Interview with Nathan Sumsion, Author and Game Designer

Thanks for doing an interview!

Right out of the gate, let’s get to know you book and a little about you. Give us the basics: what did you write, why did you write it, and what makes it stand out among the millions of other books published each year?

Hi, my name is Nathan Sumsion and I’m the author of the book Necropolis PD, published by Parvus Press. This is my debut novel, an urban fantasy about a young man named Jacob Green, the lone living soul in a city of the undead.

“How do you solve a murder in the city of the dead?”

Jacob Green is the only living person trapped in a city where everyone is already dead. This city is made up of all manner of forgotten things: buildings, corners, pathways, and spaces. All are concealed from the modern world. He somehow found his way here and now is trapped with no way to return home.

But when an unusual string of crimes hits the city, Jacob becomes a prime suspect. To clear his name, he’ll have to team up with the Necropolis PD and solve the mystery. Someone, or some thing is killing the dead.

And if he can’t figure out who’s responsible, he’ll be the next victim.

I hope that you find that Necropolis PD is a fresh take on the undead and the haunted dark corners of the world. It’s full of weird characters, strange places and a main character in hopelessly over his head.



How does your background / day job influence your writing? Any connection?


I have worked professionally as a game designer of computer and video games for over 20 years. I have worked on numerous games, from platformers to first-person shooters to MMOs for companies like Disney, Crytek and KingsIsle Entertainment. Currently I am a Game Design Director for Deeproot Studios, working on a new generation of pinball machines.


I have always had an interest in fantasy and science fiction, and my responsibilities as a game designer allow me to do extensive world-building, character development and the crafting of game systems. With Necropolis PD, I was able to take a lot of these skills and apply them to crafting a world of my own design.




When you were a kid, did you want to be a writer? Did the books you read as a kid (or were forced to read in school) influence your writing as an adult?

I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my dad kept boxes of old magazines in the garage, old Analog and Fantasy and Science-Fiction magazines. I was fascinated with them. The illustrations on the covers showed my young mind space ships, monsters, warriors and wizards. I grew up on a steady diet of comic books, monster movies, role-playing games, reading fantasy and science-fiction books, and a desire to write my own stories.


In middle school I was an assistant to the librarian, who was a avid reader of science fiction, and he helped introduce me to even more books. Books that had a huge influence on me growing up were The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, the John Carter books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Robert E. Howard Conan books. As I got a little older, the Elric books by Michael Moorcock and the works of H. P. Lovecraft were also very influential.


Most recently I have been reading a lot by Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Simmons, Glen Cook, Charles Stross, Patrick Rothfuss, and Robin Hobb.



Tell us about the non-writing side of yourself. What kind of hobbies do you have? Sports teams you cheer for? Anything that makes you passionate or gets you riled up?

When I’m not writing, reading or designing games, I play a lot of games. I do a lot of table-top role-playing in a variety of systems, both playing and running sessions. My favorite systems currently are the 5th Edition D&D, the World of Darkness games, Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. I play board and card games with family and friends. Most recently, the games I’m playing the most are Eldritch Horror, Betrayal at House on the Hill, 7 Wonders, Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, and 5 Minute Dungeon.

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, so obviously I am a dedicated Cornhusker football fan.



If you could be doing anything (job-wise) with your life that is not writing or game design—if you had to live life completely differently—what kind of path would you pursue?

If I wasn’t writing or designing games full-time, I wish that I were focusing more time on art. I earned my degree in art from Utah State University, but in the years since then I’ve focused so much time on writing and game design, that I haven’t had as much time as I would have liked for building and animating 3d models and drawing. I’ve just started dabbling a bit with 3d printing, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. I just need more hours in the day!


To be honest, though, I’m doing exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I love dissecting what makes games work, designing systems and building new worlds. I love writing, and hopefully there are people that enjoy reading what I’ve written and enjoy playing the games I’ve created.


What’s the best advice you have for someone just starting to write?

As I said, I’ve been designing video games for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve worked on side projects creating video games, board games, card games, role-playing games, comics, books and short stories, and because of the rigors of the development process in creating video games, I would rarely have time or energy to finish these projects. Finally after years of this, I looked back and saw all of these great half-completed projects that no one else would ever see, and I resolved to pick a project, stick to it and get it done. That project was Necropolis PD.


If I have any advice I could offer, it is to start writing and then FINISH writing. Keep writing, every day. For me, I picked a time each day that I could write, and every single day I would write at that time. Some days I could write for a long time, and some days I only managed a few sentences. But I was making progress every day. And I stuck to it and got it done.


Write every single day. Make it a habit. Get your story done. It’s not easy, it’s very challenging but it’s also very rewarding.



Finally, if you had to pick a single piece of art (any medium) to describe your life, what would it be and why?

I think my life is like the beta version of a video game. It’s mostly planned out, but there’s still a lot of bugs, there are many areas that are incomplete, some systems work great but several are still clunky and unresponsive. Hopefully with enough input from those around me, I can fix the bugs and end up with something I’m proud of.

Thanks for letting me answer some questions and let people learn a little about me and my new book. Please give Necropolis PD a try and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.


Check out all of Nathan’s links and grab your copy of Necropolis PD!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/n8sumsion/

Blog: http://www.nathanomicon.com/

Necropolis PD:

Blurb Formatting and Organization

Time for the nuts and bolts of book blurbs.

Pictured above: actual nuts and bolts.

Pictured above: actual nuts and bolts.

Step 1: Read the blurb content guide.

Step 2: Read the blurbs from your genre's top-selling books. How do you check which books are dominating your genre? Click on your categories on your listing.

 

For We Are Many, one of my own novels, reached #9 in horror! Woot!

For We Are Many, one of my own novels, reached #9 in horror! Woot!

Clicking on the bolded genre: Horror in either line of the "Best Sellers Rank" section will take you to the top 100 in that category.

Step 3: Utilize the Hero Line concept

What the hell is a hero line? Glad you asked. The hero line is the bolded line at the top of a blurb that establishes genre atmosphere—the most important part of the listing.

Firstly, to even make a line bold, you need to go into your Author Central page and click on the book's listing which will allow you to edit the details. You can edit the blurb there. Also, when you add spaces, the software will reject them. Go ahead and add them anyways, then message Amazon through the Author Central contact portal and tell them to add the spaces manually. Why / how a multi-billion dollar corporation like Amazon can't get basic HTML coding to properly display is one of the world's greatest mysteries.

What do you put in the hero line? Cool shit. Snappy lines. Atmosphere. More on that later (with examples!)

Step 4: Add some author bio

Toss a couple lines into the bottom of your blurb about you as an author. And make sure to cram a bunch of keywords into that section. Everything on the blurb factors into Amazon's search algorithms. Example: Bill Writerson, a 2010 Hugo Nominee for best upper thighs, crafts harrowing tales of epic fantasy, weaving all the suspense of a fast-paced thriller into worlds reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Dr. Suess.

See how many keywords we slapped down in just a few lines? Goal achieved.

Step 5: Talk about your other books

Why not add a couple lines below the author snippet to mention your other works?

Step 6: Drop a line about your website / newsletter

Yeah, do that.

Step 8: Wonder where step 7 got lost...

Nah, I'm out of steps.

Examples by genre:

Want to know the best blurbs in each genre? Me too. What I've assembled are examples I think are decent in each genre, probably not the best, but I'm not going to sift through 10 million books. Stop being greedy and do some research on your own.

Building the Best Ad Stack

Looking for the best websites to use during a sale?

Book-Sale-Graphic.jpg

The Lists

Check out this list: http://www.paidauthor.com/best-ebook-promotion-sites/

  • Caveat: There's a lot of speculation about Books Butterfly. The current consensus is typically to avoid them.

And another large list of places: http://www.openworldmag.com/dominate-amazon-bestseller-54-resources-kindle-countdown-promo/

  • Caveat: Their discussion of Reddit is bad. Don't follow that. Always look at the sidebar rules in every subreddit, read them carefully, and become active before trying to promote.

Here's a great list of the places organized by genre: http://www.creativindie.com/1100-new-places-to-market-your-books/

My Personal List

The promoters in my personal list aren't ranked in any order or anything like that. Bookbub is the best, and the rest are all of decent effectiveness. Also, if you want the absolute best value for your promotions, most of the sites have their own newsletters. Make a new email address, use it to sign up for all the promotional website newsletters, and then get all the promo codes and coupons that the promo sites send to you, saving you money on each and every promotion!

My official recommendations for pros in the book industry

Looking for professional services to bring you next book project to publication?

Here's a list of the people I've found who do excellent work:

Formatting:

Editing:

  • I have another awesome editor I use (who is rather inexpensive), but she has no website as of now since she does it part-time. If you're looking for a budget-friendly editor, send me an email and I'll hook you up.

Covers:

Logos, Designs, Book Trailers, and Author Merch (like t-shirts, stickers, things to sell or giveaway at convention booths, etc.):

  • Brad Lark (blark@blark.com) is the only person I’ve found so far with reasonable rates for that kind of work. Shoot him an email. You can see some of his portfolio here. And you can check out his full website here: Flying Pork Apparel.

ARC Services:

Facebook Ad Management:

  • Isaac Boldery manages my ads. Contact him (isaac.boldery@gmail.com) for info on packages and prices, etc.

Looking for AMS ad generation, blurb help, or other personalized marketing solutions?

Want your service to be featured?

  • Too bad. I only feature services that I’ve personally used and found to be exemplary. You can’t pay to be on the list. (Alright, well… at a certain number I won’t say no, but you’ll need to at least be paying a few of my mortgage payments before you catch my attention)

 

What a cheesy picture…

What a cheesy picture…

Killstreak Book One: Respawn - An Excerpt

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Killstreak Book One: Respawn

Chapter 1

            “What do you think?” Lord Kadorax Darkarrow whispered to his sole companion, a thin half-serpent with a scaly head and flat ears.

The bipedal snake-man’s gaze darted around nervously as his tongue licked the air. There were torches on the walls, but most of them had already sputtered out. Ahead, down a stone ledge slick with old moss, a ring of robed humanoid figures stood around an altar. “Five against two,” Syzak hissed. “And none of them are above your level, my lord, not even close.”

Kadorax nodded. “Good. Which one is the strongest?”

Syzak scrutinized the ring of priests once more, using his Detect Strength ability to read their stat sheets. “There,” he pointed with one of his three green fingers, “the one on the left is two levels higher than the others. That one is their leader.”

Again, Kadorax nodded. He was characteristically silent, taking every precaution to hide his presence as thoroughly as he could. As the head of the Blackened Blades, he valued stealth and secrecy above all else.

“Shall I take the leader first, my lord?” Syzak asked. He held a small crystal wand between the three fingers of his left hand, clearly eager to cast a spell and begin the fight.

For a moment, Kadorax called his own stat sheet to his vision, flicking his eyes downward to scroll through the myriad of spells and abilities he had mastered over the last decade. He had spent years training both his mind and body, and now he was the highest-level assassin-mystic hybrid in the entire realm of Agglor. Ever weary of traps, he focused his vision on the Discover Magic spell and viewed the proper casting procedure from his ability sheet. It had been years since he had needed the spell, and it wasn’t one he kept lodged in his brain for quick use.

Kadorax silently mouthed the words to the mundane incantation, having long ago earned the Silent Casting talent, and two areas of his vision lit up with brilliant, translucent color. The first had been expected. The humanoid leader—he still wasn’t positive what the priests actually were—showed a heavy aura of red magic encasing his form, likely a protective ward of some sort. The second area of magic came from a large circular rune inscribed on the wall behind the altar, and Kadorax didn’t know what it meant.

“Can you disable the leader?” the assassin whispered so faintly he could barely be heard.

“Of course,” Syzak answered with a smile.

Kadorax held up a hand. “He has a red aura around him, probably Stone Skin or Magic Armor, perhaps of a rank we have not seen before. Can you break it?”

Syzak’s serpentine eyes inspected the humanoid once more, but only for a few seconds. “I have Strip Enchantment, though it is a costly spell,” he said.

Handing the snake-man a silver shard of reflective metal, Kadorax nodded. “No chances,” he breathed. While most of the spells in Agglor could be cast by having them unlocked and either reading or knowing their incantational phrases, certain extremely powerful abilities required specific components which were sometimes incredibly difficult to obtain.

Kadorax’s Discover Magic casting was about to expire, so he flashed a quick successions of rudimentary hand signals to his companion, and then shimmied over the edge to begin his descent down the nearly sheer rock surface of the temple’s interior wall. His gloves, black silk constructions known as Cat Paws, silently gripped the flat surface beneath his fingers with all the strength of a well-muscled panther. On the temple’s floor, Kadorax melted into the shadows. The place smelled musty and damp, and the flagstones making up the ground were wet with stale rainwater.

Above the assassin’s head, a partially concealed flicker of purple light emanated from Syzak’s wand, shooting across the temple with blinding speed. The magical glob struck the leader in the chest, and Kadorax saw the humanoid’s red aura fade just seconds before his Discover Magic spell wore off, unable to be cast again for several hours.

Kadorax sprinted forward on leather boots as silent as the grave. He reached behind his back and grasped the bone handle of a dagger hidden in a sheath under his cloak. The bone was frigid in his grasp, ice cold even through his gloves, and the blade was so dark it actually dripped a steady stream of viscous shadows onto the stone ground between his strides.

He took the first robed priest in the back before any of them even noticed Kadorax among their ranks. The priest let out a muffled shriek as he crumpled to the ground. When his robe fluttered to the side Kadorax finally saw the head of a jackal underneath, its teeth bared.

Dogheads, Kadorax mused, using the derogatory term for the race. He had killed scores of the jackal-headed beasts throughout the years, and he’d never regret a single strike of his blade.

Another bolt of purple magic sailed over Kadorax toward the doghead leader, catching the jackal fully in the chest. At once, a rigid shell of stone grew up from the temple floor to encase the beast, locking it in place in a dark, constricting prison that was as terrifying as it was effective.

Kadorax didn’t waste any time. He spun from target to target, whirling his black blade between the two nearest living enemies and rending them to bloodied bits.

While his compatriots were dying, the final jackal had run a few steps backward and drawn a small crossbow from underneath his dark robe. The weapon clicked and thrummed, and the steel bolt held in its track sprang forward.

Kadorax quickly whispered the words to Shield Maw, and a fiery dragon’s head sprang to life in front of his body to consume the incoming missile. He didn’t need to use such flashy magic—his Expert Reflexes would have easily moved him out of the way quickly enough to dodge the bolt—but he hated doghead scum. He wanted the remaining jackal to fear him, to contemplate its own death before he gutted it, and the dramatic spell certainly did the trick.

The jackal only spent a few heartbeats trying to reload its crossbow before it gave up and turned to run. Kadorax chased after it, clearing the distance almost instantly and sinking his dagger into the fur-covered doghead. The creature shuddered, but it did not die. It slumped to the ground and mewled, its bounty of experience points flashing in yellow just above its head. Kadorax stepped over, letting the congealed shadows surrounding his blade drip onto the doghead’s chest. The shadows themselves were harmless, but the psychological impact they had on a dying foe was certainly palpable.

“P—”

Kadorax stomped down on the creature’s throat, silencing it before it could speak a single intelligible syllable.

With a faint rumble, the experience Kadorax gained from the swift battle sifted into his body, adding to his already staggering total. He brought up his sheet again to check his progress toward the next level, but he knew more or less what it would be. The jackals hadn’t been worth much. He was still more than fifty percent away from level seventy-three. His next talent, Exceptional Void Strike – Execution: Rank 7, was still frustratingly far away. He would have to kill hundreds of dogheads to even make a dent in the total.

Then a rumbling from behind snapped Kadorax’s thoughts back to the present, and he dismissed his stat sheet with a thought. The leader was still alive, and he was finally breaking free of Syzak’s stone prison.

Seeing his eviscerated companions, the jackal’s eyes went wide, but he was still quick on his hairy feet. The jackal rolled left behind the stone altar, drawing a slender sword from his robe and rolling his wrist with practiced ease. Kadorax had never learned the Detect Strength ability, but he could tell the jackal leader was far beyond the mere underlings lying dead around the altar. Repeating the words to his most frequently used spell, Kadorax felt the familiar rush of adrenaline brought on by Slaughtering Surge filling his veins. He sprang forward with lightning speed, twirling his lightless dagger downward for a quick killing blow, and met the jackal’s adept parry with a ring of steel.

Flurry of Strikes pumped through Kadorax body, moving his right arm as quickly as it could physically go, putting on a dazzling display of violence made possible only by the assassin’s maxed out Agility stat. Shockingly, the jackal matched his relentless pace.

The jackal leader ducked his shoulder and used a talent, Armor Break by the look of the yellow sheen on his weapon, charging forward with power akin to a stone giant fueling his legs.

Kadorax staggered backward. It was the first time in over two years his Strength had been matched, and the sheer surprise of it broke his concentration for a split second. The jackal was relentless. The creature’s slender blade came in from every angle, slashing at Kadorax’s face over and over again.

Growling with sadistic pleasure born from a true challenge, Kadorax summoned his character sheet to the corner of his vision and searched for Pull from the Void, repeating the order of the required words several times in his mind before attempting to cast the spell. When he finally let it loose, a shadowy hand of pure magic erupted from his chest and sailed toward the hidden ledge where Syzak waited. The small snake-man latched onto the hand and rode it back down, flinging a rapid barrage of lightning and fire from his wand all the while.

Some of Syzak’s magical bolts managed to hit their target, but the jackal leader wasn’t particularly fazed. His red aura returned, now visible without magically enhanced vision, and it absorbed the energy of the magical assault almost fully. Kadorax had never seen the defensive enchantment before, and he had seen almost everything, or so he had thought.

Working quickly as he cast, Syzak brought forth a Wall of Frost in the narrow gap between Kadorax’s boots and the jackal’s furry paws. The shaman augmented the spell with another talent activation, one Kadorax had only seen him use a few times, and the wall that erupted from the ground reached far over either combatant’s head. Kadorax scampered backward to catch his breath and scour his character sheet for an answer.

“He’s fast,” Syzak hissed, keeping his wand ready and a spell at the front of his mind.

Kadorax didn’t waste his breath on a response. The jackal was quicker than any opponent he had fought before, and he needed something unexpected, something obscure, to turn the tide.

“The wall will not hold much longer,” Syzak said. “Should we flee?”

Eldritch Fire!” Kadorax yelled as he completed the spell. A burst of blueish-black flame licked out from the end of his dagger toward the ice wall. A quick activation of Perfect Timing let him flawlessly judge the expiration of Syzak’s conjuring. Snapping his wrist forward, a burst of black fire cascaded through the falling, dissipating ice, and fully engulfed the howling jackal.

Kadorax lunged forward with his blade, shielding his eyes from the painful mixture of fire and ice raining down on his shoulders. At rank ten, the highest available to any spell, Kadorax’s Eldritch Fire was nothing short of a cataclysmic conflagration—and it worked. The jackal only avoided part of the blast with his Improved Reflexes. His mangy hair danced with flames, and the jackal howled as he spun through the temple, slapping at the licking flames in vain.

Coup de Grâce!” Kadorax yelled, activating his Assassin’s Superior Talent with a brilliant flourish. His blade danced in his hands, flinging thick globs of shadow to every corner of the room, and the burning jackal could only offer a meager attempt at a parry. In a blur of speed, Kadorax appeared to the jackal’s left, then his right, and finally he was behind the beast with his black dagger held high above the creature’s spine. He drove it downward with all his strength.

The jackal leader’s experience flashed in yellow above his head as he died. The formidable foe had been worth just over three thousand experience, and that brought Kadorax noticeably closer to level seventy-three, though he was still roughly thirty-five percent from leveling again.

Sweat poured down Kadorax’s head. Next to him, Syzak tucked his wand back into his belt. “Where’s the loot?” the snake-man asked. He nudged the jackal leader’s corpse with his boot, pushing aside the front of the robe to inspect the body for treasure. He found nothing.

“Use Detect Hidden, Syzak,” Kadorax panted, thoroughly exhausted. Part of why he had risen to be Agglor’s highest-level assassin had been his choice of battles. He never fought more than one heavy encounter in a day, and he preferred to only test himself once a week if he could, being as frugal as possible with his rewards specifically to allow himself the most meaningful respites. Due to his style, he hadn’t taken many of the endurance-related talents, so he had no way of reducing his recovery time with magic.

Syzak uttered the words to the simple spell. “Oh, shit,” he said almost at once.

Kadorax skipped backward on the balls of his feet, dagger at the ready and chest heaving from exertion, scanning the temple for some new threat he had not seen.

“The inscription,” Syzak explained, pointing to the magical symbols behind the altar. “There’s a door. The jackals were summoning something, not imprisoning it…”

As if on cue, the wall behind the altar shook forcefully. Something was breaking through it with heavy fists. Something massive and beyond powerful. Something unknown. Something.

“Lord Kadorax, I feel it unwise to remain here,” Syzak implored, his serpentine eyes full of terror.

“We haven’t gotten any loot yet,” Kadorax growled. He scanned through his list of abilities, quickly reorganizing them so that his unused spells and talents appeared at the top of his character sheet. “Whatever it is, it’s guarding the treasure. We stay.”

A few bricks fell out of the wall, and Syzak glimpsed something dark—and enormous—pounding away at the stone on the other side. “Kad! We can come back later!” he screamed. The snake-man turned to run, but Kadorax caught him by the arm.

“We’ve defeated worse,” Kadorax reminded him.

“Have we?”

The wall crumbled inward.

A giant, horned head emerged from the rubble, quickly followed by four muscled arms, each the size of tree trunks. The thing roared, and then it wrenched the rest of its body free, coming to its full height in the high-ceilinged temple.

Lord Kadorax Darkarrow felt his heart catch in his chest. He had fought dragons on several occasions and lived to tell the tales, but those encounters had always been with dozens of other high-level adventurers. With only a single shaman at his side, powerful as they were together, he knew he was outclassed.

The beast, whatever it truly was, stood over twenty feet tall. Its skin looked like rock, but it flowed and moved with such ease that Kadorax knew it was organic—some sort of hardened carapace—and its head was covered in a circular pattern of bulging black eyes that reminded the assassin of a scorpion. It had four arms, each vaguely humanoid and rippling with muscle beneath its thick armor, though it did not wield any weapons in the traditional sense.

“W-what is it?” Kadorax stammered. He tried to access the dungeon boss’ character sheet, but all he saw was a series of question marks highlighted in deep crimson floating near the top of his vision.

Before either hero could speak, the boss reared its hideous head. “I am your undoing!” it announced with all the strength of a world-ending earthquake.

Kadorax flew through his list of abilities to find the one that would take him and Syzak farthest from the temple in the least amount of time. “Teleport!” he yelled, grabbing his companion with both arms to ensure they traveled together.

Nothing happened.

The four-armed beast laughed, its voice so loud the Kadorax had to cover his ears to keep the pain at bay.

Teleport!” the assassin tried again. Still, his feet remained firmly planted on the temple’s stone floor.

Shadow Step!

Nothing.

Fade!

Nothing.

Kadorax flew through his list of mystic abilities, searching for something that might work in the boss encounter. He settled on Smoke Leap, a low-level ability designed to vault him upward and forward by about thirty feet while leaving behind a decoy made of smoke, but the ability did not function properly. Something blocked it.

“You cannot run, puny human,” the massive boss taunted. “No one can escape their own grave.”

Kadorax had encountered enemies in the past with similar magic-preventing abilities. Typically, the dampening field was generated by an enchanted ring or amulet worn by the user, but the towering beast featured nothing of the sort.

Slaughtering Surge!” Kadorax finally yelled, bringing a fresh wave of adrenaline to his arms and legs.

Syzak summoned forth a shell of protective energy around the assassin, and then a burst of brilliant light shot from the snake-man’s wand. The spell landed on the boss’ head, but it did not have the intended effect of blinding the creature. In fact, it didn’t appear to have any effect whatsoever.

When Kadorax reached the horned beast, it was ready for him. Arm after heavy arm came hammering down into the temple floor like boulders dislodged in a landslide. Each strike was enough to turn Kadorax into dust, and his Expert Reflexes were all that kept him alive. Swerving between the arms, the assassin brought his dripping blade of shadows in with all the strength he had left in his body, slashing furiously at the creature’s exoskeleton covering its segmented right leg.

Kadorax’s blade clicked loudly off the boss’ armor. From his position between the beast’s legs, he could just barely see into the room from where the horned thing had emerged, and it was full to the ceiling with treasure—more than the assassin had ever seen before. Piles of glittering gold shone in the torchlight, and iron-banded chests were stacked in neat rows as far in as he could see.

Breaking his greed-fueled reverie, a huge hand swept Kadorax up from the ground, crushing all the air from his lungs. On the ground, Syzak used every ounce of obscure arcane knowledge he had to rain blow after blow on the creature, though none of them had any visible effect. Even spells like Void Prison, an incredibly high-level magical assault designed to immobilize even the most magic-immune foes, simply did not succeed.

The boss brought Kadorax up to its huge maw. “I am your undoing, human!” it yelled. Its breath smelled rotten and old, like the beast had been chained in its prison for hundreds of years with nothing but dead adventurers to fill its belly.

Kadorax saw a hint of yellow coming down from the top of his vision. It was his experience total—the amount the boss was about to claim for itself. “I’ll see you at the spawn, my friend,” the assassin called to Syzak, his voice shaking.

The snake-man nodded. “In the next life,” he answered. “In the next life…”

Laughing all the while, the dungeon boss squeezed. It didn’t need to activate any ability, and it didn’t even bother to watch. In an instant, Kadorax’s chest caved in on his organs, squishing the life from his body like a bug caught beneath the hoof of a horse.

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IT by Stephen King - Analysis by Horror Author Ashley Holtzmann

A guest author on the blog! Welcome Ashley Holzmann!

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Ashley Holzmann

Ashley Holzmann

There’s a plethora of variety within the horror genre. The goal is to insight tension, fear, or anxiety within the consumer of the medium. The paths to achieving that goal vary wildly.

The horror community at large cannot even agree with itself on what is and is not scary. Horror is subjective; and that’s a good thing, because all stories are interpreted differently by the person hearing or reading or watching the story.

That’s a big part of what I want to talk about here. How we consume horror and how the same story can be told in more than one way. I also want to touch on the nature of fear, the current audiences for horror, and use the new release of IT in movie theaters across the country as a platform for my wild spiel.

This is an analysis of storytelling above all else. It could very well be a discussion of any genre. But Halloween is approaching and I have, myself, recently release a book within the genre, so why not use this as an opportunity?

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The New Movie

I recently went to see the new release of IT in theaters, and while the movie had its flaws, it accomplished what it set out to do: convey fear.

We are lucky that there are three versions of this story out in the world: the recent film, the mini-series adaptation, and the original book the former are based on. By comparing the three, I hope to bring a few thematic aspects of the stories to light, and discuss the successes and shortfalls of attempting to apply those themes to a story.

Summaries of IT can be found throughout the internet. IT and the creator—Stephen King—is so imbedded within society that I won’t explain much of the plot here. The premise, for the uninitiated, is that a group of kids growing up in the suburbs begin realizing there is a creature trying to kill them, and the creature feeds off of their fear.

To be clear upfront, I enjoyed the new film. It is not perfect, but it had to balance a lot of various realities: a direct adaptation of the book was not an option; the new movie had to live up to rose-colored expectations comparing it to the Tim Curry mini-series adaptation; the modern horror audience had to be factored into all of the decisions for the new film.

The movie is also adapting the source material from a book that is so long that its audiobook spans nearly forty-five hours. If you half a half-hour commute to work and you want to listen to IT on audiobook, it will take you a month and a half. Boiling that down to two-isa hours is no easy task.

There is a complicated balancing act when adapting a story, and I personally feel like the writers, directors, producer, actors and everyone else involved did their best to balance all of these factors in the new movie.

In many ways, all creative works are reinterpretations of ageless stories. The Heroes Journey is a timeless trope that still invigorates us. The Coming of Age tale is repeated annually throughout all of our media. The list of archetypes for story structure is not as long or varied as it appears to be when you walk through a book store or scan streaming video services.

What matters is the way a story is told. What aspects are concentrated on. What is thrown away. How the characters interact—characters that are, themselves, often common archetypes.

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A Flaw Of Horror

For the new adaptation of IT, I’d like to address the modern horror-going audience upfront. Today’s horror audiences are conditioned to one type of horror scenario: the jump scare. Jump scares for days.

It’s a familiar set up and execution. The music in the film will tell you exactly when something is coming, leading the audience to anticipate the moment. The music then cuts low, and the jump scare moment manifests with a spike in sound effects. Everyone is surprised briefly, and this is repeated over and over again.

Most horror aficionados are not fans of this tactic. It is cheap and easy to do with a premise that’s sloppily put together. Most horror movies these days aren’t actually very scary. They are just peppered with jump scares.

The new movie adaptation for IT is no different. The disappointing aspect of the jump scares in this movie is that the movie would have been amazing without the jump scares. Because the premise, itself, is absolutely horrifying.

I’m not saying that IT gets a pass on this, but it had to balance the source material with a modern adaptation. And modern horror movies have to do one thing to be successful in today’s market: have jump scares.

I personally believe that IT raking in the box office that it did is because it towed the line on the jump scare. Would it have been justified in leaving the jump scares out? Yes. Absolutely. Would it have been as commercially viable? Hard to say.

It would have been a superior film, but it may not have fared as well with mass audiences. The jump scare was used often, because the movie wanted to appeal to the masses. I understand that, and it is what it is. But the source material from the book is the gold that gave the new movie the ability to use jump scares on top of an amazing concept, which was executed really well.

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Characters

With that out of the way, there were other things this movie had to factor in. The original book had a number of sexual encounters between children that wouldn’t have translated well to film. The script had to tackle half of a massive book, which meant that characters and plot lines would have to be cut in such a way as to not also detract from the overall story and themes. And artistic limitations were abound. Deciding to set the new movie in the 1980s made sense, because the 1950s references in the book would be a hard sell for modern audiences, who wouldn’t understand as many 50s references as 80s references.

This article isn’t just about criticism, though. The new movie does many things right. The child actors are amazing. They are spectacularly well casted and allowed the freedom to move around in the story. They are given a lot of time to bond, and while some are developed more than others, it was in the service to the run time and it makes sense.

The only shortfall I found in the acting for the movie was with the antagonist, Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård. Many people are comparing his performance with the original Tim Curry performance and also Heath Ledger’s Joker.

This isn’t fare. Mostly because Pennywise simply has little room to perform. Most of his moments are under thirty seconds, and he’s given one monologue in the film. You could argue that there are two monologues, but that’s a shortfall from the amount of dialogue opportunities that Heath Ledger had in The Dark Knight.

Ledger was given multiple opportunities to verbalize the character of The Joker, and The Dark Knight absolutely benefitted from that.

Bill Skarsgård wasn’t given the same freedom. Did he demonstrate the potential? Absolutely. But most of his interactions with the characters were jump scares, drooling looks, and one-liners. CGI also played a hindering role, in my opinion.

His introduction is done very well, though, and he really explodes onto the screen when given the opportunity.

Bringing it back to the kids, there were several brilliant moments that the movie took with them.

Allowing Beverly to deal with her period was done both tactfully and in a way that conveyed empathy. Of equal importance was allowing the kids to talk as kids do when adults aren’t around.

This is minor, but makes a huge impact on the audience because everyone viewing is able to immerse themselves just a little more. Kids swearing is relatable. The more the audience buys into the story and characters, the more they are able to suspend disbelief and also feel fear when the characters are in scary situations.

Allowing some of the racial moments from the book was also important. The new movie does this better than the mini-series did.

The book makes the racial tension a large part of the story, and to great effect. The new movie would have benefitted from bravely incorporating this more, but I can understand that the filmmakers wanted to concentrate on a few themes. The missing children being one of the larger concentrations of the movie, and the relationship between the kids, Beverly, and the bullies of the town.

Why does this matter to storytelling, though?

Because a story that is grounded in various aspects of human nature is a story that will speak to the audience. Surface level stories achieve little. Stories that allow subtext and strive to include deeper meanings are the stories that last.

Stephen King wrote IT decades ago, and the story the book conveys is still relevant. Partially because of the characters, but also because of the subtext and themes. That is why Beverly’s period matters, and the racially charged moments matter. Because those are themes worth discussing.

In the context of horror, these themes ground the story to make it more than just a tale of a creepy clown. It becomes a story about being a kid, growing up around racism, reaching puberty, and friendship among the plethora of other themes repeated through the book and subsequent screen adaptations.

At the center of all of this were the characters.

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Why Is IT Scary?

IT is scary for a variety of reasons.

I want to look at all three iterations of the story for this section.

The original book was set in the 50s and played off of the children’s fears of the monsters of the era. There were mummies and werewolves and lepers and other monsters.

The mini-series was able to incorporate a lot of this, but also had something amazing on its side: the performance of Tim Curry.

Something the new movie lacks that the mini-series had in spades was the variety in the character of Pennywise. Tim Curry was given the chance to be funny as often as he was allowed to be scary.

There’s something unsettling underneath a performance that allows people to see both humor and horror from the same character.

What IT really provides in all of the iterations is diversity throughout the experience. It’s a coming-of-age story, in the middle of racially charged suburbia, where deviant sexual encounters are common and a creature that can represent anyone’s darkest fears is targeting children. That’s a lot of layers to what makes IT scary. Add to that the cosmic elements, and the disconnect between the children and the adults, and IT is easily one of the most diverse examples of the genre to exist.

Most stories stick to one or two themes to repeat the horror of the story alive. IT goes for broke.

This pays off in a lot of ways when it comes to the book, because there’s something inside those pages that will reach almost every horror consumer.

The screen adaptations don’t have the benefit of dozens of hours, so they have to stick to a few of the themes.

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Consuming Horror Alone

IT was very popular when it was published. There were scenes that buzzed and got people talking a lot.

Stephen King was hailed for being fearless. And for good reason.

He put in a lot of sexual deviance, as well as violence against children in that book. Some of this has already been discussed.

It was his love story to Lovecraft, too, who had so influenced him as a child. Stephen King is a huge reason for the recent resurgence in interest with Lovecraft.

The fearless aspect of the book wasn’t King’s ode to Lovecraft though. It was the aforementioned scenes of deviance.

I’m labeling it was deviance here as a catch-all, but that encompasses a variety of moments in the book. From children masturbating, sexual encounters, to first time kisses, and even inappropriate relationships between father and daughter.

This resonated with people who read the book and drew them in. Again, this book is massive and comes with whole segments that were not translated into the screen adaptations.

I believe the reason is deeper than trying to argue that audiences wouldn’t accept such scenes on a screen.

We consume books intimately and are far more accepting of books as a source material. If it’s on a page, we aren’t announcing to the world exactly what words we’re reading.

A book is consumed alone. And when left by ourselves we are very willing to explore our more deviant sides. We do embarrassing things, think embarrassing thoughts, and we often later experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with anyone publicly expressing the same thoughts we’ve had ourselves. We would rather those thoughts be kept within.

This is one of the reasons IT is so effective as a book. It really plays off of countless fears. As I’ve already mentioned, IT is not just a story about an unknown creature, it’s a story about the fears of our childhoods, the lack of adult intervention, and the depths children will go in the direction of cruelty. IT is all of those things.

But it works because of the way IT is written and consumed. Much like 50 Shades of Grey works better on the page (ask anyone who was a fan of the books). There are levels of deviance that we have difficulty enjoying in groups.

Watching a movie in a theater with a group of friends and strangers is inherently more social and more announcing. You are announcing to a portion of the world that you are experiencing this moment in the movie, and everyone around you knows you’re experiencing it.

I couldn’t imagine watching a perfect adaptation of the book in the same room with my parents. I think most people would rather not think of such possibilities.

But if my parents knew I read the book. That’s different.

It is for this reason that I believe the decisions to exclude certain elements were very crucial in the film. Every decision felt planned in the case of the recent film.

The decision to set it in the 80s was cool and retro.

The 80s retro stuff is hot right now. Stranger Things, Ready Player One, Rick and Morty being a tongue in cheek riff on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future.

It felt like the decisions to make changes were artistic/creative decisions and not just for the sake of watering down the story. So I can admire the new movie for that. The way the sets were designed, the actor’s blocking—the movie did a really good job. And while the jump scares were innumerable, I still found myself enjoying the experience.

I'm looking forward to the next one.

 

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Story And Writing

How does all of this relate to the craft? I’ve discussed how important I feel the decisions of the book and the screen adaptations were. How the way characters interact is significant.

There’s a lot to learn from the story of IT. I truly believe that the story is made all there powerful because the audience is actually invested in the decisions of the characters, and believe that this movie does an excellent job. The book does an even better job. The older mini-series does a better job during the first half than in the second half.

Another significant thing that King often does well is his characters stay true to themselves. A curious character makes curious decisions. A scared character is consistently scared. He often incorporates character arcs, but the arcs don’t always play out the way we believe they will. Even when they don’t, the characters stay true to themselves above all other things.

A lot could be said with that. When movies of all genre are released even today and characters make irrational decisions for the sake of the plot instead of the sake of the characters, that says a lot. IT does not have trouble with this.

Character dynamic is huge in IT, as well, and I’ve touched on it. Stranger Things has been recently cited as being inspired by the book IT, and Stephen King is known for being able to produce the relationships that children have without adults really well—Stand By Me is another great example of a film adaptation that plays off of this gift that King has.

When it comes to writing, the best thing to do is allow characters to make decisions that make sense. Human nature is normally consistent. Is that disappointing sometimes? Yes. But it’s easier for an audience to immerse in a story if the characters in the story are scared.

It’s harder to care about characters who get naked and take a shower when a serial killer is on the loose. Instead, everyone says phrases like, “oh, come on.”

That simply isn’t something a person would do. They’d do anything else besides that.

For me, the biggest thing to take away from the new movie, and of course the book, is that there is diversity to a genre. There are no limits. Stephen King is often referenced as a horror author, but he writes in many genres. Whatever a story needs is how he approaches it.

IT is no different. There are really touching moments of childhood innocence that ground the story. The kids in the story are amazingly well balanced as a group. Then there are scenes of gore and horrific moments of over-the-top murder. It gets wild.

And at the center of it all is a goofy clown that wants to eat the protagonists. If you really try to simplify the story of IT, it can come off sounding pretty silly. Really, the best way to experience it is to simply read the book. Deep dive into a story that will truly affect you.

For my fellow writers out there, if you haven’t read the book, I would like to really encourage you to. Not everyone clicks with it, but most people do. And if you walk away from it with criticisms, that’s not a bad thing. It’s an achievement, regardless of any of our opinions.

When it comes to being creative, there aren’t rules. There are just people out there who say there are rules. Ignore those people.