The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out

I found a fascinating paper on why certain things creep people out, which is invaluable information for writers of horror, suspense, and anyone else who wants to play their reader’s nerves like a fiddle.

Abstract

Why do some types of settings and some combinations of sensory information induce a sense of dread in humans? This article brings empirical evidence from psychological research to bear on the experience of horror, and explains why the tried-and-true horror devices intuitively employed by writers and filmmakers work so well. Natural selection has favored individuals who gravitated toward environments containing the “right” physical and psychological features and avoided those which posed a threat. Places that contain a bad mix of these features induce unpleasant feelings of dread and fear, and therefore have become important ingredients of the settings for horror fiction and films. This article applies McAndrew and Koehnke’s (2016) theory of creepiness to the study of classic horror settings and explores the role played by architecture, isolation, association with death, and other environmental qualities in the experience of creepiness and dread.

Full article here: https://esiculture.com/the-psychology-geography-and-architecture-of-horror

Dan Brown Masterclass on Thrillers

I just finished going through the Dan Brown Masterclass on writing thrillers. Lots of good advice for new writers there, and a few little gems for me. 

I’m not going to write a full review, but I will say that Dan Brown’s background as a teacher really shows through. He’s thorough and methodical, and covers almost all the points that new writers would need to consider if they want to try to write standard thrillers. It’s a good 3+ hour lecture with a professional who knows his craft that covers a lot of ground.

However what I found most fascinating listening to it is that Dan Brown is a Setting>Plot>Character writer. His starting point in stories is setting, which he uses to find interesting plot ideas, and then he populates it with stock characters. Most writers are Character>Plot>Setting, or Plot>Character>Setting, but Dan’s approach is actually somewhat rarer, and (for me at least) that was the gold in this particular mine.

His key advice is to approach setting not as a sociologist, which is very common, especially among sci-fi and fantasy writers, but to approach it as a philosopher. To me, this was profound because what you’re doing then is looking for the fault-lines and cracks in the world you’re writing in and then exploring those. It creates a natural sense of depth in your world because your story is no longer about good and evil, but different perspectives on the same topics. You and the audience may agree with one side or the other, but if you do it right then both sides do have a valid reason for doing what they do.

Of course, he’s talking about modern-set thrillers based in our real world, and for fantasy and sci-fi writers things are a bit trickier. Imaginary worlds still need to be built logically first, but once you’ve gotten your basic setting down, then you can switch to the philosopher hat and start looking for those points of conflict that bring out things you’d like to explore in that world. Stories are about conflict, and the more conflicts you have to write about, the better. (Within limits, of course.)

As someone who still struggles a bit with themes sometimes, I found this a great piece of advice and plan to make heavy use of it in the future. Focusing on certain conflicts will cause natural themes to pop out, and influence the other aspects and shape of your story as well.

Of course, if you’ve ever read a Dan Brown book, you’ll know they’re basically research-based textbooks with plots, which is his thing, and it’s fine. However, going into this you should know that if you expect to be told how to create great characters, then you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. While Dan is a master of settings, he’s someone who approaches those settings as a tourist, so his characters aren’t really outgrowths of his settings so much as tourists and guides who exist to show the setting off to readers.

What I mean is that his characters (to me) never really feel like they’re living, breathing examples of his settings who represent it with every act, word, and fiber of their being, but feel more like characters who exist to represent the most fundamental parts of the setting. They are part of the setting, but only the superficial parts and the parts the story wants to show off, but they don’t feel like natural outgrowths of their setting.

To give a simple example, it’s a bit like a picture of a horse drawn by someone who looked at many photographs of horses, and a picture drawn by an equal artist who grew up around horses their whole life. The photo-based artist can render a beautiful picture of a horse, but the one who grew up around them will be able to capture the subtle depth and character of horses in a way the photo-based artist never could.

Dan is good at technically rendering the ideas and character of settings, but he’s not so good at rendering them in depth or a way that makes you feel the people you meet are real people who were born from that environment.

Anyhow, if I were recommending something for a new writer to explore about writing thrillers, then I think I would definitely tell them to check out this masterclass.

Star Trek TV : By the Numbers

Recently, I found myself in a debate about the quality of different Star Trek TV series. and which one was better than the others. Being the data-minded individual I am, I decided to follow a “reals over feels” approach and collect some data to see what the real numbers were.

First, I threw the IMDB rating for each series into Excel and rendered it as a chart.

image.png

Thus we can see that fans liked Enterprise about as much (ratings wise) as they did The Animated Series but more than Discovery. Given that Enterprise only has around 1.5 good seasons that didn’t come until many people stopped watching, that is hardly surprising.

Need proof of that? Check out this heatmap of the series IMDB episode ratings:

It’s also interesting that for the most part, the above list goes in order of production, with each show offering mostly diminished returns. I also expect Picard to drop in the ratings with time, as right now it’s still in the honeymoon phase, going down to probably around where Enterprise sits. 

Speaking of Picard, the heatmap for Picard looks like this:

Picard Season 1.png

In case you’re wondering, Episode 7 was the one where he goes and hangs out with Riker and Troi. In other words, the episode people liked best was a TNG reunion episode, showing a strong lean towards nostalgia and fandom on this show. It will be interesting to see how many people show back up for the second season to watch. (Then again, I expect that will be the season which brings back the rest of the crew for more nostalgia hits.)

However, back to Trek as a whole. 

Another way to look at IMDB is how many people actually bothered to rate each show. This too shows passion among fandom and what people like and don’t like. So, that looks like this…

image.png

Ironically enough, Enterprise still stays in the same spot!

That said, this chart is probably a bad way to look at the popularity of each series due to outside variables affecting things.

First, older shows have an advantage of time on the site and more people having had the chance to rate them.

Second, at the same time, there is the heated Internet fandom wars influencing things here. Discovery is very low rated, but has had many reviews due to lovers and haters each rooting for their team, which is why it has so many votes. Picard suffers from a similar effect, as while it was less divisive, there are still many who love or hated it and each side wanted to cast their votes.

Third, Voyager was on UPN, while Deep Space 9 was generally syndicated, so Voyager was seen by more people and also promoted more as the United Paramount Network’s flagship show. (The same way Discovery had the crap promoted out of it as CBS All-Access’s flagship series.) 

However, since some people don’t like IMDB, here’s what the order looks like on Rotten Tomatoes, using combined User and Critics scores to determine the order.

image.png

Now, Rotten Tomatoes has gone to crap recently due to new corporate overlords and editorial manipulation. They no longer report the number of critics or number of users who voted in an effort to hide what the real numbers are to keep their advertisers happy, and for all practical purposes Rotten Tomatoes is a paid advertising site now. That said, it does paint a similar picture to the IMDB ratings in this case, with a weird tilt towards The Animated Series and DS9. (Going back to editorial manipulation, I suspect this is the result of The Animated Series DVD collection coming out a few years back so they fudged the numbers to encourage sales. Most people can barely manage to sit through The Animated Series, as the IMDB number of raters shows.) 


Anyhow. The definitive answer (in terms of actual social proof and data) is that Star Trek:TNG is the best Trek series of all time, followed by TOS, DS9, and VOY. Everyone else is sitting at the kids table.

Good Day, and God Bless!

Rob

Who is Reading YA Books?

I found some interesting reading on Reddit today in a thread from early 2019 that I thought was worth looking at. It’s very challenging to find actual data on the sex of Young Adult readerships since the publishers don’t seem inclined to share what they have and individual writers can only work with their reader surveys and collective wisdom.

The collective wisdom says boys stop reading at 14 and jump to fiction for adults if they continue to read at all. It’s definitely true that publishers have been following this logic, because at least when it comes to speculative (Scifi/Fantasy) they know what side of the bread to butter…

There is little hard data to base this supposition on, so I will throw in a survey of 2019 YA speculative fiction releases, put together by bloggers using Goodreads categories and upcoming releases.

They work hard to keep it updated, and it’s quite comprehensive, though most of the bloggers are US based. This list is unlikely to grow substantially, as young adult publishers tend to line up their publishing schedules more than a year in advance. The results of this list are below.

There are 207 non-contemporary/speculative teen novels coming in 2019 (fantasy, horror, sci-fi, historical, etc) with identifiable genders of protagonists taken from the information available. 27 books were not included in the survey, as their blurbs were vague on who the POV character was, or had no content yet.

Of the 207 books:

18 have a male protagonist only (8.7%)

172 have a female protagonist only (83.1%)

1 non-binary protagonist only (0.5%)

16 have protagonists of both genders (7.7%)

Male protagonists only written by men: 7 (3.4%) NB: interestingly, 4 of these are gay male protagonists. A straight male protagonist written by a man is (1.4%).

Male protagonists only written by women: 11 (5.3%)

Female protagonists only written by men: 6 (2.9%)

Female protagonists only written by women: 166 (80.2%)

Non-binary protagonists only written by Non-binary authors: 1 (0.5%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by women: 13 (6.3%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by men: 2 (1%)

Multiple protagonists including both genders written by male and female co-authors: 1 (0.5%)

Including co-authors, the gender breakdown is as follows:

16 male authors (7.4%)

198 female authors (92.1%)

1 non-binary author (0.5%)

If we include the books where gender of the protagonist was unidentifiable, the numbers are roughly the same:

18 male authors (7.6%)

217 female authors (91.9%)

1 non-binary author (0.4%)

We must also keep in mind here that there is evidence that picture books and younger middlegrade skew heavily towards male characters, and that’s something that we should definitely work on correcting. It’s unfair that young girls don’t see themselves represented in the books they see on the shelves. It’s arguable the same point could be made for teenage boys.

Source

Interesting stuff, especially considering how YA writers, who in this sample are 92% female and writing stories where 83% of the protagonists are female (90% if you include dual protagonists of both genders) are usually the first to herald the cry for “diversity.” Yet they’re writing some of the most un-diverse fiction in terms of gender outside of romance novels (which are likely around 99% female lead).

Not that I can blame them. Publishers go where the money is, and if the ones paying the money are young women who want to see themselves in the books they read and relate better to female characters, then that’s what they’ll publish. So, they actively avoid male protagonists unless the book is really good and has crossover appeal (or is for a gay male audience).

Writer Steven Kelliher had this to say in the thread…

I don’t typically post about this topic because the downvotes are unreal, but I know several authors in the YA traditional published community, and the statistics of male protagonists accepted by YA publishers are INSANELY low relative to the content that is submitted.

Now, many assume that stories with male protagonists simply are not pitched to YA publishers. This could not be further from the truth. Many, many male and female authors submit manuscripts with male protagonists, and they are rejected because the publishers feel that they will not sell to the targeted demographic for YA fantasy.

YA fantasy should be much more inclusive than it is. You can argue the same thing about Epic Fantasy in terms of male protags and male authors, so it’s fair to say the reverse is true in the YA genre. I think it’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where YA publishers largely publish books by female authors (and many, many female pen names) and featuring female protagonists because that’s what sells … but it’s also because that’s largely all they publish.

So, is there a market for male YA fiction? I think so, but most of the audience is online and that’s where it will need to be published. It’s “niche” material that will work best as ebooks and online serials, and not so well as traditionally published work due to the smaller audience.

Workflow for Creating and Marketing Webfiction

Mcoorlim asked:While I’ve dabbled in serial fiction most of my experience (and my day job) is writing novels. How can I adapt my skills from novelist to web serialist in terms of both creative production and marketing?

My reply:

In terms of creative production, the recommended formula for creating webfiction seems to run on a fairly standard model.

The Creative Phase:

  1. Plan out the first two arcs and final arc of your story. Leave the middle vague and flexible.
  2. Typical arcs are 40,000 – 60,000 words.
  3. Break your first arc down into chapters of 2000-3000 words, with a goal of 20-30 chapters. Each chapter needs to have a strong hook at the end to get readers coming back. For more details, check out my book. If you click on the “look inside” on Amazon, it should let you read the whole first chapter which covers the 10 things popular webnovels have in common.
  4. Write the whole first arc.

Marketing and Release Phase:

  1. Pick the sites that work best for your target demographic. (My very rough list is here, I plan to update it later)
  2. Release your first 10-14 chapters simultaneously on those sites, releasing them daily to get your story high up in the rankings and keep it there on the new release list so people will find it. Edit then release each day, so you can respond to reader feedback.
  3. After you’re blown through half your chapters, drop down to 2-3 chapters/week so you have time to write the second arc with reader feedback in mind and can avoid having to go on a long hiatus.
  4. If your story is successful and finds an audience, keep writing it and growing your audience.

Notes:

  • Webfiction is all about momentum and consistency- keeping your readers engaged and wanting more, and giving them a regular dose of your stories on a set schedule.
  • Some sites have donation options, make sure you set those up so you can get money from your happy readers.
  • Make sure you read the terms and conditions of the sites you post on, most don’t put any creative or legal limitations on your work, but it’s good to know.
  • Obviously, you can later compile your story arcs into novels to sell on Amazon. Don’t be afraid to encourage your loyal readers to go and leave good reviews. Sadly, that’s likely all they’ll do, since they’ve already read the story for free and most won’t buy it based on what I’ve seen. (Unless maybe you offer some extras in each published book they might want.) However, a lot of good reviews will definitely help to boost sales from your new audience.
  • If your story still isn’t working after the first arc, finish it ASAP and move on to another story that might find a larger audience. From a publishing perspective, writing the second arc and then segueing into the planned final arc gives you a trilogy. Keep in mind that what might fail as webfiction could still find a solid audience as an ebook, or vice versa.

Good luck!
Rob

Figuring Out What to Write

Some writers have problems deciding on what ideas to use and what to leave on the table. However, the solution is pretty simple- you need to sell yourself the idea before you sell it to an audience. If you’re not interested, an audience likely isn’t either.

One approach to solving this problem is writing a book blurb for your story, which lays out the fundamental ideas of the story in an interesting and lively way that attracts readers. If you get excited reading/writing this blurb, then that story might be for you!

Blurbs are written using formulas, and one of the best I’ve come across can be found here.

However, if writing a full book blurb is still too much for you, a simple core premise logline might be better at getting you started.

A Core Premise is the central idea of your story and a seed from which the rest of the story will grow. With it, you’ll know the story you’re trying to tell, and have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

To find your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers for movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea called a logline to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie to producers, you can use it to sell a story to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  2. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. One or two adjectives about the opposition. (to make them interesting)
  6. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall (stakes).

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever (stakes).

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least one of your story ideas into a good-looking Core Premise, then you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?
  3. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?

If a premise gets three solid answers of “yes!” then that’s the story you need to write. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into premises that will work for you.

Another Book Blurb Formula

Found this info in a thread on Royal Road on writing good reader-catching story blurbs by Vincent Archer. I thought it was worth sharing, his original source was a bit vague, so I couldn’t trace it. (Bolding mine for emphasis.)

The blurb is supposed to catch your readers’ attention and sell the story, not tell the story.

I’m going to pick from Author’s Society: Fiction book blurbs start with a situation (a), introduce a problem (b) and promise a twist (c). They usually end with a sentence that emphasizes the mood (d) of the story.

So you start with a catch-up sentence, since often, people will drop the blurb if they don’t like the first sentence, and you end with a kind-of-cliffhanger so that people go from blurb to story.

Blurb sample using the formula (along with ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’) lists:

For nearly twenty years since they’ve opened, the Gilded Gates of the Infinite Labyrinth have brought power and wonders to the subjects of King George III. Fueled by the resources from the place beyond the Gates, the modern age is in full swing across the British Empire (a: situation)

But the Hordes of Napoleon are not standing still. They will not stop until they can achieve total dominance, and ending the British advantage is what they plan for (b: problem).

Jonas Sims never planned to be a Labyrinth Professional and be involved in high stakes games (c: plot twist)

Now he, and the rest of his team have to level, push themselves forward and grow beyond their origins (d: story mood)

Or the Sun may set upon the Empire at last! (final hook)

Another one to illustrate the method:

The town of Las Viadas has two sides, like the twin swings of its saloon’s entrance. One seedy, one bright, and never the two meet. (a: situation)

But sometimes, people go into the saloon and don’t come out, and that’s something sheriff Marcus can no longer ignore. (b: problem)

The thing is, sometimes people who haven’t gone into the saloon come out, and no one finds that strange. (c: twist)

Getting to the truth will not be easy, nor will it leave the sheriff untouched by the weird. (d: mood)

Unless he goes in and never goes out. (explosive suspense)

Of course, you can have a full paragraph for each part rather than one or two sentences. You just need to keep your sentences very short, to the point.

There’s lots of tried “recipes” in writing. We’ve been writing novels and doing mass market publishing for centuries now. Everyone wants to be an amazing writer, but for most of us, myself included, using tried recipes and putting our own touch on them works better than attempts at being “truly innovative”.

You can pick my story and try to see how the classic Hero’s Journey steps apply, and you’ll find they’re all there (well, except the very end, since there’s 5 chapters left). It’s all about the presentation.

Same thing for the blurbs. Classic version works nearly perfectly. The best ones follow the recipe without you realizing it’s there.

It’s not a bad little formula, and I think sells stories pretty well.

(a) Situation

(b) Problem

(c) Plot Twist

(d) Story Mood

(f) Story Hook

You could even use it to sell a story to yourself to decide if it was worth writing. Create a blurb for a story you might write, and see if it gets you exited enough to write it!

Rob

How to Write a Quick Blurb

A “blurb” or “book blurb”- it’s the advertising description that sells your book to the readers. You find it on the back of printed books, or as the description on Amazon.

As for how to write a catchy one, most blurbs basically look like this:

  • Introduction (1-2 paragraphs)
  • Hook (1 paragraph)
  • Cliffhanger (1 paragraph)

Each paragraph is short, just 2 to 5 sentences long, any longer and the audience might lose interest.

Introduction
-who is your main character? (the best blurbs are built around a character, not a story.)
-why should the audience care? (what makes them sympathetic – this is KEY, you need to make your audience like your main character)
-the most interesting details about the character or their world.
-things the audience needs to understand the hook or the cliffhanger.

Hook
-this is the main problem of your story that your character faces
-also, anything special that makes your story unique like special or unusual things about your main character, system, cheat, etc

Cliffhanger
-this is opposition – who or what is standing in the way of your main character accomplishing their goals?
-and stakes- what will happen if your character fails to deal with their problem? What price will they pay and who will pay the price?
-always leave them hanging and wanting to know more!

A few other tips:

  • Don’t refer to any more characters or places than you absolutely have to.
  • Names don’t mean anything to your reader, use descriptions (Not “Bob Smith” but “the last assassin of a lost ninja clan”, or not “Panagea” but “a lost continent filled with warring tribes of powerful martial gods”.)
  • Try to keep the whole blurb under 200 words or less.
  • Don’t use “is” or “have” verbs, use action verbs – “ran”, “conquered”, “convinced” etc.

Webfiction Statistics: Ants Creation

This is part of a series of posts sharing some of the research material I collected while researching my book How to Write Light Novels and Webnovels. There was a lot I found that I couldn’t fit into the book, so I thought I’d share it here.The categories listed are translations of the ones the sites use, not my own categories.

Antscreation.com is a Taiwanese webfiction site I came across that had some stats available, so I decided to include them in my research. I don’t know a lot about the site, not even how popular it is in Taiwan, but I strongly suspect they are mostly targeting a male audience like Munpia.

These guys really love their Fantasy stories, and the rest is a collection of typically male-oriented genres. It would be great to know exactly what kind of stories these Taiwanese guys (and girls) are reading, and to see what Taiwan’s other major sites look like, but my Chinese is terrible and Google Translate is only so much help.

I do know the site is free to post on, and free to read. I’m not sure if they have a mobile app, though.

GenreNumber
Fantasy7083
Urban/Romance1340
Online Games/Scifi1100
Detective/Mystery766
Martial Arts Fantasy630
Poetry/Literature620
Horror615
Campus/Sports440
Other383
History/Military255

Webfiction Statistics: Korea Combined

This is part of a series of posts sharing some of the research material I collected while researching my book How to Write Light Novels and Webnovels. There was a lot I found that I couldn’t fit into the book, so I thought I’d share it here.The categories listed are translations of the ones the sites use, not my own categories.

Since I had data from three different Korean webfiction sites of Joara, Naver and Munpia, it only seemed logical to combine them to see what was really popular. I used the percentages from each (since the actual numbers would have skewed things) and created a graph.

In the end, the combined chart isn’t much different than the regular charts, Romance wins by a hair over Fantasy, and everything else trails behind. I suppose if I added Martial Arts and Fusion to Fantasy, then Fantasy would win. However, not by much since then I’d have to add Romance Fantasy, Boys Love, and Girls Love to Romance.

GenreJoaraNaverMunpia
Fantasy25%14%30%
Parody20%
Fusion9%10%
Boys Love8%4%
Romance8%56%5%
Game6%4%
General Fiction (Unclassified)6%4%
Romance Fantasy4%7%
Literary Works4%
Light Novels3%1%3%
Fanfiction3%
Martial Arts2%8%13%
History1%2%
Girls Love0%
Sports0%8%2%

Yes, the percentages don’t quite add up, this is because not all sites have the same genres and I used the Joara genres as the base. It still gives a pretty good sample, I think.