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Novel Studies: Secret Story by Ramsey Campbell

Writers get better at their craft by doing two things:  Writing alot and reading alot.  But just reading for enjoyment isn't enough.  Writers must read with one eye on what the author crafts his story.  This column will examine one novel and one screenplay each week, focusing on techniques the writers used to more effectively tell their stories.

This week, we take a closer look at the novel "Secret Story" by Ramsey Campbell.  It is a suspenseful, entertaining thriller of particular interest to writers because it centers on the age old question of where authors get their ideas.

Dudley Smith is a troubled young man working at a job placement office who longs to be a writer.  His problem is he lacks the imagination to come up with his own quality ideas.  His solution?  Murder random victims and chronicle the events as his stories.  He is smart enough to know he can't publish them, but when his overprotective mother takes it upon herself to submit one of his stories to a new magazine, Dudley's manuscript is accepted and even garners interest from a filmmaker who wants to turn it into a movie.  The director wants more ideas for Dudley's serial killer, meaning Dudley needs to find more victims, including Patricia, the editor who has been helping him since her magazine chose to publish him.  The rest of the book unfolds in a twisting, tense narrative that keeps you guessing and worrying that none of the characters are safe.  It's a highly recommended read.

What are a few things we can learn from horror master Ramsey Campbell?  First, he shows how to start a story in a unique way and with a bang by including the full text of the story Dudley gets published.  It's an unexpected way to begin things and draws us in, forcing us to want to find out what happens next.

Second, Campbell proves you can write a novel that focuses more on the bad guy than the the heroine.  He makes Dudley complex and fascinating, and somehow sympathetic despite his madness.  It's a brilliant example of how any villain should be created, building a strong back story and supplying believable reasons for their heinous actions.  Realistic and compelling antagonists are just as important as their lead counterparts but are often written as stock bad guys.

Another example of masterful crafting is the way Ramsey describes action and setting.  Campbell avoids cliche's and uses unusual but specific details and language when showing where his characters are and what they are doing.  The passages regarding Dudley's attack on the amateur comedian who also works at the magazine are engrossing and captivating, placing you right in the car with them and outside the club where she performs.

Campbell also delivers a clinic in using all the senses when Dudley takes a prisoner and tapes her up from head to toe, blinding her and limiting her other senses.  From the prisoner's perspective, only the sensory input she can receive is used to describe what is happening around her, creating a very creepy, phobic atmosphere and again putting you right there in the scene.

The use of multiple viewpoints is also well executed here and offers an excellent study in the technique.  Each character from Patrica to Dudley and his mother is painted clearly and accurately, the story events seen through the filter of their personality and allowing the reader to glean his own truth rather than being told by the writer.  Often writers are instructed to stick to one point of view, but this is rarely scene in popular novels and we would all do well to examine masters such as Campbell in the way they handle this technique.

In all, Secret Story is full of excellent story crafting and an education in creating moods and atmosphere.  I strongly encourage all to buy it, read it, and study it for techniques they can use in their own writing.

Let me know what you think of the book at MySpace.

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