Writers Workshop:

(Originally published in DarkEcho)

Originally "the basics" essay was an annual ritual for the "darklings" who read the *DarkEcho* newsletter. It was - and remains -- a brief visit to the roots of writing advice where we shall poke about in the potting soil to expose the pale twisted rhizomes of the craft. Or something like that.

*The Standard Warning* This is written in a North American context for folks who want to be horror writers.


Stories have to start somewhere. Jack Bickham tells his readers/students not to "warm up your engines. *Start the story with the first sentence!*... Description is vital in fiction, but at the outset of a story it's deadly...Fiction looks forward, not backward. When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction...Good fiction starts with -- and deals with -- someone's response to threat." It is human nature to respond to threat and it is definitely a problem with which to deal. The best way to start a story is with the action of that story, says Bickham, and what better action than with threat and a response to it.

This does not mean that you have to begin each story with literal, physical danger. Threat comes from many sources. When have you been the most scared? Starting school? Getting married? Getting divorced? Having a child? Any form of *change* is stressful. When you are in a stressful situation, you feel threatened. Almost *any* form of change makes us feel uneasy. And that point of change can be the start of your story.

But a beginning is not enough. A story is a beast with a skeleton -- structure. The simplest skeleton is that of plot and the simplest way to look at plot is that there is a beginning [character(s) have a problem]; middle [complications/conflict arise; the character(s) changes as a result of acting or reacting to this]; and an end [some form of resolution occurs]

Your plot needs to offer originality and shouldn't have a predictable ending or a "surprise-that's-not-a-surprise" ending. You can add needed interest to your plot with the proper setting and background, but do so with caution. Plot may be your skeleton, but setting works like a Wonderbra -- although it can enhance, it also can distract.

But a good start, structure, originality, and setting aren't enough. You have to present your story the right way. Don't *tell* anything. Make the reader see, hear, smell, taste and FEEL everything. Too much exposition or narration kill the reader's interest. Reader involvement in a story often comes through convincing and/or fascinating characters -- those you can care about or love to loathe. These characters need to speak with a distinct voices and believable dialogue. A consistent point of view is important as it makes the reader comfortable and reinforces character identification.

(And yes, many writers abandon traditional story structure in a variety of ways, but we are discussing "basics." The basics of writing are like those of visual art -- Picasso learned to draw realistically and traditionally before working in revolutionary aesthetic modes.)

Once you have plot, setting, character, dialogue, and point of view going for you -- remember to convey your story in the best words you can find to suit it. These need not be the fanciest words and they certainly aren't clichés -- they are just the "right" words in the right combination.

Dictionaries and thesauri are some of your tools as a writer. Although nothing can replace the required hard copies of these, you can supplement with Web versions. For a list of some of these, see the Writers Tools section of the Dark Links.


You can find descriptions of standard manuscript format in about any "writing-how-to" book. There are also guides on the Web like Proper Manuscript Format. More complete are Scott Edelstein's MANUSCRIPT SUBMISSION (ISBN: 089879398X), and FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT by Jack Neff, Don Prues, Glenda Tennant Neff (ISBN: 089879921X) http://www.shunn.net/format.html Nowadays we word process more often than type. This makes format and corrections extremely easy, but there are some things to keep in mind:

  • The hard copy has to be dark and clear. This is for more than simple readability -- if an electronic version is not available, OCR is often used to convert hard copy into editable electronic copy.
  • Word processors give you an accurate enough word count, but be aware the algorithms used by the software may differ, so it is not EXACTLY correct. (If you are still typing, do give an accurate estimate the old fashioned way.)
  • Don't count on the spell checker to proof your ms. As for a grammar checker -- avoid them! If you don't believe me, read Jack Lynch's advice.
  • Never use a fancy font or funky paper.

*Electronic Format*

For years I went into detail on this one. But I think the technical savvy of both editors and writers has progressed to where I can simply say: "follow the guidelines."

*Errors in mechanics, form, grammar, etc.*

Avoid them. It leads an editor to think you have little regard for quality. Another reality is that an editor has to read hundreds of manuscripts and writer's ineptitude does not make the process simpler.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White is a standard that any writer should follow. Forget the online version, there's a new fourth edition in paperback for only $6.95 (ISBN 020530902X). There are also a lot of handy Web sites with tips. Two of the best are Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style and Guide to Grammar and Writing.

*Cover Letters* (http://webster.commnet.edu/HP/pages/darling/original.htm). You should supply the minimum of needed info. Include the title of your story and the rights offered in the body of the letter. ALWAYS offer name, address and various ways to contact you. Provide eddress -- this is a cheaper and easier way to contact you than the phone. NEVER give a synopsis of the short story in a cover letter. Here's more on the subject.

*Other Stuff* For many, it is now cheaper to send out a photocopied ms. labeled as "disposable." The editor can then recycle it if rejected. If you DO want the ms. back you must provide the proper envelope with the proper postage and address. Never FAX or email a ms. unless specifically told this is acceptable.

If snail mailing, include a business-letter-size return envelope with correct postage for the editor's reply -- the infamous SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope).


Be aware of the horror market. Don't rely on this newsletter alone! Invest in one or all of the following:

Free Online listers include: Openings and needs come and go rapidly in the horror market. Otherwise accurate and informative sources such as WRITER'S MARKET, NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER'S MARKET, SCIENCE FICTION WRITER'S MARKETPLACE AND SOURCEBOOK are often outdated in our area before going to press.

Read guidelines thoroughly. Request COMPLETE guidelines if possible. (These are often available on Web sites or via email.) Don't think you are an exception, not all markets are suitable for all stories. Horror magazines and anthologies have specific needs. Some may have a theme, some want "traditional" stories or only supernatural or erotica or extreme horror or vampires or no vampires at all, etc. Read samples of magazines to get an idea of what that editor wants. If you'd like a translation of horror-specific terms used in guidelines, check here

Submit a story to multiple markets ONLY if the GLs specifically state that they WILL take simultaneous submissions.


Most professional genre writers read very little genre fiction for many reasons, but a beginner needs to be somewhat aware of current offerings. Try to keep up to some extent. But more importantly, read OUTSIDE of genre and read nonfiction. Read for research as well as entertainment. Read to understand what and how good writers write.

One of the most common problems I find with short fiction submissions these days is that the writer appears to have little, if any, grasp of what a short story is. The internal structure of the story seems to follow that of a 22-minute sit com more than a short story. It boggles the mind to consider, but are some of today's wannabe writers not even reading? I fear so.


There have never been a lot of professional markets for horror and the very small press (including Web) publications come and go in both numbers and quality. But with the prevalance of ezines, print-on-demand, and everyone-has-DTP in the last few years we've seen an interesting phenomenon has developed. Once the general route for most beginning writers was to write a story, submit it, get it rejected (sometimes with some helpful comments), then work on improving it before sending it out again. Perhaps this process occurred many times. As tedious as this was, it served a purpose: you learned to improve your writing. With talent and time, the writer eventually came up with a better story, perhaps even a good one.

That no longer appears to be the way. Now, new writers seek publication almost instantly. If a top market or two rejects them, they turn to publishing online in less-than-creditable webzines or in some other do-it-yourself print or e-publishing venture. There is no longer a process of improving a story over time. Even without any good editorial guidance (another lack these days) there was at least an effort at self-improvement: plot holes were plugged, rhythm was improved, character developed, etc.

But producing a well-written story and becoming a good writer seems not to be the highest priority these days.

-- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.