Friday, May 18, 2012

How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (1987)

     How should I describe How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (1987)?
     Dated?  Sure, to a degree.  Unlike Crawford Killian's Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998), it doesn't waste time with instructions on how to set up a web browser.  It does, however, include at least separate cautions against submitting dot matrix printed manuscripts.  I can view this more nostalgically since I was stuck with a dot matrix printer into the late 1990s.  And while I had no qualms about submitting school work from it (stupid me), I would like to think I would have popped for the $6 to have a decent print job from Kinko's if I were submitting a manuscript from that era.
     The contributing authors, all of whom were members/contributors of the Writer's Digest classes or workshops, were surprisingly willing to demean and criticize not just the work of other authors (and most certainly filmmakers), but those writers themselves.  This strikes a much different note from more recent books that stress such concepts as not looking down on (other) published authors.  Apparently, in the early-to-mid 1980s, it was fine for there to be pure way to write horror – which is the primary format in which the contributors worked – and it was different from the way all those successful, mass market appeal authors.  Except for when they wanted to sing the praises of a Writer's Digest member who also sold a lot of books.
     There wasn't much in practical advice in terms of how to develop horror, fantasy, or science fiction.  I guess that is kind of par for the course with these books; an assumption that one writes in a genre because they have a deep and abiding love of it and can draw from their experiences of what other writers have done with it.  Sure, How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction does encourage prospective writers to read both good and bad genre writing.  How else is one supposed to know what to avoid?  More than that, one is supposed to gain a perspective as to which ideas have been ground into lifelessness – relying on an acceptance of cliché rather than anything the author could shape on his or her own.
     Even with its somewhat nebulous advice, I still found myself believing that I was better informed about different approaches to writing.  It is not filled with writing exercises that bog down writing classes (which have disputable positive impact beyond forcing one to write something), nor is it the how to format your manuscript book (very general advice on that topic).  It is mostly a varied group of authors – some quite famous – being somewhat joyful on the subject of writing.
     It is in giving me some insight into some of the published authors of the era (many of whom I had never heard of, let alone read their material).  As someone who is way behind in terms of his overall familiarity with what has been written – which comes from taking a decade long break from serious reading – I can use something like this as both a resource and a kick in the pants.  
     Now, for the quotes:

          "Technology poses no threat to the future of the book," said a 1984 
           report from the Library of Congress; but dull, uninspired or safe 
           fiction does. – p. 22, J.N. Williamson
     It is funny not just because technology is kicking the printed book's ass, but also because also because how how poorly the book was doing in Orwell's 1984.

           As with introducing a human character, you will need to bring out 
           the oddities of your alien gradually; remember that long strings of 
           adjectives are more like inventories than descriptions. – p. 58,
           Ardath Mayhar
     I would love for someone to print this out and paste it to the keyboards of certain writers.  Henry Lopez comes to mind.  "Heavy is the Head" is a prime example of a violation of this general principle.

          Don't mistake action for suspense.  A good novel must be filled 
          with action, and the characters must be kept in meaningful motion; 
          however, a tale can be composed of one gunfight and wild chase 
          after another yet be totally lacking in suspense.  Action becomes 
          suspenseful only if you write with a full understanding of the 
          following two truths: (1) suspense in fiction results primarily from 
          the reader's identification with and concern about lead characters 
          who are complex, convincing, and appealing; and (2) anticipation 
         of violence is infinitely more suspenseful than the violence itself.
         – p. 60, Dean R. Koontz

          There is nothing wrong with [daydream fiction].  (The only people 
          opposed to escape are jailers.) – p. 81, Darrell Schweitzer
     I just really like this general idea.  That fantasy (however one applies the term) is not inferior because it is fantasy.  It can only be inferior if it is written worse than the alternatives while having less to say.

          No writer has orchestrated terror in prose more carefully than 
          Lovecraft, but you won't learn how to write dialogue or deal 
          with character from him. – p. 97, Ramsey Campbell
     And now I understand why I don't think much of H.P. Lovecraft as an author.  Because I am all about character and dialogue (usually to the point that the plot gets washed away, which is a problem); I want those elements to be strong in what I read.

          Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit
          down to write, and then you won't be trapped into fearing the 
          blank page. – p. 99-100, Ramsey Campbell
     This may be the best general advice on how to proactively deal with writer's block.

          Unless you're fairly sure that you have an unstoppable need to 
          write, you're probably better off putting this book down and 
          going about your business. – p. 147, Alan Rodgers
     No need to sugar coat it, right?  Seriously, the contributors make quite a few efforts to let the reader know that the life of a writer may not be a great or profitable one.  Indeed, one of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his mobile home (using a gas powered generator for electricity because the power had been turned off).

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