some random paperback.
Right now if you self-publish you’re going to put in a lot of sweat and tears and your book will be awash in a sea of questionable quality. If you get a traditional book deal, your advance will probably be smaller than it would have been a few years ago, and the shelf space on which your book will appear shrinks every month. In other words, there are lots of challenges to face. But ebooks are forever. You never know when something you published will change someone’s life. You never know when something you published might get discovered by the perfect fans and become a commercial success. You might never know at all: Theodore Sturgeon will probably never know that he helped shape my taste in reading and writing. But remember, when you look over disappointing sales figures and reflect on the immense challenge of marketing on your own work, that every time you publish you are changing someone’s life.
I keep forgetting to mention — I finally did see the Fright Night remake a few weeks back. Loved it. I liked the changes they made — I thought they made for a tighter, better story, over all. And I also very much appreciated the fact that it managed to be both funny and scary.
That’s had me thinking ever since — what’s the relationship between humor and horror? Why do the two work together so well?
Mind you, it doesn’t always work. The Scream movies, for example, did a very good job with a particularly fine bit of tightrope-walking — completely mocking the conventions of the genre and being very, very self-aware while somehow managing, just barely, to keep suspension of disbelief from crashing down. On the other hand, the parodies they spawned, the Scary Movie series, don’t try to provide any suspension disbelief at all, so they definitely fail as horror — which, to be fair, they aren’t trying to be — but, for me, fail as comedy as well. They completely take me out of the moment, break the illusion of story that I’m looking for.
Give me a movie that does its best to scare you and make you laugh, that never feels like it has to sacrifice one for the other.
The two emotional reactions are really not that far apart. How many times has some friend crept up behind you to make you jump? And once you’re done jumping out of your skin, you burst into laughter — “Man, you scared the hell out of me!” A lot, right?
Comedy and terror both rely on some of the same tricks. Both of them rely on building tension — tension between what’s supposed to happen, what you’d expect to happen — and what really is happening.
F’rinstance, let’s say we’ve got a scene where Our Heroine is working as a waitress, and her boss has been yelling at her, and now a customer is being a real jerk to her — we know what’s supposed to happen. She’s supposed to just suck it up and do her job, and stay calm and graceful as possible — maybe defuse the situation as best she can, maybe just quietly take the verbal abuse and move on. Buuuut instead she takes the pie she’s carrying and shoves it in the guy’s face! We laugh, because she’s not supposed to do that. She’s crossed a line, done something transgressive.
Ahh, but. Now it’s later that night, and she’s home alone and talking on the phone to her boyfriend, and again, we know what’s supposed to happen. She’s supposed to be able to just sit and relax and enjoy her phone call. She can let her guard down — she’s at home, this is her safe place. Buuuut instead a guy in a mask suddenly jumps out of her closet with a knife. That’s not supposed to happen, either. That’s pretty damned transgressive. That guy? He’s definitely crossed a line.
In a way, the only difference between humor and horror is how much is at stake. In the first situation, the stakes are social. Really, the consequence is that she might lose her job, or she might just lose face. But in the second situation — she really might lose her face, if you see what I mean.
That kind of tension is what drives everything in the two genres. And you can take that kind of tension and keep building it up and up within a scene. Maybe she’s having a funny misunderstanding with her boyfriend on the phone, and the more they talk around it the more confused it gets, and maybe that tension keeps building. And maybe the masked killer doesn’t leap out at her right away — maybe we, the audience, know that he’s just inches away as she gets undressed to go to bed, and that tension keeps building.
You build the tension and finally release it. In humor, that comes with a punchline. In horror, that comes with a knife in the chest. The two can go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
By way of an introduction — this a piece I wrote years ago, late at night in a sudden, ranting burst of frustration at some of the thought patterns I kept falling into, and that I kept seeing the people around me getting trapped by as well. I originally sent it out as an e-mail to just about everyone I knew, but eventually let myself be persuaded to post it here at Bloodletters.
I eventually took it down — I spun it off to a site of its own, until I accidentally let the domain name lapse. I’ve always liked these words, but I’ve never been convinced they belong here. This was a site where I talked about writing, after all, not about advice for life in general.
But every day, I can see in my search logs that people are still coming here to this site to read this essay. It struck a nerve, and people are still passing around a long-dead link. Besides that, the more I write about self-publishing lately — the more I realize that this is advice that self-publishers definitely need to take to heart. So, that said — here it is.
You can be happy. You can live the life you want to live. You can become the person you want to be.
This is what I’ve figured out so far.
Stop assigning blame. This is the first step. Stop assigning blame and leave the past behind you.
You know whose fault it is that your life isn’t perfect. Your boss. Your teachers. Your ex-lovers. The ones who hurt you, the ones who abused you, the ones who left you bleeding. Or even yourself. You know whose fault it is — you’ve been telling yourself your whole life. Knowing whose fault it is that your life sucks is an excellent way to absolve yourself of any reponsibility for taking your life into your own hands.
Forget about it. Let it go. The past isn’t real. “That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” If we’re not talking about something that is real and present and in your liferight now, then it doesn’t matter. Nothing can be done about it. If nothing can be done about it, then don’t spend your energy dwelling on it — you have other things to do.
I may sound cruel, I may sound simplistic, I may sound like I’m saying you should just “get over it,” by suggesting that you should let go of your past. I’m sorry for that. But life won’t hold still and wait for you to lick your wounds. The race is still being run. Get up and keep moving. You can’t do anything about yesterday.
You can do something about tomorrow. And about the next day. Focus your energies there.
“I don’t have time to write.” “I can’t dance.” “I can’t talk to new people.” “I’m not attractive.”
I hear this all the time. I always hear the people around me sabotaging themselves, drawing lines and borders and boxes around themselves.
To which I say, make the time; dance; just talk to people; be attractive!
Yes, again, it’s simplistic of me to say that. But it’s simplistic of you to so easily say what you cannot do!
We’re excellent pattern-matchers. That’s what the human mind does — it’s a pattern-matching engine. So we look at ourselves, at our history, at our behaviors, and we draw straight lines between the points — we assume that just because we’ve done things a certain way in the past, we’ll always do them that way in the future. If we’ve failed before, we’ll always fail.
Surprise yourself. No — amaze yourself.
You don’t have to keep doing the things you hate. Why go home and beat yourself up for, say, not going over and saying a few words to someone you find really attractive? Can any damage they could do to you by rejecting you possibly be any worse than the damage you’re going to do to yourself for missing the chance?
Find the demon.
Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the little voice in the back of your head that’s always whispering, “You can’t.” You know the demon. You may think you hate the demon, but you don’t. You love it. You let it own you. You do everything it says. Everytime there’s something you want, you consult the demon first, to see if it will say, “You can’t have that.”
What you don’t realize is that your demon doesn’t know anything. It’s an idiot. It’s nothing but a parrot, repeating back to you anything negative that it’s ever heard, anything that makes you hurt, makes you squirm. If a teacher once told you “You’ll never accomplish anything,” it was listening; it hoards words like that and repeats them back to you to watch you jump. It doesn’t know what it’s saying. It doesn’t care.
You can take me literally or not, as suits you. But do, please, the next time you hear that voice in your head, imagine it, visualize it, as something physical that you can get hold of; tear it out of you, feel its fingers weaken and lose their grip on your spine, and grind it to dust, to nothing, under your boot heel on your way out to dance in the streets.
You can. You think you can’t; but it’s telling you that. You can.
You don’t exist.
You just think you do.
We’re nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. We know in our hearts what kind of people we are, what we’re capable of, because we’ve told ourselves what kind of people we are. You’re a carefully-rehearsed list of weaknesses and strengths you’ve told yourself you have.
(Self-confidence, for example, is a particularly nebulous quality you can easily talk yourself out of having.)
You owe no allegiance to that self-image if it harms you. If you don’t like the story your life has become — tell yourself a better one.
Think about the person you want to be and do what that person would do. Act the way that person would act.
Amazingly enough, once you start acting like that person, people will start treating you like that person.
And you’ll start to believe it. And then it will be true.
Welcome to your new self.
You are a product of your environnent.
Most people realize this — usually, in the form of having something else to blame — but they tend to forget one important fact:
Humans are the masters of changing their environment.
What this means is that if your environment affects you, and you can affect your environment, then obviously, you can affect yourself.
You are not an object. You are a system. Like with any system, if you change the inputs — change what goes into it — you’ll change what comes out.
Despite everything I’ve just said:
Self-examination can be paralysis.
Don’t “remember to breathe” — just breathe. It’s a Tao thing.
It’s the paradox at the center of all this — remember that, “Am I living up to being the person I want to be?”, is not a question the person you want to be would ask.
If I can leave you with just one thought, it’s this:
Stop wasting your time fretting over not being happy.
Just be happy.
You might remember about a month ago, I won a tiny little writing contest over at Chuck Wendig’s blog. (Or, okay, you might not remember. Yeah, I know it was a while ago, and I know you’ve had a lot on your mind lately, and — no, I don’t expect you to keep track of “every little thing I jot down,” why would you even say that? You know what, look, you’re taking this way too seriously, just calm the hell down for a minute.)
I won a couple of free e-books of his writing advice, Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey and 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, which I’ve been working my way through relatively slowly, mainly because reading them tends to make me put them aside and go write or edit something. So there’s that.
But he also promised “(1) Penmonkey postcard sent to you via Jolly Olde Snail Mail, and on this postcard I will ink a random thought about writing all for you. I might also pass out on the postcard and smear it with drool.” And, true to his word — about the sending part, I don’t know about the drool part — I received the postcard just this past Friday. Pictures below. (Including, by his fiat, a picture of me licking the postcard.)
I asked him if I could share the contents of said postcard with you all or if I should keep it all to my greedy little self, and he said it was mine, I could do whatever I wanted with it. I briefly pondered selling it on eBay — “Valuable Piece of Writing Advice from Published Author, only one owner, near mint” — but then I remembered that he gives away tons of writing advice for free on his blog, so that coin might be a little, ahhhh, devalued, is what I’m trying to say, here. (In the nicest way possible.)
. . . . No, I’m kidding. I wouldn’t part with this — I won it! And besides, it will be a keepsake to treasure for years — someday I’ll be able to pull this out, smile fondly, and say, “Oh, man, remember back when we had a Post Office?”
Good times. Good times.
Anyway — you’re here for the writing advice, I’m sure, and here you go. The front of the card reads:
I am the Commander of these words.
I am the King of this story.
I am the God of this place.
I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.
And the flipside reads:
Herr Doktor Montoure:
To you, I bequeath this single-service nugget of writing advice:
WRITE WITHOUT FEAR.
Hang it up on the clothesline for all to see. All of it. Too few write from a place of discomfort.
A couple things strike me about this:
Firstly, “Herr Doktor Montoure” is what a friend of mine used to call me in school. No, seriously. I can therefore only assume that Wendig has been stalking me since I was sixteen, or that he has extensive files on everyone he sends mail to. Extensive files.
Secondly, that’s damn fine advice, all right. Something that I’ve been trying to tell myself for years, and it’s nice to have a reminder staring at me from my corkboard. I mustn’t be afraid when I write a story. (That’s your job.)
Well said, Mr. Wendig. I promise I will always write from a place of discomfort. Like the back seat of a Volkswagen.
Ten years ago, when everything came crashing down, I was paralyzed. Frozen in analysis and self-doubt. Along with the same concerns that everyone else had, the same grief, the same fears for the country and how our government would react — on top of all that, I kept asking myself –
What the hell am I doing with my life?
Suddenly, wanting to write stories to entertain people seemed like . . . an incredibly trivial thing to do. An almost obscenely trivial thing. Out of the narrative that was emerging from the events of that day, I kept hearing about genuine, real-life heroes, people who risked and sometimes even lost their lives for the sake of helping others. How was what I was doing important or useful at all? Wasn’t it just the idle pastime of a privileged first-worlder?
And worse yet — I wrote horror fiction. God, why? How could I justify writing horror as entertainment when there was so much real, genuine horror going on in the world?
It took a few months, but I finally managed to shake myself out of it and move on. Whether I liked it or not, I was a writer. That was something I couldn’t change. I couldn’t reshape myself into something I thought was more useful or important to society.
I realized, as well, that I was being tremendously short-sighted in dismissing what I do as useless.
We tell each other stories. It’s what we do. That, more than anything else, is what I think makes us human. Stories are the dreams of the world. The same way your mind sorts out everything it can’t process in the waking hours by weaving dreams, we sort out all of our issues and fears and hopes and desires in the stories we spin.
Why? People ask me. Why do you watch horror movies, just to watch people get attacked? To watch somebody get murdered with an axe?
I don’t. I watch horror movies to watch people get away from the danger, to face absolute fear and triumph over it.
As I’ve quoted before, Brian Eno calls art the rehearsal of empathy. ”You’re rehearsing a repertoire of feelings that you might have about things, of ways of reacting to things, of how it would feel to be in this situation,” he writes. “How it would feel to be in that person’s place? What would I have done? Such questions are the most essential human questions.”
Maybe horror fiction is more than just the rehearsal of empathy. Maybe it’s the rehearsal of hope.
Monsters are real. They wear human skin and they walk around among us unseen until it’s too late, until they murder a loved one or kidnap a child or, as we found out ten years ago, until they fly a plane into a building.
Maybe the most important thing I can do with my life, after all, is to tell people that monsters can be beaten.
I am a storyteller, and my kind has been with the tribe since the very beginning. It’s my job, when everyone is gathered around the fire at night, to stand at the edge of the darkness and stare into it, and come back and tell tales about what I saw. And I think maybe the stories are what give us the strength to keep going, to stoke the flames and build them higher, and keep pushing the darkness back.
Ever since I started really trying to reach out to other writers on Twitter, I’ve read a lot of writers’ bios. A lot of them. I can’t help but notice some of the same phrases show up over and over again, and sure, that’s totally understandable — there are only so many ways you can describe yourself in 160 characters.
But there’s one phrase that makes me grind my teeth in annoyance every single time I trip across it. So, please, just for me, for the sake of my dentist’s bills –
Please stop saying you’re an “aspiring writer.”
Why, you’re wondering? What’s wrong with that? Let me tell you.
See, I know what you’re trying to say. What you probably mean is, you haven’t been published yet. Or, maybe you’ve had a couple of pieces published here and there, but you haven’t landed that big book deal yet. That’s cool. I get it. Everybody starts somewhere, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me myself.
But that really doesn’t matter. What you’re doing every time you call yourself an “aspiring writer” is that you’re apologizing, you’re trying to warn people — “Oh, hey, listen — I’m not a real writer yet.”
To hell with that. Yes, you are.
I know you don’t feel like you’ve gotten there yet. I know you’re holding out for that moment, whatever it is — when you first get a check for your writing, or when you first hold a magazine in your hands that has one of your stories in it, or when you first see one of your books in a bookstore. Then, then you’ll stop being an “aspiring writer” and you’ll just finally be a “writer,” full stop, no qualifiers.
I’m not even going to talk about the fact that in these days of vanishing book-store chains and rising self-publishers, the defining lines are becoming increasingly blurry. All I’m gonna say is, that day you’re waiting for is never gonna get here. If you’ve got that little voice inside your head telling you that you’re not a “real writer” yet, then that same little voice is going to keep moving the damn goalposts. ”Oh, sure,” it’ll tell you, “you finally sold a book, but you don’t have a three-book contract yet.” Or, “okay, fine, you’re selling your stories, but not enough to make a living on, not like real writers do.”
Just stop it. Stop listening to that voice, don’t play its games any more.
And for God’s sake, stop advertising the fact. Stop telling people like me that you’re not really a writer yet, so we’ll stop thinking, “Oh, well, okay, thanks — I won’t take you seriously, then.” Because that’s the automatic reaction.
I’m pretty sure it’s the exact opposite of the reaction you want. You probably say that you’re an “aspiring writer” because you’ve decided that’s what’s important to you, that’s what you’re working on.
Good. I think that’s awesome. Just stop waiting for your notarized Official Writer Certificate to arrive in the mail.
Here’s the only criterion — do you write? Stories, articles, poems, whatever you’ve set out to do, do you write? Put the words down on the page, finish what you start, get the job done?
Then you’re a writer.