Sh*t I Learned from Van Halen 1 That I Apply to Writing




40 years ago Van Halen, a band out of Pasadena, California, released their debut self-titled album, and in the process knocked the rock guitar world on its collective ass. My brother bought that album the week it came out because we’d been reading about the band’s exploits in BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine for a while, and wanted to hear what all the shouting was about. The second track of the album was called “Eruption”, and was an unaccompanied guitar solo piece.

It melted our teenage brains.


Not just from the speed, but the technique, and the tone of the guitar. Even more impressive was the fact that Eddie Van Halen stuck this mind-boggling playing style into every song on the album. There had been instrumental guitar pieces before, but they had been belabored by their creators to standout from their regular fare. Eddie just did it in two takes with no over-dubs. In fact, the entire album was recorded “live” meaning the band played the tracks live in the studio, and there are few over-dubbed guitar tracks.

Not just the guitar blew us away, the song writing, and the vocal harmonies were something not found with such quality on hard rock albums.

I had been playing guitar for six months already, and Van Halen became my benchmark for measuring my own playing. Four years later I could perform everything on any Van Halen record. I worked hard, and I practiced endlessly to become a solid player.

I don’t play guitar much these days. My passion is now writing. When I made the commitment to become an author I decided to use my experience as a guitarist and apply those lessons to becoming a better writer. I’ve already written about that, so today I’m waxing philosophical on how I apply lessons from that first Van Halen album to my writing…

  1. Work with what you have, and don’t fret about the things you don’t have.

David Lee Roth is not a great singer. He is a stylist who works his way through a song instead of singing it. This meant that Van Halen wasn’t going to record lofty ballads, but it didn’t restrict them in any way. In 1986, Van Halen replaced Roth with Sammy Hagar who is a fantastic singer, and this allowed Van Halen to stretch out its song-writing structure…but it wasn’t the same as what they did with Roth. His limited vocal ability forced Eddie to innovate his song structure to accommodate the restrictions, and the result is a dozen classic hard rock songs.

What they did have going for them was the backing vocal talents of bassist Michael Anthony, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Early on they made the wise move of working on their harmonies, and this work paid off on every song they recorded.

Writing application : I am not Faulkner, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write a good story. I don’t worry about my perceived limitations, I just write what I write the way I want to write.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.

On every track of that first album you hear a band that is tight. The hours of rehearsal and performance are obvious, and they play from intuition.

Writing application: I have writing drills. I’ll write five or six pages of nothing but opening paragraphs, or I’ll write descriptions of characters using other writer’s voices (how would Poe describe a woman at a bar compared to Raymond Chandler?). I’ve written car chases, make-out sessions, and foot chases. When I’m not drilling I’m writing 500 to 2,000 words a day no matter what.

  1. If you’re doing a cover-tune – OWN IT.

Van Halen’s third track is the Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me”, but it don’t resembled the Kink’s version very much. Van Halen found another gear for which to play the song, and today “You Really Got Me” is a signature song for both Van Halen and the Kinks, and this is true without stepping on toes.

Writing application: If you are doing genre writing don’t worry about cliché, just do it well, and put your stamp on it. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, and Stephen King all wrote novels about vampires, and they’re all different, and they’re all classics.

  1. Be concise.

In 1978 the average hard rock song was almost six minutes long. The songs on Van Halen all come in under four minutes. The band never overstayed its welcome.

Writing application: Don’t over-write. Are you writing to serve the story or your ego?

  1. Have some style.

Van Halen did things their way, and while sometimes it didn’t work it was always on their terms. But it mostly worked. On the radio you can spot Van Halen in five seconds from their overall sound. In photographs they also stood out thanks to David Lee Roth’s eye toward visual presentation. They didn’t dress like everyone else, and their stage set up featured what was then the next generation of lighting techniques.

Writing application: Be yourself. You like to swear? Knock yourself out and fill the page with f-bombs. You like sex? Dirty, dirty sex? Cool, make me sweat. Serial Killers are your jam? Kill away. Talking cats that solve mysteries? Hey, if that’s your thing then that’s what you write.

If you sit down to write a story based only on if it’s going to sell, or if it has a waiting market you should quit now. There was no market for sparkling vampires or S&M when “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” were written, and those authors would still be at their day jobs. And do you really think that in 1996 the big publishing houses were all looking for a children’s novel about a boy wizard who goes to wizard school?

I can go on and on, but that would violate #4.

Thanks for your time and rock and write on.

What Have I Learned After Writing Ten Novels?


Before I get rolling I should inform those of you who might have clicked on this looking for easy answers, handy tricks, or magic spells to make your novel fill reams of paper then you can stop reading now. There are no short-cuts.


Okay, if you’re still here, I’ll get on with it.

When I started writing seriously I decided I would take the many things I’d learned while becoming a good guitar player and apply them to my new craft:

  1. Read about authors I admire to learn their influences, and approaches to writing.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Set reachable goals.
  4. Break the different story aspects down into small parts, and then drill on them.
  5. Put in the time and do the work.
  6. Accept the realities of what writing a novel and getting published means.

I had the advantage of learning from my mistakes as a guitar player and changing to not make the same ones as a writer:

  1. Get your work out there. Don’t wait until it is perfect.
  2. Hang out and share with other writers.
  3. Take a few structured classes (in my case, all of them).
  4. Do your own thing; never write to the market just to get published.

Starting with #1, after about the tenth Paris Review author interview I noted a common factor among many novelists, which was that most had written between four and seven novels before their first one was published. Of course I thought I would be the exception, but around the end of my fourth novel I started to understand why that number made sense. Sure, I could put together a comprehensive, complex story, but there was usually something missing. I didn’t figure out what that was until after my sixth novel. There was a depth that was absent. I wish I could explain what I mean by this, but the bottom line is that my writing lacked the weight I wanted.

So I soldiered on.

The last three novels began to fill in closer to the way I wanted them to.

Another thing that all successful authors have in common is they finish whatever they’re writing no matter how bad it is, and I understand this completely. I learn more from my bad writing than I ever can from the good stuff. Understanding how a piece failed, and where it failed has helped me sniff out a failure in progress, and I can kill it on the spot now.

An essential truth is there is no such thing as wasted time writing.

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 all run together. When I was learning guitar I played every day for an average of four hours, often more, and I usually had my guitar within reach. I learned new songs each week, and I ran scales endlessly. Taking that into writing I made a point in the beginning to write every day, and try to write a new short story each week. This lasted for two years, and I still write something almost every day.

If you wonder what a drill is, this means writing short scenarios relevant to the type of story you want to tell. I write a lot of action, so I would write car chases, shoot-outs, guys sliding down ropes in the dark, getting punched in the face, punching someone else in the face, and other things that my characters might end up doing. I would write in the styles of my favorite authors like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Poe, and Elmore Leonard, and I would write a the same scenario using their voices.

It’s like trying on different shoes.

The payoff comes when I’m writing and a car chase ensues I’ve already done the work, I’m ready for the roaring engines, squealing tires, and the smell of burned rubber. I don’t have to waste time figuring it out because I have already the work. If you write stories about a person who hunts frogs then you should drill on writing about swamps, ponds, lakes, wet socks in wet shoes, what pond water smells like, what the air around the water smells like on a summer day as opposed to a spring day, the smoothness of the frog’s skin, and how that smoothness is different when the frog is in the water (yes, I’ve caught a lot of frogs). Whatever your chosen world to write about is you should be drill on the parts and action that are sure to take place.

I started this piece out by stating that there are no short cuts and #5 is the ground’s truth. The more you write the better you get. The more you read and write the better you get, just a little faster. Your story will not write itself, I have spent hours staring at my screen waiting for words to appear, and it never happens. Never will. I parked my but in front of my laptop for an hour or more every day and wrote. Today I average 1,500 words each day while I’m writing a novel. This is the perfect pace for me, and I get results…like I said, I’ve finished ten novels. You have to find your pace, and for some it’s 2,000 words per day, and others it might just be a few sentences. As long as you keep working on your project that is all that matters.

Getting to six, the fact is that after all of my past and future work there is no guarantee I will ever get published. If that day comes the reality is that I won’t make enough to quit my day job. I don’t care; I’m going to write anyway. My dad played golf every weekend, and he never played in a tournament. Most golfers never do. The same is true with runners, there are runners who could run and win marathons, yet never have the stones to sign up for a race. There are people who are great cooks who will never see the inside of a restaurant kitchen. The golfers still golf, the runners still run, the cooks still cook, and I’m going to still write no matter what.

I have successfully applied all of these things and have generated ten novels.

My next novel I will consider my first. Ten novels is the perfect foundation to build a library upon. I have a clear and sober view of what is ahead of me, and I’m excited by what I see.

This is supposed to be about what I’ve learned after all of that work, and here it comes.

  1. It doesn’t get easier. Each novel is different; new story, new locations, new characters, and each come with a unique set of problems. Four of my novels have featured the same characters and each one was a different experience.
  2. Outlines are a good idea. I write by the seat of my pants most of the time, but an outline saves a lot of time not just by knowing where the story goes, but because you’ll know what kind of engine the car in your story has, or when trout season is, or where the fire exits are at the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Looking those kinds of details while actively writing kills momentum.
  3. List your characters on a spreadsheet, and keep it updated with which chapters they appear, and what they did in those chapters. This helps prevent plot holes.
  4. Line-edit as you go. A line-edit is where you look for typos and other grammatical screw ups.
  5. Keep learning. This means read Writer’s Digest, Paris Review, and other writer’s blogs. One thing I learned from guitar that is true with writing is that no matter how good you get you can always learn something new, and you can always learn something from just about anybody.

Most of these are straight forward, but I want to talk about #1 a little more. It doesn’t get easier and that is counterintuitive. Two of my novels I banged out during NaNoWriMo, one even being completed in seventeen days. My last one took me eight months, and it’s not the kind of story that should have taken that long. In this case the presidential election threw me off my game for a few for a while. Like I said, each story is different with its own set of obstacles navigate. This used to bother me, but now I realize that a story is going to regulate how fast and easy it is done, not the writer.

The other reason it stays hard is that with each work complete you mentally raise the bar for the next one. This is compounded by the new books you read in the meantime which inspire you to write better, and you work that made you happy in the first novels no longer meets your new standard. Since this all began I have discovered a dozen more authors whose writing has inspired me and left me in awe. They’ve made me want to step my game up with every new book I read.

I love this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before I sign off I want to address a side issue.

The biggest excuse I hear from people is that they want to write their novel, but they can’t find their voice. Here’s the good news: You already have one, now get writing. I know, your expensive how-to books, or your Ivy League MFA have told you to find your voice, and that your work will languish until you do. Here’s the thing, the more you write the more refined your voice becomes.

Waiting until you find your voice is a chicken-shit excuse.

A great example is Elmore Leonard. I love Leonard’s work, and he is my primary inspiration, and my go-to author for when I get stuck. Two years ago, after he passed away, a collection of his unpublished short stories was released in a book titled: “Charlie Martz and Other Stories”. Some of these were his first works which came well before he was published, and while you can tell they’re Elmore Leonard stories his voice isn’t quite there yet. The narrative is flat. Even when reading his early westerns if you start chronologically you can watch his voice sharpen with each one. Do this with your favorite author, read their first book, and then compare it with their latest novel, and you will see it.

So get out there and write, or don’t, I’m not the boss of you.

The Grinder

The Grinder

I don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”, but the past six months have been hard for me as a writer while I deal with health issues, and I’ve definitely been knocked out of my daily routine. In spite of that I pulled off another NaNoWriMo successfully even with a crappy story. Why? I like being a writer; I like writing, the act of shaping a story from nothing. This is so much truer for me now as it is one of the few things in my life I control. The problem is that I am also still human complete with the sea of emotions that everyone else has, and there have been too many days since the last week of August where I did no writing.

Still, I get back on the horse and gallop back into the grinder.

On those days I don’t feel like writing I hear M.Emmet Walsh’s voice in my head speaking his line as Bryant from “Blade Runner”:

“If you’re not cops, you’re little people.”

In this scene, Decker has been detained and brought to Bryant and reinstated as a Blade Runner involuntarily. I relate to both Decker and Bryant on my non-writing days. Decker doesn’t want to go back to his old job. He’s clearly beaten by the past, and knows the many downsides. Bryant needs Decker because he’s the best at tracking down replicants. Decker resumes his job, hunts down his target, and mostly gets his ass kicked. In the end he is ultimately rescued by the last replicants, Roy Batty, the most dangerous one on his list, as his fingers slip off the ledge. Like Batty, my writing usually ends up saving the day in ways I would never have discovered had I not written at all.

(If I just spoiled Blade Runner for you that’s your problem, you had 34 years to see it, loser.)

Since I began this new writer’s life I have established a set of rules, some of which I have posted here already. These rules are subject to change, and are ignored whenever they get in the way of the story…except one.

The Exchange Rule: On days you don’t feel like writing – write something else.

This means that on a day when you’re second-guessing your latest novel, questioning your direction in life, or feel the need to wallow in a puddle of negativity you still have to write. Write anything. Write about why you think you’re shit. Write about how life has peed in your pool. Write about your cat, dog, turtle, or that one drawer in the kitchen. The point is that even though your novel is sidelined you haven’t walked away from the table. You are still producing content.

Here’s the thing, writers write. If you’re not a writer, you’re little people.



You want to be in the club? Write. That’s all you have to do. That steaming pile of self-indulgent ooze you just wrote about your long dead dog just put you ahead on 99.999999% of the human race who didn’t write jack-shit today.

You won.


Tomorrow you get back into the game working on your big project and do so until the next time. When that time comes, write something else, but just write.

I started “Short Story Tuesday” back in the summer in between novels. The mission is to write a new short story before I go to bed on Tuesday night. I started looking forward to Tuesdays because it was a day off from writing…while I was still writing, and since I was not working on a novel this gave me six days to revise the better stories. I basically found a way to keep writing while fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t writing. Not every story was good, a few stank, but it kept me in the game.


More Novel Writing Stuff

At the moment I write this I am three quarters through my sixth novel. Since the first week of November, 2013, I have finished five novels, and revised the first. They range in subject matter from paranormal commando thrillers, to a western, an apocalyptic sea critter yarn, and a Hollywood fantasy. If your time is brief, this is what you need to know about novel writing:

Anybody can do it. You just have to be persistent.

That’s it, that is all there is to it. Uh oh, I can hear you guys right now muttering negativity. Look, I know it’s hard. Not “Hard” like giving birth, building a house, milking a King Cobra, just hard in the way that getting good at anything is hard. Once you find a story that demands to be told all you have to do is write it.

I write, or try to write every day. On the few days I don’t, I’m still thinking about the story. My routine has been broken up so that I can get to writing earlier, take a break by showering, and then returning to writing with new ideas I got while in the shower. I’m reading a lot more now too, I have to refill the brain. Now that I have a process I’ve begun to push my writing harder, and that means tackling subjects that are more real. Viewing this as a challenge is what drives me. I could be that guy who writes his first novel, and then rewrites it, and revises it for years, but at right now I want to show potential agents and publishers that I can write productively. Writing a bunch of novels has built my narrative muscles, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m going to share some things I’ve learned about getting the novel together, and keeping it all going.

  1. Start with a good story. Good characters will drop into your head from the either to be in a good story. A good story drives everything else.
  2. Once you have your main characters, take time on the side to polish them up. I write short stories that take place before my novel begins to put them through their paces so I can see who they are. From these stories I draw up a profile page to refer to when writing the novel.
  3. Keep a character list. When the story begins rolling new characters will pop up. Write them down on a separate page with a brief description, and page and chapter number they first appear in. If needed, keep a reference of all of the chapters they’re in. The list comes in handy, it saves you time when you get stuck trying to remember the name of the cop from back in chapter five. The other thing is does is gives you people you can come back to when you need something. I have had minor characters turn into key players later in the book from scanning my list and realizing I already had someone for the plot development.
  4. Stop every 10 chapters and read the story. It keeps you honest, and often I have found something to use in the later chapters.
  5. Give yourself a break. I said write every day, but realistically there are days it’s not going to happen. Take those days off. Take a walk, paint the house, pet the cats, see a movie, or whatever. Just get back to it the next day.
  6. Pull out your DVDs and play them with the director’s commentary. If there’s a writer’s commentary play that one too. Listening to Ridley Scott discussing why he made lighting choices, or put the camera where he did can enlighten you in your quest to tell your own story. The writer’s commentary should drive home the fact that there’s a lot of rewriting involved. All movies start with a writer and a story.
  7. Talk to other writers. You should have writer friends. Join a group or take a class at the local junior college to meet people. It will help.
  8. Don’t over think it. The thing that blows me away is that every story is different, with different challenges to overcome. Some writers swear by a strict outline, others just sit down and wing it. At this point I’ve done both. Being too attached to a single process can and will get in the way. Do what the story dictates. You have to treat it as a living thing.
  9. Have fun. If you’re not having fun then your reader won’t either. And yes, you can have fun while writing a story about your childhood trauma. The fun comes from knowing you’ve created art, and if you’re crying like a baby at the end of your daily writing session you are winning the game…and that is fun.
  10. Don’t write the easy stuff, even when you’rewriting the easy stuff. What am I talking about? Read some Elmore Leonard.

Writing the Apocalypse, or You Can’t Have Darkness without Heart


Here I am, just over a week after finishing my fifth novel, thinking about what I learned from the process. #5 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If it is ever published I doubt anyone will be able to tell, but for me it marks the point where I began to walk upright as a writer. On the other side of this beast I look forward, and look back, and find that I’m somewhat lost. I want to go back to Max Chrome, and his world, his friends, and his adventures, but I also want to continue the push. This has happened to me before in other aspects of my life; when my guitar playing took off I pressed harder instead of enjoying things, when I began getting in shape there came a day when I saw my body had changed shape and I began to live in the gym, and the point where hiking 7 miles had become an average day so I began to find longer trails. The difference is today I have the benefit of those experiences to guide me through this new phase. I’m taking a break to cool my writing jets, and take stock.

Novel #5 began a few years ago with a 100-word short story, and it had a solid concept which yielded great things. The opening chapter revealed itself to me one afternoon, powerful enough to drive the first quarter of the story, and I wrote a test version of it, which was lost when my first laptop died. I got two things out of that experiment: A powerful introduction to the villains, and my hero. He would evolve in the three years between the test chapter, and when I finally turned him loose into my fictional California city. It turned out that he would save my story a couple of time when I thought all was lost. He forced me to take the story from a series of set-pieces strung together by narrative, and made me focus on characters.

His name is Wes, and in that first test-drive he was a Sheriff’s deputy in the middle of an ugly divorce. He is making a phone call outside of a waterfront bar when the novel’s antagonists strike. Wes didn’t want to be a cop. His reasoning (and yes kids, we had long internal conversations about his story) was why make him a guy with a gun if the gun would be useless to the plot? He complained that all of my novels to this point involved guys with guns, and he didn’t want to be the next one, thank you very much. Wes became a bar-tender with a hell of a back story. Once Wes took shape the rest of the characters just spilled into his word; his daughter Katy, his girlfriend Talia, his ex-wife Angela, the regulars at the bar: Leroy, Herman, Skipper, and a guy named Duckfoot. I had so many characters I had to keep a list (which is a great idea that I’m sure good writers already do), and I was forced to name many of the supporting cast after Oakland Raiders. Wes is laid back with a wisdom earned by the many beating life has inflicted on him.

I began #5 in August, 2013 while I was finishing up #4, which was a Max Chrome adventure that has the unique status of being a novel I have no intention of trying to publish. #4 was written based on comments from trusted friends who wanted to know more about him, who he was, and his motivations, and so I set a story in his home town with old friends, and his ex-wife. For an action adventure there is a lot of talking, but it was worth it. In November I took Max out for a spin with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and crushed a solid story in 17 days thanks to that exercise. #4 opened up Novel #5 thanks to my taking my action hero, and making him have long discussions. This made me take different tacks to scenes where I had to think about who was in them instead of what was going to happen next. The characters drove the story with the action being secondary, and I think that’s probably how it should be.

The first grownup adventure story I read was Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”. I was 9, and though 90% of the character plot was way over my head I still became attached to Chief Brody, and he kept me involved in the story through the boring affair stuff with Hooper and his wife. I wanted to see him survive, and right up to that last paragraph with the shark facing him down I was holding my breath. When the movie came out in 1975 I was disappointed because all Spielberg saw was the shark, and the shark drove the story. The problem was that the shark wasn’t portrayed as a character; in fact it had more personality in the early scenes where you didn’t see it. The next action novel I read was the long-lost “Firespill”, by Ian Slater. The plot involved two oil tankers colliding in the Gulf of Alaska, one carrying high-octane fuel, and if you haven’t guessed it already, the spill erupts into flame. I think I bought it because it had a submarine on the cover. All I remember from this story is that the Vice President is on a yacht caught in the middle of the conflagration. But I do remember reading it, and it had sat on my bookshelf since 1977. The story focused on characters in the middle of an impossible situation. The narrative it tight, and could enjoy a revival as it is still a believable plot.

I thought destroying the world would be easy, but I soon discovered it is a huge chore. Characters don’t always do what you think they’re going to do, and sometimes they take the story in another direction. I learned not to fight it. Good characters will never let you down. By the time I was three quarters into the story over half of the set-piece scenes of destruction had been discarded, and at least one character I had planned to kill in an horrible way was still around while another one I had hoped would be the Han Solo to Wes’ Luke Skywalker was dead. My vision of a story, which was to be like “The Stand”, had wandered off into its own world, with its own rules, and sensibilities. Worse for me was when I finally saw how it would end I became depressed. My man Wes might not make it to the end of the story. Killing him was going to suck. I started writing Novel #6 to cheer myself up, but Wes would tap me on the shoulder and get me back into #4.

“Trust me,” Wes would say. “Respect me, if I have to die then I have to die. Just remember who I am and let me do my thing.” #6 was shelved, and around this time Craig Johnson of the Longmire novels rolled into Monterey. Craig spoke to the Creative Writing Class at Monterey Peninsula College, and later did a big talk/reading shindig at school’s theater. Craig offered tips on writing ranging from character, to dialog, to structure, and he knocked the cobwebs loose. I wrote ten short stories to apply those things to my writing, and get them wired into my brain. Some of those stories can be found here, but a couple of them are just for me.

When I got back to #4 I found Wes waiting to drive to the finish line. I began researching the key elements of the final chapters (yep, a submarine), and while watching a YouTube video of a guided tour of a Trident submarine I saw exactly what I needed to at least give Wes a shot at making it. I knew I didn’t need to add too much more color in the way of human suffering, I had plenty, and by the time I burned San Francisco to the ground you (the reader) see it from a distance on the other side of the bay. You already know what’s going on by now, and the story isn’t about San Francisco, it’s about Wes being in deep shit.

Wes brings you into the story, keeps you invested in the story, and (hopefully) keeps you turning the pages. Destruction for destruction’s sake isn’t interesting beyond a few paragraphs. Tornados rampaged through the mid-west while I was writing the last chapters, and while the footage on the Weather Channel was gripping, all I was worried about was the people in their path. In the aftermath the news showed splintered houses, naked trees, and crumpled vehicles, but it never hits home until they talk to the survivors. The stories are all the same, some people took shelter as their home blew apart around them, and others just got lucky being in the right place when some poor person only a few yards away died. And after the tears, and the shock, those people began to clean up the mess, bury their dead, and began to rebuild. This was all applied to Novel #4, and steered me in a realistic direction.

With #4 done you’d think things should be easier for me, and in some ways they are. I started a test chapter for #7, and instantly knew what I needed to do to pull it off. This is a new thing for me. The problem is I need new characters, and I need to find my outrage that will drive the plot. I don’t have that right now. For the time being I’m going to fizz around and write some shorts, do character sketches, and read the news. Novel #6 will pick up over the next few weeks, but I need to ease back into that one. I think that as a writer I have transitioned from a bicycle to a car, and now I want a better car. What I need to remember is the most fun I’ve had in my life came in old, beat up cars, and not a Ferrari. I need to just roll up my sleeves and write, but it should be, no – must be fun.


Writing the Apocalypse

     Telling the story of the end of the world is the second oldest profession for story tellers, the first being describing the creation of the universe. When the written word was first etched into stone and clay these were the first stories told. While creation stories are measured to conform to a religion or culture’s status quo, the apocalypse has always been an over-the-top affair. You’d think we’d be pretty good at it by now, but unfortunately this is not often the case. I’ve been writing an apocalypse story, and I confess it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I worry I am failing. I’m writing this for my own good, and to share my thoughts with others who might be considering their own world-killing tales.

I’ll start with best: Stephen King is probably the go-to guy if you want good apocalypse narratives. “The Stand” is a masterpiece, and if you’ve never read King (and if you haven’t what’s wrong with you?) then this book is a great place to start. Set against the backdrop of a bio-engineered plague, King whittles the human race down to a single digit percentage of the former population. Using his horror-writing skills he sprinkles the fantastic into “The Stand” in limited, but effective amounts, and the story settles into an exodus to a promised land, and a race against evil. “The Stand” is character driven, the plague is background, and the story comes with how the people deal with the many phases of the end of the world. It’s a damned good yarn. King has other apocalypse stories too: the short story “Trucks”, and the novel “Cell” are wonderful takes on the end of the human race, each with different catalysts, but all share the strong character-centric base.

James Gunn’s screenplay for the remake of “Dawn of the Dead” had many things to like, but the primary factor making it a great apocalypse story is its character-centered narrative. It’s a zombie movie, but the zombies are secondary to the story with the survival of the people staying front and center. The movie takes its time in places using monotony to build a feeling of hopelessness, and Gunn’s script is full of great dialogue which adds depth where so many movies like this rarely do.  While the movie hints the zombie outbreak might be terrorist- related, the source is never revealed, and this a key difference between Gunn’s story, and King’s various works. Not knowing the source driving the end of the world can be risky, the reader or viewer has no rule book or guide, and the risk of losing interest in the story goes up if the reader suspects that there is no hope. Gunn’s story flirts with going in this direction, but the action moves the story at a pace which doesn’t let the viewer dwell on the outcome. King’s stories give the reader a source, or starting point for the apocalypse so his readers know where the limits of the virus, or menace lay. This is found in the Bible with the story of Noah, God tells Noah he’s up to something, tells him to build an ark and fill it with animals, and then floods the earth.

The flip-side to this is the event-driven apocalypse story. Two prime examples of what not to do are the movies “The Day After”, and “World War Z”. “The Day After” is riddled with disaster movie clichés, characters are cartoon like with cartoon motivations, and are pushed aside by scene after scene of special effects. Nobody cares about the people in the story because they are poorly written. “World War Z” had the same problem. Brad Pitt’s character races from one set-piece to another where he meets one stereo-type after another in his quest to stop the virus behind the zombie outbreak. At no point does the viewer feel Pitt is in danger, and his ultimate success in figuring it out and getting back to his family are never in doubt – it is that badly written. I’m talking about the movie, and not the book. The book is pretty good, but it was adapted badly into movie form.

“World War Z” saved my story from going in that direction. My apocalypse story centers on a threat from the sea, and starts off in spectacular fashion. Luckily I had developed a stable of strong characters, and had used their points of view to describe the destruction. The temptation was to pull back the point of view to reveal the global scale, but after watching “World War Z” I changed my mind. Sure the world is still getting torn up, but my characters experience this through the television. I have already established the events which occur during the attacks, and I trust my readers with putting the rest together in their imaginations. This has allowed me to move the story faster, and keep the narrative crisp.

Trusting your reader is key. Stephen King and James Gunn just assume people are as smart as they are. This allows them to tell stories which can take risks, and keep their fans engrossed through multiple readings or viewings of their work. I need to remember this. In my defense my destructive force is unique to the apocalypse, so I have to do a little more work throughout to inform the reader about what is going on. At this time I am seven weeks away from finishing this novel, and this doesn’t count revisions in the future. I am glad I’ve taken a shot at the subject, I have a lot of great scenes in this story I’m proud of, and like I always tell people – there’s no such thing as wasted time while writing. There are a few other great apocalypse movies I should mention: “Omega Man”, and “Night of the Comet”. Both are character driven, and “Night of the Comet” is also just a lot of fun. Happy reading and joyful writing to you all.

Thank you for checking this blog out.

Bad Horror

I wandered into Best Buy the other day, and I ended up buying a collection of horror films titled “30 Films – Horror Collection”. Far as I can tell the only reason this collection exists is because someone lost a bet. However I was able to use my new writer skills to salvage my dignity, and get my $10 out of the deal. Out of the 30 movies, five were entertaining, but only one managed to creep me out. I’ll tell you about it later. This leaves 25 movies which never should have been made. Yeah, I said it, there is no way someone read the script for these movies, and then thought they were a good idea. Half of them are clear rip-offs of other, more popular and profitable horror movies (most of those suck too, by the way), and the other half are either stories that meant well then fell apart, or someone green-lit a project as a favor for a brain damaged friend. I learned a few things from my afternoon of horrible horror movies…

  1. Don’t be predictable – Four of the thirty movies center around a group of young people who travel to a remote cabin for a long weekend of booze, sex, and drugs only to be picked off one –by-one. One movie does get style credit for at least being original enough to have these people be filming a porno movie at their lonely cabin. All of the movies follow the same cookie-cutter pattern established in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, and the first “Friday the 13th” movies.

So what’s the fix here? Why the fuck does it need to be out in the woods? Why not a backyard party in Fresno, or a high-rise Chicago apartment?  One of the driving horror elements of “Rosemarie’s Baby” is its location in New York City. When a familiar, safe location becomes a dangerous place it is a shorter trip for the reader or viewer to make to be imported into the story. The woods can be scary at night, but everyone would freak out if they hear something moving in their closet at four in the afternoon.

“But what about ‘The Blair Witch Project’?” What about it? Blair Witch was original from its concept (found footage), to its execution, (we never see the thing chasing them leaving us to experience their fear, wicked ending). Have you noticed nobody has followed that movie into the woods in the same way to attempt to build on the concept yet? I did.

  1. Characters are EVERYTHING. – Jesus, why do I need to even say this? I need to say this because 28 of those 30 movies featured cardboard cut-outs instead of real people: The knowledgeable doctor, the gay guy, the reluctant hero, the hero who turns evil, the slut, the good girl, the tortured slut who wants to be a good girl but dies anyway, the kind-hearted vampire, the friendly werewolf, evil midget, the weird handy-man, diabolical rednecks.

I won’t name these movies, but I’m betting you have thought of a dozen movies where these characters live. Get the picture? What’s the fix? DON’T SUCK AT WRITING. Elmore Leonard never plotted his stories, instead he let characters drive the narrative. A good character will inform the plot at every step of the way. For horror the big problem is formula writing, I know who dies last, and who will get away. Invest in you characters and your readers and viewers will too. Look, I know certain storylines will require similar characters. You know, cops, rural sheriff’s deputies, doctors, scientists, and the old guy who lives alone (in the woods, or in the apartment down the hall), but make them your own. Have fun with them. Best example of this is “Lake Placid”, where every character was standard issue, but David Kelly made them fully functional people. The result is some of the best dialog in any horror movie you will ever see.

  1. Don’t play it safe.  – The majority of these movies are perfectly lit, perfectly blocked, every shot is in frame, and every reaction is telegraphed well before it happens. Nobody gets their balls cut off, nobody accidently has sex with their sister in the dark while their stoned, nobody cares why the killer is killing people, and the killer is slow and methodical.

Let’s start with the killer. We live in a world with real killers, mass murders, and spree-killers. The knife-wielding, axe-swinging killer just doesn’t hold water, and truthfully never did. The Sandhook Massacre is an example of a real horror story where lots of children were murdered, and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. [Just adding that Sandyhook Elementary School was a well-lit, safe place where a horrible thing happened. See example #1] The horror of 9/11 wasn’t just the people jumping to their deaths, it was us imagining what was happening to the people still trapped inside of the towers before they fell. What went through their minds in the hour before their building took them to their deaths? What decisions did they make? What decisions did they fail to make in time? These questions based on real-world horror will transfer into your zombie, vampire, or thing-in-the-lake story too, so mine them to make your tale stand out.

  1. It’s not style over substance, it’s style AND substance. –  Stephen King is the master of horror fiction because he has earned the title. He has original stories populated with real characters, and he can be counted on to zag when you expected him to zig. He keeps his readers on their toes to the end. One of the 30 movies spends a lot of time with shots of a lonely lake, and the woods around the cabin (while nothing is happening), more than a few of the movies have great locations (castles, old buildings, and even a huge ship), but use them as a crutch instead of giving us a good story.

Riddley Scott’s “Alien” is an example of a good story full of solid characters with a setting full of atmosphere. All three elements feed off of each other. “Downton Abbey” is shot in a big mansion, but it’s not a scary place within the context of the show. What would  Stephen King, or Riddley Scott do with the same building? Many of the 30 movies are designed to feel and look like the movies they are ripping off, so they fall flat due to the lack of substance ( good characters, good story) in the director’s quest to achieve a look and style. I suspect this stems from these directors not having respect for the horror genre, and certainly no respect for the script. Many young directors get their start in horror flicks, but too often they view it as a stepping stone to more serious work – and that’s the problem. Every job deserves to be taken seriously. You’re a young director, SciFy hires you out of film school, and hands you an awful script. Guess what? You can still make it work, there is no excuse not to. The greatest horror movie classics were made on shoe-string budgets, you just have to get your ass in gear and commit to your story. If you make shit it was always be on your résumé from here in out, so don’t make shit.

  1. Make your story frightening, and as disturbing in every way possible. – All but one of the 30 movies holds back on the horror, looks away at the last moment, makes the moral choice over the immoral one, and otherwise chickens out at the brink of actually scaring you.

Every horror writer should aspire to create something so terrifying it ends up being banned in certain countries, and requires a warning label on the cover telling buyers of the risks to their mental health should they read your story. What is the true purpose behind a good campfire story? To keep everyone on edge at night, because the woods are a dangerous place. During the day everyone laughs the story off, but when it gets dark every cracking branch becomes an approaching axe-murderer (axe murderers are scary when you’re 10). The movie “Jaws” scared millions of people out of the water in 1975, and not just at the beach, even the big lakes were void of swimmers that summer. “Jaws” is an example of our primal fears of nature, the unknown, and loss of control of our immediate world. “Jaws” also happened for the most part on a sunny beach, or under blue skies, and when it was dark the fear and shock factors went through the roof. “Jaws” should be every horror writer’s bench mark.

Now let me tell you about the one movie I did like.

“Silent Night, Bloody Night” is a movie directed by Theodore Gershuny (I’ve never heard of him either). It is low budget, and probably designed for the drive-in movie market of the early 1970s. This movie has John Caradine in a throw away role, and he is the only recognizable name in the cast. The movie has many flaws, some are plot holes, and the rest stem from its age. These flaws are overcome by a good story, decent acting, and applied style of film making to add an extra dimension to the story.

The plot involves an old house at the edge of town [yup, you’ve seen this one before, but…] which the city fathers wish to buy so they can demolish it. The house attracts squatters and teenagers, but its dark past is what the town folk hope to erase. I don’t know the story behind this movie, however it looks like Gershuny took an okay script, and made the most out of his opportunity. The house, like in any good horror story, is treated as a character with creaking doors, dark wood paneling, and by using good camera angles the windows become vacant eye sockets. The story takes place in winter, and the snow adds to the atmosphere of the house with ambient pale light coming through the windows. Gershuny uses a long lens for most of the movie, maybe because it’s all he had, but it seems more like a choice. What you have are a lot of wide-shots countered by stillness while the characters interact. There is not a lot of running in this movie at all.

The stillness creates tension, and the simple plot builds nicely while the bodies pile up. The movie was shot on 35mm, and has not been restored making the film creepier. The ending is rushed, and this is the only real let down. The movie for its time refused to play it safe. The violence is perfectly calibrated, and at one point goes over the top even by today’s standards.  Just graphic enough, and more than intense for what was needed.  Gershuny took the time to seek out the best camera angles for his action making the house at times seem vast, yet claustrophobic when the killer stalks his victims.

There is not a lot to fix in this movie, and could even be remade using the same script. If this movie pops up on your radar I recommend it. While I don’t recommend this 30 Horror Film collection as a good source of quality horror, I do recommend it for writers who want 29 examples of what not to do. Some of these movies are good for parties where everyone sits around making fun of the action. The one thing I hope to leave you with is curiosity, I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my story telling, and this collection came through in that department. When you find that scary story or movie you should first enjoy the shit out of it, and then you need to dissect it to find out why its scary going from element to element until you understand the story’s success. The same applies to failure. In fact the better you understand failure the more success you will have.

It’s really that easy, now get busy writing.