Believe it or not, I get asked for writing advice a lot. Trust me. I’m as shocked as you are, dad. Now please stop reading this. You know how your parole officer says literacy gets you worked up.
Anyway, I’ve recently been corresponding with a young man named Sam in which I attempted to explain my method and (to steal a phrase from this dude, maybe you’ve heard a’him… Shakespeare), in a nutshell my writing process is:
“Rampant homophobia” and “treat women like obje-” Wait, no. These are my notes for if I find myself knee-deep in that rap game. My bad. Hold up…
This is just a coffee-stained napkin that says:
“Don’t forget to actually tell a story.”
It may seem like an obvious point but you’d be amazed by how many writers forget that step when first starting out. Wait, there’s another note on the back. It’s…
“Read Stephen King’s On Writing. Like most things, he already did this way better than you ever could.”
Well fuck you too, napkin.
“Something sucked their brains out? Let’s go there immediately!”
— Cecil, Good Bad Flicks
STEP ONE: DON’T FORGET TO ACTUALLY TELL A STORY
The “actually” up there is important because you can write a story and still forget to tell a story. Trust me. I’ve read quite a few of them in my day. As a form of karmic investment/mental masochism, I’ll read anyone’s rough draft and give them notes if they ask me nicely enough. Sort of like the film Pay It ForwardPay It Forward with Kevin Spacey.
The point is that you can dick around all you want but eventually the reader is going to demand more than well composed words to keep them vested in your work. And rightfully so because anything less is essentially public masturbation.
What most people want when they sit down to read a story is the same thing they want when they sit down to watch a show, or a movie, or maybe just to chat up an old friend. That thing is a sense of connection, a feeling of transcendent catharsis that lets them escape their own head for a little while.
But more than anything, they just want to be entertained and one of the most efficient ways to do that is with an engaging narrative. We can worry about style and syntax and all of that fun stuff later. First and foremost, you need to know your point. Do you remember Kevin Spacey’s face in Pay It Forward?
Of course not; that film has never been witnessed by human eyes but because I know everything about terrible movies, I know that half of Kevin Spacey’s face is totally jacked up in it… No, you’re thinking of Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face. This was way worse, almost unbearable to look at and the studio knew it, so guess what those clever bastards did?
They made sure there wasn’t one shot or line of dialogue in the entire trailer or any of its advertising which referenced this major plot-thread. Not for the sake of spoilers but because they knew they’d fucked up. America didn’t want to see Lester Burnham acting like some bitter half-a-Freddy Krueger lookin’ mu’fucker who was also mean to kids. What, he learns his lesson?
Fuck that ugly dickhole. I don’t care if he learns shit! ROBOTS IN DISGUISE!
My subtle jab at the state of the industry aside, I’d like to point out what I just did. See, you thought my first mention of Pay It Forward had simply been some obscure reference I was making for the sake of an admittedly hilarious joke.
Just Joel being Joel (which is a note on establishing voice that we’ll get into next time) but I was actually using it to exemplify the value of a proper narrative while also utilizing a tried-and-true staple of the horror genre: What I like to call the “gotcha!” mechanic.
The name is a bit derivative and that was very much on purpose because the “gotcha!” mechanic is any trope we as the general movie-going/show-watching/book-reading public should really see coming by now, yet somehow we still allow ourselves to fall for it every time. Why is that?
Why does every one of our ghost stories start with an ideal American family moving into a new home, only to have the cracks in their seemingly perfect veneer magnified by a malevolent though ultimately ambiguous force? Is that really the only metaphor we know for the deconstruction of the modern American family?
This is usually when some brilliant film like It Follows raises its hand to say, “What if the ghost was… Like an STD or something?”
THANK YOU, It Follows! You get bonus points for the day…
“Also, see me after class. We are totally getting high in the parking lot.”
But where was I? Oh, yeah… So I tried to explain all of this to Sam when I replied to his first email, which had been mostly glowing praise for my work and him asking if I would read his stuff and of course, my personal favorite:
Do you have any advice for writing horror?
As luck would have it, I did. Then came his reply and needless to say, it caught me more than a little off-guard…
Dear Mr. Fuck Face,
You’re just as disgustingly pompous as I thought you would be. Now I’m really not going to feel bad about this.
You may think you can go around filling people’s heads with blasphemy and sadistic acts but not while I’m still on this earth. I would tell you to go kill yourself but I don’t want to deny myself the pleasure.
See You Soon,
A few nights later, I awoke to find him standing at the foot of my bed, grinning with a syringe in his raised hand. His face didn’t look right. I thought Kevin Spacey in Pay It Forward had it bad. You know those after-photos of that guy who got that experimental face-transplant?
Sort of like that. Like someone had replaced his flesh with the top layer of an undercooked lasagna. Though, the way certain parts of Sam’s skull seemed to bulged against the underside of his pale graphed-on skin leads me to suspect that his first face hadn’t been a human one.
That’s the last thing I saw before waking up in this god forsaken room and the image of it has since been seared into my brain for what will probably be forever. I think I can hear trucks, like Mac trucks. I hear them all day long.
I told Sam people would start getting suspicious if I didn’t turn in my next story. Eventually, I talked him into letting me write it on my phone and Sam was watching me type for a while but once he realized I was writing out the email I’d sent him almost verbatim, he started to simply pretend like he was paying attention but really he’s watching Judge Judy.
Sam put an old TV in here that gets like 3 channels and one of them is in Spanish. The Price is Right and “muh Judy” have been the only things keeping me sane this past week. I think he’s trying to decide what to do with me. At night, I can hear him saying the rosary. Over and over again. Like 30 times a night. He never sleeps.
Anyway Kendra, obviously this isn’t a joke. I need you to call the cops and see if they can like trace the IP on my email or something and obviously please don’t post this
HAHA! Just kidding. Of course post this Kindra. This is my new story. Bye!