Friday, June 17, 2011

Going Gothic with Mario Acevedo by MB Partlow

When I learned he was speaking at the May PPW WriteBrain on “Going Gothic: Writing Dark Fantasy,” I knew I had to attend.

Despite an early fascination with machine guns, Mario Acevedo came into his own with his quirky, sexy, funny series about Felix Gomez, vampire detective. From The Nymphos of Rocky Flats to the most recent book, Werewolf Smackdown, you won’t find a more twisted and amusing foray into urban fantasy.

Lest you think Mario’s life has been all Bloody Marys and margaritas by the pool, you have to know that he has served in war zones, been outsourced and downsized, and suffered the loss of his promising career as a velvet Elvis painting model.

Any encounter with Mario leads to scrambling to write down all the books and authors he mentions. If there’s anything better than a good writer, it’s a good writer who reads. And shares.

Mario began by talking about why people read dark fantasy. “We want to release our repressed animal nature and antisocial emotions through horror and embrace the sense of wonder evoked by fantasy.” But he also warned that we, as writers, have to follow through on the promises we make to our readers. The fantasy element has to draw readers into the fantastic world we’ve created, while the horror element has to scare them. Dark fantasy “combines the fantastic and horror through forces beyond human comprehension.”

As examples, he cited H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (a true classic), Clive Barker’s Weaveworld (which veers away from his darker works) and Charlie Huston’s Already Dead (it doesn’t get more hardboiled than this guy, vampire or no).

Mario also discussed epic fantasy, like Martin’s Game of Thrones or Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and the contemporary settings of urban fantasy in Stein’s The Becoming, Butcher’s Dresden Files, or even A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. He also included paranormal romance, where the emphasis on romance is driving the plot, and horror, which he defined as “fiction that creates the necessary atmosphere to evoke emotional dread through repugnance and fear.”

While Mario was focused on dark fantasy, I’d have to argue that his advice holds for all genres. He said “We create a setting and a mood that builds empathy with the main character on stage by showing apprehension, maybe fear, and a sense of jeopardy.” Every writer strives to build that empathy, not just writers on the darker side of the street. And if there’s no apprehension, no sense of jeopardy of any sort, then what sort of story do you have? How will you draw your readers in and make them root for your character if life is good, all is well, and everything from the main character’s sense of well-being to the universal karmic balance is just fine?

In dark fantasy, “we introduce vicious characters and supernatural creatures who operate outside the rules.” What makes it fantasy is the use of supernatural creatures. What makes good writing is characters who operate outside the rules. Think of Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or even Skeeter in The Help. All three characters were operating outside of the rules their society expected them to follow.

Mario’s list of tips for writing dark fantasy, again, apply across genres. Write from your guts. “Reveal the story through dialog, feelings, internalizations, action, description, exposition and back-story.”

But he saved the best for last. He had us do a writing exercise, creating tension with just two sentences. One of his examples:  I love you. Too bad you have to die. But the best one of the night, which I’ll paraphrase because I didn’t write it down quick enough, was a single sentence: She had lovely eyes, he thought, as he held one up to the light.