Sunday, February 26, 2006

Location Location Location

What is true in real estate is just as much if not more important in the creation of horror films, and horror stories in general. The setting of a story, the location in which all of the action takes place, can make or break your story. It's all about location location location.

A lot of stories (and when I say stories I mean not only books, but movies too) use their locations to flavour the story and provide the reader a frame of reference to place the characters and plot in. Mobsters in Chicago have a distinctly different feel than mobsters in Moscow. Part of it is the way that each group acts, it's traditions, modes of operation, way of speaking. Most of it though is where they are, the image the reader has of the streets and buildings, the people that aren't mentioned specifically, and the general weather for that area.

In a horror story these inferences are vital to maintaining the atmosphere, keeping the reader's suspension of disbelief, and being another character that the writer can use to manipulate the reader. That is what the setting has to be in a good horror story, a character. Boston feels completely different than Los Angeles. A haunted farmhouse is more believable than a haunted strip-mall. An antagonist who lives in a posh mansion gives the reader more to hate when he kills homeless people, than if he was homeless himself.

One of the most popular locations to set a horror story is in one of the New England States. These States have expansive histories full or murder, mayhem, and war. They have to this day vast tracts of wilderness, old old forests, and they have small communities that are essentially stuck in the middle of these no-wheres. There is something almost primeval about some of these places and there is a timelessness that accompanies that. You expect that maybe quietly, unannounced, there are still witches being burned at the stake. Or that the restless spirit of a slain Native American shaman is stalking his murderer's descendants.

The settings and locations need not be places, they can sometimes be objects; common things like cars, or uncommon things like spaceships. These locations especially can be like characters in the story. The car in Christine is the antagonist of the story as well as being the place where important things happen such as Arnie's girlfriend choking on a burger. The ship the Event Horizon in the movie of the same name is a creepy cold mass of heartless metal that drives the tension in the story as much as the dark force which is contained within it.

They can also be set pieces such as the speed ironer at a backwater industrial laundry. You have a cold, damp, dark place full of crashing and clanging that would set many people on edge during the day with all of the lights on and there right in the middle of it sits this absolutely huge crouching, blister encrusted machine. This machine sucks in sheets faster than kids with spaghetti, spins them through itself, heating and pressing them, and spits them out and folds them into tight squares. They can also be things of great beauty, even symbols of life such as a radiant glowing tree dropping blossoms to the cracked and crumbled asphalt of a war devastated city centre. Below it a great depravity takes place, enhanced by the vibrant presence of this contrary image presented by the tree.

No matter what the setting it must be incorporated into the story thematically, complimenting the plot, accentuating the characters, and maintaining the feel, the horror of the story. This does not mean that it has to be blatant, that it be creepy in of itself even. It can be subtle, especially so in film where nuances such as colour, texture, and light level can influence the story as well as the viewers perceptions. So, next time you are reading a novel or catching a movie linger a little longer on the descriptions or look at the walls and scenes/vistas behind the actors, there are important things to be found there.

© 2001 Robert G. Male

Mood: upbeat.
Music: Poison Apples by Motely Crue and Believe Me by Moist.

Motley Crue: Motely Crue
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Moist: Silver

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Don't Mock an Effigy

Today I'm kicking off the first of a series of articles on different horrific subjects. Enjoy.

Throughout history man has created copies, alternate versions of himself and the creatures he shares the world with. From the idols of the most ancient of cultures to the robots of today we have been driven to create effigies, inanimate clones. For as long as we have made these effigies though there have been tales of their power, and of them taking on lives of their own. These tales, folklore and myths are not just a part of our history but find release in our modern stories and in particular our films.

The most common effigies today are toys: stuffed animals, dolls, and action figures. Everybody has grown up with at least one of these. Everybody attributes them (at least in childhood) with certain personalities, histories, and lives of their own. As such we have given them power, if only the power to be our friends. These powers were comforting and through the effigy we expressed things we otherwise might not, such a courage, and kindness. They helped us to explore the world around us and more importantly the interaction skills we would require to fit in with each other.

In the movies and in books effigies are given more credence. Insidious forces use them as bodies to perform their evil acts. Foul sorcerers cause pain, blindness and death with voodoo dolls. Statues guard places and serve as warnings. Golems are raised in revenge. Mechanised toys wage war. And even men can inhabit them until more suitable accommodations can be found.

It seems that people have to be reminded that an effigy is a serious thing and should be treated with respect. A boy who tries to hide his clown doll is attacked by it later (Poltergeist). People mock Chucky and pay the price (Child's Play). A puppet defends his new friend (Pinocchio's Revenge). A dimestore mannequin jealously guards a dirty secret that could destroy a man (The Fear). A soldier toy grows up into a man and takes revenge for animal cruelty (Xtro). Simple wooden figures mark off territory that should be avoided at all cost (The Blair Witch Project). A doll collection fights prejudice (Tales from the Hood). And a gift from Grandma, a cymbal clashing monkey influences events in many a deadly turn (The Devil's Gift).

It seems though that even some of the murderous effigies toe the line between good and serious evil. They defend the weak and innocent, they mete out justice, they save lives even while they kill. Yet they still are forces to be reckoned with and not to be treated poorly. An effigy shares not only the form that it copies but the behaviours as well, up to and including the morality of the original, although sometimes in conflict to that of their creator.

The most common moral in an effigy story, particularly where the effigy is central to the action, seems to be treat them with respect, and do not mock them or the powers that they have. So next time some kid shoves a doll in your face, or leaves it somewhere it shouldn't be, be kind, be gentle, or you just might find yourself in a battle for your life against it when you least expect.

© 2001 Robert G. Male

Mood: down.
Music: Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?) by Extreme and You and Me by Alice Cooper.

Extreme: Pornograffitti
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Alice Cooper: Lace and Whiskey

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Books for Dry Cracked Souls

What is a “chapbook” you say? Okay, I may have only imagined that is what people said when at the end of my last blog I said this time I would get to chapbooks. A chapbook is kind of like an oversized pamphlet. They max out at twenty pages, or so I'm told. I found out how to make one so I'll start by talking about that before we get to what you would put in one.

Don't ask me what fiddling would go into getting the pages set up in the word processor, though I can see being able to do it in a drawing program so easily. What you do to make your own chapbook is take five sheets of paper and turning them the wide way fold them in half. This forms the pages of the book. The pages then have to be stapled or, and this seems to be the preferred method when using good paper stock, stitched. For those of you into the RPG scene you probably have a bunch of books that are “saddle stitched” just like this as a part of becoming a “perfect bound” book. Now, stapled or stitched, there is a chapbook. It needs a cover. That can be the outermost “page” of the book, or it can be another one that is preferably made of sturdier paper, say photo paper for your computer printer which has other benefits.

Just to go back to that tangent I started for a moment, a perfect bound RPG has several chapbook-like sections glued together as well as being glued to the cover. This is why entire sections come out whole. They tend toward thirty-two page sections, or sixteen pieces of paper. That is also why RPG books (at least of those types) tend to be certain lengths over and over again--multiples of sixteen. It is also what limits them in some respects and is certainly a point of design that has to be taken into consideration.

So, the chapbook has it's pages, it has its binding, and it has its cover. I would have to guess that the cover is either glued on, or perhaps stapled/stitched with the rest of the pages. The question then becomes what can you put in under twenty pages of that size at a readable font. The answer is that it comes out to about a 4000 word story, which makes it a good format for today's short story lengths.

Who is making chapbooks? That seems like a logical question. Some authors are doing it with special stories. The purposes I have to imagine range from special items for diehard fans, or to raise money for a charity, and just because they can. I also saw it suggested that a chapbook might be a good way to interest a publisher in your short story, as sort of proof that you're willing to put in that much extra effort. I am doubtful of such “antics” but at the same time have to wonder just maybe. I've heard stories of people sending other things to publishers like the story on CD as well as the hard copy, or music to listen to while reading the manuscript.

Thanks to certain publications of web related matters I am going to attempt to cut my blog a little shorter than I sometimes do. Until next time, gentle audience...

Mood: genteel.
Music: Silver wings by Bruce Dickinson and F.I.N.E. by Aerosmith.

The Best of Bruce Dickinson
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Aerosmith: Pump

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Whip it Out and Measure

It's about time we start with some of the basics, and that always begins with learning the right words for the job at hand. So to start I decided upon names for stories, something which is based on length. Most of the numbers I'm quoting come from guidelines set out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, know under the simplified acronym SFWA. They are something of a big sister, or so it seems to me, of the HWA--Horror Writers Association--of which I am, so far, still a provisional Affiliate member. As an active and somewhat large organisation I would tend to think the SFWA should know what it's talking about in these matters.

Flash Fiction is the same as a short short story, but is often less than 500 words, and in some circles available as 100 word stories. I pretty much dismiss the under 100 words stories. If people can't pay attention longer than that, or want a story so bereft of anything, well I don't want to have anything to do with it.

A Short Short Story is a very short short story, usually between 250 and 1000 words. I haven't seen much call for this in the horror genre and it seems a bit counter-intuitive, too much for the attention deficit, get-to-the-point people, and not enough to have much ambition story-wise.

The traditional and respectable Short Story is anything under 7,500 words. It would seem though that no one much wants more than 5,000 words, and I've seen what I considering distressing signs where they tend toward 4, 000 words, or even worse 3,000 words maximum.

Above that we have the Novelette which is between 7,500 and 17,499 words. This would seem to be the starting territory of Stephen King length works. That may be an exaggeration, I don't know for sure. I have a story that is 28 pages long and it's approximately 7,200 words. Though certainly King does have his super-sized short stories often enough by today's standards.

A Novella is between 17,500 and 39,999 words. Clive Barker's “The Hellbound Heart”, which is the original “Hellraiser” book, is considered a novella. Stephen King's book “Different Seasons” is a collection of four novellas. Those stories of course are pretty famous and include “The Body” which was made into “Stand by Me”, and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” which should need no further explanation.

Then we have the ubiquitous Novel which is 40,000 or more words long. This is where I really want to be working and I don't mind repeating that fact ad nauseum. Next time up we have the “Chapbook” and just how do you figure out the number of words, as well as, maybe, an argument for why I prefer longer works.

Mood: down.
Music: Back in the Village by Iron Maiden and The Retched by Nine Inch Nails.

Iron Maiden: Powerslave
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Nine Inch Nails: The Fragile

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Not with a Whimper, but a Thwack

To continue our story, I had bought CutePDF and fiddled around with it. I put the book pieces together, front cover, body of the book, and back cover. Well, actually, the body of the book was in two pieces because of the word processor and it's lack of functionality with page numbers. A lack of functionality, I might add, that seems uniform across the board even with my favoured MS Word. The problem was that I could not get the page numbers to start several pages into the manuscript. What I could do was tell it what page number to start with. So I cut off all of the starting pages that I did not want numbered and put them to their own document. That way the first page of the rest of the book could be whatever number I wanted.

This all brings us to a PDF book that would be complete if it were to be printed. I did have to make one other tweak though, make all of the pages the exact same size. I have frequently seen PDF books where the “cover” or title page was bigger than the rest, and despite all of my pages should have been 8.5 X 11 inches the sizes didn't match exactly. It was easy to fix though, given the difference was small. I did however also try to make the book smaller, 6 X 9 inches like a trade paperback (the bigger ones like say Stephen King's Dark Tower books with the colour plates). That did not work out so well.

Any way the book was put together and sized properly. The security was set to be put in place as the final step. For that I set up some passwords and created a certificate. One thing was missing, and it was another spot where CutePDF helped out that I doubt those other two programs would have helped with. It had a function to set Bookmarks. The book has a table of contents but it doesn't link to the chapters, the Bookmarks duplicating that table does and you don't have to go back and forth between it and the page you want to start on. The Bookmarks sit on the left side of the screen in a collapsible column above the tab for page views. Now I had not only my fist book for publishing, but it was also a proper PDF book. That's it, that's how I did it all.

Now, what I am thinking of doing here on the blog for the next while is getting down to discussing some of the basics of writing, then with those on hand get into less basic things with a particular interest in my forte, horror writing. The question for you the audience is why should any of you listen to me, I'm just some guy who put his own book out and is still working on his first sale with other publishers. That is the reason why. I'm at the stage where I'm trying to get out there. Its an ideal position to speak from as I hone my skills further, see what kind of things and don't work in selling stories, and go through the process of getting into the industry. I've seen people like Neil Gaiman blog about how they got a certain book out and it's helpful but not quite as helpful maybe as starting with someone unestablished.

In any event we'll see how it goes. Don't worry I'll still intersperse the heavy stuff with more news of the other things I'm doing, ideas about role playing and all the other goodies I usually get to writing.

Mood: relaxed.
Music: Flash (Gordon)'s Theme by Queen and The Rift by Vince Neil.

Queen: Flash Gordon
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Vince Neil: Carved in Stone

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Baby's Got a Locomotive

Well, now that I've had my drama queen moment and mended some fences (hopefully) it is time to get back on track. The Google Adwords campaign is still working, so far. One search term has become inactive due to being out priced but before it went down like a cheap streetwalker it produced pitiful results anyway so who cares. The widest and most vague phrase I went with has produced the best results so far and looks like it will continue to do so until some spammer murders it. I frankly don't care. If Google wants to lose money that's their problem. People have to click and who clicks on obvious garbage? I'll just strategise my way into sales for free with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) practices.

Now, back to the creation of my book. It was very easy to find a bit of software that would pretend that it was a printer and take the word processor document and “print” it to a PDF file. The program I chose was “pdfMachine 10.8” by Broadgun Software and it is freeware without any strings except that it places its name in a place unseen by most users unless they go looking for the location the file lists the programs involved in the creation of the file, so it's a sweet deal. It's a great program and I see there are more features available if you buy a license. I don't know what they add. Any way, pdfMachine acts just like a printer so it works in any program you can select print and specify the device. This is important because it meant I could also turn my cover images into PDF files which is a must to make a book.

This brings us to the point where I have a front cover, a back cover, and a book, so three PDF files. Now how do you put them together? That was the million dollar question! So I started digging around. There are some programs out there. I found what looked like a good one. I held off on buying though. There was another problem, security. The final product needed at the least to be unprintable and it was preferable that no one could just cut and paste the entire contents out to somewhere and do whatever they felt like with it. This made me dig around through a whole different set of programs. I found what looked like a good one for that purpose too. The only problem is that's twice the money required. When I went to find one program that did both, and maybe a bit more. All other programs fell away from my eyes and one shone out like a beacon. It's name was “CutePDF 3.2” by Acro Software Inc.

Cute is a name I know from Globalscape's CuteMap and CuteFTP. I was a little surprised to see another company putting out a Cute product but it had a fully functional demo version which included highly visible watermarks but hey, fully functional. So I fiddled with it, and soon I bought a license and away I went on starting to put the book together. Stringing together separate files was a cinch, and quick as a whip. One combiner program I tried took forever and ultimately crashed every single time. So this was sweet. On the security end it did everything I needed and more. It took some playing around with it to do it all. Each security step required creating a new file. So it wasn't as easy as it could have been to apply the two types of security I wanted. One to protect the contents from copying and printing, the other to maintain in a permanent and undeniable manner that the book was mine and I owned all rights to it.

Well it looks like one more blog is required to complete the story, see you then.

Mood: crazed.
Music: This Song's Just Six Words Long by Weird Al Yankovic and Du Hast by Rammstein.

Weird Al Yankovic: Even Worse
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Rammstein: Sehnsucht