Found Footage Horror Writing

After a crazy few months, I’m finally settling back into my old writing routine, working on getting my horror novel finished and sent out for trad pub later this year. With everything that’s been going on, I did slip into one of those distracted, disinterested phases where I was into pretty much everything but working on my novel.

For example, I completed a Cryptozoology diploma – if you were wondering just how much of a massive geek I really am, that should give you all the information you need, am I right?! While I knew I should have been working on The Suffering, it was kind of fun to step away and shake it off for a few weeks. The only problem with doing that, as most of you writers will know, is dragging yourself back to your original project and hitting the ground running where you veered off course in the first place.

The last few days I’ve returned to one of my all time horror loves – Found Footage movies. Now, hear me out. I know it’s a divisive subject. I know the prospect of watching a shaking, grainy Go-Pro and listening to the person behind the camera panting and screaming while they thrash through forests isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time. But FF movies immerse me in the moment like no Hollywood production ever could. Not even when Patrick Wilson’s on screen (and boy, do I love it when Patrick Wilson’s on screen….but, I digress). I never fall in love with the characters the way I do with FF movies. I never root for them and think of them as buddies I’m tagging along with the way I do with FF.

An example from this week – my all time favourite horror movie, hands down, is Hell House LLC. I just get fireworks of horror-induced joy whenever I watch it and its sequels. I NEED the Hell House sweatshirt that Sara wears in the movie. Clowns don’t usually freak me out, but the clowns in Hell House? Fuck, yeah!! That’s true horror, and I love it so much. It reminds me of why horror has always given me something that no other genre can. A decent horror gives me that crazy, life-affirming confirmation that I’m alive, that life is exciting, and that if I can use that passion in a writing project then that’s exactly what I need to be doing with my life. The director and cast of the first movie posted a Zoom chat on their Facebook page this week and hearing their behind the scenes recollections and discussions about how the movie unfolded through improv and B-roll resonated with me. It made me want to run straight to my laptop and pick up The Suffering again. Because my characters are my cast, and when they run off with their own little camera in my mind and do their own thing, I watch it happen and hope I can type fast enough to keep up. When I’m passionate about the story I’m writing, it feels just like I’m watching a Found Footage movie. And that’s when I get that little horror-induced, chest firework, life-affirming buzz that I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing with my life.

If you haven’t got a clue what I mean by Found Footage, dive right in to Amazon Prime and run it through the search. Hell House LLC is on there, as is Survive the Hollow Shoals, which has jump-scares for days and literally made me throw my phone across the room when I was watching it while wearing headphones. Getting me to jump is no mean feat, I can tell you, so props to Jonathon Klimek for that one.

In other news, we were supposed to be at the Hella Mega Tour this week, watching Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Weezer performing in the sunshine. I was pretty disappointed that it has obviously been cancelled because of the pandemic, even though drinking in the garden listening to their most recent live performances wasn’t the worst way to spend a day. Plus, I found out that Dark Peninsula Press had released Negative Space, featuring my survival horror short Six Weeks, which definitely cheered me up. Working on that project has been a joy from start to finish, and I really hope the publication is a huge success. You can check out the link in my publications list here.

Anyway, my characters are calling from the shaky, grainy recesses of my brain. I’d better go see what they’re up to…

It goes without saying

Yesterday, I watched the social media black out in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement. I added my own black square to my Instagram page, and scrolled through post after post of my fellow writers who, for once, had nothing to say. Yesterday, we sat back and listened.

And I also saw the objections to this movement. Counter arguments from people who held up their hands in confusion, with the rebuttal, “Well, all lives matter, don’t they?” The thing is, the fact that all lives matter goes without saying. The fact that we should all be considered equal goes without saying. By supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, we are not saying that we believe that all cops are corrupt. We are not saying that looting and criminal damage is suddenly perfectly acceptable. We are not saying that black people matter more than others. We are not saying that injustices don’t happen to people of all colour. We are saying that this week, in a response to an atrocious murder, we wish to lend our voice and our acknowledgement to the fact that something is very, very wrong. And that we are proud to shout from the rooftops that we will not tolerate it.

There are other things that go without saying. As a white, British woman, I was taught that if I am ever in trouble and I see a police officer, I should run towards them because they will be my salvation. I only learned in later life that there are people in parts of America who are taught from a young age that if they are in trouble and they see a cop car, they should run in the other direction. That taking their chances with their original attacker might be a safer option than seeking assistance from the people who are paid to protect and serve them. It goes without saying that this is not okay.

If I borrowed a PS4 from a friend, I would think nothing of walking down the street with it in my arms. Because it goes without saying that nobody would assume I had stolen it. It goes without saying that I would not be running the risk of being shot at or arrested without being able to explain that I was borrowing it. Nobody would even ask. And, if they did, I would be listened to. I would be heard.

If I accidentally locked myself out of my house and found an open side window, it goes without saying that if I could hop up and climb in through it I would. It goes without saying that I can do that without fear of being shot.

Statistics clearly show that black people are being killed or seriously injured while they go about their daily lives. By police who are abusing their power and failing to follow set protocols. This is a fact. And, as we have seen in the case of Derek Chauvin, the police who harm these innocent men, women, and children, are not being punished, allowing them to continue to act with reckless abuse of their power. For me, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement this week is about saying that something has to change. That we need to ensure that instances of police brutality stop being the norm, and that perpetrators are punished, not protected.

It goes without saying that we should all want this for the world we live in. Because, right now, it isn’t fair.

And it isn’t right.

That goes without saying.

You can donate and help the Black Lives Matter cause here

Writing During Lockdown

How are you all doing? It’s a difficult question at the moment, I know. Albert Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity,” and for creatives and writers around the globe, lockdown has given many of us the opportunity to claw back a little time and focus on what we truly love. This is easier said than done, however.

After spending most of March and April indulging in bad habits and embracing the hedonistic disorganisation that the potential of impending doom can bring, I decided to set myself some serious goals for May. It was the only way I was going to break out of the “fuck it – lets drink endless glasses of wine and watch movies, the world has gone to hell in a handbasket” mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I had kind of enjoyed it. Those who know me recognise that I am very laid back when it comes to everybody else. But when it comes to myself I am the quintessential control freak. Having a well-earned rest from this taxing personality trait for a while was kind of rewarding in its own way. The pre-lockdown me would never have been in pyjamas at 3pm, nursing last night’s hangover while slyly checking the clock to see if it might possibly be acceptable to open the wine again. Old me would not have let a couple of weeks of no writing pass by without having an internal meltdown at the fact that time was ticking and I still hadn’t published the best-selling novel that’s most definitely going to be adapted into film yet. Think about it – if I wasn’t so lazy I could have been schmoozing at the premier by now, right?!! Wrong, of course. Things will run their course and happen when the time is right. Having dreams and goals is a positive thing, naturally. But that positive turns into a negative when you use those dreams to berate yourself when you take a little break from the treadmill. And, goodness knows, when the pandemic hit we all needed a bit of a break.

So, on Sunday, May 3rd I was sat in my pyjamas, nursing yet another hangover and thinking about how nice it would be to get things back on track. Coincidentally, two of my friends on a group chat chose that day to make similar choices, deciding that May would be the month to ditch the take-aways, exercise regularly, and fit back into those old pre-lockdown pants. Without their messages that coincidentally fell on the same day, I don’t know if I would have set my goals and stuck to them. We decided to have a weekly check-in with each other, and to message if we felt we were having a wobble and were liable to reach for the sugar/alcohol/insert bad habit of your choice. Having a sounding board certainly made the tasks seem attainable, so I would definitely recommend asking a friend to virtually spot you if you wish to do something similar in the coming weeks.

Along with the general healthier lifestyle goal I chose a few writing targets. I am dreadful for having unfinished projects lying around the house in various digital and paper formats. I almost finish a book, having spent months obsessing over every character and plot arc, only to lose interest at the point of editing, ditch it and start something shiny and new. My novel writing process is the embodiment of the meme where the guy turns to look at a passer-by who is pretty much identical to the outraged girl already on his arm.

In order to jump-start my interest in old almost-finished projects, I had a nosey at the upcoming unsolicited submission calls. I selected two that fit a couple of my long-forgotten WIPs and spent some time polishing and refining them ready for the submission dates. As of today, I have a drama script waiting for perusal by Screencraft, and the first three chapters of a fantasy book in the pile of entries to an agency’s Young Adult fiction competition. These projects steer away from my usual horror writing, but they are still just as valid and exciting in their potential, and it was helpful to remind myself of that. Naturally, my main goal is to finish the first rough draft of my horror book by the end of May. For me, this means having every chapter complete in some form, even if some of them will need fleshing out or trimming down in the editing stage. I can spend the last two weeks of May scaring myself silly writing the last few chapters of the first draft, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

As for June, who knows? I might revert back into a pyjama-wearing, wine-guzzling layabout. But May has been a good month, and it’s all thanks to goal-setting with a couple of pals who’ve got my back. As we keep messaging each other on wobble days:

#wegotthis.

Humour in Horror Writing

Well, you guys, it’s been a while. And how things have changed since I last uploaded a blog post. I hope you are all keeping safe and managing through these bizarre times.

Lockdown has given me invaluable time in front of the computer screen working on my horror novel. It got me to thinking about the relationship between humour and horror, and about how the two tend to meet. It’s a fine balance – make horror too funny and it seems silly and loses its tension. Make horror too serious and, for me, it loses an edge that a well-crafted story with elements of both will undoubtedly demonstrate.

Some of my writing heroes excel at this technique. The League of Gentlemen (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, and Jeremy Dyson), inspired me when I was a school kid. Their eponymous television show was like nothing I had ever seen before. Their skill at writing comedy immersed in horror, full of sympathetic characters and humanistic struggles, has stayed with me ever since. Pemberton and Shearsmith’s Inside No.9 continues to surprise me, a television experience that my husband pointed out is no mean feat! When chatting about the show to a work colleague, he stated, “It’s the only TV show that ever surprises MJ. Because she’s a writer, she always guesses what’s going to happen or what the twist in a show will be. With Inside No.9, she’s always just as surprised as the rest of us, so she actually gets to enjoy it!” I hadn’t thought about it until he pointed it out, but it’s so true!

And that’s what you can do with horror. Truly take people by surprise and thrill them, more than any other genre. It’s something that I am trying to focus on as I push on through this novel, working on balancing truly fiendish characters and events with personable humour and empathy. I am trying to learn from the masters – after all, I have been following them for about 25 years now.

The horror/humour balance can never be more topical than at a time of crisis. It’s important to laugh, even when the world around us seems to be falling apart. And it’s okay to find humour in the madness. In fact, there is nothing more human.

Stay safe my friends, and seek out a little humour where you can.

True Crime Writing

One of the January submissions I had hoped to submit to was Mango Publishing Group’s Small Towns True Crime anthology. I’ve always been interested in true crime, and was drawn to the fact that the publishers wanted their contributors to select a little known local crime to be the focus of the submission.

I live in Lancaster, UK, and while we have many infamous historical tales to tell (the Pendle Witches were held and tried at the castle at the top of my hill, for one), the crime that I hoped to focus on for my submission piece was the 1866 murder of Elizabeth Nelson. There is a plaque in honour of Elizabeth on the grounds of the university stating that she ‘died in defence of her chastity’. Elizabeth’s murderer was never caught, and a local rumour may shed light on the sinister reason.

Before I explain more about Elizabeth’s death, I should disclose that I never did manage to submit (the deadline was January 31st). I soon realised that I needed to give far more time to researching Elizabeth’s life and death than I could offer the project, and made the decision to shelve it before I began. I was inspired by YouTuber Shauna Rae, whose channel I stumbled upon while falling down the rabbit hole that is Brandon Lawson’s disappearance. Since watching her measured, articulate, and considerate report on Brandon’s case, I have become a huge fan of her channel.

I immediately respected Shauna’s meticulous timelines, her careful representation of the human behind the victim, and her scrutinisation of all potential suspects with care and compassion for victims, potential criminals, and family members. I realised that I would not have time to give Elizabeth the case report that she deserved with only a month to go until deadline. And I also realised that there may be far more to her case than the details that were reported. Shauna often states in her videos that she gives greater weight to facts stated by locals of the area where the crime was committed than to those that are reported by the press. And there is historically a good reason for that.

Elizabeth was found beaten to death. When the police arrived at the scene, they reported that they believed she had suffered a seizure and immediately had her body taken to a public house up the road to be carefully washed, removing any evidence that might have remained on her body. Local legend has it that Elizabeth was found with a police button in her hand. I would love to research more about this. Why would a woman who had died ‘in defence of her chastity’ and was found covered in bruises have been assumed to have had a fit? Why is it only local word of mouth and not the newspapers that ever spoke of the button found in her hand? And surely the police records would have shown which officers had to order a replacement button for their uniform? Of course, the button is only a rumour, and the police may have had nothing to do with this long-cold case…

I’m glad I made the decision to cross the submission from my diary and not rush through the available facts to cobble an article together for submission. That just wouldn’t be right. But one day I hope to set aside the appropriate amount of time to shed some light on Elizabeth’s story, and perhaps unearth some long-forgotten secrets that are only whispered about in Lancaster’s old cobbled streets. Victims should never be forgotten. And as writers it is our job to present the truth, no matter how much time has passed.

A More Organised Writer…?

Did you guys make any writing related New Year’s Resolutions? We’re almost a month in to 2020, so how have you been getting on?

This year, I chose to focus on streamlining my writing process with a view to keeping my stress-levels low and my productivity high. So far, it seems to be working. I filled a diary with upcoming submission calls for short stories, and the two that stood out with deadlines at the end of January are almost complete. Having the diary has helped me to focus my attention on where it is needed, instead of constantly having ideas floating around my head without any order!

In between submission calls, I’m looking at working more methodically on my novels and full-length scripts. There are a couple of works that require some editing or plot-development before I can take them any further, so I’m blocking out time in between deadlines to work on those. When I have them mapped into my diary, I can forget all about them in the meantime, which is definitely preventing me from panicking or experiencing plot overload!

In terms of my horror novel, I am still plot mapping at the moment. I’ve drafted a few of the key chapters, but want to make sure I have the full structure worked out before I take it any further. I’ve been working to the Save the Cat plotting method which was developed by Blake Snyder, and found that his structure pretty much fit my basic plot plan for this particular work in progress. Having the template in front of me is helping me to focus my ideas and stick to the most important elements of the story. I was pleased to find that I was on the right track according to Snyders development plan, and so it was surprisingly positive to shift from being a complete pantser to a plotter! I’m going to book a solid week or two off work later in the year to finalise the finished draft. Knowing that I’ll have that time in a few months to worry about the finer details is helping me to take a steadier pace this time around. I am training myself to stop charging through the process, and I have to say I am enjoying the change of tack.

I hope that if you made any writing resolutions that they are working out well for you so far. If you did but haven’t been able to utilise them for whatever reason, I hope it’s given you a helpful insight into what may work for you in the future. If you hate making resolutions and already had a positive writing structure going for you, then long may it continue into 2020! And, finally, if you hate making resolutions but still don’t have a writing schedule that works for you, don’t give up on yourself. It will come in time.

Wishing all my fellow writers a positive and productive year ahead.

Inspired to write in Copenhagen

I love city breaks. For me, the perfect holiday involves endless sights, peculiar statues, and oddities galore. When I first looked at Copenhagen I was surprised to find only a handful of myths and legends discussed online. When I asked the locals about this I was informed that the Danish are proud to be practical, and that many of the local tales of the paranormal were phased out over the years.

I admire the scientific approach, and take as much pleasure from discovering that a peculiar event has been debunked as I do from my imagination running wild at tales of ghouls and monsters. But the horror writer in me will always seek out the weird and will take solace in the fact that there are some things in our hustle-and-bustle world that can’t be easily explained away.

I ended up downloading a Monsters and Myths private walking tour on my phone and set out to discover the paranormal delights of the city. With the crisp blue January sky above me I loved hearing about the trolls, mermaids, and ghosts of Copenhagen’s past. Granted, the mermaid turned out to be a giant squid, the troll an explanation for the glacial stones in the countryside, and ghosts…well, the devil appearing in Laksegade in the 1800s and throwing belongings into the street was certainly a great tale.

For me, though, the true horror story was one experienced by Hans Christian Andersen, and documented in his diaries. Witnessing a boy plagued by epileptic fits, the cure at the time was thought to be drinking the blood of a corpse. Andersen was mesmerised by the potential power of the macabre treatment, and, because the fit passed over as the blood was administered, believed in its wonders.

As a horror writer, it is important to consider the human condition and the reasons for our superstitions, paranoia, and neurosis. Seeking out myths, legends, and ghost stories helps me to understand the mindset of those who had no access to scientific textbooks. It is the basis of human fear. And, in my opinion, it makes it more real than anything Hollywood’s scare fests can throw at us.

I often wonder how to balance the fantastical with the real in order to tell a convincing story. Copenhagen allowed me to consider the horrific with a practical mind, and I hope I can apply that to my writing in future. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that there may be some oddities and monsters out there that can’t be explained away by science! I love to keep an open mind. I don’t believe the human race can possibly know all there is to know.

Where would be the fun in that?

Making Time to Write

It’s early in the new year and I’m right where I need to be. I’m sat at my kitchen table with my laptop open in front of me, notebooks and diary notes strewn around me. I’m in my happy place. It’s a Sunday and I have nothing to do but write.

That’s not to say that the day hasn’t been filled with other essentials. The bathroom and kitchen have been cleaned. There is a wash load turning in the dryer. I watched the final episode of Cheer in bed with a cup of coffee this morning because I just had to know if Navarro won the division championship before I could even think about writing a word. But that’s okay. Those were not wasted hours. Because now I can shake off the day, focus on my words, and breathe.

My plan today is a simple one. Write a blog post (hi there!), write a rough draft for entry into the Tales from the Moonlit Path ‘Love Gone Wrong’ horror short submission, and add to my chapter plan. It is three attainable, satisfying goals, and all three will set me up for the week on a stronger footing than I would be without them. My resolution for 2020 was geared around me maintaining productivity without becoming overwhelmed, and I’ve come to realise in the last two weeks that I am finally able to breathe. Metaphorically – and often literally – I hold my breath while I rush through the motions of being a writer. My brain races through ideas spanning ten chapters, while at the same time considering social media and blog posts, potential short story submissions, and query letters. And then I wonder why I fail to work to the best of my abilities.

January has been a much-needed huff of oxygen to my writing practice. I’m organised. I’m pacing myself. I am allowing myself space to breathe. I trust in my inactivity, just as I trust in my ability to write the damn novel. I just needed a little space to fill my lungs.

And now I’m right where I need to be. Writing.

New Year, New Writing Me…?

Welcome to a new year, my writing friends. A new decade, to be exact. I already feel as though this will be a year of change. A change in practice. A change of habits. Renewed motivation and drive. I took a couple of months out to re-charge my batteries and shake off the technological burn-out I’d been experiencing. A hectic and challenging few months at my day-job had left me unable to enjoy time at the computer at home, and fighting to summon up the enthusiasm to post cheerful insta pics and remotely positive blog posts.

A break has done me good, I’m happy to report. I have something of a plan going into 2020. I am determined to organise my time and to ensure productivity no longer goes hand-in-hand with burn out. I have identified my problem – I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person. In the past I have had no problem writing thousands of words, zoning out and immersing myself in my imaginary worlds, fingers flying over the keyboard and my brain working overtime to catch up to the images being acted out by the characters in my mind. But then comes the edit. Picking apart the plot holes and rectifying lazy setting descriptions. And then, inevitably, comes the loss of confidence. The spark dries up. The project gets shelved for a shiny new idea and off I go again, hurtling towards exhaustion but ultimately getting no closer to my goal of becoming a novelist.

2020 will be different. I’m determined to get a grip on my writing practice to ensure I move steadily towards my goals. I’ve bought a diary and have entered upcoming short story submission opportunities that I might like to try. This will hopefully allow me to manage my spare time more effectively and give me plenty of opportunities to build my short story portfolio while simultaneously completing my novel. I’ve set time aside in January to carefully plot my chapters and I’m ditching word-count focus until I know exactly what I need to write.

And one final vow going into 2020: To take it easy on myself. As writers we demand so much of ourselves. Of our time. Of our energy. Of our lifestyles and headspace. We aren’t superhuman, at the end of the day. The year has begun with nothing but negativity in the news of the world around us, and it can be disheartening. It’s hard to focus on our goals when the lives we live sometimes feel so perilously out of our control.

So, this year, take a breath. Allow yourself the time you need to be brilliant. Enjoy the small steps that you can take in order to achieve your goals. No matter what is happening around us, our writing is the one thing we do have control over. If you’ve been struggling to motivate yourself, just as I have, think of a plan that will take some of the pressure off your shoulders. Get back to doing what you love. And look after yourselves this year, my writing friends.

October Writing

October was a pivotal month for my writing. As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to brand myself as a horror writer, focusing only on the horror genre and beginning work on a full-length horror novel. It makes sense, as most of my short stories have been published in horror anthologies, providing me with a spook-filled portfolio to approach prospective agents and publishers with when the time comes. Happy belated Halloween, by the way!

As of 5th October, it isn’t only short stories in my portfolio. I was over the moon to have the No Sleep Podcast pick up one of my shorts, Better Than Mardis Gras, and turn it into a segment on their incredible show. It features as the second story in Episode 16 of Season 13. Hearing three talented actors perform the story gave me goosebumps. It felt even better because this was a story that has faced rejection in the past. It reinforced the idea that you should never shelve something just because you get a few rejections. One day it may find a home, and a perfect one at that!

I have to admit, there was one glaring error in the story – a dreaded hanging adverb! There is no writing mistake that stands out more than an adverb at the end of a creepy sentence, read out by an actor, with atmospheric sound effects in the background, followed by a dramatic pause. Believe me, now I know. But hey, I cringed. I moved on. If I hadn’t have spotted that as a mistake, maybe I should worry (and yes, I wish I had spotted it before I submitted it!). But we live and learn – that’s what writing is all about. It’s a comfort to me to know that even though our work may not be as perfect as we’d like, we still get these chances to showcase and improve.

So, I’m chugging away at my horror novel. I’m not taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m enjoying seeing participant word counts growing on Insta! I’m currently on 20k and hoping to hit 30 by the end of November (definitely not enough to make the Nano grade!). Good luck to all of you who are participating. I can’t wait to hear about your successes.