Thursday, October 9, 2014

Five Ingredients For Writing Horror, by Robert Lettrick (Plus Cover Reveal And Give-Away)

I’m thrilled to join Project Mayhem as their newest middle grade horror writer, and just in time for Halloween! Anyone else catch the blood moon lunar eclipse last night? Well, tis the season, so let’s talk about writing scary books. Specifically let’s discuss some of the ingredients that I believe are important to writing compelling middle grade horror.

Ingredient the first: Share.
We’re all afraid of something. For example, I’ve been terrified of heights my whole life, bordering on acrophobia. So I’m sure it makes perfect sense that I would spend several years as a roofer, right? I started with my dad’s construction company during summer breaks when I was only fourteen, regularly working on steeply sloped roofs, many of them several stories in the air. This was before OSHA cracked down on companies for not using harnesses and other safety equipment. We were basically the Flying Wallendas with tool belts.
Most roofers who have been in the business for a few years have a fall story, including me. I was assisting a coworker with a repair on a gothic-style church (spires, towers, a bell—the works). I was working close to the bottom edge of the roof and he was up near the middle, replacing a piece of broken slate, perched on the bend of a slate bar he’d hooked around a nail (creative scaffolding). The nail popped out and my coworker came zooming down the roof in my direction. I managed to block him from sailing over the edge, but the momentum of the collision knocked me off the building and I fell backwards to the ground. Luckily, I landed in a bush just a few feet away from the spikes of the church’s iron perimeter fence, bruised but otherwise unharmed. More than anything, I was scared. I mean really scared for the first time in my life. When writing horror, it can be helpful to tap into our memory banks and draw on past experiences for inspiration. If a character falls in my story, I can think back to that day in my youth and imbue the scene with nuanced details earned during my ordeal. I doubt many of you have been attacked by a werewolf but maybe you were bitten by a dog or came face to face with a bear in the woods. Tap into those memories and emotions and share them with your readers. 

All I could think about while watching this scene was thank God
I don't have to fix that roof.

Ingredient the second: Scare.
Where does fear come from? The scientific answer is the amygdala, groups of nuclei located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe.
The anthropological answer is that we are hardwired to protect ourselves and fear is a big part of self-preservation. Interestingly, there’s a rare condition with fewer than 300 known cases to date called Urbach-Wiethe. It's a disease that causes the amygdala to malfunction, resulting in a state of perpetual fearlessness. Not surprisingly, this can lead to reckless behavior, underlining the importance of fear as it relates to self-preservation. In moderation, fear is a good thing. It exists because, let’s face it, the world is a dangerous place. For a writer our planet is a vast reservoir of potential stories. Some authors have ideas for days and need zero help dreaming up terrifying scenarios, but if you’re the type that requires inspiration you can always find some in the news. In fact, while you’re reading this blog it’s probable that in some corner of the world something uniquely terrifying is taking place, an event worthy of a SyFy movie of the week. This past year at a glance: A man was trapped on a small island off the coast of Australia as an enormous crocodile stalked him for two weeks. The Lyubov Orlova, a ghost ship full of cannibal rats drifted aimlessly across the North Atlantic (it finally sunk this January).
"I don't recall there being mention of cannibal rats in the
travel brochure."
In Indonesia, Five tigers chased hunters up a tree and kept them there for several days. Horror takes place around the globe and around the clock. Heck, just last week archaeologists in Turkey announced they may have discovered Dracula’s dungeon! The real world is full of inspiration for your next novel, pick your poison (just make sure it’s fresh poison, one readers are less likely to have built up immunity to it). It’s your job to pass fear from your amygdala to the reader’s amygdala solely through the written word. Starting with a chilling premise is helpful.


Ingredient the third: Care
Cuddly King
And by “care” I mean it’s important to write in a way that your readers develop empathy for your characters. Leave this ingredient on the table and you’re likely to be chopped. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen King said, "You can't be afraid for the characters if they are just cardboard cut-outs. What I want the audience to do is fall in love with these people and really care about them and that creates the suspense you need. Love creates horror." How about that? Love creates horror! And he’s right. It’s the reason why King is one of the most widely read horror authors and why so many big budget slasher flicks are in and out of the theater in two weeks. His suggestion that love creates horror is as true for scary Middle Grade books as it is for YA and adult fiction. At the core, horror stories are survival stories, and when we have a genuine connection to a character we’re more likely to root for their survival, mourn when they die, and cheer when they succeed. Empathy leads to a more satisfying read.

Ingredient the fourth: Spare
I’ve found from experience that if you’re writing middle grade fiction it’s best to let most of your main characters survive. After all, you’re not writing Saw XVIII.

Ingredient the fifth: Dare
Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy. There’s glee to be had in reading horror. And in writing it, too. One of the perks of the genre is that it’s okay to go over the top. Like roller coaster enthusiasts, kids read horror because they want to be frightened, and they want to be frightened in creative, surprising ways. Don’t disappoint. Take it from a guy who kicked off his career with a book about rabid squirrels.

And now it’s time to reveal the cover of my new book, The Murk. The artwork was provided by the amazing Mark Fredrickson, perhaps best known for painting so many memorable covers for Mad Magazine. Mark also created the cover art for Frenzy and I’m so grateful for his contribution to my books.


I’m giving away an autographed advance reader copy of The Murk on Goodreads. Visit my page and sign up for the chance to win one months before the hardcover version arrives in stores on April, 2015. Oh, and Happy Halloween!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Murk by Robert Lettrick

The Murk

by Robert Lettrick

Giveaway ends October 23, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

31 comments:

  1. Welcome, Robert. I loved reading that you were a roofer (one of the Flying Wallendas with tool belts) who was afraid of heights. I also love being reminded of Stephen King's mantra that "Love creates horror.)

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    1. Thanks, Michael! I appreciate the warm welcome I've received from you and the rest of the group. The best thing about roofing was that it taught me the value of hard work. Writing can be a difficult job at times, and roofing helped prepare me for the challenge.

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  2. My gosh, you're really come in with a bang! Welcome, Robert. Speaking of fears and Wallendas, I watched the Biography episode about the Flying Wallendas and have NEVER, EVER FORGOTTEN IT.

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  3. This is a great post. Welcome, Robert!

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    1. Thank you, Matthew! Great to be here.

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  4. Caroline, I saw the TV movie The Great Wallendas when I was a kid, and never forgot it. I think it traumatized me a bit.

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  5. Welcome, Robert! What a fun cover! Horror is not my thing, for reading or writing, but if that should ever change, I shall reference this terrific post. We're glad to have you.

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    1. Thank you, Joy! I totally understand where you're coming from. I think it's worth noting that my all-time favorite scary scene took place in a fantasy genre book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Aragog and his children were creeptacular.

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  6. I enjoy reading horror and these are some great tips. Who cares for a cardboard cutout? Well unless it's of batman or some other character people might love.

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    1. Exactly, Sheena-kay! Some cardboard cut-outs, like Batman, are stand-up guys.

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  7. Welcome, Robert! Great tips, especially since I'm contemplating a YA horror, and congratulations on a fantastic new cover!

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    1. Thanks, Dianne! I hope you do write that book. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  8. Great post, Robert! It reminds me of a visit to an Irish castle and, after the smiling tour guide brought us all into the ruins of a tower, we were gleefully told that, several hundred years earlier, all the villagers were brought into that very space and burned alive. Ah, horror. Yes, there is much in real life from which to draw. Thanks for sharing these gruesome thoughts. Cheers from the land of mummies!

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    1. Thanks, Eden! That's a great point, history is another excellent source of inspiration for horror novels. I've always been fascinated with the story of the Beast of Gevaudan from 18th-century France.

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  9. Welcome, Robert – and what a great post! I have one "correction," though. Most of these tips are appropriate for any kind of writing, not just horror. :-)

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Chris! You're absolutely right. :)

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  10. Great suggestions here. I had heard about the cannibal rats but not the crocodile island. Yikes! Welcome, Robert!

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  11. Hi Robert! Welcome to the Mayhem, sounds like you're a perfect fit. I love this nugget of wisdom:

    "At the core, horror stories are survival stories"

    I've never thought of it that way, but now always will. Good stuff! Looking forward to the Murk.

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  12. Thanks, Jim! Glad to be here.

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  13. I'm just getting caught up on my reading and wanted to say, great inaugural post, Robert! Sorry I'm a few days behind! I really appreciated this and even though I don't write horror, I definitely have scary scenes to work on. This definitely helps. We're so lucky to have you blogging with us! I'm looking forward to your future posts.

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    1. Thank you, Joanna! I feel lucky to be here!

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  14. Welcome, Robert. Great Blood Moon photo!! I photographed the last blood moon. This time around it was cloudy up here. I have a "fall" story as well that I tapped into when my MC took a dangerous tumble partway down a mountain.

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    1. Thanks, Paul! I'm not surprised to hear you've had some scrapes, considering your adventurous Alaskan lifestyle. I'm glad you survived to incorporate the experience into your book.

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  15. Excellent kickoff post! Welcome. I don't usually think of MG and horror together, despite the long history of scary stories.

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    1. Thanks, Kell! A few authors have the market cornered. R.L. Stine, for example. But MG horror is a bit underrepresented.

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  16. Robert, welcome welcome to Project Mayhem! We are so happy to have you and I think having a horror writer in the mix is just what the doctor ordered! :) I love the new cover and I'm hoping you'll be the next R.L. Stine!

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    1. Thanks for the invite, Hilary! It's nice to be involved with such a fun group of people!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!