Our Guest Writer is Joann H. Buchanan. Joann is the author of the paranormal series, The Children of Nox. Joann hosted the long running radio show The Eclectic Artist Cave on Sharkradionetwork.com where she interviewed writers and shared her ideas and techniques. She also authors a very informative blog for writers.
Steps to the Paranormal Story
Joann H. Buchanan
What makes a writer? What inspires us to sit for hours in front of a computer for no other reason than to get lost in our own worlds? Is there a formula that works or some sort of magical powder that calls the writer’s muse? Is there a potion for success? Some will say write something that is worth reading. But how does a person sit down and do that? How do we know that a character we create isn’t going to be flat? What about the worlds they live in, are they believable? What is it that makes a person get lost in a sea of words that will, with any luck, entertain the next person to come along?
The truth is that there isn’t a magical formula—elves from another realm don’t drop off manuscripts at our doorstep and last but not least, none of it happens overnight. A novel, poem even a song happens one word at a time. It all begins with that first word on a blank page.
I can’t give you the formula or any sort of fairy dust. What I can do is give you a glimpse into my own life and what carries me away to other worlds.
When I was a child, I was often in trouble and sent to my room. Yes, I was grounded A LOT. I’m not ashamed to tell the world that even then I had an opinion. I had a mouth and I wasn’t afraid to use it—even if I was in the wrong when I told my mom I was going to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I know some of you reading this have a smile on your face, because you told your mamma that too. Of those reading this, how many of you woke the next day wondering what happened? I just had to ask that one.
I grew up in a time when cell phones were these brick looking devices that yuppies thought were cool to have. The phone I used hung on the wall and had a long cord I somehow managed to get tangled in when I was talking on it. MTV was some new channel that had one video playing on it over and over. The term reality show would have meant something like peeping tom and yes, I rode my bike without a helmet.
Being the young opinionated girl I was, my dad decided that grounding me to my room was not the way to handle me. Instead, he grounded me to my room with only 2 things to do. Read or write. That’s it. I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. Because it was summer time, they were sure it would teach me a lesson in respect. Let me tell you what it really did. Getting grounded shaped me into a writer.
I had read everything I owned and then some. One day, out of boredom, I picked up a piece of paper and started writing a story about a bird. That was the first time I discovered I loved the worlds that were in my own head. I became obsessed with the written word. I couldn’t read enough and yes, I couldn’t stop thinking about the stories I was writing. When I was off grounding, I would hop on one of the city buses with notebook in hand and start writing short stories about the people who would climb aboard.
They were what I would now call character traits and observations. I now believe those hours on the bus, each ride totaling a $1.25 a day, ended up being some of the best practice days I ever had. So that is what shaped me into a writer.
Now I’m sure you want to know more about techniques that work. The truth is that the fairy dust for this exists inside every person who has ever wanted to write.
The first tip I have is simple.
Read—Reading is the way to sharpen the mind. It allows us to learn new ways to use words. We pick up on things subconsciously when we don’t even know it. The term, reading is fundamental, well if you want to be a writer it is essential to your work. Read every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s for a half hour or longer. Just do it.
Don’t just read things you think are great. Don’t get stuck on the classics. You can learn as much from a poor writer as you can from a great one. Sometimes even more, because you begin to pick up on things that do and don’t make writing work.
From here it is a matter of actually doing the work. Yes, I said the dreaded four letter word. WORK. There is a lot of work that comes with writing. The cool thing about it is that if you love it, then it doesn’t feel like work.
Remember that notebook I talked about earlier. Well here is another place it comes into play. When I’m doing something, a WHAT IF will strike me. So I pull out my notebook and write it down. I have pages and pages of WHAT IF’s that will probably never be used.
WHAT IF. . . I was a goldfish in a pond surrounded by hawks?
WHAT IF. . . A plane landed in the middle of a field that was from a different planet and the pilot was a man?
WHAT IF. . . The cat lady down the street was a taxidermist and her husband was sitting in her garage, stuffed?
What ifs are the life blood to our stories, even when we don’t realize it. They form the plots our characters play in.
The important thing is that you don’t leave the house without that notebook, not if you are really a writer. Mine is now an app on my phone. My how I love today’s technology.
The next thing you need are the Characters.
Your characters don’t have to be like mine. They don’t even have to be human. They can be anything you want, so long as you make them real to your reader. To make things real to the reader, well now that part is simple. Your characters need traits. They need to live and breathe to the person reading about them. There needs to be truth in them.
What is a trait? I had to giggle a little when I wrote that sentence. Not because I think it’s funny, but because I remember a time when I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing for my own characters. Here is an example.
Jane tapped her long nails on her teeth when she looked up at the clock in the doctor’s office.
This simple sentence should tell you a couple things about Jane right off the bat. Jane is a woman, she has long nails which means she probably has money, and most important, when she is anxious, she taps her teeth with her nails. We don’t know why she is anxious, we just know she is.
A character trait is something about that character that makes them less flat. Jane is probably an annoying person to be around who cares more about looks than anything else. She has a shallow mind and her life is about to change.
Another character trait for Jane could be that her hair is pristine, not a single one out of place. She is obsessed with looks, so it makes sense that her hair would be perfect, even in a hurricane.
Character traits are also how a person looks. Jane has blond hair, cut in a bob and she wears a lot of pink. She is a living breathing Barbie and a woman most of us know and love to hate.
Once you know what your character looks like, think about what she talks like. Does she have a fake laugh? Jane does. Does she hate politics? Jane’s opinions never differ from her husband because Jane doesn’t think for herself. She plays bridge and has a regular routine. Today is different for Jane though and she feels it. Her life is about to change. Now you have to find out why her life is about to change.
Now that you know who and what your main character is about and you have looked over all the WHAT Ifs you have been writing down, it’s time to write the first sentence.
What oh what is the key to the first sentence? The truth is I don’t know. I start with the first word and move on. There are times I sit down and start a blank page with nothing more in mind than a word I heard earlier in the day. I know, how can a single word inspire an entire novel?
Think about the words you use on a daily basis. What are the common ones? How about the word, HELLO. Think about the number of ways that word can be used.
It can be a question. “Hello?”
It can be a statement of irritation. “Hello!”
It’s all in the context.
She picked up the phone and said, “Hello?”
A man cut in line at the supermarket. The woman behind him said, “Hello!”
Even the word HERE has a few different ways it can be used. Here on Atlantis, a place where there is more water than land…(Opening line to Dragon’s Eye.)
The first sentence can make or break a story.
“Through dragon’s fire made of ice,” (The first line of THE KISS)
The first line needs to draw the reader in and create an image so strong, he or she can’t walk away. It needs to evoke some sort of emotion right off the bat. The first line to Moby Dick…They call me Ishmael. Wow! To me one of the best first lines ever. As well as, “It was the best of times it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities. Both tell me I’m in for the ride of my life. I’m in for a story that is going to carry me into another world full of possibilities.
The rest of your story should fall into place as long as you are entertained. That’s what it’s all about anyways. Entertainment. There is no other word to describe what we do. There are no techniques I can give you that will make you great. Just what I know works for me. I can only tell you how I got here.
So, to break it all down…
Now that the basics are down, the question remains, “How do we take it to the next level?”
Where is the paranormal, the darkness, and the things that go bump in the night? How do I scare the crap out of my readers?
The definition of paranormal is simple. It’s anything that science is unable to explain.
For example, a woman is sitting at work and hears a scream that sends her into a panic. She is the only person to hear the scream. Everyone else sits as if their entire world has been left undisturbed. A few minutes later, she receives a call. Her daughter has been struck by a car and is now in the hospital. As cliché as this particular example sounds, it is something that takes the woman out of the realm of normalcy and straight into the paranormal. The time she hears the scream in her mind is when her daughter is struck by the car.
Now let’s take a look back at Jane, the woman from above. She is an unhappy housewife. How do we take that into the paranormal? We add another “WHAT IF” to the situation.
What if Jane finds an antique pendant that gives her the ability to see truth? What if that pendant is not really causing her to see the truth of others, but what she fears they are? So now we have the unhappy housewife who thinks what she is seeing is the truth of others. In this we find out that her fear is that her husband, the ever faithful Joe, has no idea what she is thinking and has nothing but love for his wife.
In the paragraphs above I stated that Jane was a simple minded person who was annoying to be around. Now she has a little voice in her head telling her that Julie is a cheat and that’s how she wins at Bridge all the time. To top it off, Jane is able to prove her suspicions are correct. There is the justification for believing what the pendant says to her.
All the while, the pendant could be stealing her energy. The goodness that Jane had, though annoying, has been tarnished by evil and she is beginning to believe everything the pendant tells her.
Can this be explained by science? No. Therefore it is paranormal. Paranormal is taking a simple thing, such as a pendant, a house, a voice, to the next level. Paranormal dives into the imagination and taps into the darkest parts of the characters we create.
We live in a world filled with paranormal people. We meet them every day. The person who is a devout Christian can be turned into a raving lunatic if they believe the voice inside their head is God. The little old lady who feeds all the stray cats in the neighborhood, well perhaps she is a trainer for familial.
To me, the truest form of paranormal is writing about a normal person who is shoved into extraordinary circumstances. The woman Jane is a good example. All she did was make a purchase and it changed her life and the way she viewed everything around her. It gave her the strength and power to state things she was thinking all along. What makes that scary? Have you ever heard the saying, “A woman scorned?” Well there is nothing more dangerous than that.
Digging the horror up in a novel is simply digging through the façade and seeing the darkness that resides in all. The paranormal, the unscientifically explainable things that exist, the bumps in the night, it’s all about amplifying something that exists beneath the surface.
In a quote by Stephen King, he states, “The trust of the innocence is a liar’s most useful tool.”
Therein rests the horror, the paranormal of it all. In order to make the paranormal and horror believable, you must first always make sure there is truth in what you are writing. “Jane” is a perfect example of that. She is unhappy, annoying and most of all, innocent to the evil that really exists in her world. The pendant just allowed it to come to the surface. It gave her the portal and justification she needed.
Now let’s take a character that needs no justification. What if a person is already dark at heart? Take Ralph in my novel I AM WOLF. Ralph is a paranoid schizophrenic who already has a dark soul. I asked myself, what if I cultivated that darkness ? I took his character as far as a dark character could go for this story by having him receive a bite mark from another paranormal being—a shape-shifter. Now Ralph who was already so far gone in the abyss of the human psyche needed zero justification for his actions. He existed in the darkness. He became the murderous thing that goes bump in the night. He no longer had that impulse control most people have in life, that impulse control we call normal.
The observations of life can be twisted to meet the writer’s needs. Take them, churn them into what you want and spit them out. Leave no one alive and never allow the images to escape the readers mind. If gross is what you are going for, then please don’t hold back. If evil is something that is grown in a lab, then let it be the most hideous thing in life according to you, the writer. If the paranormal you are writing can be explained away then by all means, please rethink what you are talking about. Remember that the paranormal exists where no other explanation can be made.
For those who don’t know, horror doesn’t have to be bloody, it just has to be terrifying and believable. What is your horror? Horror takes us out of the normal state of life we live in. It creates images that we can’t escape. A prime example of this is in a classic book, Frankenstein. The creator was really the monster, not the creature he created. Remember what Stephen King said about innocence? The creature was an innocent. Dr. Frankenstein himself, was a darker more sinister being than that which he created.
Description is a key component in horror writing. If it bleeds, say it. What color is the blood? If it screams, how does it sound?
Horror and paranormal are twins when it comes to writing. The vampire that walks down the street and feeds on us, (as romantic as it has all been made out to be), is really horror. What is the vampire feeding on? Hello. Humans.
Is cannibalism not in your vocabulary for horror? It is in mine…lol.
Yet because a vampire is a mythical creature, it also falls under the realm of paranormal. Now take Jane again. Remember the pendant gave her what she needed but all the while it fed on her energy. All the while it sucked all the goodness from her and turned her into a . . .that’s for you to decide. Make sure you think out of the box on this one.
Writing is a passion. Not everyone will have the desire to do this. That’s actually good for us, the writers. Writers are a dime a dozen. So love what you are writing because the competition is fierce and the journey is long. If you love it, none of that will matter and what I’ve written here…well, of course, they are things you already know.
Joann H. Buchanan
Joann H. Buchanan, author, radio show host and mother of 5, lives inKansas. She is the author of Soulless Light, I Am Wolf, and The Kiss. She is working on two series—The Burning Times and The Children of Nox.
Until recently, Joann hosted The Eclectic Artist Cave on The Shark Radio Network where she interviewed writers, producers, musicians and creative people of all kinds. Extracts of her work can be found on Scribd.com and her blog http://joannhamann.blogspot.com
Her motto is—Entertain and shock.
© 2012 Joann H. Buchanan. All Rights Reserved.