What’s So Scary About…?

I’ve got an inkling of an idea for a novel that involves some kind of horrific or disturbing element. So that’s led me to think about what I find scary. Or, as a place to begin, what I don’t find scary.

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Any of your run-of-the-mill monsters I find tedious and dull. Even with all the re-imagining these “classics” have received in recent years, predictability runs amok. Not to mention, as soon as something becomes popular, it looses its edge.

I also don’t find the standard slasher-flicks particularly scary. Having the characters make stupid choices for the sake of creating suspense and the endless teasing toward the inevitable gory, violent end is far more annoying than scare inducing. Films like Saw and Hostel and other torture-porn are much more effective in creating shocking, disturbing images that stick in the craw of your memory long after viewing them. (Not to be confused with that delicious creepy feeling you get from a good M. Night Shyamalan movie.)

That’s what it really comes down to for me – a story or film’s lingering factor; how disturbing was it that I’m prompted to look twice into a dark corner for fear of what may be hiding there, or how easily do I jump at a sound from the shadows when I’m out walking the dog?

So, then, what is the impetus for such a reaction?

For me, it is the reality of such a horror; the likelihood of something terrible. If I hear a stirring in the darkness, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t something as ridiculous as a zombie, but rather, a psychopath with a crowbar. An episode of Criminal Minds has a greater fear-factor to me than, say, Paranormal Activity 3. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve read Ellis’s American Psycho and there are still passages I can’t forget. Why? Because serial killers are real. (Slasher characters like Michael Myers or Jason don’t count; they’re too cartoonish.) Women and children being abducted; people being brutally murdered in their homes; someone shooting up a school or coffee shop or movie theater – these are all too common horrors in our daily life.

It’s this connection to real fears that makes the work of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King so effective. My own leanings toward claustrophobia prevent me from wanting to read Poe’s Premature Burial again. And who’d have thought clowns were scary. King did. (In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s brilliant The Cabin in the Woods, of all its monsters and demons, the one moment that sticks most with me is the image of a clown laughing while it stabs someone to death.)

I guess what scares me, then, is the all too real inhumanity, the common disregard for life, that has become such an integral part of our culture – even generated by our culture, as American Psycho implies.

Okay, now that I’ve answered that question for myself, am I ready to venture into the darkest recesses of my imagination?

Mmmm…perhaps one more visit to the happy place of Star’s Hollow and the Gilmore Girls first.

Gordon Gravley


I have a confession to make:

Given the choice between reading a novel and watching a movie, I choose the movie.This is because reading makes me sleepy. Two, three pages, and I’m out. It doesn’t matter what time of day. (Frank Zappa admitted to the same problem in his autobiography, so I like to think I’m in good company.) Perhaps there should be a name for this condition, like readarcolepsy, or something.

Because of this “condition,” it can be quite laborious for me to get through a book, fiction or otherwise. It took me nearly a year to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. By no means should this reflect on Robinson’s fine writing; it’s me, the guy who falls asleep reading the Sunday comics. And it explains why many of my favorite novels tend to be short – Fahrenheit 451, Siddartha, Notes From the Underground, Rumble Fish, Illusions – and why I’ll probably never write something of “epic” stature. Don’t look for something longer than 60,000 words from me anytime soon.

So, as sacrilegious as it may be, I’ll take a couple of hours in a movie theater over battling with the R.E.M. inducing effects of the latest best seller.

Now, let me just read through this post again and check for editing issu–ZZZZZZZZ!

Gordon Gravley

One Writer’s Process

As I mentioned earlier, I really didn’t know what I was doing when I began writing my first novel. By the time I was done, I had developed a pretty good process (one that works for me, that is) which I’m applying to my current projects.

Naturally, it all begins with an idea. But exactly where these ideas originate is hard to say. They may come from the interest I have in a variety of subjects, like the wild west, silent movies, travel and the open road, or linguistics. Sometimes an idea will germinate simply by looking at a genre I find intriguing: speculative fiction, or steam-punk, or the mystery-thriller. Mostly, though, ideas come from observing the world around me – watching the news, reading periodicals, or simply taking a walk. On occasion, I’ll develop an idea from nothing but a phrase or word. That’s a good title for a book, I may think, or what a great opening sentence. From wherever it starts, the seed is then planted in my little brain and left to grow, often unconsciously, into a story concept.

From there, I think a lot about the plot. I like to know where the story begins, where it’s going, and how it ends. This works in hand with developing the characters, though I don’t always have a clear idea who they are until I actually begin physically writing; the action of the plot and how they interact with the other characters brings out details of who they are, and dialogue seems to naturally spring from there. I also do a lot of reading on subjects that I believe will contribute to the richness of the story, give it depth or a certain authenticity.

And then starts a series of outlines, each one progressively more detailed, sort of like using a Google Earth map where you zoom in closer and closer for a better look at where you’re going. This technique might be criticized for creating a story that is too plotted, sterile, predictable, or contrived. But as I begin typing the first draft, I get a better perspective on the best way to communicate what is happening and take steps to make sure it doesn’t seem forced.

The creation of the first draft is a slow, meticulous task for me because I edit and revise as I go; I can’t just spew words onto a page and then go back and sort it all out. The OCD in me insists that every word, sentence and paragraph be just-so before I can move on to the next. While this is painstaking and time consuming, it makes for a nearly finished manuscript that requires little rewriting.

Still, I rewrite, making all kinds of tweaks and changes to bring all the details into something cohesive and readable; for me, it takes a lot of effort to create prose, dialogue and plot that appears effortless. This rewriting happens after I have two or three people give it a read and make critical notes.

What I give little or no consideration to are the elements of motifs and themes. This is what I enjoy most about writing: seeing what emerges once I’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle in place. For instance, the parallel drawn between animals caged in a zoo and humans confined within a quarantined environment behaving unnaturally in “Gospel…” came about entirely on its own; I did not consciously put it there, and yet, it’s become, I believe, one of the book’s defining themes.

So, how do I know when a book is done? When I can’t add or take anything more from it, I guess. It’s done when…um, well…when it’s done.

Gordon Gravley

Why Self-Publish?

After completing my book, I took the traditional path in pursuit of publication. First, I submitted query letters to a number of agents, and received a number of polite, respectful rejections. (Unlike the rude rejection I got for my short story mentioned in a previous posting.)One agent even expressed enough interest to want to read the first three chapters, but found it wasn’t a novel she would normally represent.

Then I went to submitting to publishers directly. Again, a slew of polite rejections. While not interested in “Gospel…”, one publisher did invite me to send in any future manuscripts, as they did like my writing in general. (So, I’ve got that going for me.)

Two years later, I was left with a lesson learned: The best way to get published is to have first been published. A classic Catch-22. It was about that time that my wife suggested I self-publish through Amazon. Their CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform was exactly what I needed, comprehensive yet inexpensive. I chose the mostly DIY approach. I laid out and designed the book’s interior, and through a vague description of what I envisioned, my wife created a great cover. (Of course, she thinks it could be better, so don’t be surprised if you see a new design in the near future.)

I chose to make my novel available only online so that I could keep the cover price down. Who wants to spend fifteen-plus dollars on an author they’ve never heard of? That’s what I would’ve had to charge to sell in bookstores – the extra dollars simply going to cover costs of distribution. I don’t need middlemen; I need to entice readers to take a chance on a new writer.

Whether this publication garners the attention of any publishers and/or agents is yet to be seen. But with the creative freedom and higher royalties that using CreateSpace allows, I wonder now if I will ever go with traditional publishing. (We’ll see if I can be bought with a substantial enough contract offer and advance.)

Gordon Gravley