On Horror Writing: Stephen King's Danse Macabre

Y'all know I'm a writing book junkie. I can't seem to get enough. And typically, I gravitate toward books on structure because I'm always trying to convince my pantser self into being a plotter. However, this time I decided to pick up something a little different. 

I saw Stephen King's Danse Macabre mentioned somewhere on the interwebs and realized it wasn't a novel, but King's thoughts on horror. I needed to have it. See, I have a love of the horror genre, as that's a lot of what I grew up reading when I graduated to "grown up" books. And though I'm a big chicken in real life, I love being scared in fiction or through movies. Also, I haven't ruled out penning a horror tale--maybe even with some romance mixed in--one of these days. So I wanted to read this book.

Now, my thoughts...

King wrote this back in 1981 so it's dated and feels it. However, there is a fantastic 2010 forenote called "What's Scary" where King gives his thoughts on more recent trends in horror and lists the movies he thinks got it right. That was a great read and gave me a list of new movies to watch. 

If you've read On Writing--which is one of the best writing books out there--don't expect this to be that. This is not so much a book about how to write as it is a history of horror from King's perspective. This is a long book that goes off on a lot of tangents that feel a bit aimless at times. Someone on Goodreads described it as sitting down in a bar late one night and getting drunk with King as he riffs about the history of horror. That's exactly what it comes across like. So yes, there are nuggets of greatness in this book, but there's a lot of other stuff to sift through and it took me a while to read. Often too much time was spent on topics and examples that could've been wrapped up in many less pages.

So, if you're looking for Stephen King's advice on how to write, get On Writing and enjoy the greatness. Danse Macabre is probably more for die hard King fans and for those who grew up in his era and want to reminisce about horror movies and TV shows from the past.

However, like I said, there were some great nuggets in the book, and in the end, I'm glad I read it.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

On imagination in adulthood: "...whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of, "I don't read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it's real," I feel a kind of sympathy. They simply can't lift the weight of fantasy. The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

On the duty of literature: "...the primary duty of literature--to tell us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who never existed." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

On the definition of "gothic" literature (which I appreciated because the definition is often hard to pin down for me): "They are all books where the past eventually becomes more important than the present." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

On horror involving homes/houses: "...horror fiction is a cold touch in the midst of the familiar, and good horror fiction applies this cold touch with sudden, unexpected pressure. When we go home and shoot the bolt on the door, we like to think we're locking trouble out. The good horror story about the Bad Place whispers that we are not locking the world out; we are locking ourselves in...with them." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

On the role of power in fantasy fiction: "...all fantasy fiction is essentially about the concept of power; great fantasy fiction is about people who find it at great cost or lose it tragically; mediocre fantasy fiction is about people who have it and never lose it but simply wield it." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

On Writers: "The novelist is, after all, God's liar, and if he does his job well, keeps his head and courage, he can sometimes find the truth that lives at the center of the lie." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Our job as writers (he specifies writers of fantasy but I think this can apply to all fiction): "The imagination is an eye, a marvelous third eye that floats free. As children, that eye sees with 20/20 clarity. As we grow older, its vision begins to dim...The job of the fantasy writer, or the horror writer, is to bust the walk of that tunnel vision wide for a little while; to provide a single powerful spectacle for the third eye. The job of the fantasy-horror writer is to make you, for a little while, a child again." --Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Good stuff, yeah?

Has anyone else read this one? Any other horror lovers out there?

Finding Your Novel's Theme and Your Universal Theme

Photo by Charles Clegg (CC)So there are many, many steps involved in writing a novel (I know, thank you, Captain Obvious). And one of the things you'll find in all those checklists is--what is the story's theme? It's even a step in the Save the Cat beat sheet.

Blake Snyder goes so far as to say that in a movie (novel in our case), the theme is often stated outright. It's usually in some offhanded comment in the first 5% of the movie, typically said by someone other than the main character. So something like "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", "crime doesn't pay", etc. Though, hopefully yours is said in a less cliche way.

It's what the story is going to be about, underneath the plot points. And it makes a story richer, more layered. And even if you didn't consciously put a theme in your story, there's probably one there.

Now, on a more meta level, it's also said that most writers tend to write to the same universal theme over and over again. This does NOT mean writing the same story over and over again. What I talked about above is the novel theme, this is the author theme. For some reason, we're drawn to certain types of stories and we tend to come up with ideas that speak to our universal theme.

For instance, one of the themes Stephen King uses a lot is:  "The greatest evil that people do is victimization of the weak by the strong." (Quoted from Books Worth Reading. Check out the post for King's other common themes.)

And let me tell you, I've given a lot of thought to theme and have even done the Save the Cat thing and had the theme stated plainly in the book. If you look at the last line of the prologue in MELT INTO YOU, that's the theme of the story: "Because sometimes doing the wrong thing was the only thing that felt right."

However, as much as I tried to work on novel theme, I could never really figure out my author theme. I wasn't convinced I had one. I mean, love conquers all is kind of the theme of all romance novels but that's too vague. And then the other day I was struggling with my current book and emailing with my buddy, Jamie Wesley. And she said, "Just remember your theme. Your books are all about healing and self-acceptance."

And I stared at her email and wanted to jump through the computer and hug her. All this time trying to figure out my theme, and she nailed it like it was the most obvious statement in the world. And she was absolutely, 100% right. That is what every book I've ever written is about. For those of you who have read my books, you'll see it plain as day if you think about the stories.

So why does this matter? Who cares if you can pinpoint it or not?

Well, it matters because when you're struggling with an idea, circling up with your theme can help clarify where you want to go with the story. That doesn't mean you ALWAYS have to write to that theme, but knowing what kinds of stories inspire you can give you a starting point.

And specific story theme can provide the same thing--clarity. What is this story really about? If it really is about "crime doesn't pay", you better not reward criminal behavior in the book. 

Also, don't stress if the story theme doesn't come to you immediately. Sometimes, especially for pantsers, you don't know what the story is about until you finish it. You can always go back in revisions and strengthen the theme throughout.

And if all else fails, get brilliant writer friends like I have who can bonk you over the head and tell you "Duh, your books are about THIS." : )

So what do you think of theme? Is it something you consciously try to weave into your story? Do you think you have a universal author theme? What is it?

Book Prices: Why a Good Story Should Be Worth More Than a Cheeseburger



Photo by The Consumerist

So everyone loves cheap, right? I mean, who can resist a great sale or a "steal" of a deal? It's human nature to want the most for your money.

But this week I found myself wanting the new Stephen King book, 11/22/63, and pausing because of the price. It's a hardback, which I don't typically buy--mainly because they're heavy and more awkward to read. And the retail price is $35. But of course, you never have to pay full price. You can get it 30% off at places like Target and you can get it for right under $20 at Barnes and Noble or Amazon. 

But still, it's twenty bucks, which *feels* like a lot when I'm used to buying paperbacks.

Then I started reading the reviews on Amazon and saw that a few reviewers gave the book one star solely on the price (which of course, should not be part of a review) and arguments amongst reviewers ensued.

Many made good points and this got me to thinking.

We'll pay that price to go see a movie, to go eat a lackluster meal at Applebee's, we'll spend five bucks on a cup of coffee that takes minutes to make and even fewer minutes to consume.

But we'll balk at paying that price for a 1000-page novel by a talented author who probably spent months to years writing and researching for it? AND that book will give us not minutes, but hours, days, of pleasure, of getting lost in a world, of rich entertainment.

THAT isn't worth the cost of a delivery pizza and some soda?

We've lost perspective on what the value of a good book is, of art.

Part of it is because we just live in a discounted/free/cheap focused world. We're the Walmart generation. Who cares if children work 18 hours days in impoverished countries and sleep under their sewing machines to make this shirt? It's only three dollars! 

Part of it is the economy and we're all just watching every penny. But it seems we take stands on some things but then blindly spend money in other places.

And another piece of the equation is the recent self-pubbing boom where everyone is offering full-length ebooks for free, 99 cents, or on the "high" end, $2.99.

Now, a small price for a short story or a short novella makes sense to me. But for full length novels?

Yes, those prices have made a few millionaires, but they also create a slanted view of what a book is worth. And honestly, my perception of those books is often lower. It's not a conscious thing but when  my mind sees 99 cents it automatically makes me think of dollar store quality. I may download one on occasion, especially if it's a "free" thing, but getting around to reading them--meh, I don't get so excited about it. The only ones I get excited about is if it's a promotion and I'm already a fan of the author and know I enjoy their stories.

I think it was Dr. Phil who used to say "you teach people how to treat you." Well, I think we're teaching people what we're worth. Authors are undervaluing themselves and their books. Something that takes you six months or a year to write, shouldn't be able to be had for a buck. It shouldn't be the same price as the Christmas pencils in the dollar bin at Target.

I think it's going to start to hurt authors more than it helps. Here's an opinion from indie-pubbed author Selena Kitt:

"Kindle readers are tired of $0.99 cheapies. The shine is off the new toy, people have stopped loading their Kindles up with freebies and cheapies, and have started getting more discerning about what they download. Many Kindle readers are starting to shy away from the $0.99 price point because they’ve read some stinkers and don’t want to travel down that road again. What was once a huge draw for Kindle readers—oooh, look, cheap books for my new toy!—has now become the opposite."


So I'm not going to stress about the price of the Stephen King book anymore. I can afford the twenty dollars. I'll just get that instead of the new pajama pants I had in my cart. And if I didn't want to spend the money, I could get it at the library. Or I could wait until it comes out in paperback. That's how books work.

So how about you? What are your thoughts on book prices? Should books cost the same amount as a Snickers bar? What do you spend money on mindlessly that costs the same as a good book? What do you think when you see the 99 cent price point--does it color your idea of its quality before reading? Do you think people will get burnt out on the cheap ebook thing because there is so much bad stuff to sift through to find the good ones?