Now, let’s get down to business. I guess I need this; to clear my conscience and clear my mind.
I lied to you.
I’m sorry. I think.
But this is the cure. The revelation. The big attempt to clean my samskaras as the Hindus would say. Clear your samskaras, your ballast, and you can free yourself from the eternal and painful cycle; the suffering; the punishment of rebirth.
This is how you write a NoSleep story. Or any horror story.
The first step is to have an idea. A concept, let’s say a man that appears behind your reflection.
You have to feel yourself into the moment. You have to stand in front of the mirror, with all your intention and all of your heart, and you have to stare at that empty space behind your reflection and you have to see him, there, with a straight nose and a perfectly symmetrical face and this smooth haircut, the hair, perfect, completely without hair loss, the way only actors in Hollywood can have it, combed to the side.
And you imagine him, standing there. Imagine what he looks like. How close does he stand? Does he keep his distance at the beginning, but then, over time, he steps closer?
A good horror story takes time. You cannot just churn it out in a few minutes. You have to feel it over days; you have to make the fear real – grow it, feed it, let it nourish and consume you at the same time.
So you write down what you saw. Make up a beginning – an amulet some strange gave you, or maybe you saw him first somewhere on public transport, standing behind someone else, or you saw him in the window of that neighbour that just died a few days back. It doesn’t matter at all what the beginning is, the reader will forget it.
What the reader won’t forget is the emotion. You need intensity. It helps if you had a neighbour that actually died a few days back. To feel real, to make it real in your head, you have to connect it to your world and your reality. The readers will feel whether you describe your imagination and when you describe Mr. Stock from across the street, whom you never actually saw except when he was working in the garden.
What you need to be careful about is the split; the line between fiction and reality. Good fiction incorporates reality. But the best fiction risks blurring the line – inside your own mind. Never, ever, let that happen.
So you see the man. You imagined him well. You can perfectly imagine his features. So write them down. Write him down. Start writing. Just let it flow; imagine what that man would do. Imagine why he stands there – whether he is just curious, or whether he wants contact, or whether he is one of those, filled with rage and hate, decades old, that just don’t stop burning.
Imagine him. Feel his hate. Make it real inside your head. Feel yourself into that man, standing there, behind your own, slightly shivering mirror image.
Do you feel the hair on your arms stand up? Good.
That is how a good story starts. Not with an idea, but with a feeling. A feeling that goes deep inside you; a feeling that grows inside you, stronger and stronger, and ever more intense. When you are writing your story this feeling should grow. Don’t try to write yourself empty; don’t try to cure yourself off your thoughts and ideas and imaginations and that man that, if you’ve done it right, you really sometimes seem to see.
Mr. Stock died. You saw the man there. And he then appeared in your mirror. Remember, it’s all just fiction. Don’t cross the borderline. Don’t let your mind wander.
What would be consistent?
The man would appear in more places. He appears in the reflection in your window. And the bus window. And the office window. And the screen of your office computer. And when you pull your mobile out of your pocket, in that short moment before you push the unlock button and while the screen is black – he is there too, smiling, maybe, or just staring.
Can you feel him? See him? Is that how he would act?
Or maybe he just appears in the mirror. Maybe even just that one mirror. The mirror was there when you moved in and you never bothered to take it off. Actually, you never even really cleaned it. It always stays clear, right? That’s what the mirror is like.
Again. Don’t forget. It’s all just fiction. Don’t let it invade your mind. Reality is just in our minds. Minds are weak; perception is weak because it comes from outside, because imagination is strong.
You can still see him, right? Just for this moment, when you don’t even bother to go to the mirror, you close your eyes and mentally walk through your apartment, through the corridor and closer and towards that mirror and the moment you see your own mirror image clearly; the moment you are close enough, even in your imagination, he is there.
Good. Just don’t believe it. Please, don’t believe it.
You are still writing. Time has passed, your imagination has become more vivid. Maybe you saw him in your dreams? That sometimes happens to me and those are the nights when I wake up sweating and screaming and it’s just two nights ago that my neighbour actually came down and hammered against the door because he heard my screaming for some man to go away and leave me alone. It must have been my dream; how wonderful; how real he must have become. That is how you write a good story, when you are even able to imagine his eau de toilette, a musky smell with a hint of clove.
Now of course if you want to make a story really good it should be closer to reality than you would like it to be. Your life should be interwoven in the story. You pretend you are making things up, but what you are actually writing down are your fears and nightmares and you pretend that you are not disturbed by those, because, well, those are just fiction. Right.
What does he do that man? When you cannot stop yourself from standing in front of that mirror. Of course, a reasonable character in your story would stay away from the mirror – he would smash it or take it down or ask someone else to take it down, or maybe just avoid the bathroom for a while. But you are not in a story. So you can stand there, imagining the man as vividly as you can. You let him grow in your mind – and it will take a moment for your character to notice that the man didn’t grow, that, instead, he just stepped closer.
He never moved, but he stepped closer. He is closer. Close enough that you can imagine yourself feeling the cold movement of his breath. You feel his shape behind you, blocking the wind and somehow calming the area behind your back. It is easy to imagine the image; to see him in the mirror. But it is a lot harder to imagine the other senses. No noise yet. Of course he won’t make a noise. Why would he make a noise? But he is there, heavy and cold behind you. That disturbs the room, the energy, the atmosphere.
Can you feel it?
I’ve tried it so many times, but it doesn’t always work. It just doesn’t always work because, quite simply, they don’t always feel real. And if you can’t feel them as real your story won’t feel real. So no matter how unpleasant it is or how long you have to stand there, stare at that image and let him come closer and feel his cold and the heaviness and wonder whether his arm is moving or still just at his side.
For me, his arm is moving.
Each time I go to the mirror his arm moves a slightly bit further.
He could already have touched me, but he didn’t want to. He just doesn’t want to touch me in a random place – he wants to feel my neck.
His hand, then, moves slowly, every time, the longer I stand the further it moves, up towards my neck.
And that is what happens to my protagonist, who is also the narrator, who is also me, because my reality is interwoven with him, and thus the protagonist is also the author and if I’m honest that confuses me, but it makes the story better. It makes the story more real. It allows the reader to feel that I myself don’t want to admit the fear – nobody wants to admit that they are scared, just like when people walk down dark roads, particularly men, they might pretend to walk slow or be calm or take their time, but actually they are terrified and every noise, especially the ones that come through their headphones, the headphones that produce no music because the phone is empty, especially those noises that come through the dead headphones, those are terrifying.
And the same way, you, as the author, have to pretend to yourself that you know it’s all not real and that you don’t believe it, but at the same time you know that you believe it and that you have to believe it, because else the story would not feel real enough.
Okay. I think you got that. Feel the fear and do it anyway, right? Just like when you walk on the street and you see that group of shady guys standing there, but you don’t cross the street because you don’t want to admit to them – and even less to yourself – that you are terrified. And usually it goes right, that they are not as shady as you thought, but sometimes it goes wrong.
Before you sit down to write I recommend to take a good, deep sip of a glass. Gin and tonic works for me, but maybe you’re more a beer type or coke and whisky is another smooth mix. Tea is too calm. You need alcohol to relax you; it should allow you to exit that strange wounded world that is your own, into the one that is just fantasy but actually, on some level, connected to your own.
And if you are like me you might find yourself standing in front of that mirror again. It’s funny, because you know it’s not real, and that, if that man was real, you would not be stupid enough to stand in front of that mirror and certainly not for so long. People in horror movies, they are always so stupid. But they also don’t know they are in horror movies; they also should think that they are in reality – and in reality horror doesn’t happen.
All those stories, those about unexpected suicides – random guys jumping out of windows for no reason whatsoever – and those sudden psychological breakdowns or spontaneous human combustions or just, plain, good, old disappearances, you know they are all not real. There are so many people in the world, they must be real, just like those guys in China that hide on house roofs to throw acid bombs at young girls, the world is so large that they must be real, but at the same time it cannot be true that such people exist in your personal world. They would never be close to you. And certainly none of your friends would ever off themselves for no reason whatsoever. And none of them ever cut themselves and don’t remember why, did they?
So. That mirror. You stand there, for inspiration, because you desperately want to get that story out of your head. And you just let him move. Because you know he is not real; you are absolutely sure that this all just started with your imagination and that if he started there he really also is just that, imagination.
And he moves his arms and you feel his hand brush against your shirt and you chicken out.
It’s okay. That happened to all of us. It’s a sign that your imagination is working well. It means you are, or will be, a good author. To be an author means you need a good, vivid, intense, almost too strong imagination. So strong that sometimes you yourself wonder what is real.
And you sit there, ideally, writing down your story, or maybe you write to somebody else about how you prepare for writing stories, how you imagine strange women on the street or random people speaking to you, or amulets, or that Mr. Stock died, or that there is a man in the mirror. And it’s okay if you confuse reality and imagination. That is part of the art, part of what has to happen if you want to write a good story; if you want to be an author. Tolkien was a hobbit for some days and Rowling was a Harry Potter or Hermione Granger for a while and you will have to be a scared human being, with endorphins and adrenaline and hopefully some good gin in your blood and that’s all you need to churn out a fucking good story and nothing more and nothing less, because, really, Tolkien knew he was not a hobbit and Rowling knew there was no Voldemort, even if she had nightmares about him, and, really, you know that while you are sitting at your laptop there is nothing moving inside that mirror, or out of that mirror in the other room.
But you imagine it. That’s your task. You imagine it, because that’s what will happen to your protagonist. And you haven’t decided yet whether he will die or live or whether you leave it open, for the reader to decide or judge.
And there is another lesson I learned. It’s that you can’t let yourself be distracted while writing. When you are at it, when you are writing, you really should not allow yourself to be distracted. If you do it well and your room is dark and the room next door is dark too, but there is some sort of light, whether it be the router or the alarm clock or the streetlight, something that makes sure shadows are still moving through the apartment, then you will feel the fear. You will not imagine it, you can feel it, in your bones and running down your spine and in the intensity of your every moment. Your breath is flat. Fast. That’s okay. It’s part of the act. It’s part of the show. It’s part of what will make your story good.
Don’t turn around when you feel that fear. You don’t want to turn and find that there is no man behind you, because then your fear is gone and all that work was for nothing and you can’t write anymore. And of course you don’t want to turn around to see that he is really there. But of course he’s not there, even when you feel the cold, because the cold is just in your imagination, and there definitely is no noise, no soft tapping, no shallow and slow breath, except your own shallow and fast breath, because he is just in your imagination and the reason you don’t turn around is not that you are too scared to turn around, but rather that you don’t want to lose that fear and that image; you worked for that fear and that image and you want to make sure other people can feel it too, because, after all, that is why you write stories and why you do all this to yourself, because you hope to be read and you hope that the other one understands that your fear was real.
Your fear, it has to be real. You have to nourish it. Imagine the man coming closer behind you, while you describe your protagonist, how he acts and how stupid he is, because he doesn’t know that the horror is real.
And when your protagonist feels the cold, right now, when you describe how the cold grows behind his back, slowly, like a wind or a wave, emitted from a single freezing point right behind him, a point that is moving closer, rapidly, faster than he did while he was still in the mirror, that’s when you should feel it too, running down your spine.
So that’s how you write a good story. All just fiction. All just fiction. All just fiction. Your imagination. Nothing more. But you have to feel it, deep inside. You have to feel the cold. And you can’t turn around, because then the fear would be gone. And that other option, it is stupid. It is stupid. Horror is not real. These things don’t exist, even if you imagine them. The cold is not real and the movement in the air is not real and when you stop writing and hold your breath and something is still breathing in the room – that is just your imagination.
Just your imagination. Let it grow. Allow the man to touch your shoulder and neck. He’s just in your head. There is no cold. Nothing real. Nothing that can hurt you.
Just don’t turn around.