About two weeks ago, I got the idea to revise my Seton Hill University thesis novel, DEATH PERCEPTION. But that created a dilemma for me: revise an old project, or work on a new one? Here’s how I came to my final decision.
Since graduating from the Writing Popular Fiction masters program in 2006, I had made several rounds of revisions on the book, a supernatural crime story. I would go through it and make a lot of changes, then I’d bury it again. I never felt it was complete. Certainly not good enough to be published. And frankly I was so sick of it I couldn’t gain any perspective. Am I improving it, or am I making it worse? I could never tell. After its mouldering in the grave for a good three years, I unearthed the manuscript once more, scraped off the decay, and decided to take another look.
I was suprised. Sure, there were a couple chapters that were clinkers, churned out under the pressure of a term deadline nearly a decade ago. But most of it was good. Really good. At one point, I thought, I can’t believe I wrote this…
Perhaps my skills and judgment have matured. More so, I think I’ve gained confidence in my abilities. Somewhere during my continuing studies and coming out process, I gained that perspective I needed to be able to judge my own work with a more objective eye.
And I discovered something uncanny. Those frustrating holes in my manuscript that I didn’t know how to fill in past revisions were suddenly waiting like placeholders for knowledge I now possessed. Someday I plan to blog about the prescient and prophetic aspects of fiction writing, but for now I’ll say that not only with THE SIXTH SEED, but also with DEATH PERCEPTION, plot situations that I wrote about years ago have come to pass in my personal life. Let me explain.
DEATH PERCEPTION is about a young man who operates the crematory at the local funeral home. He discovers he has a gift for discerning the cause of death of those he cremates. Not a big deal since they’re already dead. However, when what he discerns differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers.
Have I started to cremate the deceased in my spare time? No. (But the onsite research was fascinating!) Yet the abilities my protagonist Kennet Singleton develops—powers I wrote about from pure imagination a decade ago—I am now experiencing in my own life.
My study of spiritualism, mediumship, and healing through the Morris Pratt Institute is providing me with the knowledge I need to fill those holes in my manuscript. And having since experienced psychic phenomena for myself, I’m able to add realism to Kennet’s otherwordly perceptions. (For more about this, see “Visitation from the Summerland” at my other blog, Building the Bridge.)
So how did this create a dilemma for me?
I’ve been planning a new novel, DEAD CEMETERY, working on setting, plot, and characterization in my spare moments the past few months. I’m itching to spend more time on it, but am constrained by my spiritualism schoolwork. When I received the idea (actually, an intuitive prompting) to revise DEATH PERCEPTION, I felt it would only further postpone my work on the new book (which, of course, it is). But once I got into DEATH PERCEPTION, I realized that I might be able to finalize revisions and actually get it published.
So that’s what I decided to do: revise and publish DEATH PERCEPTION so that I will have something to market while I work on DEAD CEMETERY.
With the help of Spirit, I’m learning to spin plates like a real writer. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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All fiction seeks to get the reader to identify with story characters. But there’s a special element of identification in horror fiction. In horror stories, the emotions of the reader should mirror those of the story characters in a certain way. Here’s how to recognize and employ this technique in your writing.
In his dissertation, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990), Noel Carroll claims that “…[T]he appropriate reactions to the monsters in question comprise shuddering, nausea, shrinking, paralysis, screaming and revulsion. …This mirroring-effect… is a key feature of the horror genre” (p. 18).
Here are some common character emotional and physical reactions to the horrific that Carroll points out:
- dry mouth
- hair bristling
- heightened alertness
- increased respiration
- involuntary screaming
- momentary arrest
- muscular contractions (tensing)
- racing heart
- tingling (spine-tingling)
- being weak-kneed
Examples of Horrific Emotions
In Brian Keene’s Ghoul (Leisure, 2007), characters Pat and Karen are getting it on in a graveyard. (Note to reader: Bad idea.) When the monster arrives on the scene, we get these reactions:
Then the stench hit him. … It smelled like something rotting in an open grave. … Karen’s eyes grew wide, staring at something behind him. She screamed.
Without even describing the monster, Keene has encouraged reader identification with a nauseating smell. When Karen sees whatever it is behind Pat, her eyes go wide, prompting her to scream. So, without even describing “it,” we have the crucial emotion of horror displayed by character reaction. What your characters feel, your reader will feel.
From Scott Nicholson’s The Red Church (Pinnacle Books, 2002), little Ronnie and his brother are trying to escape a flying monster by heading into the dark woods. (Scared already, arent you?)
Something brushed his shoulder, and he bit back a shout. His body was electrified, sweat thick around his ankles and armpits and trickling down the ladder of his spine. The monster is going to get me.
Here we have the desire to scream, electrification, and sweating. All without seeing the monster. If your character is scared, so will be your reader.
And from my own The Sixth Seed (2011), we have the reaction of sweet six-year-old Emil who at first thinks he’s dreaming about being taken into a spaceship:
When he got real close, he noticed an opening like a door. Inside it stood some kids not much bigger than himself. Maybe as big as Whit. They looked like skeletons. Skeletons with big heads and bug eyes. They were looking at him, reaching out with their skinny arms and long fingers. One, two, three . . . three fingers and a thumb.
Emil barely felt the warm urine he released. It soaked his pajama pants and sprinkled down onto the backyard grass.
They reached for him, and all at once he thought he should be scared.
And then he was.
When the impure and threatening creatures reach for him, he wets himself—and his emotions catch up with his physical response. Scare the piss out of your character, and your reader will run for the bathroom.
Exercises for You to Practice
Print the previous bulleted list of horrific reactions so that you can use it as a checklist. Take three or four horror novels off your shelf and leaf through them, finding the places where your characters react in fear. Check off reactions from the list. Be sure to identify not only the explicit reactions, but ones that are implied. Which are most commonly used?
When you are writing a horror scene, stop to evaluate what your characters’ reactions might be. When crafting your character reactions, can you use ones that are not so commonplace? And your reactions must be tailored to your character; what scares one will not scare another. For instance, if your character is a herpetologist, she is not likely to react like a fashion model to a monster that is slimy or scaly. Put in the extra work, and find out what scares your characters as individuals. Your readers will break a sweat in fright—and love you for it.
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