Book Review (Nonfiction): It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life — Edited by Eugene Johnson and Joe Mynhardt

It's Alive Book Cover Image Crystal Lake Publishing
It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life
Edited by Eugene Johnson and Joe Mynhardt
Crystal Lake Publishing
December 2018
306 Pages
Cover and interior artwork: Luke Spooner 

Crystal Lake Publishing has released a number of guides designed to help horror writers, including the Writers on Writing series, which spans multiple useful volumes. This tome features an impressive array of such horror storytellers as Jonathan Maberry, John Skipp, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Waggoner, Brian Kirk, Kealan Patrick Burke, Christopher Golden, Lisa Morton, and so many more.

As Richard Chizmar, publisher of Cemetery Dance Magazine, asserts in his introduction, it used to be that before the Internet, the only way to get writing advice of good calibre from professionals was by attending conventions. Of course, this is still a very good idea and a great way to absorb a lot of information in a more memorable way, but as Chizmar is quick to point out, conventions cost time and money, and not everyone can afford to go or they must be very selective and plan ahead for a long time before they’re able to go. Crystal Lake’s latest writing guide is choc-full of many useful essays and information collected in one indispensable book for the reader’s convenience and focuses on horror specifically, which is rare to find.

“Confessions of a Professional Daydreamer” by Jonathan Maberry emphasizes the importance of craft, which takes years to learn, and that while natural storytelling ability is part of the equation, it’s smaller than you may think. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he met Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson as an impressionable youth 😉 He recommends the “What if” exercise as a way of generating ideas but also running with them and making them stronger.

“What is Writing & Why Write Horror?” by John Skipp focuses on deconstructing the responses most people give to the answers to both questions that form the title of his piece, and they vary.

“Tribal Lays” by Gene O’Neill discusses his history and process of getting to where he is today, which is meant to serve as a reminder that a smooth path to publication without any bumps along the way is not quite practical, so he offers some thoughts on the matter.

“Bake that Cake (One Writer’s Method)” by Joe R. Lansdale sees the horror legend using the metaphors of baking to discuss how he approaches a story, what works for him, and then passes the baton to his daughter, Kasey, who talks about her process and what works for her.

Next up, “Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Bailey Discuss the Spark of Creativity” discusses, as the title implies, Bailey and Palahniuk’s processes, what works for them, the pitfalls they’ve encountered, and their advice on how to move forward as well as how to pronounce Palahniuk for those who can never quite get it right 😉

“They Grow in Shadows: Exploring the Roots of a Horror Story” by Todd Keisling discusses his creative process, how he comes up with the horror that he writes, his process of tapping into his own fears, the ‘what if’ method, writing regularly, and more.

Meanwhile, Yvonne Navarro tackles outlining and its pitfalls as well as what she has learned from it in “The Cult of Constraint (or To Outline or Not).”

In “Zombies, Ghosts and Vampires—Oh My!” Kelli Owen talks about probably the three most common tropes of supernatural character types used in horror fiction, archetypes, clichés, more character types (such as werewolves) and  about some tips and tricks to make them stand out in your own fiction.

“The Many Faces of Horror: Craft Techniques” by Richard Thomas breaks down the basics like Showing vs. Telling, description, passive vs. active voice, and much more.

“Giving Meaning to the Macabre” by Rachel Autumn Deering analyzes all the elements that go into a plot like the ‘Inciting Incident’ up to the ‘Resolution,’ while “The Horror Writer’s Ultimate Toolbox” by Tim Waggoner goes into the most commonly-asked question he still regularly gets, which is what advice he would give to beginning horror writers. In this essay, he offers a summation of the things he usually says. He breaks down core emotions and feelings such as dread, terror, and more to illuminate his engaging advice.

Next up, Marie O’Regan interviews horror legend Sarah Pinborough before the book breaks into the ‘characterization’ section, starting off with “Conveying Character” by F. Paul Wilson. The Repairman Jack author stresses the importance of fostering a connection between your character and the reader. They have to care what happens to that person. He counsels that going with your gut is a good idea because too much analysis and over-analysis can spell a not-so-great character. As he asserts, “…plot happens to people.” He goes on to describe his own approach and what works for him, which contains some useful nuggets of wisdom indeed.

Next up is Brian Kirk weighing on with his interestingly-titled piece, “Sympathetic Characters Taste Better: Empathy in Horror Fiction.” With a quote from Stephen King to start things off, master of characterization and emotional gut-punch horror Brian Kirk extolls the importance of how to make characters stick in the reader’s mind. He provides excellent steps on what approaches to take in order to craft compelling characters that the reader will grow to care about and want to know what happens to. He breaks down motivations behind why people do things as well as a note to remember that everyone reacts to things differently. One person might do X but the other may do Y.

He also provides many useful scenarios, breaking down everything in a very useful play-by-play manner that helps wonderfully to illustrate the points he’s trying to get across. Additionally, he makes the very valid point that in order to accurately convey what the character is going through, it’s pretty much necessary for us to feel the same thing so we can suffuse them with that. Sort of like what others may refer to method acting for writers (no really, it’s a thing!)

Given that Brian is one of the absolute best in the horror genre with, as I mentioned, an absolute mastery of characterization in his pieces, his contribution to this volume is a stand-out and readers should pay particularly close attention to it.

Following that up, we have “Virtue & Villainy: The Importance of Character” by Kealan Patrick Burke, another master of characterization and one of the best in the horror genre. He breaks down a very interesting reaction to some characters in his novel, Kin, and uses it as an effective frame of reference to break down how to accomplish empathy for characters that decidedly more villainous on the spectrum.

We then move on to Dialogue with Elizabeth Massie‘s piece, “Don’t Look Now, There’s a Head in That Box!” She Ejaculated Loudly (Creating Effective Dialogue in Horror Fiction),” pointing out that there are two kinds of dialogue for a start: internal and external, and breaking down the differences and purposes for both. She discusses just how dialogue advances the story and shows how characters relate to others. She provides some amusing examples of bad dialogue and explains why it’s so bad. As well, she advises authors on how to make the most of dialogue and use it to its full potential.

Next up, Lisa Mannetti presents “Point of view: Off On with their Heads! in which she breaks down how to decide what point of view (or points of view) to go with, common pitfalls to avoid, and a discussion of first person vs. second person vs. third person as well as the considerations involved with using them. She also talks about unreliable narrators, which was a useful addition. She provides an analysis of the works of fiction and films that most of us will be familiar with to illustrate her points, which worked effectively.

The following section deals with plot and structure, and the piece that kicks this off is an interview with Stephen Graham Jones, a detailed and fascinating piece by Vince A. Liaguno. Other pieces in this section include “Building Suspense” by David Wellington, “Conveying Horror” by living legend Ramsey Campbell, “Unveiling Theme Through Plot: An Analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark’” by Stephanie M. Wytovich, and a fascinating interview with master of horror Clive Barker by Tim Chizmar from Halloween 2018 in California.

Moving along, the section that follows focuses on world-building advice and kicks off with “Creating a Universe in Just a Few Easy Steps” by sci-fi legend Kevin J. Anderson. Other pieces include “Speak Up: The Writer’s Voice” by Robert Ford, “Writing a Better World” by another living legend, Christopher Golden, and a piece by bookseller extraordinaire Del Howison called “Shaping the Ideas: Getting Things from Your Head to the Paper or on Screen.”

Next, we have a section called ‘The Nitty Gritty,’ which might be synonymous with getting down to brass tax. Starting things off here is Bev Vincent, the famed Stephen King biographer, who discusses research, followed by “Editing Through Fear: Cutting and Stitching Stories” by Jessica Marie Baumgartner, and following this, Aussie horror author and brilliantly-talented graphic designer Greg Chapman talks about “Leaping into the Abyss,” which, appropriately, discusses the task of how to approach writing a novel. Tom Monteleone follows next talking about editing anthologies, and as the editor of the award-winning Borderlands series, he knows a thing or two about it. Next up, Lisa Morton, president of the Horror Writers Association and brilliant writer, talks about writing for themed anthologies. Following this, John Palisano, Vice President of the HWA and another brilliant writer (all of the writers in this book are fantastic, btw), offers up a Roundtable Interview with David J. Schow, Linda A. Addison, Tonya Hurley, Cody Goodfellow and Mary Sangiovanni to talk about the place of the written word in the world, answering a bevy of fascinating questions.

In the following section, aptly titled “Now What?”, we get “The Tale of the Perfect Submission” by Jess Landry of JournalStone, discussing things writers should keep in mind when making fiction submissions to round off the book. I think it was a great point at which to finish off, and offers writers a good sense of “Now that I’ve got all this wonderful advice, how do I manifest it in my own writing? And what do I do with it?”

Overall, Crystal Lake Publishing has assembled an incredibly impressive array of helpful writing advice and guidance from a wide variety of some of the best and brightest writers in the horror genre, and it’s well worth shelling out the cover price for this tome, which should be on the bookshelf of every horror writer, taking its rightful place beside Stephen King’s On Writing and the Horror Writer Association’s staple, On Writing Horror.

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