Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Since the mid-90s, Angel Leigh McCoy and I have had a sort of virtual nodding acquaintance. While we’ve worked and played with many of the same people, we’ve actually met only a few times, usually just long enough for a round of handshakes and collegial nods. The last was in the lobby at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where we paused long enough to agree that it really was strange that we hadn’t run into each other more often, considering our past jobs and our many mutual friends.
Thus, I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that Angel was launching a fiction magazine inspired by my favorite television show of all time. Her Another Dimension Kickstarter takes its cues from the great Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
That’s all I need to say, isn’t it? Hie thee to the Kickstarter campaign!
1. What is it about The Twilight Zone stories that makes you hold them up as an example for the fiction you’re looking to publish?
Over the past six years, I’ve read hundreds of short horror stories submitted to a couple different slush piles, and I’ve noticed a trend. So many of the stories I see have no teeth. They rely on gore, sex, or shock value to produce a sense of horror. They have no twist at the end that makes you cringe just that little bit more. They don’t take you anywhere you didn’t already expect to be going. So many of them are left open-ended, with the onus placed on the reader to “decide what happened.”
I don’t know what causes this. Perhaps the craft of writing the short story has gotten swallowed by the large number of writers who don’t understand that it is a craft. There’s the feeling today that anyone can write, and it’s just not true. The stories on The Twilight Zone were well-crafted tales of horror that began and, more importantly, ended. They didn’t rely on gore or shocking sexual/violent situations to be scary. They made you think and wonder if maybe this could happen to you one day. They were character-driven, not disgusting-new-way-to-torture-driven.
I know there are skilled writers out there who take their craft seriously and who don’t write in stream-of-conscious mode. They work and rework their stories, bring them to a horrifying conclusion that makes your belly drop. I’m looking for those writers.
I can be very specific about the things I look for in a story:
- That it has a fleshed-out main character.
- That it creates a sense of dread.
- That it makes you examine your own choices and your society.
- That it doesn’t leave the reader wondering what the hell just happened.
- That it actually has an ending that ties the story off, usually a twist of some sort that makes it all the more horrific.
Rod Serling was a master craftsman. His stories had all these elements. Richard Matheson, as well, understood what makes a good short story. In more recent days, the TV show Black Mirror has hit the note I’m seeking. If I could impart their knowledge and their craftsmanship to all the writers striving to make it in this crazy publishing world, I’d be ecstatic.
2. How important is the twist to stories in general? Have audiences become too clever for the average twist to work? Or does “literary” fiction simply not value plot as highly as genre fiction does?
Those stories that manage to surprise me (and I will admit, they’re few and far between) make me instantly love and respect them. But, the surprise isn’t enough. It has to be a twist on what’s already been coming with the story, and it has to follow the logic of the story. You can’t just toss in a random scary clown at the end and say, “Boo!” You have to lead up to it.
The twist is as much about taking it one step farther as it is about throwing in a curve ball. An example in the horror genre would be in the Black Mirror television show. If you haven’t seen this, I strongly recommend it. It is on Netflix. In several of its episodes, there is a twist that I, at least, wasn’t expecting. In one episode, called “White Bear,” you think you’re watching a woman flee from hunters in a strange future world, only to discover that something completely different is happening, and even that she’s not the person you thought she was. I don’t want to give away spoilers. Just go watch this TV show. It’s very much The Twilight Zone evolved to fit a more evolved audience.
Audiences are quite clever (and world-weary, media-numbed, and cynical), but then writers are clever too. Good writers don’t just tell the obvious story but look for the added twist of the blade that will make it all the more interesting for the reader. They think about the meta of the story, the larger implications of it.
3. In terms of prose, do you cleave to the “clear window” philosophy or do you enjoy more poetic language?
Both have their time and place, though I will admit that the moment I can’t see what’s happening in my mind’s eye is the moment you’ve lost me as a reader. There’s both an art and a craft to writing, and the craft isn’t just about spelling. It’s about choosing the right words to clearly convey what you want the reader to imagine/experience/feel/know in any given moment of your story. If you feel that going purple is the right move, then do it. But, do it on purpose, and do it so that it works. Just spilling purple ink all over the page doesn’t make good writing. You’re not there to show your cleverness with rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, hyperbole, or an abundance of fancy adjectives. Those things can actually be quite distracting and short-sighted. You’re there to convey a story.
4. What are the scariest story, novel, and movie that you’ve ever seen?
Woo, this is the hardest question of all. There are so many! I have to admit that my choices are affected by the fact that I was an impressionable young woman/girl when I encountered them. They scared me and, dare I say it, even scarred me.
As an adult, I don’t get scared, but I do get horrified. And that’s an important distinction. I never really think that Hannibal Lecter is coming to eat me. And yet, there’s something about his personality as portrayed that takes cannibalism and makes it truly horrifying.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This story may well have been the one that taught me not all monsters are hairy and have fangs.
The Exorcist. This novel stuck with me for decades, and I’ve never forgotten it. I read the book before I saw the movie.
This one gets a tie: Carrie, the original, not the remake. This movie had me so tense by the end that, when the (spoiler) comes out of the ground, I burst into tears and then cried for ten minutes. I was, admittedly, 13 years old at the time. But, I’ve never forgotten that moment. And the other was Jaws. To this day, I hate being in deep water and even have the occasional moment of panic in concrete swimming pools.
5. What advantage does prose fiction have over film and games?
With prose, the writer has powers and opportunities that the filmmaker and game designer don’t. You can be clearer about what’s happening, describing things that most people would miss if watching a movie or playing a game. You can build the reader’s experience with greater control of their emotional journey. You have more time and space to build to your climax with prose. And you can describe the invisible thoughts and feelings of the characters in greater detail.
With a film, you have to choose carefully what you show from moment to moment. Thus, they tend to have a narrower perspective than prose. It’s the old complaint that the movie doesn’t play exactly like the book. There’s a reason for this. The creative philosophy is often one of cutting to improve rather than one of embellishing to improve.
The same is true with video games. You’re limited in what you can show and share about a character’s thoughts, feelings, and activities, depending on the point of view (which is usually quite limited). You have to tell the story within a much smaller box than if you had a whole novel in which to allow it to unfold.
While the sight and sound is good and can relay a lot of information in a very short time, it’s still not as hardy as a good novel.
Keep an eye on Angel’s latest acts of horror at her website.