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Essay 7 - The Most Important Chapter in Your Book

As I mentioned in the previous article, most editors these days seem to think that a good novel needs one of the main characters in the first chapter. That’s okay as long as YOU get to dictate WHICH main character is the main focus of that chapter. It’s a choice you need to make very carefully, because the first chapter is extremely important to the success of your novel. It’s the hook that reaches out of the book and grabs the reader by the throat. By the reader, I mean both the book buyer, and much more importantly, the editor who is going to buy that novel originally, and tells him or her that they MUST know what happens next!

Now, in times past, the opening scene of books and movies weren’t always filled with action and suspense. Prime film example, watch the original KING KONG. It’s a nice set-up, but the action doesn’t really start going until the boat arrives at Skull Island and the natives get a look at Fay Wray. All the stuff beforehand is prologue to the main story, and while that worked in the 1930’s, it doesn’t work so well today. More to the point, try reading some of the popular horror novels of the 1920’s and 1930’s. You’ll soon discover there’s lots and lots of build-up before anything really spooky happens. Many times, the book moves so slowly it becomes a race to who gives up first – the narrator or the reader? Fortunately, that sort of beginning drifted into disfavor in the early 1930’s, though it took a long long time before the change was made. The switch started in the 1930’s and 1940’s and finally blossomed in the post-war years of the early 1950’s.

H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is a writer whose work is in transition between the two periods. HPL often started his stories (he really never wrote a full length novel) with intense emotional tirades. You know, the horrified narrator, the hints of terrible, terrible things that happened, the shapes moving in the fog, and so on. But then, before actually revealing anything or showing anything, he settled back and told a fairly straightforward story that slowly and progressively built to a logical horrifying conclusion. If you’re waiting for action in a Lovecraft story, read the end first, because that’s where everything important happens. The rest of the story is just window dressing.

The trend in popular fiction over the past fifty years is to use the first chapter as a prologue or introduction to the rest of your book. Start the book off with an action or powerful emotional scene, then scale back in the second chapter to the main story. Like the old joke, you hit the reader over the head with a stick to get his attention, then you tell your story. Need a visual reference? Watch the opening sequence of any James Bond movie. Or, if you want something more recent, see HELLBOY, whose first scene is the best scene in the whole movie. If you want to gauge my taste, watch my favorite (guilty pleasure) movie of all time, STREETS OF FIRE. The long introductory scene sets the tone and mood of the movie and very effectively introduces the villain of the film. The set-up for the hero is done quite nicely as well. But, then, the whole movie is just a comic book story with music, or as it says in the beginning, a rock and roll fable.

The first chapter of a horror novel is incredibly important for many reasons. If every book you write is an advertisement for your next book, then the first chapter of your novel is an advertisement for the rest of that novel. As mentioned above, you need to hook the reader. In those beginning pages, you have to frighten your reader or excite him (or her) or astonish him into reading the second chapter. You need to pour your heart and soul into that first chapter and make it resonate with the reader. It’s the pop single from your record album, the “Born in the USA” from your Bruce Springsteen tour. You only get one first chapter in a book, so you need to deliver that knockout punch with all your body behind it. Cutting through all the cliches, the first chapter of your first book has to be the most compelling piece of fiction you will ever write so you better get it right.

Taking a quick break and reading over the first chapter of THE BLACK LODGE between that paragraph and this one, I have to admit that fifteen years later, I’m reasonably satisfied with the beginning. There are at least four or five sentences I would cut out as being too repetitious. A few words are used too much, and some of the slang has gone out of style, but it’s true to the period. The police act exactly how they’re supposed to, and my crack dealer is pretty much true to character, though his language is somewhat cleaner than in real life. But, the details of dealing crack is still on the money, and the scenery is true because I walked the same streets once or twice to make sure of the details.

What is most important to me, and should be to you, is that the POV character for the chapter is not stupid and never acts out of character. Sure, as readers and authors, if we read a book in which a dope dealer meets a weird, menacing character on the street in the dead of night, we’re going to scream “run for the hills, idiot!” We know that anyone wearing an overcoat buttoned to the top of his neck is evil. But, then again, we know better than to walk into the front hallway of a haunted house. Or do we?

Any good horror story or horror novel relies on characters who don’t know better. That’s reality. People in Lovecraft stories don’t add up all the clues that point to the obvious fact that a horrifying monster from the bottom of the ocean is going to rise and eat most of us and use the leftovers for toys because they know that there are no such things in existence. When Levar takes the Dark Man into the railroad yard building, he’s suspicious of a holdup, but he’s not worried about a supernatural monster. If he was, would he really be the least bit believable? Sidney Taine believes, but that’s because it’s made clear right away that he’s the believing type. That he knows more than the average bear. He’s the oddball character listening to Angel Caldwell. It’s Angel who’s worried about what is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know what it is. And, Angel knows more than she ever says.

Good horror needs to portray believable characters facing the unbelievable. That’s a major element of horror. It’s entirely normal for my two cops to think that Ape Largo is the Dark Man because he’s huge and muscular and has a reputation for violence. They don’t believe the Dark Man is a manifestation of the Broken Worlds because that isn’t the neighborhood they patrol. Characters who don’t believe in the supernatural or supernormal or even just incredibly evil people are perfectly acceptable in a horror novel. They are us, and we don’t believe (at least most of us don’t) in ghost or demons or bogeymen hiding in the closet or under the bed. We know that there are real horrors out there. But, we also know that there are terrorists, or extremists, or cold-blooded thugs. They’re the ones we watch out for when we walk into a dark building late at night, not a seven-foot tall stranger with a butcher’s cleaver, wearing a cowboy hat.

What hurts a horror novel the most is NOT the fact that the characters don’t believe in monsters. As semi-real people, they shouldn’t believe in monsters. What does hurt a book (and too many movies and TV shows) is when your characters act stupid. Stupid is different from ignorant. Ignorant means lack of knowledge. Stupid means having that knowledge but still acting dumb. Dumb characters are the bane of a good book. They drive readers crazy and should drive writers crazy. Dumb characters are what make slasher movies work. It’s one thing not to believe in Jason or his ilk. That’s normal; a combination of ignorance and disbelief. But, after this maniac has killed several of your friends, it’s time to believe. If you don’t and keep going to places where he’s waiting to chop you up, that’s dumb. That’s stupid. And, most of all, that’s unbelievable.

There are stupid people in real life, so portraying stupid people in your books is no crime. But, using stupidity to further the plot or to kill off characters is a tiresome and ultimately dangerous plot device. If your character is a cop and he discovers the location of a maniac who has killed ten people during the book using a chain-saw, not calling for backup is stupid, not to mention unbelievable. And it’s lazy, because all you need do is have his car radio smashed earlier, or have him see the killer about to strike, or use a half-different other events that would require him to act instantly. A writer can easily explain haste, but you can’t easily explain idiocy.

Novels should not rely on coincidence or the stupidity of the characters. That’s not playing fair with the reader and more important, a good editor won’t allow it. Sure, coincidences happen in real life, but having your main character solve a thousand year old murder because he just happens to stumble on a secret passage at the climax of the story will make the reader slam the book shut in protest. Learning how to use coincidences in a believable manner is one of the most difficult tricks in writing. Using them constantly is not learning how to use them, it’s just abusing them.

Stupid characters do stupid things. Readers get tired of them just like real people get tired of them -- fast. Stupid characters in a novel only work when they don’t think of themselves as stupid. Does anyone? They can be used effectively at times, but only in small doses. If you want to write a book that appeals to a thinking crowd – hopefully, the people who still buy books, then don’t use a lot of dumb characters. They weigh a novel down like anchors.

Next article, we’ll discuss another difficult chapter to write- the 2nd one.
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Essay 6 - The Narrators

Let me remind everyone again that these are classes not just essays. If you don’t understand something, disagree with a point, or want further information, all you need do is post your question. You don’t have to raise your hand. Just write an email and post it on the forum for the particular topic. I’m trying to keep things fairly straightforward and easy, but I know I sometimes speak just the way I write – fast and furious without a hint of sense! So, if you don’t get it, write!

Last essay I discussed using the limited third person viewpoint for our narrative voice. Hopefully, everyone gets the point I was trying to make – that the story is told from the personal POV of the narrator. Each chapter, or section of a chapter, has a POV established early on and is told in that POV for the entire chapter – or section of the chapter – but that it doesn’t necessarily continue in the same voice in the next chapter or section. Nor is there any rule that says a novel can’t remain with the same POV for several chapters in a row.

What’s nice about changing POV is that you can describe scenes and events that are not experienced or seen by the main narrator, and thus inform the audience of some menace without the hero knowing the details. It’s similar to foreshadowing but much more effective. When Janet goes to Taine’s apartment in Chapter 35, it sets up a very effective Chapter 36 as well as a dramatic Chapter 37. Foreshadowing merely warns the reader that something meaningful is going to happen. An entire chapter told from the viewpoint of a specific character spells out the forthcoming disaster in detail. The most obvious instance is that every death in the book prepares the readers for the next one.

Using limited POV also adds to the drama of a book by enabling you to describe some of the most exciting scenes from the viewpoint of a spectator instead of from the person who is the focus of the scene himself. In some cases, action is best if seen and not actually experienced. A novel has to be a balance of what happens to the main characters and what they witness happening to others. If a book is only what occurs to them, the narrative becomes too unbelievable. It’s much better if sometimes the worst happens to someone else while our characters look on, unable to participate. Thus, a helpless Janet watches as Bruno is killed; a very worried Ape Largo witnesses Papa Benjamin defeat the Dark Man by voodoo; and all of our main characters are in the audience as the Black Mass begins at the end of the novel.

That leads us to the main topic of this lesson. Which viewpoint do you use when writing each chapter of your novel? How do you decide and when do you decide?

As I’ve mentioned before, I use a long summary of the novel as the roadmap for the story. This outline acts as a twenty-page guide to the action and breaks down the story into a series of scenes. At the same time that I break down the book into scenes, I also try to pick a specific viewpoint for that chapter, using one of the characters in the novel that fits with the scene. Despite some literary tricks to the contrary, narrative voices should be (except in VERY rare cases) living people and belong to the story you are telling.

How many viewpoints is the right number for a novel? That’s up to you, but I think two is the minimum number necessary to write a horror novel today. Those two are the protagonist and antagonist. As I mentioned early in these articles, the modern model of a mainstream horror novel requires the villain’s viewpoint be present in any major horror story. The viewpoint of the lead character is equally necessary, though in some cases, the main character can actually be the villain. Hero and villain, good and evil, light and darkness, those are necessities in a horror book though our characters should be fairly complex, fully drawn people.

If your main villain is an unthinking elemental monster, then giving it a viewpoint might not work. The way around not having a villain’s POV is to include the viewpoints of people directly affected by the villain in the novel. In THE BLACK LODGE, I did both. I presented the viewpoint of Arelim, the man who controlled the Dark Man, and I also used the viewpoints of several of the monster’s victims. With the Dark Man being a supernatural creature with secrets I didn’t want revealed, it wouldn’t have been prudent to tell part of the novel from his viewpoint. Though, in other books, I’ve used the viewpoint of a werewolf and a four thousand year old mummy without problems. It all depends on the story you are telling and how much of the story depends on secrets the villain holds.

During the past few years, conventional wisdom on the book scene is that the first chapter of your book should be told from the narrative viewpoint of one of the main characters. Obviously, this was not a concept that was popular fifteen years ago when THE BLACK LODGE was written. However, it seems to be an unwritten rule that has become increasingly entrenched among modern editors. In horror, this notion that a main character must appear in the first chapter is difficult as many writers – myself included – like to start off a book with a violent action scene. And, we don’t like to place our main character in such a position so early in the book. If you have any influence with your editor at all, stand firmly against using your main character in an action scene early in the novel. A book reads much better if the hero is built up slowly but surely in a novel and given a chance to grow before he turns dangerous.

I like to switch viewpoints as often as I can in a novel. I think it keeps the scenes moving swiftly and keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to move onto the next chapter to see what happened to the character whose adventures they were reading a few sections back. Quick changes in viewpoint speed up a novel. Long, slow sections told with a single narrative voice slow a novel down. The best movie use of third person narrative I’ve ever seen is the Baptism scene in THE GODFATHER. There is more information about storytelling in that one scene than in most books written about perspective, POV, and inter-cutting scenes.

The one scene that matters in the book where the right POV is essential to the story is the final confrontation between the hero and the villain. It needs to be told as dramatically as possible, by a hero who is not afraid to die. A hero who has been through hell and survived, and a monster terribly vile. This scene should not be related by the other characters and their POV. It needs to be a confrontation of epic proportions, good must battle evil. Scenes like those can only be told from the viewpoint of one of the main characters.

So, now you’ve laid at the story, know the main theme, and have an idea how to end the book. You’ve done your research on the basic concepts featured in your novel, have outlined the plot. You know your characters, have figured out which points of view to use in each chapter. In other words, you’re all ready to start.

Next article we’ll go over writing your first chapter.

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Essay 4 - Viewpoints

(Hey there! If you've read THE BLACK LODGE and liked it, might I suggest to you that you post a good review to the book and the digital copy of the novel. I'm reasonably pleased with the one review the book has, but it's not that great at 3 1/2 stars and the reader is somewhat luke-warm about the story. So a more positive review would be most appreciated!)

Last article, I described how I write an outline/summary, usually running about twenty pages, of an entire novel. To me, this outline is my road map of the book. The book, to use another comparison, is like a long trip my characters are taking. I already know where they will end up (the conclusion), and I know most of the sights they are going to see (the main events of the book) along the way. That doesn’t mean they can’t change their travel plans if they want to go on another side trip or two. Or they can drop a stop if it means the trip will stretch on too long. I think everyone gets the idea.

What I do next is break down that outline into chapters. Again, as mentioned in the previous article, every scene in the novel forms a chapter. Some scenes might be described very briefly in the outline. For example, the Lisa Ray chapter (#6) was only a few lines in the outline. “The Dark Man invades a crack lab and kills everyone but a young woman who escapes down the fire escape. In reality, he lets her go so as to spread the news of his killing spree.” However, this chapter was one of the longest in the entire book, stretching out for some thirteen pages. Since the book deals with the crack cocaine business, I felt that I needed to explain how crack was produced, and tell something about distribution. Once I started plotting the book, I decided the novel would work better if not everyone the Dark Man encountered was killed. That possibility of escape added an extra layer of suspense. Whenever EVERYONE gets killed in those annoying Jason films, the characters become mere targets. When a few characters might survive, it’s only natural for a reader to hope they survive. Uncertainty is an important element in horror writing. That’s a lesson most slasher movies have yet to learn.

However, making someone like Lisa Ray a sympathetic character isn’t easy. Even more of a challenge was Felice, from Chapter 24. Felice is in the book because I wanted a character to go to a crack house. I felt just sending her there without any history made her too one dimensional. So I gave her an attitude and tossed in some sex. Again, she’s not terribly sympathetic, but I thought the chapter helped make her somewhat more real than just a walk-on. The scene in the crack house was important because it again emphasized the power of the drug, it gave the book another violent punch, and it made it clear that the Dark Man’s name was important to his very existence. It also enabled me to mention Rebekka dying at the party and no one noticing for hours, and even end the chapter with an ironic last line.

So, both of these characters were important to me and I wanted the reader to at least find them somewhat interesting. More important, I wanted to tell the story from their viewpoint, so as to generate some of the fear they personally felt. Which brings us in a roundabout way to the subject of viewpoint.

Viewpoint, or POV (point of view), is the most important writing technique a novelist has to master. There is nothing else even close second. If you want to keep the reader reading, you have to tell a story well. You need to hook the reader from the beginning and hold him or her till the end. And to do that, you need to immerse the reader in your story. Which is what POV is all about.

Except for oddball, trick stories, there are basically three points of view you can use to tell a novel. First person, in which the main character experiences everything directly, is popular in short stories, but is much harder to do for an entire book. First person narration is very difficult because the person describing the story has to be present at all the main events of the story. If not, then the narrator only hears about the events which makes for a boring story. That’s why first person novels are often detective stories with the detective as the narrator. There are numerous problems with a first person narration. Your character is always on stage, everything that happens is seen through the narrator’s eyes, and it is difficult to take a time break when you are in first person. First person narration works best in the movies. It can be done in novels. But it’s not easy and in horror novels it’s particularly difficult as first person narration usually implies that the narrator is going to survive the story.

Also, first person can also be unintentionally funny. Reading Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” the first time is a scary experience. But then read it a second time, aloud, and its not so scary, and because the narrator is so terrified the entire story, it actually sounds awfully silly.

No one writes novels in second person unless they are trying to do something very different. Very different works once in a thousand times, and for novels, it works less than that. Avoid second person.

That leaves third person, which is the style most writers use for novels. There are two types of third person narrative.

Omniscient viewpoint is when you write a novel with the power of a god. You can describe to the reader what everyone in the novel is thinking; you can describe what is occurring at ever place at every time in the story. You are god, so you know everything and can tell all. Using this style gives you the chance as the narrator to fill the story with ominous foreshadowing. You can end a chapter saying how happy everyone is, and then state, “But they had no idea the hell they were going to face only hours later.” You can say this, because you know everything about the story, including a lot the characters don’t know.

Some people like omniscient viewpoint as it enables you to tell all sides of a story and show how everyone makes similar mistakes without realizing it. It is good at establishing when terrible events are going to take place, but it isn’t good in giving you much feeling for the event. There are many reasons why omniscient viewpoint is hard to use in a horror novel, mostly dealing with generating real fear and horror. For now, let’s just say it can be used but is difficult for most beginning writers and is not very popular in general.

The type of viewpoint most used by novelists is called LIMITED THIRD PERSON POV. In this style, the narrator of the chapter sees what is happening in the story and acts on what he knows. Or she knows. He can learn things from reports of surprises or help, but he know no more than what a single character should know. You can delve into his thoughts if you like, and see through his eyes, and even express worries about things he did previously in his life (which you don’t have to make clear). What you can’t do, and must not do, is have your main character know what other people are thinking or know what they are doing when out of sight. Third person limited narration is often compared to wearing a camera on your shoulder. The reader sees what’s visible to the camera. The reader (and the narrator) hear what is within recording range of the camera. As the camera man, your character can have some thoughts, and even speculate about what the other people in the story are thinking. This type of narrative works as the reader only sees what the narrator sees and nothing else.

Third person limited narrative maintains mystery as the reader know no more than what your character does. The reader observes no more evidence than anyone else in the story. Thus, the mystery is a mystery until the clues are revealed to the main characters.

What is most important in third person limited narrative is that you can’t change your narrative focus from one person to another in the same chapter or section of a chapter. The viewpoint must remain the same all the way through the chapter. Everything that happens must be seen through the eyes of your focus character. You can’t have a scene where the hero kisses the girl and then thinks. “God, what a great kiss,” and then two lines later, state, “His kiss hit her behind the eyes. Instantly, she knew he was the right one for her.” That’s not allowed because we are getting his thoughts and then two lines later getting her thoughts.

Limited narration can go deep into the character’s main thoughts if you like, but only one character at a time.

When writing a novel, you can change viewpoints from chapter to chapter. If needed you can even change viewpoints in the middle of a scene – but there must be a break in the action before that change takes place – indicated by a blank line or two, or a series of asterisks. However, you can’t change viewpoints from paragraph to paragraph or sentence to sentence. There has to be a real break in the story to make that change. The reader must be aware the change has been made.

Changing viewpoint without warning is the most common mistake new writers make. They have one character experience and emotion, and a sentence later, have another character experience a different emotion. Sorry, that just does not happen. Doing this destroys any connection the reader has with the character, the story, and the plot. It is the greatest sin a writer can make, and it is the most common sin made by new writers.

In a good horror novel, you can change viewpoints fairly often, so as to give a wide view of what its taking place – sometimes even looking at the same event as viewed by several different players. But you need to do it as separate scenes, each with their own particular viewpoint. No matter how many or how few characters there are in your story, you always need to keep their viewpoints separate. Those viewpoints cannot be in the same paragraph. As mentioned above, you can’t have the hero kiss the heroine and think how warm her lips feel and then in the next sentence have her think he kisses like a frog. Each viewpoint needs to be isolated from the others. A story can be told by many viewpoints to keep it moving, but those viewpoints always must be separate and unique.

When I divide my summary into chapters, I take every scene and mark it off as a chapter. Next, I look at which characters are going to be in that chapter and decide whose viewpoint will make the chapter work the best. Thus, before I begin writing a book, I know the viewpoint I will be using for each chapter. Since I like using multiple viewpoints and juggling them around a lot, I am very careful which viewpoints I use and why. We’ll go over specific viewpoints and why I used them in certain scenes as we get into writing the actual novel.

Someone raised a question about how many viewpoints should you use in a novel. Some writers prefer one viewpoint all the way through a book. Other writers like three. I like lots. There is no rule saying how many to use. You use how many you need to tell the story the best. Simple as that.

So, for now, we have a long summary/outline, broken down into chapters, with each chapter given a specific character viewpoint. Using this long summary, I usually write my first three chapters and condense the rest of the summary down into a reasonable number of pages for a proposal.

Next time we look at our chapters and see how we decide which third person limited narrator works best for each chapter.

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Essay 4 - Outlining

NOTE: This series of essays was written to describe how I wrote my horror/thriller novel, THE BLACK LODGE. That novel is available for only $2.99 in digital format on Amazon.com. For these essays to make sense, you really should read the novel. These essays assume that you have read the story and are aware of all the twists and turns in the novel, as well as the surprises. For these essays to be of maximum use, read the book!

Okay, repeat after me. Novels need lots of advance planning. Logic is extremely important, because without it, a book makes no sense. And, most of all, outlines are my friend. Repeat those three sentences over and over until you are ready to pass out from exhaustion – or admit that maybe, just maybe, there might be a grain of truth in what they say.

Remember, I’m not telling you how everyone writes a novel. There is no standard model that serves as a guidebook for writers and tells you exactly what to do every time you sit down. All I can do is describe in detail what works for me. I can’t promise it will work for you. Obviously, by now it should be fairly clear that I am a very disciplined, methodical writer. That doesn’t mean that I don’t break some of my own rules, but if I do so, it’s because of a specific reason. My taste runs to complicated, complex novels that usually have more than their share of surprises, and that’s exactly the type of story I try to write. One of the first things I learned is that the more complicated your novel is, the more advance planning and preparation you’ll need. Surprises don’t just happen. They’re carefully planned. Which is why outlines are so important.

It’s early 1989. John Talbot, a senior editor at Pocket Books, has asked me for a proposal for a 90,000 word horror novel. I need to turn in three chapters (or somewhere around 10,000 words) and a summary of the rest of the novel. The only thing I have is a title – THE BLACK LODGE -- which came from an occult non-fiction book, PSYCHIC DEFENSE, written by famous occultist, Dion Fortune.

So, I sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm. The first thing I do is come up with a basic theme. Since the Black Lodge refers to a secret cabal of black magicians, I quickly decide that the novel will be about such a group. Equally as fast, I decide the novel will take place in modern-day Chicago. Why? Because novels with a historical setting require a lot of extra research to accurately describe the setting, the language, the customs, the food, etc. etc. etc. and I really don’t want to write a historical horror novel. At the time, I’d lived in Chicago for 19 years and know I can use thinly disguised real settings for locations in the book. I even decide I’ll have the climactic scene of the novel, whatever that turns out to be, take place within a few miles of my house.

So I have an evil society of magicians in modern day Chicago. What next? Well, I need motivation for my characters. Sorry, but while I do believe that there are evil people in the world, I prefer giving my characters believable motivations. The one thing I know about rich, ambitious people is that enough is never enough. So, I decide my evil magicians are motivated by greed. It makes perfect sense. They’ve formed this Black Lodge to further their ambitions by using sorcery. Since this book is going to be a horror/thriller novel (because that’s the type of novels I like!) I decide that their opposition will be a mysterious psychic detective. I could have gone with just an ordinary citizen, but already I’ve been thinking of some neat stuff I want to include in the book that needs a powerful hero with some knowledge of the occult.

Taking my Black Lodge a step further, I decide that they’re involved in the drug business. After all, they are ruthless and ambitious and without any morals, so what better business than drugs? Besides, a novel about pork belly futures wouldn’t likely sell many copies. I’d just read an article on crack cocaine by Norman Mailer in Playboy so I decide they’ll deal in crack.
By now, I have enough to write down my basic theme for my novel: A powerful cabal of businessmen who practice black magic control Chicago’s drug trade. A mysterious detective and his allies defeat the powerful master of the Black Lodge and his supernatural servant, the Dark Man.

The only thing that’s new in my theme is the Dark Man. I come up with him almost as an afterthought. A good horror novel needs horror. The Black Lodge inevitably raises the notion of a black mass, but one of those per book is an unwritten rule of logical thinking. I can’t have my evil businessmen acting like monsters – I mean, Donald Trump as an axe-wielding maniac? It’s a supernatural novel so I decide on a cleaver carrying, invulnerable killer with the simple but effective name, the Dark Man. Why a butcher’s cleaver? Because I’m scared of them.

So, we have the basic concept of the novel, the villains, a supernatural menace, and a psychic detective. Not a bad start, and it’s taken me just a few hours of thinking logically. One solid idea will power a novel if you take it and examine it logically and thoroughly. I’m fairly confident I can do that. But, before I start working on the plot, I need an ending.

It doesn’t take any thought to decide it’s going to be a confrontation between my detective and the Black Lodge. I’ve already decided it is going to take place at an estate not too far from where I live. It’s a huge place with its own private road, fancy mansion, and wooded backyard isolated from the surrounding community by forest preserve. The perfect place for a Black Mass, so I add that to the ending. Now, I stop for a minute and really brainstorm. My favorite novels are ones that have some big surprises or secrets in the last few chapters. Having my hero defeat the enemy at a Black Mass isn’t enough. I need some suspense, some horror, and some secrets revealed.

It’s a Black Mass. What makes a black mass scary? Human sacrifice of course. So, I start thinking about including a human sacrifice in the climactic scene. To make the novel more intense, I need the sacrifice to be meaningful. To me, that means someone important to the hero. His girlfriend? Not a bad choice. But, after pondering it for a few minutes, I decide to go for the cheap but effective best victim imaginable, a child. But, it can’t be just some kid picked off the street. To give the story some emotional pull, I decide the child has to be that of the hero’s girlfriend. It works great, gives the scene a lot more suspense and drama and emotion. But why is the Black Lodge sacrificing this particular child?

That’s when my writer’s imagination kicks into overdrive. The sacrifice needs meaning. The Black Lodge is composed of ruthless big businessmen who would betray their mother (much less a fellow lodge member) for a worn dime. What if to become a member of the Black Lodge you have to sacrifice one of your own children? The crime will not only prove your devotion to the secret order but also give the lodge a terrible secret to preserve your loyalty. It’s a wonderfully diabolical twist and it leads to all sorts of other ideas. The heroine’s son is the chosen sacrifice, so it implies her husband or some other close relative is trying to join the Lodge. (since she is trying to stop the sacrifice – remember, the emotional tie-in stuff – she’s not the one behind the murder). Since she and the detective know what is going to happen (builds the suspense), it’s happened before in her family. Perhaps, her father killed one of her siblings years ago? Working back from the ending, all sorts of interesting possibilities start shaping up.

My detective’s name is Sid Taine. The name has a significance only I know. He’s a psychic detective and a mysterious character. Combine the occult and mystery and I always seem to come up with the tarot deck. I used the tarot cards in my first novel, THE DEVIL’S AUCTION, and I decide I will use them again. One of the things I like most about the tarot deck is that they’re subject to the meaning assigned them by the specific person reading the cards. Thinking about this, I decide to have Taine and the villain both to do readings with the tarot decks, uncovering the same cards, but each coming up with an entirely different meaning. I like the idea so much that I decide to use that as another surprise in the climax of my novel.

I have my basic plot concepts, I have my hero and heroine. I know the hero is mysterious. The heroine has a child and a rich father who belongs to the Black Lodge. I have a villain of sorts, though I don’t know much about him yet. And, I have a supernatural monster. I know that the book is going to be about drug dealers and crack cocaine. My mind is working on overdrive. In the early 1990’s, crack was mostly focused in black neighborhoods, especially in big cities like Chicago. I decide if I’m going to have a bunch of black men and women involved in selling crack, then I need some positive black characters as well. Having read about voodoo for years, I settle on an elderly voodoo priest. I could have used a gospel preacher just as easily, but I’ve always considered voodoo intensely dramatic and fairly exotic. Plus, I’m anxious to write a scene featuring my invulnerable Dark Man facing my frail but noble voodoo priest.

Because I’m writing a horror thriller and my background in magic is firmly rooted in the Kabbalah, my hero becomes an expert on the same subject. By now, I’m starting to feel real good about my plot. The best way to write a book is to stuff in as much fascinating detail as possible, and then weave it all together into a logical but complex plot. At least, that’s my philosophy.
Now, with lots and lots of ideas and possibilities, I start working on my outline. When I say outline, I really mean a summary of the story. I rarely use an outline format. Instead, I try to tell the story, concentrating on what happens from the beginning of the story to the end. No more paper and pencil. I sit down in front of the computer, take all of my notes, and start putting together the story. In my novels, I always start with a violent action scene. It’s a familiar concept used to draw in the reader. I have a tendency to have my characters talk a lot, so I like to make sure something violent happens every few pages of my summary. Usually, these plot summaries are about twenty pages long (double spaced – everything except this article I double space!).

I spend a lot of time on this summary. Several days reading it over and over again, making sure that everything makes sense and that there are no sudden unexplained occurrences. I check the logic again and again. Everyone in the book must act logically and have a motive for whatever they do. People can do stupid things, but they can’t act stupid just to advance the plot. I prefer my characters to be fairly intelligent.

I don’t expect this plot to survive writing the novel. I know I’m going to find things I want to change, chapters that I feel will need to be moved, motives that need more explaining, characters who need more space to be believable. But, this is a good start.

The next thing I do is take the outline and break it down into chapters. When writing a novel, every scene requires its own chapter. Unless there is a specific break in the action for some dramatic reason, a chapter always contains an entire scene. Most important, when I break the outline down into chapters, I decide whose viewpoint will be featured in that chapter. Which is an important enough topic that it requires an article of its own.
Next installment, we’ll look at the various viewpoints you can use in a novel, why I use third person limited view in all of my books, and how viewpoint is probably the most common and deadly mistake made by most new authors writing novels.

Questions, anyone?

Someone asked if I always change viewpoints at the end of a chapter?

I like keeping my viewpoints separated by chapters, but in some instances that's just not possible. I always strive to write a full scene in a chapter. Some times, especially near the end of a novel, several scenes will take place with them all seen through the lead character's viewpoint. There's no rule that says you can't use the same viewpoint in several chapters in a row.

Another reader wondered if when writing the actual novel, if I consult my outline very often?

usually, by the time I am finished outlining a book, the story is so burned into my brain, I don't have to consult it very often. But I do like to keep it on hand, to make sure I don't forget a scene!

Someone else asked if I change my story very much from the original outline?

the best thing working with a computer is that you can always decide to add a new idea to your book whenever you want. I've had moments while writing the last chapter of a novel where I suddenly realize that if I make a change here and there in the earlier chapters, the book will make much more sense. So I go back and rewrite those chapters. An outline is a =plan= of attack. It is not carved in stone. Changes for the betterment of the novel can always be made, even after the book is finished.

At the same time, while a good novel needs a solid plot, it should not be filled with so much story that it totally engulfs the reader and makes no sense. One of the hardest things to learn is what NOT to include in your novel. It's tempting to use every idea you have in your book, but you need to strike a balance between a complex story and an incomprehensible one!
To me, the first chapters of a novel are the most important and need the most planning. That's where you are defining your plot and planting the clues that will define the rest of your book. I'll devote a lot more space to the first few chapters of a book later on in these essays.

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Getting Started:

Every writer has their own method of writing a novel. In these essays, I plan to discuss and explain my methods and the techniques I use to get a book finished. Please understand that this advice isn’t gospel and I can’t guarantee that if you follow my instructions you will write and sell a novel to a mainstream publisher two weeks later. If I knew the sure-fire way to successfully write a bestseller every time I set my fingers down on a keyboard, I’d be writing a book now instead of composing these essays. Simply put, I hope to give you some ideas, some advice on how to write and finish a novel. Where you go from here is entirely up to you.

To me, writing a horror/mystery/suspense/thriller novel is like assembling a large jigsaw puzzle. You have 80,000-90,000 words to arrange into your finished picture. If you put the pieces together intelligently, slowly but surely, a coherent picture should emerge. Every piece will fit into the puzzle and there will be no pieces left over when you finished. At the same time, there won’t be any holes where a piece should be but isn’t. When finished, all of the pieces together will reveal a picture that looks great and shows the signs of craftsmanship and attention to detail.

There are several simple truths about writing a novel you need to keep constantly in mind when working on a book. The first of these is that you are writing a novel and not a short story. A 5,000 word short story can survive on a single idea and some good description and characterization. A novel needs a much more detailed plot, lots of description and numerous well-drawn characters. A short story needs to hold the reader’s attention for twenty minutes. A good horror novel must grip the reader by the throat for hours without ever letting go. You can base a book on the idea for a short story, or use the concept from a good short story as the beginning of a book, but a novel isn’t merely a short story idea padded to the length of a novel. A 1500 piece jigsaw with 200 picture pieces and 1300 white border pieces is no bargain. Neither is a novel that’s mostly incidents that add nothing to the basic story, no matter how much fun those incidents might be.

Continuing that same thought, every chapter in a novel must belong in the book. Every character in the story must be there for a reason. Again, referring to our jigsaw puzzle analogy, if our book is a jigsaw, then every piece counts. If the pieces don’t help construct the picture, then they don’t belong. If a chapter of your book can be dropped from the book without changing the plot, then that chapter should be dropped. Every word in a novel is there for a reason, and if it’s not, then it shouldn’t be included. If you can cut out ten pages from a novel and it still makes sense, then there’s something seriously wrong with that novel. A novel isn’t merely a series of incidents. It’s a story, a complete story where even the most oddball incident has some meaning and some purpose. It’s your job, as the writer, to make sure that the book holds together and that the clues and incidents and events all work flawlessly. It’s your puzzle and you want it to be exactly right.

Our last puzzle comparison is that of completeness. A good novel resolves all the questions it raises. Not only does a novel answer the puzzles and mysteries of the story, but it also closes every story it starts. There are no loose ends in a well written story, just as there are no jagged edges in a finished puzzle. All of the mysteries are smoothed out, all of the characters are accounted for, and all of the strange happenings are dealt with. At the end of the novel, the entire book makes sense, even if sometimes understanding exactly what that sense might be may take some serious thinking. A good puzzle displays an entire picture. A good book artfully concludes every plot and sub-plot it raises. And a good author does it smoothly.

I strongly believe that every novel needs a basic theme that runs throughout the novel and is the focus for the story. Moreover, I feel that the theme should be clear enough that it can be described in just a few sentences. For THE BLACK LODGE, the central theme is “A powerful cabal of businessmen who practice black magic control Chicago’s drug trade. A mysterious detective and his allies battle the master of the Black Lodge and his supernatural servant, the Dark Man.” Short, simple and effective. This theme served as the guiding light for my story.

Along with many other writers (but by no means all, and not Stephen King), I believe the best method to write a well-plotted horror novel is to know the end of the story before beginning the book. I’m also a strong believer in outlining the plot of a novel before writing it, but that’s not as important to me as the ending. Knowing the ending of a book gives you a tremendous advantage in writing a novel. Since you know what is going to happen in the final confrontation, you know who is going to survive in the story. You know who the villain is and you can plant clues (as well as “red herrings”) throughout your novel building to that big finish. Again, if we refer back to the jigsaw puzzle concept, it’s like having a picture of the completed picture to rely upon. Looking at the finished picture, it becomes a lot easier to assemble the picture. You can concentrate on the small details of fitting all of the tiny pieces together because you’re already aware of what the end result will be.

Having taught Creative Writing in college as well as having discussed writing at numerous conventions, I’ve learned that the most difficult problem new writers have with novels is that they start writing a book with no idea of the ending, and because of that, they never finish the story. Maybe Stephen King can do it easily (though I suspect his early novels were plotted much more carefully than he is willing to admit), but most writers who start a story without knowing how their book will end find it incredibly difficult finding a satisfying ending. If you learn one thing from this class, let it be --- know your ending before you begin.

When I first started work on my first novel, THE DEVIL’S AUCTION, I decided I wanted to write a book that had a twist in the last line of the book that tied in some unexpected way with the plot. I had always been impressed with novels that had last chapters, or last paragraphs or last lines that when you read them, you were so astonished that you wanted to re-read the book again. In movies, the most obvious case in point was THE SIXTH SENSE (though I thought the ending was obvious fairly early on). In THE DEVIL’S AUCTION, the surprise was a little too obvious in my opinion, but over the years I’ve had fan letters from a number of people who told me they were taken completely by surprise. If you don’t know your ending when you start your novel, coming up with that sort of surprise is extremely difficult. It’s possible, but only with a lot of experience – or lots and lots of rewriting.

When I signed with White Wolf Books to write a trilogy of vampire novels based on their best selling game line, I not only planned the ending of the series before I started writing the books, I actually wrote the last chapter of the third book first. I wanted to be sure that I had a major surprise in the last few paragraphs of the final book. With the ending firmly in mind, I was able to write 270,000 words of story leading up to that conclusion.

When I first came up with the basic theme for THE BLACK LODGE, one of my first thoughts was to use a morally ambiguous detective as the main character. I felt I could heighten the suspense and mystery of the story if Sidney Taine knew more about the Black Lodge than he revealed to any of his acquaintances. Thus, I decided that the climax of the novel should feature Taine fighting the mastermind of the Black Lodge for control of the organization. I stayed with that ending though the sub-plot of Taine’s seemingly suspicious motives got somewhat buried in the tangle of other things happening in the story. Plus, my editor preferred him more heroic than mysterious so Taine’s attitudes were somewhat modified by editorial request. But, still, I never mentioned the White Lodge until the last page of the book.

Taking the basic concept of the novel and the final climactic scene, I started work on outlining THE BLACK LODGE. I’ll go over how I did that in the next article.
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THE BLACK LODGE was my second novel. It followed THE DEVIL’S AUCTION which I wrote in 1986 and was published in hardcover in 1988. Through a combination of hard work and unusual circumstances, the president of Pocket Books read THE DEVIL’S AUCTION in early 1989 on the way to the annual corporate Sales Conference with the company sales representatives. He liked it but the novel was too short at 70,000 words to be reprinted as a Pocket Book. Instead, he told an editor at Pocket to contact me and ask if I had a proposal for another, longer horror novel on hand that they could look at? The day I received the editor’s letter, I immediately called Lori Perkins, an agent who specialized in selling horror novels. I had met her at a convention the year before. Lori was working at the time with the Barbara Lowenstein Agency, a major New York City agency. I wanted an agent in my corner before I took another step with Pocket, so I signed with Lori immediately. Following her advice, I wrote three chapters of an entirely new horror novel, along with a detailed summary of the rest of the story, and I sent it to Pocket Books.

Lori’s advice was invaluable then and it still holds true today. Most mainstream publishers prefer novels to be 80-90,000 words long. When submitting a proposal or query letter, you should always mention the intended length of the book, and if sold, make sure you stick to that figure. It’s quite likely that if you turn in a 110,000 word novel to a publisher and they expect 90,000 words, they're going to ask you to trim it. If you submit a 75,000 word book, they’ll ask for it to be lengthened. It’s best to keep your novel within 5% of your original estimate.

Equally important - but rarely considered by new authors - most mainstream horror publishers prefer that the villain’s viewpoint is represented in the novel. Obviously, that’s not going to work in a first person novel, but in third person, with a book told from several different points of view, publishers like one of those viewpoints to be that of the villain. Doing so helps establish the villain as a more believable (or outrageous) character. It also gives a book greater emotional impact when you describe the terrible emotions and passions that drive your villain. Plus, many of the best scenes in horror novels are those told in the calm, cool, collected manner of an insane or diabolically clever protagonist.

Based on the proposal I submitted, THE BLACK LODGE was bought by Sally Peters, the lead horror editor of Pocket Books, in May 1989. At the time, Sally also edited Robert McCammon’s books so I knew I was getting to work with a top-notch professional. My contract was dated June 12, 1989, and I received a $12,500 advance against royalties. I was paid half the advance shortly after the contract was signed, with the other half due when the final manuscript (after any changes or corrections were made) was accepted by Pocket Books. My agent took a 15% commission on the payment. The finished novel was due December 1, 1989. So I had approximately six months to write the book.

For the record, by the contract terms, Pocket Books had two years to publish the novel after the final draft was accepted. Otherwise, the rights to the book would have reverted to me (though such reversions rarely ever happen). The novel was published in November 1991, so it did take them quite a long time to fit it into what was a busy monthly publication schedule. Royalties were set at 8% on the first 150,000 copies (or less) sold of the book, with 10% royalties on sales over 150,000 copies.

How much a book earns is fairly easy to calculate if you realize that an advance from a publisher is really an “advance against royalties.” It’s like a loan a publisher gives you before your book is published so that you can afford to pay bills until your book starts earning you money. When your book is published, it earns royalties for every copy sold. These royalties are usually calculated twice a year by the publisher and reported to you (or your agent) in a royalty statement. Before you get paid any more money, your book has to earn back the advance money you received from the publisher. So, if you get a $1,000 advance, your book needs to earn you $1,000 in royalties before you get any additional payment from your publisher. For a $5,000 advance, your book must earn back $5,000 in royalties before you get any more money. In the case of THE BLACK LODGE, my novel had to earn $12,500 in royalties before I was paid any more money. If you do the math (the sale of a single copy earned me about forty cents), it’s easy to see that the book needed to sell around 35,000 copies before it made me more money. It has to “earn out” the advance. Book Club and foreign sales money are not based on royalties but are paid in a lump sum paid to your publisher. Thus, rights to a Japanese edition of your book might sell for $500, of which a certain amount goes to the publisher and some to your agent. The rest of the money from foreign sales or book club sales is applied to your royalties, so they both can help you earn out quicker. Good foreign sales can sometimes earn your book out before it is even published!

Fortunately for writers, if your book does not “earn out,” and a lot of them do not, you still get to keep your entire advance. That money is not returnable. Which is why it is always best for an author to get the biggest advance possible! If you get no advance, then you have to wait until the end of the first royalty period before you are paid royalties, which should be on every book sold. Since that first royalty period oftentimes can be several years after you finish your book, it’s best to try to get an advance if you can. If you are paid a flat fee for a book, which is the case with some small publishers, you do not earn any royalties no matter how many copies your book sells.

For those people who wonder what type of money a major best selling paperback earns, here are some figures. THE BLACK LODGE was priced at $5.00 (approximately). Let’s say it sold one million copies, the minimum number to be considered a paperback best-seller by Publishers Weekly magazine. Based on the royalties mentioned a few paragraphs back, each copy sold up to 150,000 copies would earn me about 40 cents. For the 850,000 more copies sold, each copy would earn about 50 cents. Doing the math, we discover that a sales of a million copies of $5.00 book will earn the author $485,000. That’s not counting foreign sales, book club rights, audio rights, and other extras. And there are some deductions as well, such as reserves, money held by the publisher for unsold copies of the book which are returned for credit. Still, a paperback bestseller can make a big change in your life.

Now, I received an email from someone who wrote that they would not want their book published in hardcover first and would instead prefer to have it immediately appear in paperback. That’s a terrible marketing decision. It’s worth noting that hardcover books usually pay royalties that start at 10% and go on up to 15%, based on sales. Then, after earning you money for a year or so, when the hardcover is published in paperback (which is just about always for a genre novel), it earns you money from the paperback sale as well. A book like Dale Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE which sold 4.2 million copies (years ago!), with a cover price of $24.95 (figure $3.60 royalty per book) has probably earned Mr. Brown somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000,000 or more – just in hardcover. And then along comes the money from the paperback…! So don’t dismiss those hardcover editions. Every time a new Harry Potter book was published, JK Rowlings deposited a check for millions into her bank account.

At the time THE BLACK LODGE sold, my wife Phyllis and I owned or co-owned four different corporations. My son Matt was six years old and demanded lots of attention. I wrote THE BLACK LODGE from 10 PM till 2 AM every night, which was the only quiet time I had. I finished the novel a month early. Following Lori’s advice, when I turned in the manuscript for THE BLACK LODGE to Sally Peters, I also submitted a proposal (three chapters and a detailed outline) for a new horror novel, THE DEAD MAN’S KISS.
Never finish a project without having something new planned or in the works that you can offer the publisher. Most book contracts have a clause in them that states you must offer your next book to that publisher before showing it to any other publisher. Sally Peters bought my next novel while she was still editing THE BLACK LODGE.

I received a number of good questions about this essay. The best of them follow:

Someone wondered when I found the time to write the proposal for THE DEAD MAN’S KISS? And exactly how long was it?
I wrote the three chapters and outline of THE DEAD MAN'S KISS during the same period I was writing the last 3-4 chapters of THE BLACK LODGE. Lodge was the piece that had to be finished, so that got priority. When I had some free time, i.e. I had written as much of Lodge I could that night, I would switch over to Kiss. It's just a matter of learning to focus your attention on the project at hand. Most writers these days I suspect have more than one project at a time going, just because you can't afford not to!

For a proposal, I usually write three chapters around 3,000 words each, as the general rule of thumb is that an editor likes to see 9,000-10,000 words along with an outline. On “The Dead Man's Kiss,” Sally Peters thought the book started off a little too mysteriously, so she had me add another chapter on to the beginning. Which was fine with me.

Another student asked why I submitted THE DEAD MAN’S KISS to Pocket Books instead of another publisher? Was the money better, or was I under obligation to give them first look at my next book?
Most (not all) contracts will state that you have to give your publisher first chance at your next book. In a majority of contracts (some are different) they then have 30 days to make you an offer which you can take or not. You are not obligated to take the offer . If you do not, you can then shop your book around to other publishers. However, if you do get an offer from another publisher, your publisher still has the opportunity to match that offer. Then you make the final decision.

The reasoning behind such a clause is that by publishing your novel, a publisher feels they are taking a chance with you and promoting your work.
If your first book is a success, then the publisher feels that they should at least have the right to capitalize in on that success for which they were partly responsible, with your second book. And so on.

But, at the same time, they did not offer you a multi-book contract, so you don't owe them a great deal of loyalty. Some authors believe staying with one publisher is a good idea. Others do not. It depends a lot on the support you feel you've gotten and what other publishers have to offer.

Someone else asked if publishers will buy a novel based on just three chapters and an outline from a first-time novelist?

You hit it on the head about a first novel. Most publishers want to see a complete manuscript from a first-time novelist as lots of people can start a book, but not nearly as many can finish one. There are exceptions of course, especially if your name is known as a good short fiction writer. But, as more and more people flood publishers with proposals for novels, it’s become harder and harder to sell a book based only on a proposal. Most publishers don't particularly like it if you have a number of different proposals floating around on the marketplace when they are looking at one of your books. They feel that if they invest money in you, they don't want to have your work being published by someone else at the same time. Still, some writers seem to be able to get away with it. It's probably not the best policy to follow if you are a first-time novelist, though.

Next article, we start with the basics of how to plan a novel.

Hopefully, at the end of this series of essays, I'll have an essay on the money authors can earn from electronic copies (ebooks, kindle books, etc) of their novels.
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Writing a Horror Novel
Featuring the complete horror novel,
The Black Lodge
By Robert Weinberg

12 essays on How to Write a Horror/Thriller Novel
From conception to completion

Writing a Horror Novel – the Rules

I think it’s best to set up a few rules before we start.

This class is basically a series of short essays that follow the notes and guidelines that I put together when I taught a course titled “Writing Thriller Fiction,” in college in Chicago. These essays explain in a fairly simple manner how I wrote my horror novel, THE BLACK LODGE. These short essays lay out a fairly easy to understand a method how to write a novel in the horror/thriller genre. I do try to stick to the subject at hand. However, I do have the habit of wandering off on (what I think) are interesting tangents. So from time to time it’s possible that an essay will only be marginally connected with how to write this particular novel. I also have the annoying habit of writing incredibly long sentence, which comes partly from my style of writing and partly because I talk that way in real life.

Since I was not handed down these essays and ideas from God on Mt. Sinai in the form of Ten Commandments, please realize that these rules are my ideas and I take full credit and full blame for them. My beliefs are based on many concepts I picked up from many other writers, as well as being self-taught during the course of writing seventeen novels, and having edited over a hundred and fifty anthologies of short stories.
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the best writers in the business including Dean Koontz, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Chalker, and Harlan Ellison, so some of their thoughts are mixed in these essays as well. But, if you find something you don’t like or you mistrust what I say, blame me not them. This is my course, and while I’m happy to accept any praise you might have for it, I’ll also accept any blame.

This effort is being done as an internet class, and questions are encouraged and expected. If there is anything you don’t understand, need an example of, don’t like, etc. etc., please post a message on this page and I will try to answer it when I post again. I will answer every Real Question I receive, as fast as possible. I would hope this opportunity will encourage a give-and take that you can’t get from just reading a book. There are no dumb questions, especially when writing a novel. Ignorance is not dumb, it is just lack of knowledge. Not acting on ignorance is dumb, so I expect everyone to ask away if something concerns you or makes no sense. Please remember, these aren’t debates and while some points might be opinion, we don’t want to get hooked up into a long argument on what makes horror horror. Let’s leave the philosophical discussions for conventions and dwell on the nuts-and-bolts stuff here.

Just remember, if something seems puzzling or confusing to you, it’s probably puzzling to most people but no one wants to be the first to ask a question. Please don’t hesitate. The more questions the more interactions and hopefully the more learning. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I wish I did, so then we could all write bestsellers. But I have written and sold seventeen novels to mainstream publishers so at least have some pretty good ideas about the basics involved in getting a book written. Hopefully, by the time we’re finished with this class, you’ll have learned something useful.

Now, to get things started, the text of my novel, THE BLACK LODGE is available on the Net for only $2.99. Or free to Amazon Prime customers. You can find it here:

Read it. Remember it. Then, once you are finished with it, move on to the essays that follow it---

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The Tale of Hild - an alternate, earlier version of Chapter 10 of Hellfire, Plague of Dragons. This alternate version of a section of the book is Copyright c 2010 by Robert Weinberg. All rights reserved.


Each night, the forty and four gathered around a huge bonfire and stories were told by those new to our brotherhood. Tales of death, tales of bravery, no one questioned if they were true or merely fables. It didn’t matter. The words were bonds that sealed us all close together.

One night, Inguurd Axhand, the Norseman, rose to his feet and stood before the fire. In his hands, one at its base the other at its neck, he held his mighty axe, Grimslayer. Tongues of fire cast long shadows on the ground before him. In a voice deeper than the night wind, he spoke. Though the words are mine, this was the story he told.


When I was a child, not more than six years old, a terrible winter struck the northlands. The cold north wind was so chill that it froze solid the river that ran past our village. No boats could sail, leaving us isolated and alone. It was frightening weather and even among the good Christian folk of our town could be heard whispers of Ragnarok, the twilight of the Old Gods. And then, as if answering those whispers - or perhaps because of them - came a dragon.

It was a huge purple beast, with massive tusks ending in black points and wings the texture and look of old leather. Immense fingers ended in claws made to rip and tear, while it had teeth white as the whitest snow. With a snarling face from the deepest and darkest nightmares, the dragon was a monster out of ancient legends. A harbinger of end times, it was Nidhogg, the great worm, the monster that gnaws at the tree, Yggdrasill, that holds the world in place.

Many brave men saw the beast, and many men died. They went hunting the dragon and perished in their quest. No spear could pierce its armored hide and no armor could deflect the monster’s claws. One after another, the greatest heroes in our village sought out the creature and despite their bravery and skill, each and every one of them failed.

Their deaths left our village a town inhabited only by women and elders. They were a hearty breed, but not able to protect our flocks from Nidhogg’s unquenchable hunger. In desperation, the old people of the village gathered in the village’s great hall and prayed for a miracle. When all else failed, they asked the Lord for aid. And God sent a woman.

My grandfather had me tending our small flock of sheep not far from our village on the north slope of Dragnar Mountain. It was harsh, mind-and-body numbing work in the bitter cold, but someone had to do it. My father had been one of the first to fall beneath Nidhogg’s claws and my grandfather had been unable to walk for years. So, I was the only one available.

Each morning I left our small home and herded the sheep up the mountain, searching for some new patch of green for them to graze. I carried a wood staff but knew it would be of no help if Nidhogg came flying down on me and my flock. It had happened to others, and I knew it could happen any day to me. There was no predicting where the dragon might strike next. Raised on tales of the Vikings, I was prepared to die fighting. But, secretly, I hoped to be spared that honor. At six, there was too much of the world I still wanted to see.

The most important morning in my life began like any other. It was brisk and icy cold. The sun was a dull yellow orb just above the eastern horizon. Rubbing the last of the sleep dust from my eyes, I guided my small herd up the worn path to Dragnar’s north slope. Lately, the ice and snow had been creeping more and more onto the sheep’s grazing land, forcing me to take them further afield looking for food. Fortunately, I had strong legs and I could walk for hours when necessary. That particular day, it was necessary.

It had snowed the night before and all the usual grazing spots were covered in a thick layer of packed snow. But my sheep were hungry. They were so thin that they were little more than skin and bones. Determined to see them fed, I guided them along a steep mountain path that led to Dragnar’s south slope. My grandfather had often warned me that Nidhogg hunted there, but my sheep were starving and I refused to let them die.

On and on we trekked searching for some green grass. Hours passed and the sun rose high in the sky. Still, we found only ice and snow.

It was noon hour when I spotted her. A lone figure, she stood tall in the middle of a field of snow. The sunshine bounced off her steel armor like a mirror. Even in the distance, I could see the long blonde hair flickering around her finely etched features. Equally fascinating was the glistening long sword with intricate hilt she held in her right hand. Drawing closer, I spotted five armored figures lying motionless in the snow. Though only six, I was familiar with the sight of dead men. Not so my sheep. Nearing the corpses, they began to bleat.

The Valkyr, for I already knew she had to be one of them, smiled at the noise and asked me, in flute-like tones, my name? My voice shaking I told her I was Inguurd Axhand and before I could restrain myself, blurted out that I recognized her as Hild, one of the Choosers of the Slain. Had she come for me, was I doomed to die that afternoon? She laughed at this then repeated the name. It was as good a name as any she said, then assured me in no uncertain terms that she had not come looking for me. Long ago she had abandoned her place at Odin’s side. Now she walked the Earth seeking only peace and quiet.

Never being very good at hiding my thoughts, I couldn’t help but glance at the five dead men whose bodies lay dead in the snow. Hild glanced at the corpses then smiled. She said nothing and I was too polite and too frightened to ask for an explanation.

Realizing that Hild’s arrival was more important than my sickly sheep feeding, I immediately gathered the flock together and began the long walk back to our village. I beckoned for Hild to follow. The shield-bearer smiled a second time then hurried forward to join me. Even at age six, I felt a surge of manly pride knowing the most beautiful woman in the world walked at my side.

As we marched down the steep paths leading to the relative safety of the north slope, I couldn’t help glance every few minutes over my shoulder. I still worried about Nidhogg. Even with the help of one of the Sword Maidens, I suspected my battle against the monstrous dragon could end in only one manner. With me dead.

Hild, being more attentive than most, soon noticed my preoccupation with the skies. In polite terms, carefully phrasing her words so that the meaning remained somewhat murky, the Sword-Maiden asked me what worried me so, what had such a brave young warrior keeping so close a watch over his shoulder?

Never before exposed to such flattery, I stuttered and stammered through a history of Nidhogg and the worm’s attack on our village. Afterwards, I further explained how our town stood isolated and alone to fight the monster due to the tremendous cold. Lastly, I added a detailed account of how each man who challenged the beast had died, including my father, It was a thorough rendition and it lasted most of our trip homeward.

Once the sheep were penned, I crowded hurriedly into the great room, glad to be able to stand directly in front of a fire. Hild, an amused expression on her face, followed. Seeing my grandfather, sitting in his chair by the fire, his useless legs covered by a heavy comforter, she dipped her head in a shallow bow, like a soldier. My grandfather nodded, accepting his due as master of our house. Then, his eyes narrowed and he stared at the Warrior-Maiden closer. It was as if a sheet of ice had suddenly descended over his face.

Hands grasping the side of his chair, the old man tried without much success to push himself out of his seat and into a standing position. Confused, I turned to Hild. She was shaking her head, as if signaling my grandfather not to rise. Only years later did I realize that she was also signaling him not to reveal her true identity. Instead, she had me recite the story of our meeting on the south slope of Dragnar, and tell him how she was Hild, one of Odin’s warrior maidens. When I finished speaking, Hild once more flashed her wondrous smile and repeated her name. As did my grandfather.

Without another word, the old man settled back in his chair. He signaled for me to set the table. Tonight, for the first time in months we had three for the evening meal. Thus did Hild enter our lives.

Who she really was, I never found out. Hild never talked of her past and my grandfather rarely spoke. Was she a runaway princess or a noble woman fleeing a loveless marriage? I do not know, nor did it matter. To me, at six, she was beauty and courage personified. I worshipped her.

During the days she stayed with us, Hild hunted for game in the lowlands. There was little to be found. Almost every living thing had fled or been devoured by Nidhogg. The dragon was starving us to death.

Finally, after a week of returning with little more than a few rabbits, Hild announced at dinner that on the morrow she would kill the dragon, Nidhogg. Or die trying.

My grandfather, his voice thick with anger, his eyes blazing, said that she was a fool. That she would perish like his son, my father, dying for no reason. Hild, her voice calm, replied that all people died. That what truly mattered was whether they died well. To that remark, my grandfather had no reply.

The next day, Hild led three sheep up to the south slope. Grandfather had commanded me in no uncertain terms not to follow her, so of course I did. I stayed far enough back to see everything without revealing myself. Or so I thought.

Picking her spot carefully, Hild staked the sheep a few feet beyond a thick outcropping of rock. Leaving the beasts bleating loudly, she climbed up onto the rock, pulling a dark cloak completely over her so that she blended into the stone. Weights tied to the four ends of the cloth held it in place. Perfectly hidden, she waited.

She didn’t wait long. With a rush of wind, the monstrous beast, Nidhogg, came sweeping out of the sky. Landing not far from the stones where Hild was hidden, the dragon lashed out with one arm, impaling a helpless sheep on its knife-like claws. As the creature raised the dead sheep to its jaws, Hild struck.

Weighted cloak under one arm, the warrior-woman leapt from the stone outcropping onto the bent neck of the dragon. The instant her body touched the monster’s flesh, she tossed the thick cape over Nidhogg’s eyes. Like anchors, the weights in the cloth tangled beneath the creature’s neck, holding the wrap in place.

Rearing its head high up, the dragon roared in fury. The movement nearly knocked Hild off the monster’s neck, but gripping hard its scales, she managed to hold on. Savagely, the beast shook its entire body, feeling the Valkyr’s weight on its neck but unable to twist far enough around to catch her. Nor could the blinded creature see what Hild was doing.

The warrior-maiden was slowly climbing up the dragon’s neck, inch after inch, approaching the monster’s head. The creature could feel her but neither see nor reach her. Bellowing in fear and frustration, Nidhogg leapt into the air and flapped its giant wings. In an instant, the monster was hundreds of feet above the ground. But Hild’s grip never faltered.

In my hide-hold a hundred feet away and hundreds of feet below, I could not see what happened next, but I could imagine. Hild climbed and climbed until she reached Nidhogg’s terrible face. That was when the Valkyr drew her sword and though she was too high in the air to survive the fall, plunged the blade between the dragon’s eyes, directly into the monster’s brain. The creature died instantly and dropped like a stone.

I found their crushed and intertwined bodies far down Dragnar’s slope. Even in death, Hild was still the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her right hand still clutched the hilt of her sword which was imbedded in Nidhogg’s skull, and I could see she was smiling. The next morning, the freeze broke. Three days later, the ice cleared from the river and our village was saved.


“She died well,” said one of the forty-four who had listened in silence to Inguurd’s story. Others nodded, and murmured their agreement. “She died well.”
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I have been involved in the publishing field since 1967, when I sold my first professional short story to IF magazine. That's more than 40 years. During that time, I've written 35 books, around 100 short stories, and edited over 150 anthologies. I worked as a consultant on another 100 plus books, wrote several hundred articles on all sorts of stuff, and gave lots and lots of free advice to small publishers who had all sorts of questions about rights and titles etc etc. By and large, I've maintained my cool about the publishing industry and its faults. Even when those faults directly impact me or my work. But not always. In a few rare instances, once involving comic books and once regarding a major book release, I've vented. Let me summarize the book disaster, because it leads into my rant for today, Columbus Day (the real day, not the three-day weekend day), 10/12/10.

Twelve years ago, right around this time, I was in the hospital with fluid around my heart. I was extremely concerned about being released because I had a new book coming out in a few months and wanted to be ready to handle all the advanced publicity it was going to generate. The novel was a collaboration with another writer, who just happened to be a computer genius who knew all the secrets of hackers and hacking. The book was a high-tech computer thriller, in hardcover, from Random House. We had gathered all sorts of advance quotes from well known computer people including the head of DARPA, the government agency that had invented the Internet. My co-author and I had spent many months rewriting the book to our editors exact wishes. The lead editor and editor in chief of the line had both told us the book was going to be a bestseller. The VP of the company had promised that the book was going to get a huge first printing. We were scheduled for a 21 city tour. Even the president of the company was behind our book. So, needless to say, I was excited and wanted out of the hospital.

But, that's when I learned that German publisher, Bertelsmann had bought Random House. Our editor called me and promised nothing would change. But it did.

Our tour was canceled. Our print run shrank from 80,000 in hardcover to 9,000. Instead of a full page color ad (I still have a copy of it), we got NO advertising. NONE. The book was, to be frank, killed. As were all other hardcovers for that quarter. When Random House was bought, and the VP and president soon fired, the new owners decided the best way to make the company more profitable would be to cut all advertising for that quarter and cut back on print runs. Our editor remained loyal to the company and kept telling us nothing had changed. But it had, and we got screwed. And that was that.

My co-author has since written on her own a bestselling book (six weeks on the NY Times list). I am thrilled for her. But, though I've done well with various books over the years, I've never had a book on the NY Times list. Or the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list. In my middle 60's, I've pretty much given up on that dream. Until I met Tom Wood and saw his art.

Now, finally, we come to the rant for today! The name of the book is HELLFIRE. You can find the name of the publisher using the title. It is a division of the Perseus Book Group.

Tom Wood is an artist. Not any artist, but an incredibly talented artist who is wildly successful. Tom is the owner and talent behind Meridian Design Works that creates art for the NFL, Disney, and Warner Brothers. For a hobby, he paints dragons on his computer. Since 2005, he has sold millions (millions!!) of dragon posters. He is one of the bestselling poster artists in the world. In 2009, Tom was approached by an agent to create an art book featuring his poster art. The way to go, it was decided, was to use the art as illustrations in a novel, ala Dinotopia. Tom had some thoughts on what the book could be about, but he was no writer. For that, the agent contacted me. After seeing Tom's art, I was enthusiastic about the project and signed on to write the story. Together, Tom and I hammered out the basic concepts of the book and I spent the next six months writing it. I was quite happy with the final story and so was Tom. We had what we felt was a winning book. Tom even interrupted a busy schedule to paint several new illustrations and a bunch of spectacular black and whites. When he saw that the book was lacking in design, he designed it himself, a job he normally would be paid thousands of dollars by a regular client. The book was sent to the printer four months before publication date.

This was the book, I felt, would make up for the disaster of twelve years earlier. Both Tom and I expected this book to be a bestseller. But, then the warning sirens started to go off.

The publisher didn't do ARCs of the book. How can you sell an art book without advance copies to distribute to bookstores and more important, to book distributors? The publisher did 8 page arcs, which highlighted a few paintings, but that was it. They ran no ads in trade publications. Though the book was scheduled for a September release, they didn't have copies displayed at the BEA in May. Worse, they had no ARCs to send out for advance reviews in places like Publisher's Weekly or any of the other magazines that librarians look through to advance order books. The catalog of the publisher had a page writeup of the book, but there were other YA books that got twice as much space and ten times as much enthusiasm. When we complained to the agent, she merely told us that the publisher had never promised publicity. And they had not given us any. This was my Random House disaster, on steroids!

This book, HELLFIRE, should have been a bestseller. Instead of 100,000 copies in print, the publisher printed 10,000. Instead of dozens of major reviews, HELLFIRE has gotten two, both from internet sites. TWO REVIEWS!

When people see HELLFIRE, they are blown away. Tom and I have no complaints about the quality of printing or the look of the book. It is a twenty dollar book that looks like it costs double that. You can buy it for around $14 on Amazon.com. Tom has had some incredible signings. But a few signings is not going to get the book noticed or send the book back to press.

I'm 64. I suffer from terrible diabetic Neuropathy in my feet. It feels like a powerful electric current is passing through my feet - all the time, sitting or standing, day or night. I complain about my condition, but a great deal less than I could. I write because I am driven to do so. I am obsessed. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. I need help, and I am not too proud to ask for it.

If you have a suggestion, any suggestion on how I can push HELLFIRE so that it sells more copies, I am all ears. I really, really want this book to be a success. I want to surprise the publisher, I want to surprise the agent that asked me to write the story, I was to surprise Tom Wood with some justice in publishing. Most of all, I'd like to surprise myself.

My career has had its ups and its downs. Lately, it's mostly be down. I'm surely not rich, nor am I famous. I'm not pushing this book for money. As the song says, I feel like I've been running against the wind. I could use some help changing the wind's direction.

bob weinberg

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When The Night Comes Down

Dark Arts Books’ sixth title will debut at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, England during the last week of March, 2010!

Call it what you like: dusk, twilight, sunset. It’s that magical moment between daylight and darkness when anything is possible — the evening ahead promises untold enchantment…
or nameless dread.

Within are 16 tales of the oncoming blackness, including more than the usual cast of characters.

There are shapeshifters and gravediggers, but also supernatural private detectives and — perhaps most terrifying of all — beautiful creatures that prey on… horror writers. Murder, death — and things worse than death — are all waiting for you When The Night Comes Down.

Our newest title features more of the great stories that are a hallmark of Dark Arts Books’ selections.

Joseph D’Lacey, in stories like “The Unwrapping of Alastair Perry,” writes in the vein of the Clive Barker of the 1980s.

Bev Vincent, already renowned for his non-fiction, shows off some impressive range in his fiction — from hard-edged horror (”Silvery Moon”) to Bradbury-esque whimsical (”Something in Store”) to knowing humor (”Knock ‘em Dead”).

Legend Robert E. Weinberg delivers perhaps the all-time greatest behind-the-scenes send-up of genre convention weekends with “Elevator Girls.”

And rising young gun Nate Kenyon, in gritty stories like “Gravedigger” and “The Buzz of A Thousand Wings,” showcases why he has earned all those raves.

Dark Arts Books is really proud of this collection and think you will enjoy all the great stories within!


Joseph D’Lacey
The Unwrapping of Alastair Perry
Etoile’s Tree
Morag’s Fungus
The Quiet Ones

Bev Vincent
Silvery Moon
Knock ‘Em Dead
Something In Store
Purgatory Noir

Robert E. Weinberg
Elevator Girls
The One Answer That Really Matters

Nate Kenyon
Breeding The Demons
One With The Music
The Buzz of a Thousand Wings

When The Night Comes Down

Shipping in March 2010
Order now and we will ship as soon as this title is available!

ISBN# 0-9779686-5-0
Price: $19.95


“D’Lacey rocks!”

“Vincent proves himself a master…”

“Weinberg is a writer-guy who really writes!”

“[Kenyon] delivers the scares in spades!”

There's about twenty thousand words of fiction by me in this volume. "The One Answer That Really Matters" is a novelet featuring my supernatural sleuth, Sidney Taine, in his first adventure in six years. The story follows my novel, THE BLACK LODGE, and explains what Taine has been doing since the events of that book. You don't need to read TBL to follow the new story. In this story, Taine investigates the one answer about life that really matters. The question might surprise you. The story is about 9500 words long.

The other two stories are rare reprints. "Elevator Girls" takes place at the 1989 World Fantasy Convention in Seattle and the 1990 Horror Writers Dinner in New York City. Much of the story is true, and nearly all of the characters are based on real people. Even some of the dialogue is quoted from life. The story is a rather nasty look at the publishing industry. Also around 9500 words

The final story in my section is "Maze." It's a story set in the game world of OBSIDIAN: DAY OF JUDGMENT. It's not necessary to know anything about the game as all the details are contained in the story. The world of Obsidian is a fascinating one. It's Earth of the near future - but Earth overrun by demons that have broke free from Hell. The remnants of humanity live in a gigantic metal structure that keeps the demons out but just barely. Imagine the Night Land on a bad day. "Maze" is my rarest short story and I think it's a lot of fun. I've always been sorry I didn't get a chance to write a sequel (or several sequels) to it. Around 3,000 words.

If you want to get an idea of what my fiction is like, this book presents a good sample of my work. And there are sections by three other excellent horror writers as well!

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