Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) Horror Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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One of my favorite genres is horror, and I’m always on the hunt for the next great horror novel. What I especially love are the horror books so well-written that they help me in the writing of my own work!

Last week I looked at 5 awesome horror books, and here are 5 more…

1. NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

NOS4A2 is a superb horror novel that reminded me of some of the best classic work by my favorite author, Stephen King. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Hill is the son of King, and has been publishing adult horror fiction under a pseudonym (Joe Hill King is his birth name). Much of his father’s talent has passed down to Hill, who has talent for descriptive horror imagery, complex characters, and tension-filled pacing that is at times nearly unbearable. I loved the epic scope of this 700+ page novel, too, with its long span of time (about twenty-five years) and large cast of characters who all play important roles in the narrative.

2. Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

This is an example of a mid-twentieth century horror novel that, like The Exorcist, caused a whirlwind among suspense readers of the time, and for the most part I was enthralled with this celebrated classic. First, I was impressed with the eerie foreshadowing of the horror to come, little nuggets of dialogue and information Levin would drop in the first half of the book. I also admired how Levin explores both the highs and the horrors of pregnancy throughout this book, not shying away from Rosemary’s suffering. He explores in great detail how Rosemary’s pregnancy at one point hurts her body and her mind, and does so in an authentic, chilling manner. I also liked Levin’s use of suspense throughout the book, which really ratchets up in the final forty pages. And I love the surprise twists at the end, and that gloriously memorable final scene.

3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is outstanding in almost every way, a riveting and thought-provoking read from beginning to end that works as coming-of-age, as dystopian science fiction, and as dread-inducing horror. It also works beautifully as a literary novel. Some may argue that it’s not a horror novel. Coming-of-age, sure, and science fiction, okay, but horror? Although I agree that Never Let Me Go is not horror the way N0S4A2 is more obviously horror, this is absolutely a novel about a horrific circumstance that can’t be avoided no matter how much the main characters want to, and Ishiguro provides enough suspense and terrifying images to suggest that there’s something dreadfully frightening about this world.

4. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, by Darren Shaw

This is a great series to read for any aspiring YA horror writer. There’s a lot here that works well, and I was legitimately surprised by some of the twists along the way. I also responded to the use of the double-I POV in this novel, as it turns out Darren Shaw himself wrote the book we’re reading, and therefore he’s looking back over his life and trying to recreate these important moments on the page (Darren Shaw is the actual author of the book, too, making the double-I almost meta in a way).

5. Misery, by Stephen King

One of my favorite novels by my all-time favorite author is Misery, and it was a thrill to read it again for the first time recently and teach it for a class! Almost everything works about this wild ride of a book, especially the weird, memorable, three-dimensional antagonist Annie Wilkes. In addition, King offers startling, fresh prose from beginning to end. He must have been a kid in a candy store writing this book, clearly close to the mindset of his protagonist Paul and delighting in the various ways Annie emotionally and physically tortures him. The tension is superb throughout the novel, never waning at any point, and I admired King’s use of interiority that makes us care deeply about Paul every step of the way.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Horror Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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One of my favorite genres is horror, and I’m always on the hunt for the next great horror novel. What I especially love are the horror books so well-written that they help me in the writing of my own work!

Below are five fantastic works of horror that might inform your writing as well…

1. The Shining, by Stephen King

The Shining is one of my favorite horror novels, and certainly, alongside Misery and The Stand, one of King’s finest works. He masterfully ratchets up the tension throughout the book, giving clear motivations to all his characters and making The Overlook Hotel a whole lot more than just a spookhouse. The book was published in 1977, and odds are King learned from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws how to keep the monster hidden from his story for as long as possible. It isn’t until page 216, nearly halfway through the book, that the reader gets his first glimpse at something truly frightening — the old woman in the tub — and it isn’t until the last 100 pages that any real action or violence officially break out. What a masterpiece of horror this book is!

2. The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door is a terrific contemporary horror novel that shows the terror that can be committed not by a supernatural creature but by a nice-on-the-surface middle-aged lady. First, there’s an intelligent use of the double-I POV. Having David be an adult in his forties looking back adds a necessary bit of distance between him and the events, making the book even scarier because there’s a lack of emotion accompanying the prose. Additionally, Ketchum’s prose always serves the story well and adds to the tension and suspense. Ketchum’s use of quick sentences and brief paragraphs add to the vividness and realism of the horrific events much better than longer, lyrical sentences ever would have. Lastly, the use of eerie foreshadowing and almost non-step tension are used to superb extents in this novel of pure terror.

3. Psycho, by Robert Bloch

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho is one of my favorites and it was a thrill to finally read the original Bloch novel. I was worried Bloch’s writing might be old-fashioned and cheap, and yet I was surprised at how well developed his characters are, how effective the suspense is, how detailed much of the setting is. And despite my familiarity with the film, the suspense still works beautifully in the novel too, in how it’s driven both by plot twists and alternating POV chapters. Mary knows things Norman doesn’t know, and Norman knows things Sam doesn’t know, and so on, and Bloch using the alternating POV chapters to make the story richer than it would have been only from Norman’s perspective. This truly is a full-throttle horror novel worth taking a look at even if you’ve seen the film.

4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

This is a fantastically spooky horror novel with many great qualities. I admired its attention to setting, and its focus on character rather than plot. Unlike many horror novels that focus on a series of scary moments and increasingly tense actions made by the main characters, The Little Stranger is always more concerned with making the reader care about the characters before anything bad happens to them. In addition, I was impressed with the compelling protagonist, Dr. Faraday. He is smart, capable, opinionated. But what I love about the character is how incredibly flawed he is. Waters also understands that the scariest moments in horror literature are often what you don’t see, and she takes that approach to every moment of terror in the book. There is scene after scene of a character thinking he or she is seeing a shadow across the room, something moving and making an eerie noise of some kind, and these are the moments where the book really shines in its horror.

5. The Girl from the Well, by Rin Chupeco

This YA novel offers that wonderful mix of quiet creepiness and action-packed terror, Chupeco rarely stopping to let the characters catch their breaths before moving on to the next horrifying moment. The eerie scenes leave a mark, and there’s a sense of mystery surrounding some of the early frightening moments, too. Her description of vindictive characters and her short, snappy prose of action keep the reader flipping through pages fast. I loved the POV choice, writing an entire novel from the perspective of a ghost, and the effective descriptions of setting and characters throughout. The horror prose is just startling in this, always specific, always well-constructed. I highly recommend this spooky little tale!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (Even More) YA Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

Recently I looked at ten amazing YA books (first list here and second list here) that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at even five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

What’s not to love? The Hunger Games is one of the most popular young adult novels ever released, and it earns its popularity with terrific, tension-filled prose, a dazzling story, and a memorable lead character. One major reason the book works as well as it does is that Collins chose to write it in first person, present tense, and this immediacy and urgency gives the story its nearly non-stop tension. Secondly, I love that the violence is never shied away from, considering this is a book for teens. The violence is never gory or over-the-top by any means, but Collins wisely shows in detail that, yes, kids are getting slaughtered in this world. Additionally, Collins’ use of setting is vivid all the way through. Even in first person present, Collins makes the settings always pop in front of Katniss’s eyes.

2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz

This multiple-award-winning novel is a subtle gay love story that progresses like the movie Boyhood in many ways, emulating the joys and hardships of real life without any forced character moments or sentimental plot developments. Saenz’s writing is easy to read and draws the reader in, with his insistence to not over-complicate his prose and instead use only as many words as he thinks each moment needs.

3. Highly Illogical Behavior, by John Corey Whaley

This is a terrific young adult novel that treats its subject matter with dignity and great attention to detail, and features three-dimensional teenage characters with necessary flaws and dreams for the future. This is the third young adult novel Whaley has written, and he infuses his work with a genuine YA voice and engaging, realistic teen dialogue. Sometimes teenage characters can sound like adults in young adult fiction, but not in Whaley’s work, which not only sounds appropriate to the age of the characters but is also specific to each of the characters.

4. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, by Darren Shaw

This is a great series to read for any aspiring YA horror writer. There’s a lot here that works well, and I was legitimately surprised by some of the twists along the way. I also responded to the use of the double-I POV in this novel, as it turns out Darren Shaw himself wrote the book we’re reading, and therefore he’s looking back over his life and trying to recreate these important moments on the page (Darren Shaw is the actual author of the book, too, making the double-I almost meta in a way).

5. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez

Rainbow Boys is an absorbing young adult novel that is grim and realistic, showing the aches and pains gay teens have to go through to find acceptance with their friends and family. Despite being more realistic than some other LGBTQ YA novels I’ve discussed in these lists, though, it absolutely has the same level of romanticism. None of the three characters hates that he is gay; from the first page on, they all want to find love, and by the end, they do. The entire Rainbow Boys trilogy is well worth a look!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) YA Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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Last week I took a look at five amazing YA books that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily Danforth

This is a fascinating, observant novel, written with great care and honesty and passion. It reads like a big, sweeping John Steinbeck book — except instead of a story about an Oklahoma family traveling to California, this one’s about a teenage lesbian in rural Montana. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, I’d highly recommend you give it a look!

2. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Thomas’s book was the best-selling young adult novel of 2017, and it’s not difficult to see why. It takes on a topical subject — the Black Lives Matter movement — and infuses the subject with a compelling narrative told from the perspective of a relatable, flawed, and fascinating protagonist named Starr. The terrific film, which came out last fall, is worth watching as well!

3. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson’s young adult novel has been immensely popular to younger readers in the twenty years since it was published, becoming required reading at many high schools and forever near the top of bookseller charts in children’s literature. I was impressed and enthralled by this book, particularly in the striking voice of the protagonist. Anderson is masterful at beautifully capturing a teenager’s voice, never a moment I felt her own author voice creeping in.

4. The Girl From the Well, by Rin Chupeco

I wanted to find one genuinely terrifying young adult horror novel to read recently, and The Girl from the Well definitely fit the bill! This novel offers that wonderful mix of quiet creepiness and action-packed terror, Chupeco rarely stopping to let the characters catch their breaths before moving on to the next horrifying moment. The eerie scenes and chilling revelations always leave a mark.

5. Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin

I love so much about Golden Boy, which tells the story of an intersex teenager going through the difficulty of adolescence, and Tartellin’s use of the multiple POV in first person, present tense, is indeed one of the most striking things about it. I’ve read multiple POV in other novels before, but what Tartellin does is particularly impressive because she balances six points-of-view and brings complexity and a sharp, unique voice to each one of them. I’ve read this book twice now, and I give it my highest recommendation!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (Even More) Craft Books to Read if You Want to Be a Writer

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Last week I took a look at 10 amazing craft books (list one here and list two here) that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at even five more I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

This is one of the most famous craft books on writing, and there’s a clear reason why: Anne Lamott gives you some practical writing tips at the same time she’s delivering a wealth of inspiration. Bird by Bird is short enough that you can read it in full on a rainy afternoon, but it has so many great ideas that you’ll be thinking about it for weeks and weeks afterward. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, do yourself a favor and find yourself a copy!

2. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner

This craft book on writing is a bit more dense than some of the other books I’ve recommended, and it’s one that you can’t just breeze through in an afternoon by any means. I would suggest that this particular book is more for the dedicated novelist who wants to slowly read through a sometimes complicated but overall worthwhile text that gives tons of great tips on how to write a novel, and how to write it well.

3. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field

This craft book is more geared toward screenwriters — obviously — but I tell you, I’ve now read through this book twice, and I even taught a screenwriting class last fall using this textbook, and I truly believe this book is helpful to any writer of narrative. Whether you’re writing a full-length script or a novel, a short film screenplay or a work of short fiction, Field breaks down the very nature of story in this book to such a great degree that there’s so much to get out of every chapter.

4. Writing the Thriller, by T. Macdonald Skillman

Writing the Thriller is a craft book about the art of writing a novel in the thriller / suspense genre. The book is split into sixteen sections, which include important topics like Point of View, Setting and Atmosphere, Dialogue, Pacing, and Theme. This book is helpful in the writing process even if the novel you’re attempting isn’t a part of the suspense genre. Writing the Thriller is reader friendly, with most of the chapters focusing on key ingredients that, when mastered, make any kind of book better.

5. Danse Macabre, by Stephen King

Danse Macabre is a craft book about the field of everything horror, focusing on the history of the genre in a variety of mediums, for the most part between the years 1950 and 1980. It’s not as intensely focused on the art of writing like King’s brilliant 2000 craft book On Writing, but for anyone with even the slightest interest in the horror genre, Danse Macabre is a fascinating and necessary text that should be on your bookshelf. Most of the chapters are filled with helpful tips and wise observations that will give any reader a greater appreciation of the horror field, and I can’t wait to read it again!

Posted in Books, Writing

Why People Love to Read about Work

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.

What is it that’s so fascinating in reading about someone’s job in a novel? I don’t know about you, but when the protagonist has a profession that plays a large role in the story, I get excited.

I’m curious about what he or she does for a living.

And I want to see that profession developed on the page, not just tossed aside like a quick description.

We’re all interested in what people do to make money. In what people do for 40 hours or more a week to earn a living and put food on the table.

But, for the most part, we never get an inside look into what other people do for jobs. We hear stories from friends, we see news reports on TV, we visit the doctor and the dentist of course, but rarely do we get up close and personal with someone’s occupation.

That’s what’s so great about fiction. Whether the book is written in first person or third, if the author takes an interest in the lead character’s profession and doesn’t push it aside in order to get to the plot, then the reader often gets an intimate look at the person’s job, and all those details, at least to me, are fascinating.

I’ve written nineteen novels to date, but sadly, I haven’t written about work very often because, well, I write mostly middle grade and young adult novels. The jobs for my characters are pretty much school, sports, extracurricular activities, homework, you know… things twelve-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds do. Many of my characters have ambitions for what to do later in life for work, like Max in my recent middle grade novel who wants to be a horror movie director.

The parents in my stories always have jobs, yes, but I often don’t give a glimpse into their occupations because the focus of the narrative is always on their son or daughter, and what’s going on in his or her life. I’ve had scenes at the parents’ work before, like in my novel Happy Birthday to Me, in which the protagonist’s father is a slightly demented plastic surgeon. And in another novel I wrote, the unpublished Magic Hour, the main character’s father is a world-famous magician, and we actually get a glimpse at one of his shows in the final act.

But showing people’s work is something I can do more of in the future, because I do love writing that stuff so much, and I certainly love reading it.

When an author puts a lot of effort into research, and then develops not just a flawed, three-dimensional, super interesting character but also that character’s work life, a job that one might not know anything about, I’m delighted in the details, in the scenes that show what he or she is passionate in doing on a daily basis. You get to be told a great story but also learn something new you didn’t know before, get insight into a profession you might have thought one way about but now feel totally differently toward.

Again, this is why fiction is so amazing. Non-fiction too, of course. And so many films and television shows. To get a glimpse into someone’s occupation, how it works, why it’s important, what it means to that character, is a truly special part of storytelling.

And when that job comes alive on the page in a way that’s authentic and true, there’s no telling how many compelling directions the author might take you.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) Craft Books to Read if You Want to be a Writer

Earlier this week I took a look at five amazing craft books that have inspired my writing considerably. Today, I wanted to look at five more that I adore and think you should definitely take a look at!

1. If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland

This is one of those rare books that writers can turn to time and time again in their lives when they get stuck, when they feel like they’re doing mediocre work, when they’re not happy with their writing. I stress this isn’t a book that shows you how to learn to write better descriptions or characters, or reflects on themes and point of view and how to get an agent. It’s a book of inspiration that writers can breeze through anytime they need a kick in the pants to get better in their writing. And it forces them to always, always, always tell the truth.

2. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is one of the most popular and important authors of the twentieth century, and this, his one and only non-fiction book, is worthy of study by all who are interested in writing, because he offers sound advice on how to better your writing, produce more writing, always write from a place of truth. Ultimately, this book, like Ueland’s, makes you fall in love with writing all over again. Also, I stress that both Ueland and Bradbury have not written how-to writing books, so much as inspirational writing books. They are books you take nuggets from, not study from front to back to learn how to be a better writer. I found Ueland’s book more inspirational and better organized, but Bradbury’s book is still worthy reading for all aspiring writers.

3. Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer

My friend Shaunta Grimes gave me this book as a birthday gift a few years back, and I absolutely delighted in every page of this thing. Wonderbook is unlike any other craft book on the market. It’s fun, but not frivolous. It’s colorful, but not for kids. This is the perfect kind of craft book on writing you need when you are truly down and don’t believe in yourself. Trust me — ten minutes with this book, and your creative juices will be flowing again!

4. Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole

I know not all of you write middle grade and young adult fiction like me, but I feel like the final two books on this list will be super helpful for you even if you don’t write MG or YA. Writing Irresistible Kidlit is a supremely helpful tool for writers. It goes beyond being a simple how-to by infusing the author’s personality and passion into the text, and instead of writing dry prose only meant to educate, Kole’s frankness throughout the book makes her tips even more useful.

5. Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks

This is another book aimed at MG and YA writers I turn to from time to time. Brooks’ main focus in this craft book is to discuss the key elements of novel writing, like character and setting and theme. And, like with Writing Irresistible Kidlit, someone writing an adult novel could still get a lot out of this craft book — author Brooks touches on aspects of storytelling in a general sense in every single chapter. I’d highly recommend you check it out!