"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: February 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"The Horror, the Horror!"

Tis Friday - end of the week, beginning of the weekend.

Time for fun and frolics.

Today's article is about writing Horror - a much misunderstood genre, as I recently learned from a room full of people - not writers - that told me they never watch horror movies or read horror stories.

For an ardent fan of the genre, this is like saying you don't like breathing... I explain why below.

The above title comes, famously, from Joseph Conrad's short story, Heart of Darkness, later reworked for Francis Ford Copolla's movie, Apocalypse Now.

It's used to describe - in the book and the movie - something so awful that it is beyond description. It's potent because just the words have the power to evoke our darkest subconscious fears - without actually showing us anything. Clever trick.

Horror fiction - especially in the movies - balances the desire to show and describe horror images while at the same time leaving something to the imagination.

There's an irony here. Because fear of the unknown is often more potent than facing real horror. This is why actually seeing the gore and degradation of humanity in say, the Saw franchise, is ultimately less scary - though no less shocking at first sight - than the idea of something awful and gruesome going on unseen somewhere nearby.

Horror fiction writers need to balance this dichotomy with care.

Horror fiction - thanks to Stephen King and his imitators, became ever more gory and distasteful during the 70s, 80s and 90s. It was thought that the 'shock factor' was what horror fans were after.

I disagreed with that premise then - and still do. Shocking readers and viewers during a horror story is only a small part of the horror writer's job.

To learn more about what horror writing is really about, go here:

Fact is, horror fiction went into hiding for a few years after 9/11 - I think perhaps because the true horror of that day seriously tainted the genre in the minds of the public - who realized that the truth about humanity is often more gross and unsettling than any fiction.

But horror has managed to creep back into the limelight. Recent years have seen a slew of remakes of all the classic horror stories - Halloween, Amityville Horror, Nightmare on Elm St and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre etc, etc. The Saw movies and Eli Roth's Hostel have done much to feed a new wave of what's now known as 'torture porn'. But these are the more high profile of the genre.

Beneath plain sight, there are many other genres that have been using horror techniques largely unnoticed.

Shows like Medium, Ghost Whisperer and even Buffy use horror conventions liberally - as do the Harry Potter and Twilight books, These examples all use our fear of the dark side - whatever that is - to add spice to otherwise mundane stories about love, courage, power, passion and betrayal.

The current fascination with psychic detectives and ghost hunters on TV is, to me, rooted in the our fascination with what the psychologist Carl Jung called "The Shadow" - that part of ourselves that is the antithesis of goodness, moral correctness and decency.

To Jung, the dark side is not something we can ignore - it is part of our make-up, as important to our sanity as reliably waking up in our beds every morning knowing exactly who and where we are.

True horror is that certainty somehow being taken away from us.

Anyway, I was with a bunch of people the other day who told Robyn and me that they never watched horror and never read any either. Not so much because it was scary but because they thought there might be something inherently evil about the people who write this stuff!

My experience of reading lots of horror is completely the reverse.

To me, horror writers tend to be the most moral and virtuous of all writers - in their fiction anyway. Good always wins out over evil - as it should. Even up 90% of Stephen King's novels are often about loyalty, family values and the need for us - as people - to act with humanity.

Horror movie directors can sometimes miss or ignore these subtleties - but the good ones don't.

Wes Craven and John Carpenter, for instance, know that without humanity, decency and respect, there is nothing to counter the evil bad guys - or supernatural entities - that populate their movies.

At the end of the day I see horror as cathartic.

It's often said, by critics, that the 'dead teenager' movies - which are all rooted in the Friday the 13th movies by the way - enable teenagers to work through their angst about growing up good.

In often graphic detail, in movies like Final Destination, Scream and dozens of others, young adults are shown the consequences of drug use, promiscuity and selfish behavior in a much more powerful way than their concerned parents could ever hope to match.

I don't want to come across all preachy but I do think that most successful horror writers are fundamentally responsible in this regard. They do know what is right and wrong - but they also know that there is an allure in the dark side that is not only fun to explore, it's also important that, as a culture, we do so.

Far from being the catalyst that can corrupt, I believe horror fiction stems and curtails bad behavior - because experiencing horror second hand - as an observer or a reader - enables us to more fully appreciate the beauty and relative peace of the real world.

The freedom to creatively express our deepest fears in fiction is a privilege we all enjoy in free societies.

If you take away the ability of artists to explore the dark side of our nature, as happens in some more oppressive countries, the recourse to real violence seems much more prevalent.

Because if you try to hide horror away, it tends to rear its head in ways that are frighteningly more real and abhorrent than fiction.

For more info on horror writing, from a real horror writer, go here.
Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


""The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Albert Einstein

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Fantasy Fiction Formula

Isn't life wonderful?

I don't think we say this often enough.

I read a great quote yesterday from Alan Clark - a UK politician you've probably never heard of. He said, "If you want to be great, you should always start from the position that you can do anything and that anything is possible."

Okay, so I've probably paraphrased (ie misquoted) a little - but the sense of his wisdom is there I think.

In the spirit of pushing ourselves, I've been rehearsing with a theater group recently - acting in a play, actually a farce, due to open on the 31st of March. Should be a lot of fun.

Today, my article is about the "Fantasy Fiction Formula" - and how it's the basis of every fantasy novel out there - from Lord of the Rings to Eragon - and everything in between.

Now, most fantasy writers have been constructing their fictional world since childhood. It grows with them; they add to it as they develop as writers until it's so real to them that writing about it feels effortless - even when they seem to have created a huge, and very sophisticated universe.

I remember an interview with JK Rowling where she wandered her home town for the camera, recounting the points, places and people that influenced her Harry Potter world, right from when she was a kid.

Similarly, JR Tolkein was an ardent lifelong scholar of Middle Earth languages way before he set pen to paper.

But if you're new to the genre, where do you start? Click on the image below to make a very good start:

The Easy Way to Write Fantasy Fiction

Many professional fantasy writers will joke about 'the formula' for good fantasy because it does exist and good fantasy authors still use it - not because they're lazy but because the fans want it - in fact insist on it!

It has been condensed thus: 'Hero, artifact, quest'. That's it. All you need to start a fantasy novel! Think Froddo, the ring and the journey to Mordor and you'll see what I mean.

I prefer something a little more organic and creative.

Get a very large sheet of paper. A3 at least - that's about 3 feet by 2 in the US. Draw an outline for your kingdom - or provinces. Experiment with the shape of coastlines, archipelagos and spits. Maybe put some islands around it.

Use a blue crayon or chalk to shade in the sea and draw a compass somewhere on the paper to orientate the map. Maybe a scale too: one inch equals 100 miles say.

Divide your kingdom into countries or regions - draw in the border lines.

Using different color pencils, add mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, whatever you like. Have lots of fun with this bit!

Cities normally grow up on rivers and ports - so start placing the important cities and towns, farming communities, military posts etc. Start thinking about trade routes, badlands and resistance enclaves where nobody goes...

Don't forget that most fantasy is set in an entirely medieval world where technology is limited to bows and arrows, spears and fire, with a liberal sprinkling of magical swords, jewels or articles of clothing like magic capes or belts. Don't take these elements too lightly. They will most likely shape your fantasy plot in many surprising ways.

But don't try to violate the genre specifications to much!

I have known many would be fantasy authors who try to insert guns and flying machines into their world and are promptly asked to remove them by pedantic publishers!

Fantasy readers, it would seem, know exactly what they want.

Now for some writing.

Invent three major castes of inhabitants. For example: human, elven and dwarves say, or make up your own. One of the castes may well need to be dragons if you want to be faithful to the 'formula'.

Describe the class system for each. Who's the king or the head magician? How does the government of The Elders work? What do the peasants do with their time? Are there bands of mercenaries roaming the countryside?

Now think of three characters for each caste - have them related by blood - or magic - for maximum impact.

For instance, three characters might be Princess Tumar who needs to regain the crown after her father was killed by the evil Majadon, aided by her younger brother.

Write a paragraph for every character, describing their physical appearance.

Give each of the characters an agenda that is at odds with at least two of the other characters.

Write a few pages describing the scenario you have invented.

By now you should be feeling an attachment to one or more character. Choose one to be the hero and give him or her an important quest that they must undertake to gain maturity, power or enlightenment (perhaps all three!)

Next, choose a magic artifact that the character must obtain during this quest. Don't choose a book - all writers do that!

Then create a huge threatening situation (a war, natural disaster or magical event) in which the characters are all at risk - of losing their power, authority, self respect, lives etc. and then...

Open up a new file and write: Chapter One.

Okay, over to you!

If you need more help, go here.

Till next time,

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"At the beginning of any writing project is the agonizing period in which nebulous ideas dance before the mind's eye like memories of a dream, and vaporous vague
shapes take on human form and begin to answer to their names." James Cameron, director of Avatar, Titanic, Terminator 2, Aliens, and more.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Free Writing

It's hot and sticky here today - almost too hot to write.

Ah well, better stop complaining and get on with it! As you probably know, I always put out a newsletter on Fridays, come rain or shine.

That's the kind of commitment writers need to make, I always advise. When you decide to do something, you must do it, finish what you start - because if you get into the habit of doing something, the habit makes you stronger.

That's my theory anyway!

What happens when you can't think of anything to write about?

People ask me this all the time - especially young writers, who feel the overwhelming urge to write, or at least BE a writer, but when it comes to sitting in front of a screen, nothing comes out.

Nothing interesting enough to write down anyway.

Do you get days like this?

I think all writers do. It's worst when you're half way through a novel and you can't think of an interesting way to get to the next plot point.

There are various ways of getting through blocks that involve what I call 'free writing.'

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Here's a technique I used to employ on uninspired days.

I'd write down my thoughts on some recent news item or perhaps the political or economic situation. This works well because you can often find you have an opinion about something that you don't particularly have to think through. Just recording your thoughts gives you something to write down.

Of course, this assumes you're not actually writing to be read - that certainly takes the pressure off! But interestingly, later, I'd find that with just a little tweaking, these free form experiments led to publishable articles.

Nowadays I don't really follow the news - it's all too depressing. It makes me feel like I'm helpless and part of something I cannot change.

In fact, I've realized that this is actually a byproduct of being a news junkie. I believe the illusion that world events seem important is actually dis-empowering you.

Better to ignore it all. You'd be surprised how much stronger you feel inside without the added pressure of the world's problems on your shoulders. Plus, you can free your mind to think about important things - like your writing.

Start With Nothing But a Word

Do you keep a writer's journal?

You should. I'm not talking about a simple diary where you record the day's events. Unless you're the President or perhaps Jim Carrey or Megan Fox maybe, it's never going to be an interesting read.

No, a writer's journal's purpose is to record inspiration, pertinent observations, character and story ideas and to list your writing goals and strategies for the coming weeks, months and years.

Again, it's not anything designed to be read - except perhaps by future biographers desperate to see how your mind worked (assuming you get famous one day, of course.)

You should take time out to doodle in your journal at least once a day. I have a couple of exercise books nearby at all times. Sometimes I'll splash out and get something that looks the part but that's not important. The essential thing is to have a place you can record snippets, just words sometimes, that strike you as having potential.

Actually in the last couple of years I've started to use OneNote for this purpose - it's a free Windows program. It's just as good as any writers software that claims to organize your writing ideas. Better, because you can organize it exactly as you like - and you never have to press the 'Save' button (now that's progress!)

Staring Out of the Window

If it's good enough for Einstein, it's good enough for all of us.

The great genius himself said that staring out of the window in his classroom - and in the patent office where he worked - was what gave him the edge over his peers. He wasn't afraid to do nothing but think. Good on him.

But not thinking as in studying a problem and trying to work through it intellectually. No, thinking more in an abstract, day-dreamy sort of way that isn't a million miles away from meditation.

Letting go and releasing yourself from pressure not only relaxes you, it helps put things in perspective and allows your mind to make more fanciful connections.

I spend an hour a day doing this - meditating, strategizing and 'consulting my muses', letting my mind wander and free-fall. Weird thing is, taking an hour out like this seems to extend the the amount of time I have to write. I get less writing done if I don't take this 'hour of power' off every day.

Try it. It seems very indulgent. But I guess that's the point.

Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway

If you have a goal to write a certain number of words a day, write anything. Doesn't matter what. When I get stuck - okay, that's rare these days - but when I do I become my own coach and mentor and will write, for instance, "Come on, Rob, you've got to do this... all you need is one good idea to get you going... so, mister brain, give me an idea or two..."

I find this is a good way of kick starting the writing process. You'll find that if you do this you often circumvent the blocks and you'll be writing before you knew you had a problem.

Write down anything and everything. Say, for example, you keep getting up to do stuff around the house instead of write. Do it, but then come back to you desk and describe what you've just done - the washing up, tidying the books, that phone call to a friend, putting up the shelf in the garage, whatever.

The theory is that once you get into the habit of recording your thoughts and actions, you train your mind to become a writer while you're taking action and interacting with the world.

If you're stuck, take a walk and look around you. Describe what you see in sentences that you can then transfer to a journal. Look at the world as a writer - by which I mean compose words when you're looking, feeling and experiencing the world.

Don't wait for an inspired phrase, merely describe what you're thinking.

Free Writing

We all have a voice inside our heads - the one that comments on everything we do and see and hear and experience. It's an annoying little fella most times but writers can use it to their advantage.

During periods of free writing, simply record what your commentator says. Even if it's critical of you. Sometimes our commentators are like that - a chastising parent only too happy to remind us of our faults. That's okay, write down those things too. Better out that in.

Free writing is exactly what it sounds like. Liberating. Because when you release the criticizer inside your head, you free your mind to plumb your subconscious - where all your true inspiration lies.

The subconscious is great at doing all the things the conscious mind finds so taxing: seeing connections, organizing, sustaining large concepts and generally being the supercomputer it was designed to be.

Let go of your rational mind when you write - the one that says everything's difficult and hard work - and let your subconscious do all the labor, without questioning its ability or worrying about its capacity to help you.

Set yourself free - and be the writer you were meant to be, without questioning the mechanics - and without trying to be like anyone else in the world.

Not only will free writing make you a better writer, it will help you find your unique voice.

Till next time,

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You cannot try to do things. You simply must do things."
Ray Bradbury

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Writer's Guide to Reading

Our thoughts go out to all those in Queensland Australia, hit last night so heavily by Cyclone Yasi. We hope all those displaced will soon be able to rebuild their lives. We'll be there for you.

Many writers and writers' groups in South Australia have already pledged support, emotionally and materially. We too, wish you well.

Ask any successful writer. You can't be a great writer unless you read voraciously - and for all the right reasons. There is a huge difference between reading for pleasure and reading as a writer. Sometimes this is a subtle difference - and actually quite hard to delineate and practice.

As a writer, you'll find you'll need to constantly remind yourself that reading is, for you, a form of study - not just of the information you pick up but, more essentially, the way that information is related.

Reading for Pleasure

Many writers start writing as a way of giving back. Over time, they receive so much pleasure from reading that the natural extension is to want to give as much pleasure as they have received.

Bit like sex, in that way...

As human beings we have an innate desire to communicate and share our experiences. Reading has a way of providing a hot line from one human brain to another. A writer's experience becomes, if not vicariously, the reader's. Realization of this is sometimes a would-be writer's light-bulb moment.

Reading for Research

If you've ever embarked on a non-fiction work, you'll know that research is needed to appear informed. There are two ways writers embark on this activity.

One, the writer researches all aspects of a topic and then orders the information to present an informed view. This is in the great tradition of classical empiricism handed down to us by intellects like Plato and Aristotle.

Two, more common these days, is the formulation of a hypothesis - then deliberately finding research to prove a premise. Some writers justify all kinds of wild ideas because they've collected the 'evidence' to prove them - and though this can be an entertaining art form in itself, is ultimately a self fulfilling prophetic game.

You can pretty much prove anything if you're desperate enough - or have an agenda that transcends the 'truth'.

My best advice in this area is not to start believing that research is writing - it's not. It's reading!

Reading for Study

We are all students at some times in our lives. Writers remain students - or should do. Any expert will do well to keep informed of their area of expertise. Good writers have the advantage of being constantly interested in new ideas - and the need to verify the veracity of their instincts.

Even when writing fiction, writers need to be able to prove, if only to themselves, that their stories are believable. From small details like whether or not Vancouver has an airport - to more metaphysical concepts like the science behind alternate dimensions or the psychology of vampirism.

Plus, of course, the study of writing itself. We must learn from other writers in order to improve. How did they approach their craft? What do they have to say about it? What were their writing routines? All this information can help you

Reading for Catharsis

I read somewhere that only one percent of people who buy self help books actually read them all the way through. If this is so, then the whole self help industry would seem to be based on the idea that people buy self help books for an emotional need that quickly disappears when they arrive home!

But reading about a problem - and its possible solutions - while you're experiencing it, can be a no doubt comforting experience.

So much so that writers with emotional, physical or spiritual issues are drawn to recording their own experiences in the hope of helping others - and selling their books in the process. And while this a noble idea in some respects, it would be remiss of me of not to mention that this often does not equate to substantial book sales - probably because publishers are well aware of that pesky 1% statistic!

Reading for Identification

There would be no fiction or autobiographies or many other kinds of books without the need for people to identify with others.

Humans want to be like, or at least feel like, their heroes. They want to experience the mindsets of people or characters that represent their dreams, goals and ideals. And what better way than through reading?

Of course we may identify with characters or celebrities or historical figures on TV and in movies but there's really nothing quite so personal as experiencing their stories through the written word.

Am I right? Of course I am!

Reading for Inspiration

The Chicken Soup for the Soul series has proved - amongst many other things - that there is a need for people to feel inspired.

The lives of great explorers, scientists and again, celebrities, can invigorate and entertain us and often provide the necessary stimulus for action.

The human brain is a fickle thing. It's easy for us to feel let down or discouraged. It's not just writers that need to be motivated. We all need a little pep talk sometimes. We all need to feel there's a way through a problem - and that the answer can lie within ourselves - and often we just to read something uplifting to make us aware of that.

Reading for Profit

Whenever we want to change our fortunes or pursue another career path - especially one that makes money for us - then 99% of the time we'll need to read up on something.

The simple act of reading can literally change our lives for the better.

It can lift us up, comfort us and provide a means of escape - in every meaning of the word.

Never underestimate the power of reading - or the myriad ways it can help your writing.

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"My task… is to make you hear, to make you feel - and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything." Joseph Conrad

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!