Thursday, 30 August 2012

Raising Hell or Raising the Stakes?

To the Max

One thing that all thriller writers should have in common is the ability to take the suspense to the ultimate level. This is the difference between a suspenseful tale and a damn good thriller.
 I always associate reading a thriller with the experience of riding a roller coaster. The ride is full of scary ups and downs …
First we toil steadily upwards whilst the suspense builds. We giggle nervously because we know what will happen when we get to the top… Or do we?  We know (and expect) we will experience a rush of adrenalin but until we actually get there we do not know exactly what it will be like.  The anticipation is enough to get your pulse racing and your palms sweating as you hold onto the safety bar and stare upwards at the sky ( best not to look downwards…)
When finally we get to the top we hold our breath… Prepare for the downward whoosh… Then we are plunging downwards and most of us cannot help but let out a terrified scream! Yes, scary… We asked for it and we got it! But fear is not pleasant, you say… But it is when you finally get back to earth, realise it is all over and, crucially, you are still in one piece.  This is the thrill that many live for – the intense emotion of having survived.
For most ordinary people the roller coaster is a harmless way of experiencing that thrill. For readers of good thrillers that is what they too expect – perhaps in not such a dramatic way but the highs of a thriller story must be towering and the lows… Well, low...  The ride up must be full of incident and the tension and suspense should mount up as the plot gathers pace. Then, in my opinion, the suspense should be taken to the max and not wimped out on. When you think your character cannot take any more ( or things could not be more deadly )that’s when you need to up the stakes and max it.  You can always toss in the kitchen sink!
Do you think in terms of raising the stakes higher and higher in your novel writing?

Monday, 27 August 2012

Creepy Crawly Jiggery Pokery

The Unfashionable Flavour of the Occult
Nowadays Occultism ( the study of the supernatural)  is a subject that is rarely seriously discussed. The horror genre has moved on - in the sense that much of the horror story telling today is set in everyday life - and the tales tend to express the fear of the unknown in ways that many of us can relate to.
The word Occult is described in the dictionary as ‘secret, mysterious and supernatural’.  A meaning that signifies to many the ‘practise of the Black Arts’. That, in itself, is a term that has fallen out of fashion nowadays.
Many believe in the power of good and evil and the eternal struggle between these two extremes of our human condition but the Devil himself and the pseudo-science of demonology have long since fallen by the wayside for most people. We no longer live in the superstitious dark ages of magic, mayhem and witchcraft.
However that does not mean that many of the paranormal aspects of the occult have disappeared. Indeed, they are alive and well in many good stories today.  For example vampires, monsters and other worldly beings are in full flavour at the minute. 
For me the use of ordinary people - rather than devilish, vampiric, evil monster/villains -  gives a much greater feel of horror. After all it could be me or you trapped in a modern horror story… (A La Mr King).
But the Occult is still very useful in a modern horror story, as there are lots of subtopics within it. The influences of things like astrology, ESP,  numerology, clairvoyance, telepathy, telemetry, premonitions, doppelgangers and hypnotism – to name but a few – are still with us and can be used to good effect in a good thriller/supernatural story. Everyone knows what these things mean even if they don’t believe in them.  But…. Haha, you say… You just never know…
That, I believe, is their power. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Do you enjoy a story with some supernatural-type elements in it?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Curious Thing Happened...

One of the things I learned early on in my novel writing was that you must have fully formed multi-dimensional characters. I wondered what this actually meant and after reading around and talking to other writers I realised that the characters (at least the main ones) must come to the page with an agenda, motivation, likes, dislikes and tons of personality.
Of course, you cannot bore readers to death with masses of personal history, but what you can do is compile a character sheet with all the personal traits you want the character to have – as recommended by many a ‘how to write’ author… But wait… That still didn’t feel quite right to me. How can a simple list of likes, dislikes make a person? The answer is they don’t!
But I made my lists anyway and then a curious thing happened… I found myself wondering ‘why’ this character would like this and ‘why’ did they hate that?  I started writing more (on my character sheet) about the character’s childhood, upbringing, status in life and what brought them to this point in their existence. Suddenly I had a story character with formidable motivation who felt real – great! But it did not exactly fit the plot I had in mind. What to do? I changed the plot.
I did this with other characters too – especially the antagonist – trying to go against the main traits I had in my protagonist. Voila – I had inbuilt conflict. When I finished doing all the character sheets I realised I had stacks of back story which I could draw on at any point in my story without going into information and descriptive overload.
I have to say this method of drawing up extensive back story really worked for me and I think my stories benefitted enormously from my knowing what motivated the characters.  Most of this work never saw the light of day, of course, but it helped me to have it in my mind that a certain person would react/behave in a certain way because they were pre-programmed by fate, upbringing and circumstance. I like to think my characters ‘came to life on the page’ – tried and trusted cliché I know…  Sorry.
So now, when I am trying to put a story together, I start with the germ of an idea and then go onto character pretty quickly so I can write their history and what makes them the person/character that they are.  It generally results in a well-rounded, believable plot too. At least that’s what I like to think…
So, do you write character sheets that tie in with the back story?

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Learn From the Best

Lessons from the Masters

Every now and then I am reminded why I love reading so much and why I still aspire to being a better writer than I am!

One of my all time favourite horror writers is Stephen King and I am sure there is not a single person who loves books who has not at least heard of him.  Dennis Wheatly before him and then Mr. King were the two authors (in my misspent youth) responsible for my fascination with tales of the supernatural and paranormal. Later I also became a huge fan of many of Dean Koontz’s books too. Ah, but that was when I was younger and more impressionable…

No, wait, I am still impressionable if the right kind of story comes along!

The reason I am reminiscing about my early sojourns with Stephen King and horror writing is that I recently read his latest offering. And what a delight it is too. I have to admit that one or two of his books over the last few years have been rather too rambling for me and did wonder if this would be the same. But, no – this is King at his best! The main thing for me is the absolute attention to detail and the quirky bits of imagery that transport the reader back to an age that has long since gone. I was around in the late fifties and sixties but only as a child so the detail has me totally hooked.  For those not familiar with this book it is all about time travel and changing the course of history. Fascinating stuff, anyway, but Mr King handles it so well… But then he would – he has many years of successful writing under his belt and the largest number of best sellers so he should know what he is talking about.
I am just about to decamp to one of Mr Koontz' books too - not visited his stories for some time. So I will see how or if he has changed. One thing I do know, he is still one of the biggest sellers of the genre so still has much to say to someone like me...

I only wish I could write the same!!

Oh well, onwards and upwards!

Who do you aspire to as a writer?

Saturday, 18 August 2012

In The Dark of the Night...

“With light is coupled warmth; with darkness cold”

I guess there is something so old and primordial about using night-time or darkness to enhance the fear factor in thrillers. It strikes me that the dark can be a source of so many fears that in and of itself it could be something to explore in depth in a novel.

An old favourite of mine, Dennis Wheatly,   once wrote that existence is dominated by two powers – light and darkness. When life is devoid of light all progress is halted and if darkness continues unchecked death and decay will follow. So light is therefore associated with powers of good and darkness with evil.

Everyone is familiar with the notion that everyday familiar non-threatening things in the day time can take on a strong aura of menace at night. I know this can be attributed to something as simple as not being able to see well but God (or whatever you believe created us!) has equipped us with a certain amount of night vision. But there again, maybe it’s the fact that one can see in the dark to a certain extent (especially in good moonlight) but not with full acuity. This allows the imagination permission to come into play to fill in the bits our senses are not able to pick up. And no matter how hard you try to neutralise imagination it will have its day!

Many children are fearful of the dark as night-time/sleep-time is a time when they have to cope on their own, without the reassurance of others around them. No small wonder then, that they imagine bogeymen in the wardrobe and things crawling under the bed! 

So it is a well-used vehicle in many horror/thriller stories where one wants to create an unsettling fearful atmosphere or simply to enhance the tension and fudge what’s real and what is not. There is always a feeling of relief for the reader when night turns to day and the plot can roll merrily along without the uncertainty of the dark interfering.

Dastardly deeds are also often committed under cover of darkness and it is easy to see how darkness is associated with evil and how day (light) with goodness. All extremely subjective, by the way, but that is how it is generally perceived.

I feel the dark is a very useful tool to use in supernatural, thriller stories and I use it frequently. In fact my latest book has ‘dark’ in its title and I notice that many more thriller/horror stories use the word in their titles too. It signals a certain kind of story to a read, does it not?

What do you think? Do thriller stories set in darkness conjure up feelings of fear and tension in you?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Click is KIng! Long Live the King!

The click is mightier than the pen - they say...
I once put pen to paper (literally) and wrote.

Now I click, tap and navigate. What a huge change to the way we all communicate. I can’t even remember when I last received a hand written letter.   I am not a bright, young thing (although I’d like to think I’m still reasonably bright!) but I know many others of a similar age group who are also very au fait with computers and indeed to some degree, social networking.

For me the keypad is quicker than the pen when it comes to getting tumbling thoughts and ideas down on paper. Free writing engages the creative right side of the brain and not the analytical, logical left brain. I believe getting something, anything, down on a blank sheet is the best way to avoid writers block and so I often use free writing to help me think and get going on a project.

Using the keypad rather than the pen gives me a quicker easier way to use this stream of consciousness writing and make some sense of it. In longer pieces (and especially at the beginning of a novel when my thoughts may be a little muddled anyway) it’s far easier for me to rush on knowing I can come back and sort it later. Editing with pen and paper just leaves me with a confused mess of crossings out and no sense of what I am really trying to say.  Having said that, I have friends who continue to write in longhand – at least initially. They still cherish the feel of pen on paper and love to fill the blank white pages of a notebook.

Just occasionally I write something longhand – maybe a rough draft of an article or something short. However I do find the writing tends to end up almost note-like with no proper sentences. I guess that’s because my hand cannot keep up with my brain! No, wait… That can’t be right! My brain is definitely a slowcoach… (Thinks….)  Or maybe not…

Long live writers of all kinds!

So do you still write longhand occasionally or are you a total keyboard convert?

Monday, 13 August 2012

A Small Rant - Is This Etiquette?

I’m never quite sure what to do with reviews - apart from read them where they are posted! Do I put them on my blog/twitter/facebook or not?
 Etiquette (social media-style) says it is not a good idea to keep pushing your own work on blogs/twitter (but then again I thought that was the whole point???) I guess it’s a matter of not boring folks rigid with it and being judicious about how much self-promotion is a good thing… Heck, I’ve often been very irritated on twitter by the increasing amount of people who only seem to self-promote their own stuff – they never seem to join in conversations.  AND I do get tired of having their latest blog/ book release shoved down my throat endlessly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am always pleased for other people when their books are published and I do understand the need to self promote – we all need to do it. I’m just not sure it should be done all the time at the expense of other articles, news items etc.
I also hate it when folks post long, long excerpts of their books on their blogs – especially when the said excerpt is out of context. As if I’ve got half a day spare to read their pages-long post!!  (squeaky voice rising hysterically)
Okay, my rant is now over!!! I am calm…
But wait… Back to my review – to post or not to post??  Should I join in? Mmmmm…. Err yes…  What a hypocrite you say! And you are right. So here is my review (taken from amazon): Ta Da!

The Afterlife of Darkmares

“Having read P J Newcombe's third thriller - the Afterlife of Darkmares I found that it was just as I had expected. I've already read the first two and so I knew that I was in for a good read. I wasn't disappointed. The author has developed a way of weaving the twenty-first century story of a troubled mother and her son, into hypnotic paranormal episodes with great skill and sensitivity as Grif has unbeknown, even to himself, released an evil entity. The suspense is such that you must turn page after page . . .

Still grieving herself from the loss of her daughter, Kate gets help with her son Grif's tormented life from Ben the sleep therapist. At one of the sessions Ben asks Grif about his sister and dad.

"Megan died and Dad left home," Grif said flatly.

The continuing tale of Kate seeking help from the specialist is thwarted by steady pushing from the police to prove in some way that she was responsible for Megan's death, and the tension builds. She suspects that her estranged husband may be spreading malicious rumours. Now the darkmares really begin for Kate as the parallel story of the plague in the village of Eyam, four centuries ago unfolds and is skillfully woven by the author into the present day story forcing Kate to delve into the supernatural for an answer.

This thriller is skillfully plotted with strong rounded characters, making it not only a good read but gives the reader insight into how flimsy the threads of life are. I thoroughly recommend it. The Afterlife of Darkmares in an excellent read in every sense, but not for the faint hearted.”
(P.S. Just so you know - I am definitely NOT against promotional stuff on blogs/twitter etc - I simply think some folk have nothing to give/say other than self promotion and I think that spoils it for the rest of us...)
So do you ever post reviews on your blog? Do you think there is a limit to how much self promo work should be done through blogs/social networks??

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Camera, Lights, Action!

Write like a film director? Maybe...

One of the things I found hard to get to grips with when I first started writing thrillers was the idea of tension or conflict on almost every page. ‘What, every page,’ I asked myself? Surely not…
But then I realised that the kind of reader I was aiming for wanted and expected a thriller to be a fast-paced page turning epic that took them on a roller coaster of a ride until they came to the satisfying ending. Okay, perhaps not always that fast, but it is definitely a different kind of read from a literary, Jane Austen - type story.
One reason for this is that nowadays readers are also used to watching movies and TV that fast cut to the action and leave little in – between. When I am writing I visualise every scene as if I am watching a film and I cut in and out as if I’m a film director.
I am not saying that all types of fiction should be like that – far from it - but if you are going to go with a genre you’d better give it due thought. As to veer away from it, is bound to disappoint readers who expect a certain kind of read with a certain kind of genre.

Seeing my story as a film may not always work out well but it gives me a way forward, at least. I also try to infuse each scene with some degree of tension even if it is only a character’s inner thoughts which may be in turmoil. There are of course, other things that can add to tension such as setting, weather and bigger picture happenings (e.g. war, plague or world events).
Scene and chapter endings are also places where tension should be enough to ensure a reader continues to read - in other words, the cliff hanger ending. Not always easy, but one way is to leave a scene early in the middle of conflict (and sometimes switching to another point in the story) so that the reader must continue to read to find what happens.

All if, buts and maybe’s you say… But that’s how I do it…

So what about you? Do you cope well with tension and conflict in your writing?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Ticking Clock of Timely Thrillers

The ticking clock is a plot device that I love to use when outlining my novels. Not every time, I must admit but if it lends itself to the plot why not use it?

For one thing it gives urgency to a thriller plot line that adds to the suspense for the reader. For another it is quite a useful aid for the writer too as it can provide a kind of framework which helps to keep the plot on target. Thirdly for me it is quite exciting and indeed, fun to do…

There are as many different ways of adding the time element to a story as there are for actually writing the story. The time element may mean that a future event is driving the story line and readers know the story is heading there. But, most importantly, they will not know the twists and turns of the plot along the way and it ma7y be that there are penalties that are time linked. For instance, the use of the ‘what if’ element as in ‘what if a protagonist doesn’t get to the scene on time?’ or what if he can beat the odds and rescue something before….whatever hyappens.

Another way I have used the timeline is delineating chapters and passages to show that one plot action is happening at the same time as something else.  I find the use of switching from point of view helpful in using this one.

I think it is very important to keep mentioning time if it is a plot device in the story. It subliminally reminds the reader that time is important and the ticking clock is a great way to raise the stakes and keep suspense going page by page. In my own writing I try to use shorter sentences and paragraphs to try to keep the sense of urgency and as the story reaches towards the climax, it should be mostly action and little information giving, meandering or asides.  Short sharp plot points resolved as time tacks relentlessly by.

I guess, in its broadest sense, it is the pace of a story that counts but that does not always mean it should be at breakneck speed – just the pace to suit the timeline.

Do you work time elements into your stories?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Horrifyingly Macabre?

Macabre stories??
What a scary word macabre is to most people…
The dictionary defines it as ghastly or gruesome but in my mind, I always associate it with supernatural goings on. Books such as Stephen King’s “Danse Macabre” also spring to mind.  In his book King talks about the world of horror writing and it’s history and origins – an adventurous read if you are interested in horror literature. When I looked up the term ‘Danse Macabre’, I discovered that it appears to originate in medieval times and signified skeletons and other dead spirits dancing and leading mortals to their grave. A kind of unholy procession. There are quite a few artists’ impressions from that time depicting dancing gleeful skeletons holding hands with the dead and the still living.  Ugh! Nice pictures…

But I am thinking of the more common use of the word...  Macabre seems to be a word used for describing a grim or ghastly atmosphere.  It is generally only found in horror/paranormal -type literature. I think it is a wonderfully descriptive word which everyone knows the meaning of but it is rarely used in everyday conversation.

It’s almost as if it is beyond our understanding and therefore terrifying.  When one is struggling to describe a scary atmosphere or aura macabre is a good word to use…

Do you have favourite words that are relevant to your genre?