Posts Tagged ‘art’

Happy New Year!

Posted: January 1, 2017 by R. A. Gates in Ruth's Words, Uncategorized
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HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

EasterIshtarHappy Easter. Wait, hold on, back up. Easter? What is this “Easter thing” I speak of? Seems like a strange question, but the name alone inspires much controversy. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

For Christians, it celebrates the resurrection of Christ. When I was a kid, the following questions always made me scratch my head. Where did the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs come from? Why is it always celebrated on Sundays? And finally, why do so many non-religious people observe it?

I won’t even begin to delve into this, but it has everything to do with old paganism. Disagree? Yeah, controversy.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Easter – what it means today, what it used to mean, and why it changed so much. This also got me thinking about holidays in general, which made my mind spin with creativity.

Holidays in writing. What a great opportunity to create culture in a story. So much richness, contention, and differing beliefs exist today in reality, why not transfer this over to world building?

Developing holidays gives us a chance to create cultures and conflict, back-story and religion. If you don’t know where to begin building characters, religions, or plots, you can start with holidays.

easter_egg_huntJust make something up! Call it Purple Tortoise Day! It sounds ridiculous, right? But to those of us unfamiliar, and even to some of us who are, painting Easter eggs and dressing up Christmas trees might also seem ridiculous. Call your new celebration Day of Milk Baths or create a yearly Carrion Carry!

Regardless what you choose, the more ridiculous the holiday you think up, the more interesting it will be, and likely, the richer the history. It will create conflict, religions, and tension potentially before you even come up with a protagonist.

Then, when you set pen to paper to write your story, your world will already be vast. Your characters will feel more real and relatable. Their adventures closer to home. Here’s a point I find very interesting. The majority do not know the true roots or reasons of common holidays, or understand the full picture of their histories. I find this fascinating. Holidays are traditions. Through the years, they change. Meanings lost or twisted. Reasons for certain games and their rules shift. But the spirit of the holidays can remain.

Christians, atheists, agnostics, and every other religion can celebrate Easter in their own ways, or can choose to not celebrate at all.

ChristianEasterThis is what makes holidays so intriguing. You do not need to write exposition in your story as to why it exists. You simply can show your characters celebrating it. The readers will understand your hints of meaning, and will be intrigued as to why certain traditions endure. As the writer, you don’t need to delve into the past to pique your readers’ interest. In fact, doing just the opposite can often help mold a richer culture, develop more tantalizing characters, and reveal hints of a lost history. If done correctly, you will have succeeded in sucking your readers in, and making your story feel more real.

So Happy Easter to all, whether you are Christian or Agnostic. Atheist or Buddhist. Celebrate this special day as you wish, but remember, each day is what you make of it. May you find happiness this day, and the next.

Yesterday, I asked my three year-old daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

She said, “Umm, I think a doctor or a fire chief, or even you, Dadda.”

Such a sweet moment. My heart warmed at the sentiment. Nothing is more important than family. But it also got me thinking. At what point in my life did I decide I wanted to be a writer?

Growing up, I had unrealistic dreams like any other normal kid. I wanted to be Superman. I wanted to play basketball for the NBA. When I got older, I wanted to be a professional singer. But when I got into high school, I started viewing the world differently – in a more realistic way. But still positively.

So NBA and Superman were out. I considered pursuing music and singing, but thought again. I didn’t want to be poor. So what other potential career paths did I feel I would love? I rolled it around in my mind and thought up a few possibilities: mechanical engineer, computer engineer, computer programmer, sniper for the military, nuclear physicist, math professor, music teacher.

But never once did I consider writing as a profession.

Yes, I always wanted to write a novel, but I took that as seriously as anyone else who wanted to someday write a book. I considered it would be more of a check-mark on my bucket list – like climbing Mount Everest or taking a pilgrimage through Africa.

So after college, I found myself in the military. Halfway through my four-year term, some friends introduced me to this game called Dungeons and Dragons. I was hesitant at first to try it out – as it was associated with only super-geeks, but I played anyway.

And fell in love with it.

That moment fired my passion for storytelling. Shortly thereafter, I decided to write a book for real. I got about two chapters in, and realized it was a D&D campaign, not a book. So I scratched that story, read a few series of Fantasy novels, and came up with a new idea.

That idea turned into a book. I finished it after my four-year term in the military, still unsure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I disliked what I did in the military, wasn’t passionate about what I learned in college, and wanted to try something fresh. However, writing novels still was not an option for me. Storytelling still excited me, but it didn’t appear I’d ever make any money at it.

Fortunately, I found a balance. Needing money to provide for my family, I quickly found a new job right out of the military, then eventually moved back to California. I discovered something I thoroughly enjoyed, which allowed me to make a decent wage – while allowing myself enough time to spend with the family and simultaneously, continue my writing.

I’ve previously posted about my journey of writing, how much I’ve learned and why, and the realization of being represented by an agent.

But it all started with a dream.

A dream that began late for me. I never thought I would be doing what I am today. Life throws unexpected curve balls and people change as they grow, finding new dreams, new hopes, new skills, and learning lessons that change value structures and entire belief systems.

I know I have changed, and I continue to grow. But that passion for storytelling still blazes in my soul. If you are a writer, and feel that passion, keep kindling that flame. Though I found mine later than some, that fire can never be extinguished.

Regardless of what happens during the process, if writing is something you love, don’t let others put it out. Don’t let self-doubt or opinions squelch that flame, because you will lose a piece of yourself. Grow, keep your mind open to change, open yourself to challenges that will continue to add kindling. Writing is an art, so find your voice, discover what you love about it, and grow.

Looking back to that question I asked my daughter yesterday, I can’t wait to see that passion in her eyes for what she loves, to support her as she grows, to help kindle that flame as she finds herself.

But she’s only three years old, and a part of me doesn’t ever want her to grow up.

Whatever passions I have, they’re all secondary to my family – something else I never saw as a younger man.

May you find what matters most to you, and protect what you love. Grow and adapt, keep your mind open to what the future might bring. Inspire those around you with your passions, and overcome your troubled feelings and obstacles without taking them out on others. I’ve discovered only one constant in this universe. Change. May we all make the best of it, because all matter eventually turns to dust.

Since this is a writers blog, and many of us have already discussed the value of a writers group, I’d like to express what this means to me. What Stonehenge has done for my writing, how, and why. And how you can start your own. Maybe even join ours.

I’ve often expressed that I wrote a book before I knew how to write, but how did I learn? Well, with a solid group and a little dedication, it could mean the equivalent of a free MBA, and practical world experience. Many of us have degrees in various arenas, some of us are subject matter experts. All of this helps, but is it all necessary?

What’s important is you find a solid group of writers with similar goals. Certainly, the quality of the writers is valuable, but what matters more is the feedback. The ways critiques are expressed, the format of the meetings, their frequency, and measurability of improvement.

Here’s the way we do it. Of course, this doesn’t mean this is the way it must be done. Certainly, there are other formats that work better for different people, but I would highly recommend starting with something similar.

  • Frequency: We meet every week. Some believe this is too often, but I’ve found that a small core group of people show up every week, and everybody else will show up when they can – some every other week, a few only once per month. Personally, I attend every week. It keeps me motivated to write, gives me a reason to get out of the house and socialize, allows me time to meet with friends and professionals of the same mind, and always forces me to improve upon myself.
  • Reading Aloud: This is one of the most valuable tools any writers group should use on a regular basis. I stated above that different formats work for different people, but all writers groups should read each others’ submissions. Aloud. Why? The flow of the language, the clarity of ideas, realistic dialogue, pacing, word choices, the sound of grammar and sentence structure, transitions, and simply to catch anything that otherwise would be difficult to uncover. This alone has been worth its weight in platinum.
  • Submissions: This can vary from group to group, but here’s what works for us. Depending on the tenure of our writers, volunteers bring in a 2-6 page submission to be read aloud by peers. We have nights where longer submissions are preferred, and they are detailed below. But why, do you ask, are they so short? Well, it is amazing what can be intuited about the rest of a piece by a short slice of it.

Advantages of Short Submissions: The writing style of the author can be quickly determined. Have they developed their voice? How is their pacing, sentence structure, formatting, grammar? How do they show emotion? Action, reaction, interaction? Does the short piece capture the attention of the reader? What is the driving force of the scene? Does it move the plot? Short submissions can be read aloud, which aforementioned, is one of the most beneficial experiences a writing group can have. More often than not, focusing on short submissions, (especially if brought in consistently), will also indirectly affect the next section.

Disadvantages of Short Submissions: Here are a few things that short submissions cannot directly capture. How does the overall story flow? What are the main plot points? Are they consistent? Does the story follow an overall structure – such as the three-act structure? What are the overall themes? Are the questions posed at the beginning getting answered in the end? What are the character arcs? How does the protagonist change? What about the antagonist and supporting characters? And the big question, how are all of the aforementioned points addressed in a group that works primarily with short submissions? Keep reading, we’ll get there.

  • Format of Meetings: There are usually 10-15 writers at each of our meetings, and 5-7 submissions total. The submitter brings a copy for each of us, (sometimes we need to share), and the submitter chooses somebody else in the group to read it aloud. While the piece it read, we mark up our copies. Some of us are strong with grammar. Others – pacing and flow. Others still – word choice. Tense agreements, dialogue flow, clarity, brevity, transitions… When the reader is finished, each of us take a turn expressing our overall impressions of the piece. And because time is a factor, our finer points are left on the page, to be read by the submitter at a later time. During this time, the submitter must allow the rest of us to express ourselves, but it is very important that we do this correctly. Writing is personal. For many of us, it’s difficult to accept criticism. We are a self-conscious bunch, and when one of us musters up the courage to bring something in, it is the responsibility of the rest of us to be aware of that when offering criticism.
  • Difference Between Opinions, Qualitative, and Quantitative Analyses: Writing is an art, first and foremost. But as with any art, there are rules – well, more like guidelines. Grammar and spelling are mostly quantitative – meaning they are hard, measurable rules that do not vary much, except over the span of decades and centuries. (But that’s for a different post.) It is important to know the rules before we can break them, but since writing is an art, there are many opinions on the matter. These are more qualitative analyses, and as close as we can come to becoming scientific, it ultimately comes down to opinion. So this point is important when discussing others’ work. They might not have the same opinion as you, and that’s okay. When offering criticism, speak in a positive, encouraging manner, but always be truthful. Some of us prefer a more blunt method, others need a lighter touch. And it is the responsibility of those who submit to listen. Listen. Do not speak unless clarity is necessary, of if there is a misunderstanding. Our group is a little more open about this than others, as I believe healthy, respectful debate can oftentimes root out the real issues, and get to the bottom of a problem, but this needs to be managed by a facilitator. Someone needs to be in charge who will keep the night rolling, keep the meeting from getting bogged down. This is a must. But still, every member of the group needs to understand that most of what we say is based on opinions and experiences. And we have a variety of members who come from many walks of life, which is fruitful because of the differing number of perspectives. And now, after the critique, it is up to the writers to decide which suggestions they approve, and which ones to discard.
  • Change It Up: As mentioned above, short submissions are highly beneficial, but are not the keys to everything. We have featured author nights – where one author submits a long piece ahead of time, and is critiqued before the meeting. There’s the option of choosing Beta readers for finished manuscripts that are discussed outside of meetings. Make a night of discussing outlining, or industry evolution, or story structure. I find that once per month, changing up the format of the meeting keeps the members challenged, increases learning, and sparks highly interesting discussions.

So if you aren’t convinced of the benefits of a writers group by this point, try to join one and see for yourself. It might take some time to find one that works for you, or one that has the right mix of fun and work, or even one that offers critiques in the right manner, but if you haven’t tried, or if you haven’t yet found the right one, keep searching. I recommend searching meetup.com to find one in your area, or start one yourself. And if you haven’t already, check us out at meetup.com/Stonehenge.

Writing is a journey. It’s work, but it is also a passion. Be consistent, know your value as a writer, be realistic about where you’re at in your journey, but keep those passions and goals alive. Never lose yourself, never lose that spark of life you infuse in your work. And most of all, have fun doing it.

“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.

I’m a nice guy. I like fuzzy critters, love my wife, and get all squishy when I think of my first child who is on the way. I can watch a Disney flick and feel uplifted or a comedy and laugh. Friends are awesome, and I live for a good hug.

But I have a dark side.

Despite my sweet disposition, I’ve always been pulled toward the shadowy, lurid, and nasty in literature. Don’t ask me where my fascination with the horrific comes from because I can’t tell you. I do know it’s been there as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child, the one that now haunts me in implication, was an obscure Dr. Seuss with a melodramatic black and red cover. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a simple story really. A poor boy in a long ago kingdom must remove his hat in respect for the king. Unfortunately, every time he takes his hat off another appears on his head. Well, there’s a serious downside for young Bartholomew. People who don’t remove their hats for the king get their heads chopped off. Green Eggs and Ham it ain’t. Why was I drawn to such a dark tale? I don’t know. My attraction just is.

Now, the biggest problem with loving horror is that most people don’t. They wonder why you want to feel bad when you read. Or they think you perverse as they imagine you entertained by death and gore in the same way they are entertained by American Idol.  Being a horror junkie is right next to porn perv on many people’s list of, “What the heck is wrong with you?” It can really get a gorehound down.

With reading, it’s not a huge problem. Reading is private. Reading is safe. When I’m asked about the nature of the book in my hand, a simple, “It’s horror,” is enough to send the majority of folks on their way with just a vague feeling of unease. And if they stay? Well then, they’re probably my people. They’ll get why I keep a list of the best, most awful books I’ve ever read (Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door tops it, by the way). The point is, when reading there’s only minor risk of judgment.

Writing is a whole different animal.

Your writing marks you in a way that reading does not. The words on the page are yours. They are fed by your experience, cobbled together in your mind, depend on your fingers for their existence. Yours. And when people judge it, they point a finger squarely at you. When I present images of torn panties and severed heads, strangled pets and devoured infants, incestuous mothers and child beating babysitters, well, I’m forced to own them. And there is risk in that. People conflate artist and art. Sick art means a sick mind, and illness makes many close the door. When I present my work I tend to wonder, “What must they think of me?”

But here’s the thing. Not everyone sees the art as sick, twisted, and wrong. I’ve had the same depiction of sexual assault derided as disgusting fantasy and praised as aggressively feminist, and I’ve had the same gore soaked scene called excessive and tame.

And therein lies safety.

Art only belongs to the artist until the moment it’s released to the world. From that point on, it belongs to the audience. It doesn’t matter if I intended a tale of bloody infanticide to create rumination on the nature of evil or just to shock the hell out of people. Once the audience has it, the rumination is theirs, the shock is theirs, the judgment is theirs. If they think your work is brilliant it’s because it appeals to something in their head, their heart. Alternatively, it’s their sense of perversity that makes your story excessive, not your excess as an artist. People may be angry at your story and furious at you for writing it, but that affront is their responsibility. The writer generates. Interpretation belongs to the audience.

So, here’s my advice on the choice to write extreme fiction. Be a channel for the stories that choose you as parent and stay secure in your own sense of who you are and what you intend. If you think you’re the next Richard Laymon, go for it. Forget about judgment. It’s out of your hands.

A while back, Steve Yeager provided some superb advice on how to accept the critiques of your peers (Accepting Critiques with Grace) but what I would like to present is this: where do you draw the line in accepting feedback and sticking with your instinct?

I’ve been with Stonehenge for little over a year, and I have grown so much as a writer due to the feedback of this group, which ranges in age, genre, and perspective. If you are lucky enough to find a spectacular gang of writer’s, you cannot argue the benefits of seeing things from people who are not family or friends. But even then, you may not agree with all points of view or you may. Ultimately, it is up to the writer how they effect change within their story based on feedback.

For the sake of argument, let us say, out of ten people reading your work, all ten provide outstanding advice. Should you implement every change offered? Does the story remain yours? Or do you filter through the ideas and use them, tweak them, or disregard them?

I would like to share a quote from a writer, both lyrical, literature, and screenplay, who has had a profound influence on my life, Mr. Nick Cave: “All of the great works of art, it seems to me, are the ones that have a total disregard for anything else; just a total egotistical self-indulgence.”

I’m in no way saying don’t listen to any feedback or advice, but Cave brings up a valid point to consider. Many of the changes to my novel, which really spiced it up, have come from outside perspectives. But there comes a point when you need to trust your instincts, speak to your own heart and purpose, and soar with your own wings. A sentence may not be grammatically correct, or may have odd word choices, but it really has soul and meaning, to you, and everyone says change it. Do you? Or do you stick with your guns?

A writer’s group, select group of friends, or any other form of critique group will very much help you get to a higher echelon of writing, or art, and what I ask is, are you creating for you or others? Like any form of art, it takes years of discipline and practice to fine tune your style, and in the same arena, you must develop your own ear and instinct for feedback. Regardless of which methods you choose, always remain true to yourself, but always approach everything with an open heart, an open mind, and the rest will come…

As an artist, I have always struggled with the will of motivation. Keeping myself inspired to create, and it has never been an easy task. I have moved from drawing, painting, photography, and now writing. The desire is never a problem, nor the imagination, nor the ideas, but the drive is missing. I’m in the car, the motor is on, and I’m not pressing the gas– green lights all the way– no follow through. And this is the curse of Prometheus’s Fire.

As usual to the human condition, I have forgotten one of the highest lessons: All things begin with choice. There is nothing holding me back except myself. We’ve all heard this, ad nauseam, but it is said for a reason. So, the time has come to silence the world around me, set every tiny distraction aside, and look at the choices in my life. And what do I see? Creation. I am a creator. It is my purpose, my design, my everything. This above all, I must keep in the forefront of my mind.

And to keep the writing and editing process fresh, I have experimented with a new device. Something to hold writer’s block at bay, which is really an excuse for procrastination. I write parodies of my own work, sort of literary gag reels. So, I present an excerpt from the novel I am working on, The Etherium:

Harkin approached the sorcerer– cowled in black, silver pages cycled through the air with an incandescent glow, the dark figure paid no attention.

“You there!” Harkin’s blood-shot eyes focused on two blurry images of the man. “You’re coming with me.” Attempting to place the edge of his axe on the table to emphasize threat, he missed the edge, swayed, and with drunken balance, the heavy blade crashed to the floor. Harkin fell face forward into the table. The cracking of wood echoed about the tavern–

“Oh, for the love of God!” The man in black stood from his table, throwing back his hood.

“Cut, cut!” The director rubbed at his furrowed brow.

Hands entagled with the silver pages suspended from thin wires, thrashing about, the man in black ripped them from the ceiling. “I have had enough of this! This man cannot get his lines or rhythm right. I’ll be in my trailer.”

“No, no, no…” The director raced after his star. “Karl, please babe. Come back. We’ll get someone else.”

“I’m done!” Karl slammed the studio door open and headed towards his private sanctuary. “Should have stayed in Wellington…”

Hope you enjoyed! Remember, life is absurd, and we should never take anything too seriously. Even ourselves.