Talking Craft with Horror Author Brian W. Matthews

085-EditWeb.jpgBrian W. Matthews grew up in a small town in southeast Michigan. The oldest of three boys, his days were occupied with school, friends, and when he got older, work. Lots of work. He has been gainfully employed every year since 1977, running the gamut from making pizzas to waiting tables to working in a hospital to being a child therapist. He currently works as a financial planner and writes in his free time. He is married with a daughter and two step-daughters. The Conveyance is his third book.

The Conveyance can be purchased directly from the publisher at www.journalstone.com or from Amazon.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Conveyance. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A: I loved watching horror and science fiction movies as a child. In Detroit, on Wednesday afternoons, one of the local channels would show a classic horror or sci-fi movie—Godzilla was particularly popular, but you would also see movies like see 20 Million Miles to Earth or The Fly. I would race home from school each Wednesday to sit in front of the television. This instilled in me a love for the bizarre, so when I started writing, I naturally gravitated toward speculative fiction and the supernatural. My first two novels were mash-ups of horror and urban fantasy and alternate history. When the time came for my third novel, I wanted to branch out. My mind kept returning to 20 Million Miles to Earth and its central question: how did life come to exist on Earth? For The Conveyance, I decided to approach that topic but with a twist, to keep the story fresh for the readers.

Q: What do you think makes a good horror or science fiction book? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: First, don’t focus on the zombie/alien/monster element of your story. You need to start with people—vividly drawn characters—and their relationships. The zombies/aliens/monsters are simply vehicles to apply pressure on your characters; to test their strengths and weaknesses. That is what makes your readers care about your characters, how they end up rooting for your heroes. If they don’t care about your characters, you’ve failed.

Second, the true horror is not the zombie/alien/monster theme: it is the extremes to which your central characters are pushed by these creatures. What is more horrific, a zombie attack or how it forces a mother to kill her child rather than let him or her become an undead fiend? If you’ve done your job well—if your readers really care about the mother and child and their relationship—then that act of mercy will be gut-wrenching; your readers will be far more horrified by it than by any graphic description of a zombie eating a human. This is exactly what made Night of the Living Dead such a hit; the movie was more about the people in the house and how they reacted and interacted under stress rather than the zombies.

Front_Cover_Image_The_Conveyance.jpgThird, the readers’ imaginations are far more descriptive than anything you can write. Yes, you can horrify using literary tricks like shifting narrative distance and time expansion and such, but if you over-describe your scene, you rob the reader of his or her input into the story. They can’t make it their own. Find one or two or three (at the most) elements of a particularly frightful scene and describe them, but only allude to the other elements. Let your reader fill in the blanks. Not only will they feel more a part of the story, this will help keep the reader from becoming fatigued.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I’m not big on story plotting. I typically have a beginning and an end, and I develop certain points I want to reach during the novel’s progression. Then I go ahead and write it. My main fear with plotting is that I will unintentionally telegraph what is coming. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, how can the reader? In addition, discovering the novel as it progresses helps keep it fresh in my mind; I get excited by developments, my blood starts to race. Writing is a long, painful process, and this excitement keeps me writing with the energy I need to make the story effective.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: The main protagonist is Dr. Bradley Jordan, a child psychologist. I have a graduate degree in clinical psychology and spent many years as a child therapist. While Brad Jordan isn’t me, I used my experiences as a therapist to make him credible. I do utilize character interviews before I start writing, and I did with him.

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: This is a harder question to answer because the antagonist is more a concept than an actual person. There are a few big baddies in the story, and similar to Brad Jordan, I did a character interview for each one. But these are mainly highlights. I enjoy coming up with character idiosyncrasies while I’m writing. The trick is to keep them straight and consistent throughout the book.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: Conveyance is written in first person. That’s a difficult tense to use because a writer tends to revert to telling and not showing what is going on. There’s a tendency to overuse visual cues, and this can result in stale prose. I made a conscious decision to show and not tell as much as possible, and to rely on two other senses (touch and hearing) to help expand the narrative stage. Also, I vary my sentence structure and paragraph lengths. Reader fatigue sets in quickly with the same five sentence paragraphs, all fully formed and complete. Vary it up to keep the reader interested.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: Well, as I said in the last question, a writer needs to include descriptions other than the visual. I do use visual as a core descriptor, but I also try to triangulate the narrative stage for the reader by using the senses of touch and hearing. This helps the reader obtain the necessary spatial sense of your setting; your world becomes more realistic. Also, try not to describe too much. (I was guilty of this a lot in my early writing.) Let the readers supply some of the context. This will help pull them into your story and keep them reading, which is the brass ring on this particular carousel.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: I need a theme in order to begin. I can’t simply say “a monster invades a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” (as in Forever Man). Instead, I need a central struggle for my main character: Izzy Morris, a wife, mother, and the town’s Chief of Police, has always struggled with her role in life, and when her daughter goes missing, she is forced to confront this conflict head-on and grow into the person she was always meant to be. You tell me, which one is the more compelling story? For me, the combination of the two—a basic plot arc and a central conflict for the main character—is what makes me decide to write the novel.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: For me, you really can’t separate the two. For my first draft, I go for the fences. I write like no one is going to read the story so it ends up as big and bold as possible. But what you have after that first draft is a hot mess. That’s fine. The editing is there to turn your hot mess into a logical, artful story. Don’t underestimate what thoughtful editing can do for your story. There is a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. If you’re serious about writing, pick up a copy. Read it over and over. I helped my writing tremendously.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: This one is hard to answer, because success means different things to different people. My vision of success is first completing a novel. I put a year or two of my life into writing it, and finishing it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Second—having people enjoy what I read. I wouldn’t want to put in so much effort and sweat only to have it panned by everyone. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened…yet. I suppose third would be some sort of financial success. It is certainly a gauge of how well received a novel is, but so few people can make a living at writing, and I’m reluctant to emphasize the monetary aspects too much. For most writers, it may never reach the level they think and still be terrific authors.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: I think he was 100% correct. If you want to be a writer, you need to write every day. For some, that includes holidays and vacations. It’s like homework. My wife is a teacher. Each evening, we sit down and do our homework: she corrects papers, and I write.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: As I mentioned earlier, the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is an invaluable asset. Another is the book, Scene and Structure, which delves into the framework of a novel. Both are very helpful. Also, join whatever organization represents your genre. I’m a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association. I attend their conferences. That is where I’ve met other writers, picked up ideas about writing, and generally received considerable support knowing you’re not alone with your writing.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A:  While there are many benefits to writing, it is a difficult and lonely endeavor. You sit for hours by yourself, typing on your computer or writing in a notebook. It can take months to years for your work to see the light of day. Be prepared and be disciplined. In the end, the payoffs can be amazing.

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