Master of Horror

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Dialogue: Make Your Characters Come To Life

Dialogue is just as important as action, characterisation or scenery in the world of a writer: it is dialogue which brings our characters to life, can make them get up and walk right off the page.

But dialogue alone will not do it. It’s not just a matter of ‘he-said-she-said-he…’. Think for a moment, and you’ll get what I mean.

When you’re talking to someone, be it a short conversation or discussing a detailed plan of action with the spy across the road, do you really sit there and simply talk…with no movement, no revealing expressions on your faces or in your eyes?

No, you don’t. Let’s consider, for a moment, you’re in a restaurant, having a cup of coffee while you’re talking. You will pick up your coffee, put sugar in the cup, stir it, light a cigarette or pipe (if you smoke), or maybe look away at another table due to a sudden noise. And this is the secret: WHILE YOU’RE TALKING, YOU’RE DOING THINGS.

Don’t believe me or don’t think it’s important? Then take a walk to the nearest coffee-shop and sit down for five minutes…look around you, at the other customers in the shop. Are they sitting there, staring fixedly into each other’s eyes, and simply talking? If they are, then they’re not human! They’re automated machines, incapable of doing anything other than the task their programmer has set them to do. But they are MOST DEFINITELY NOT HUMAN!

Let your characters live; let them do the little things we all do while speaking, and bring them to life. Too many times, we writers forget the reader wants to be entertained, wants to believe what is taking place on the page is actually happening. And in order for him/her to believe it, we must give them the colour and movement which goes with life. For even though our characters may be involved in the most high-level, secret conversation that ever took place in the history of our world, they are still living, breathing, moving, observing, thinking, and the myriad other things people do at such times.

These little movements may seem unimportant, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot; but they are important, because without them, our characters are NOT LIVING.

So before you write that best-seller and send it off to the publisher, put movement into it. If you don’t, the odds are you’ll see that well-known rejection slip instead of a contract.

This advice comes from experience, folks: I’ve always included those tiny little hints of life in my stories, and I’ve only had one rejection-slip, and that was way back in the 80’s. And when I re-read the story after it was rejected, I realised I would have rejected it too. It had no life, no movement, no stopping to sigh or take a deep breath or scratch at an itch in the left ear…and I know I’m right, because I’ve had 36 novels published; and I’ve actually offered 36 for publication. Lesson? Movement works. And because it works, and because I go to the trouble of including it, and describe EXACTLY what is taking place in my imagination, right down to the smallest movement, I know the remaining 39 novels I’ve written so far will also be published.

So do yourself a favour: let your characters be human, and live. You won’t regret it.

Adrian Scott  

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Which Person Are You?

First, apologies for not blogging for several days. My only excuse is that writers’ block gets all of us at one time or another.

But now to the subject of ‘person’ – that is, whether to write in the first, second or third person. I think we all have a natural ‘person’ in which we choose to write, and it usually turns out to be the one you feel most comfortable with – the one you normally ‘collapse’ into as soon as you pick up the pen.

Raymond Chandler (creator of the highly-successful Philip Marlowe series of crime novels) wrote in the first person. But the problem with this is the protagonist can’t possibly know what’s taking place elsewhere, unless he/she is some kind of psychic. So you’re restricted to launching surprise after surprise on the poor guy. The other problem is that you can’t really create an all-defeating, all-conquering Jame Bond type or the reader will soon get sick of the constant bragging (which is what victory after victory will come to look like). For myself, I wrote one series of novels – the Society of Vampires series – in the first person, and thoroughly enjoyed it, because I could beat ‘myself’ up unmercifully, put ‘me’ through all degrees of Hell, yet come out on top in the end. It’s worth a look, at least, if you’re considering trying  writing in this style. And didn’t Hannibal Lecter say ‘we should all try everything at least once?’

The second person is interesting: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very successful at it, in having the ever-present Dr Watson write about what he saw his ‘friend,’ Sherlock Holmes, doing. In this person, you can make the protagonist – Dr Watson – look like a real twit, and get away with it as he is constantly astounded by Holmes’ brilliance. Another writer who used it successfully was Rex Stout: he had Archie Goodwin, butler and all-around gopher, doing the dirty work for his boss, Nero Wolf, who always revealed the real crim in the final chapter, as all good detectives should. It’s a technique I’ve never used, but constantly keep promising myself someday I will.  

Now we come to the most popular, as far as writers are concerned, and that is the third person: in this format, you can be all-knowing, as you’re telling the tale from the point-of-view of someone who is reporting what is happening all the time, everywhere – there is nothing you don’t know, but at the same time you can totally confuse your protagonist, leave him/her dumbfounded, and get away with it. You can also make your protagonist the most heroic, muscle-bound, deadly person who ever walked or, conversely, the most evil, sadistic person the world ever will see, and you – the teller – are not ‘held to blame’ for what that protagonist does. Nor are you ‘held to blame’ for what another character does to the protagonist. It’s a bit like being a reporter – carrying the message of what happened in that awful car-crash, causing the reader to feel the emotions you want them to feel, be they sadness, deep sorrow or raging happiness – and that’s all you are: the messenger. It is, by far, the easiest person in which to write. And, to judge from the number of novelists who’ve chosen to write in the third person, the most popular for the very reason I stated: it allows the writer to know all that is happening, even if those events are in six places at once.

But the best advice I can give, my friends, is try them all: find the one in which you feel the most comfortable, and go for it. But don’t do yourself the dis-service of not, at least, trying them all. I mean, if it was good enough for old Dr Lecter, then who are we to say ‘nay’?

Adrian Scott  

Writer’s Block – What To Do?

Writer’s block hits all of us at one time or another. it’s not uncommon, but it can be overcome.

When I hit the ‘brick wall,’ and my writing skill seems to disappear out the nearest window, I usually put aside the story on which I’m trying – vainly – to work; keeping on with it will only cause annoyance, sometimes anger, and frustration.

My trick for breaking the ‘curse’ when my Muse decides to take a holiday, and simply won’t give them the words I need to go on, is to put aside whatever it is I’m trying – vainly – to force my way through, and go on to something else, such as editing that story which has been waiting for months for me to perform just that task.

And it usually works: just getting away from whatever you’re working on is enough to clear the fog from your mind, refresh your thinking, and allow you time to take a deep breath, get away from the story that’s giving you ‘Hell,’ and have a day or two off.

The ability to write will return – in its own time. I think it’s your brain’s way of telling you “I need a holiday; just a short one, please.”

So give it that holiday. it will do a world of good!

Adrian Scott  

Man or Superman?

Can a man perform feats beyond the normal capabilities of a human being? Can he lift a Sherman tank, leap over a ten-foot high fence or swim from Australia to New Guinea, regardless of the sharks and crocodiles confronting him on the way?

You might say the answer is “No,” and you’d be right – under normal circumstances. So how do you give a man the power to do these things, while at the same time making it believable enough for the reader to accept?

Spiderman, for example, would have remained an everyday person with no more powers than your or I – if he hadn’t been bitten by a spider subjected to nuclear energy that changed its molecular structure in such a way its venom became something else. And Clark Kent would have been plain-and-simple Clark Kent, journalist, if he hadn’t migrated from a distant planet with a much heavier gravitational pull than our own Earth.

And therein lies the secret: you have to permit something to happen to Everyday Fred Nerk before he attempts his astounding feats: something which will explain how he is now able to achieve tasks a normal man can only dream about.

Of course, it is known that a man, driven – possibly – by the sight of his two-year old daughter trapped beneath the wheel of a Ford Escort, and knowing she will die within the next minute if something is not done to free her from the enormous weight pressing down on her tiny body; in such cases, one man has actually performed the impossible, and lifted the vehicle long enough for another to drag her free. But a tank? 

This is where the advantages of being a writer of horror/supernatural novels comes in handy, for at your fingertips lie the unknown secrets of witchcraft, reincarnation, magic, and all those other often-mentioned yet disbelieved sources of miracles which can achieve the effect you want, and give a man, for just the briefest of time, the power to do what he has to.

But you cannot take an average, six-foot tall, 140-pound man, and have him become a performer of deeds beyond belief unless something first intervenes to turn him into the type of being needed to do so. Have this event occur in such a way that the reader is permitted, while he or she reads the story, to accept what the reader knows cannot happen; have a spell cast upon him; have him reincarnated as  Hercules; have him drink that magic potion designed to increase his strength tenfold; then you can have him lift that car or leap that twenty-foot tall obstruction betwixt him and his love. 

But whatever you do, do not take him from behind his desk where he works as an accountant from nine to five each day, walk outside, see the huge, hungry lion about to attack and tear his child apart – and go into action, leaving the lion a shattered wreck on the footpath. It won’t work, and your novel almost certainly won’t be published…or if it is, it won’t sell enough copies to reimburse you for the postage it cost to send the manuscript to your publisher in the first place!   

And this applies to more everyday events, such as twins who have the ability to read each other’s minds, for example. We’ve heard tales of such things happening, more than once. But let’s say one twin is kidnapped by a gang of terrorists and stuck in an underground prison specially designed for her. Then let’s say the other twin goes to the local police, and tells them: “I’ve just read my sister’s mind, and she sent me an image of where she’s being held,” and have the policeman say: “Oh, good! Let’s go get her!” 

Seriously, folks, it ain’t gonna work – no way! Not unless, beforehand, you have examples in your story – with the same policeman as a witness: examples of one twin reading the other’s mind; examples that are good enough to convince him that the only way for Twin B to know what Twin A was looking at or touching or smelling or experiencing would be if Twin B was actually reading Twin A’s mind. And you have to eliminate all other possibilities as well – possibilities such as pre-arranged trickery or the twins giving each other clues or pre-arranged signals. 

Then you can have Twin B walk into the policeman’s home and tell him “I saw my sister kidnapped, and I can take you directly to her.” But it will only work If the policeman has seen undeniable proof beforehand that the twins actually do have this capability.

And that is my tip for the day: how to make the impossible possible. The secret lies in setting the stage.

Adrian Scott

Characters: Should You ‘Paint’ Them?

Throughout history, writers have gone to heaps of trouble describing their characters – especially the principal ones, such as hero, heroine, and antagonist – in great detail. But I’ve resisted that urge, for one very good reason (at least, to me, it’s a very good reason).

I never describe characters beyond the lifting of an eyebrow or perhaps having long, slender fingers because I figure that, should I describe my hero as tall, with long wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, and cupid’s-bow lips, that may be a good description of what I take a hero to look like…but it may not be what the reader sees as a typical hero. And that especially applies to my female readers. they may prefer short, black-haired men with spectacles perched on their noses and a carnation in their buttonhole. So by describing my hero to fit with what I see a typical hero as looking like, I may, in fact, be describing what a reader sees as a villain. And that would ruin the story for the reader.

There are actually two exceptions: one was Lord Tarkus, the 1400-year old vampire ruler from my Society of Vampires series. I wanted him to have long, shoulder-length white hair, brushed straight back, be short, but powerfully-built, and given to wearing suits with a blue sash diagonally across his chest and a silver medal on it, so I described him as such. (It has just occurred to me that I probably got my description from Granpa, in the old television series, The Addams Family. Oh, well…

The other exception was Mason Thurlow, whom I described as shaven-headed, dark eyebrows, seven feet eleven inches tall, and very powerfully built. They are the only two characters I created and described, because it seemed important to me.

Yes, I took a risk, and I broke my own rule of never describing a character fully, in order to give the reader as much opportunity as possible to put their own imagination into the story. But they were two characters I wanted described accurately. And they were the only two.

The easy way to test this theory is the same way I’ve done it in the past: get a group of people together – I did, in one of my creative writing classes, back when I had the time to teach and to write – and have them write out a description of their typical hero, heroine, and villain. You’ll find, with even as few as two participants, those descriptions will vary greatly.

So no, I don’t believe in describing characters. I may be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time. But until 99% of my readers come back at me and say: “We want your heros to look like such-and-such,” I’ll go on doing it the way I have. But in saying that, I of course acknowledge we all have the right to think our own thoughts, and there are probably many, many people out there who’d disagree with me.

And I’m always open to criticism: another rule I have is ‘always listen to the readers’. So whether you want to agree or disagree, let me know on ian64832@optusnet.com.au.

I promise…I will listen.

Adrian Scott   

Where Do Stories Come From?

ImageStories come, often from the strangest places. One source – not so strange – is the newspaper.

Back in 1999, I read a report of somebody sighting a panther in the bush. Yup, that’s right…a big, black, tooth-wearing, man-eating, ‘orrible panther.

I did some research, as I do with all my novels, and found the first reported sighting in Australia was back in 1840.

The boffins think a circus visited our fair country around that time, and one of their big (black?) cats either became lame or too old to work. So they turned it loose in the scrub, where it thrived. I mean, it had no natural enemies out here, did it? You could hardly see a dingo taking one on; and the fox – introduced by our pommy ancestors so they could go fox-hunting – was no match.

Eventually, our big black man-eating cat mated with a feral cat, and whaddya know? Down through our brief but bloody history, we have sightings, frequently, of big black cats roaming the countryside.

Anyway, to cut a short story long (I always did like doing things back-the-front) I wrote a novel based on the first report and set in Bathurst NSW; in 1840, and involving a British Lord who couldn’t keep his pants buttoned up when around other men’s wives and a retired Irish policeman hunting a panther in the Lithgow area, near the Blue Mountains.

Now, all these years later, my daughter, who lives in Bundaberg – 300k’s from Brisbane – sent me a photo of yesterday’s Bundaberg News-Mail, with a photo of a story about a panther sighted in the area. she also tells me she and her hubby, who is a mad crazy hunter, have both sighted panthers at one time or another, so I dug out the manuscript of my novel – entitled, what else, but Panther? – and have sent it to my publisher, Rebecca J Vickery.

So if you want a good read – at least, Rebecca tells me my novels are such – let’s all start tossing rocks on her roof and giving her no peace until she cries “Enough! Enough! I’ll publish Panther!” and does so.

Thank you, News-Mail of Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, for reminding me of that novel. And thank you to my daughter for sending me the photo attached to this post.

Now all we have to do is hope Rebecca takes the bait!

Adrian Scott 

Plotting and Planning – To Be Or Not To Be?

ImageI’m often asked how much plotting goes into each full-length novel, and I have to be truthful about it: absolutely none.

Even when I was writing short stories, and I started writing them when I was about nine years old, I never planned a story in my life.

Often I started with no more than a title, as in the case of ‘White Shroud of Death,’ which has not been offered for publication yet. But I ended up writing a full-length novel, set against Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Borodino in 1817, and his subsequent capture of the city of Moscow. And not one word of it was planned.

In the case of the Mason Thurlow series of 12 novels, all I had to start with was his name, which seemed like a good name for a character. so I wrote him into a story I wrote back in the 1980’s, which was rejected; actually, it was the only story I’ve ever written that was rejected, so my planning – or lack of it – must work out ok; or more of them would’ve been rejected, huh? Anyway, I resurrected old Mason again in about 2009, and away we went with the series, until I reached a point, in novel 12, where I had put the poor guy through every imaginable disaster, and the only logical thing I could do with him was kill him off. So I did. And even as I was writing the penultimate chapter, I had no idea it would be his last appearance.

Then there was the DeVayne series – again, I haven’t offered them to Rebecca yet; we’ll get finished with Mason first, and then worry about them; what I had to start with was an image, in my mind, of a werewolf, hanging by one arm from the steeple of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. That became a 20,000 word short story. Then I decided it would make a good novel, so I rewrote it and stretched it to 100,000 words. My publisher at the time said: “It’s too long for an ebook; cut it in half and make two of it and we’ll publish.” So, again, I did…and then wrote another four to follow, making a 6-novel series of it.

But I do not plan, plot, scheme or otherwise create evil in advance; when I sit down at the computer, as I said, the words begin to flow – and away we go.

So if somebody tells you “You must plan in advance or your novel won’t work out,” don’t necessarily accept it as face; then again, don’t accept it as wrong either. I think it depends on the particular writer which way they want to do it. 

Now, what I MUST say, is that in the ‘twilight’ of my life – I’m 69 years old at the moment – I’ve finally become what I always wanted to be: a novelist. And before that, I put in 27 years of part-time internal and external university studies which, I believe, has polished my writing to a point where I can happily say “Rejection Slips don’t exist ’round here.”

But the person I give the most credit for turning me into a writer is a teacher named Mr Campbell, back when I was about 10 or 11 years old: while the rest of the class was working on their mathematics or history or social studies, I would tear out the middle pages of my exercise book, and get into writing a story. Mr Campbell would walk, with his hands behind his back, between the rows of desks, peering over each student’s shoulder at their work. But when he got to me, he knew I was never going to make a mathematician or social studies nut – history is a different matter as all  my novels are set against a specific time-period – so he just ignored my ‘sin’ and let me write. And if I were to meet Mr Campbell today, I would happily give him all I possess, if he wants it. I figure I owe it to him.

So that’s the story, folks. My characters might do a mountain of plotting and scheming, but their creator? No way! So if it works for you, go for it – who’s to say it won’t work out right?

Adrian Scott  

How do I do that? Well, I sit down at my computer, and start typing, and the words – and the plot – just seem to flow, from where I do not have the faintest idea. I write – or type – until I run out of things to say, usually around 10 – 10.30am; then stop. And I don’t think about the story again until 5am the next morning – when I sit down at the computer again, and look out! here come the words!

Sometimes I have to go back and change what I’ve already written, so it will fit with what i’m writing at the moment, but that’s a minor problem, and easily fixed. Then I plough on with the story until I reach a point where it seems logical I’ve done all I can with that particular story, so I end it.