Dread On The Page

There’s a difference between fear and dread—it’s subtle—but, as writers, we should use dread to create an atmosphere of unease…a pervasive foreshadowing that coats our characters.

To me, dread implies fearful expectation, or anticipation, whereas fear is a response to a threat that’s appeared.

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These days in Thriller and Crime writing and film adaptations, there’s too much instant gratification—BOOM!—big explosions, courtesy of CGI that the hero is immune to, calmly walking away from them, as if shock waves, heat and debris don’t exist. If our hero is injured, it’s usually a designer cut on his cheek, that won’t leave a scar. No one ever receives a wound that makes him weak and insecure and vulnerable…which could crank up the tension, rather than detract from their powers.

I’ve just finished reading Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, in which she created a cumulative sense of dread from seemingly unconnected incidents, skilfully using all of the senses, including smell and touch.

Nice to come across a hardback book so well-designed with the use of colophons depicting reeds, ivy leaves, a magpie, carved devil heads, bulrushes and leafy vegetation to mark chapter and section breaks. I was delighted to see an eel slither onto the corner of page 165 out to make mischief. Good too, that there’s a red ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. Such features make a book feel special, that it’s worth the asking price.

The dread-full atmosphere of Wakenhyrst put me in mind of the Fantasy and Ghost stories penned by M.R. James in which he weaved a creepy atmosphere, where nothing was quite what it seemed to be, leading to a satisfying crescendo.

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Several of these tales were adapted by the BBC, in a strand of short films under the banner A Ghost Story For Christmas. Shown from 1971-1978, with a one-off in 2005, they were eagerly anticipated by viewers and much-discussed afterwards.

I vividly recall several scenes, including one from the first shown, The Stalls of Barchester, based on M.R. James story The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, in which a scholar is haunted by a ghostly cat, as he investigates the mysterious death of his predecessor. What made me jump, was a scene where the doomed protagonist is sitting in the darkened cathedral, with only a candle for illumination, nervous of an unseen cat yowling nearby, grasping the arm of his chair for reassurance—which suddenly turns from wood into black cat fur!

In my own writing, I try to create a sense of dread in my Cornish Detective series, sometimes by letting the reader know things that the coppers don’t, meaning they blunder into dangerous situations. Judging how well I’ve made the reader uneasy, is as tricky as deciding how funny a listener will find a joke I’m telling.

Books I’ve enjoyed for the way that the author instils apprehension, include Willliam Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men

How about you?

Are your stories tinged with dread?

Which authors make you afraid to turn the page?

Illustration by James McBryde for M. R. James’s story ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’

The Purgatory of Submission

This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.

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I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.

I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.

Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.

The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.

Adorably Large Animals!

I previously posted about how animals can be symbolic.

But, quite how these adorably large animals could be used, outside of Fantasy or Science Fiction, I’m not sure….

Monokubo: Fantasy Digital Paintings. (scroll to the second page)

Good fun, though, and if you love the artist’s inspiration—Studio Ghibli, who made My Neighbour, Totoro—then, you’ll be captivated by the idea of having a giant creature as a companion.

It may be good fun, but I wouldn’t want to clean out the cat’s litter tray!


This article was in the Curiosity.com newsletter today, about eggcorns—which are words or phrases that are misheard or wrongly remembered and regurgitated in a slightly different form—which then enters usage. This could be one way in which language evolves.

I’ve heard number 5) Bad wrap (bad rap) said as “bad rep”…as in bad reputation.

One phrase not on the list, that I don’t know which came first, is Dull as ditchwater or Dull as dishwater. I grew up saying the former, but the washing-up option is more common nowadays.

Mishearing song lyrics or poetry leads to what are known as Mondegreens.

For a while, I thought that Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits was singing “Money for nothing and your cheques for free,” in their song Money For Nothing, rather than the actual lyric “your chicks for free.” Some listeners thought he was muttering “your chips for free.”

A close relative is a Malapropism, which can be humorous.

Can you think of any other examples?

Old School Writing Tools

This article suggests that writing in longhand or by typewriter is a more stimulating method of creating a story than skating the surface of a soft-touch computer keyboard.

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That there may be ‘hidden efficiency’ in pen, pencil and typewriter ribbon is intriguing. I agree that I remember information better if I’ve written it down, which is partly why I jot ideas onto scraps of card that are dotted around my laptop’s cooling cradle. I’ve got hundreds of documents stored in scores of folders on my desktop, which I’m sometimes glad to find while looking for something else, for I’d forgotten that I’d already done that bit of research!

I’ve written a few poems in longhand, but never anything in prose. I love relying on my laptop, which I also use to aid my concentration by playing music as I write. I even defy the common advice of not having an internet connection while I write, for sometimes it’s best for me to get a fact right at that moment, rather than doing it later when editing, as it will affect what I write next. I’m very focused, checking just that one fact and not wandering off to surf the web.

What about you?

Do you do everything on a computer?

Or by longhand or typewriter, afterwards producing a computer file?

Word Games

An advertisement for a new word game called One Up! caught my eye.

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I’ve played many word puzzles, one of the first being the paper and pencil game of Hangman.

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There are many, many word games for playing at home and watching on television.

One of the best-known televised games is Countdown, whose format has been sold worldwide:

Scrabble, with its many variants, has been around since 1938—rumours that it precipitated WW2 are probably untrue—but its interminable nature rivals Monopoly, which tries the patience. I’ve known several Scrabble bores who insisted on finishing the game, sitting up until the early hours of the morning. One had a gold-plated version whose glistening board and engraved letter tiles were difficult to read without tilting one’s head, making it tricky to remember which letters were in play.

Magnetic letter or word tiles to attach to fridge and freezer doors are a diverting way of having fun and leaving messages, though slamming the door is inadvisable, as stepping on a tile in bare feet is unpleasant, though not as painful as a Lego brick.

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I’ve gone through phases of doing crosswords, never being addicted to them. I prefer puzzles based on general knowledge, as the satisfaction gained from working out cryptic clues escapes me. It’s been said, that doing crosswords is a good way of warding off dementia.

But a 2018 report in the British Medical Journal denied this was so.

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I think that I’ll stick to my own word game, which is best played in bed as a way of hypnotising yourself or a partner to fall asleep. Using the alphabet, name a dog breed beginning with ‘A’ and so on—or a country or your favourite forename or a car or food…whatever you fancy. Take it in turns with a partner. You may well find that they and you go to sleep at the same letter each night.

Are you a crossword addict?

Do you have a favourite or hated board game?

How about word games you’ve invented?

Selling Out—Product Placement

This article in Vox.com reveals some startling examples of product placement by authors and screenwriters:

When a writer signs a contract agreeing to mention a company or product a certain number of times in their story, then the book is really an extended commercial…more so, if the company’s name is part of the title, as in Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection.

Image result for Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection.

Although a fashion blogger turned novelist, called Riley Costello, is attempting to patent the term ‘shopfiction’, it seems that the notion of promoting product names in books has declined in use, largely because books are seen to be less influential these days.

Setting a story in the world of fashion or music, come to that, it would be impossible not to name names, as both activities are driven by competition between labels and brands for clothing, perfume and instruments. That’s not necessarily product placement.

Some commercial names become common expressions, such as to hoover, google it, jacuzzi, q-tips and tupperware.

Product placement is not usually an issue with Crime writing, but it’s something I’ve taken into account in penning my Cornish Detective novels. Without meaning to infer that what vehicles my characters drive are in any way desirable, I mention their cars, bicycles and motorcycles more as a way of showing their natures. I’ve read some crime novels that didn’t describe the make of car at all, which seemed daft, for the author happily named the detective’s gun and even which ammunition it was loaded with.

I’m happily working my way through James Oswald’s Inspector McLean series. I’d hazard a guess, that Oswald admires and maybe owns an Alfa Romeo, for his protagonist drives a classic Alfa, wildly unsuitable for his job, and a more modern Alfa only lasted one book before it was destroyed when a building exploded.

I tend not to have my detective protagonist say “google it” when his officers are searching for information while staking out a suspect’s house, instead he asks someone to look on their smartphone. One of my beta readers called me on what she thought might be product placement, as I’d had my main character order a collectable Victorian book on orchards from AbeBooks, which seemed to be the most likely place that he would have found it, and that sounded less clumsy than saying “an online book retailer.” Admittedly, when I wrote it, I thought some readers might benefit from knowing about AbeBooks, but I don’t see any money coming my way! Nor will I get anything for mentioning Taser, the electroshock weapon, which has been used a couple of times in my stories.

How do you handle the issue of mentioning product or company names?