Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror


Recently, I attended the Horrorhound convention in Cincinnati. It was sponsored by Samhain Books, one of my publishers, and I went there to sign copies of my latest novel, The Way of All Flesh. The night before the convention, I saw some folks on Facebook mention they were aspiring horror writers themselves, and they were looking forward to meeting and talking with the Samhain authors in attendance – which (besides me, of course) included Russell James, Jonathan Janz, Quinn Langston, Mick Ridgewell, Kristopher Rufty, David Searls, and Hunter Shea. I thought it might be a good idea to put together a handout of tips for writing horror to have available at convention. And then, since I’m a big believer in re-using good information wherever I can – and NOT because I’m lazy – I decided to post it here on my blog as well. (Here’s an additional tip: create your own lists as giveaways at your author appearances: Top Ten Tips for Creating Better Characters, Seven Ways to Generate Suspense, etc. And at the end, include information on where readers can find your books so they can check to see if you practice what you preach.)

And now, The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror.

·         Horror comes from a fear of the unknown. Keep a sense of mystery going in your story. What’s happening? Why is it happening? What’s going to happen next? How much worse is it going to get?

·         Horror comes from a violation of what your characters consider to be normal reality. This violation shakes them to their very core because it raises the possibility that everything they thought they knew is wrong and that anything could happen. The Universe isn’t orderly or benign. It’s chaotic and malicious.

·         Dread is the mounting anticipation of a threat drawing ever closer. Terror is a deep emotional and intellectual reaction to a threat, a profound realization that reality isn’t what we thought it was. Horror is an immediate reaction to a threat – disbelief, denial, turning away. Shock is a surprise, an adrenaline rush, while Disgust is a queasy visceral reaction. Dread and Terror are the most effective weapons in a horror writer’s arsenal – they have a much greater impact on readers – but all the techniques have their strengths.

·         The horror equivalent of the Hero’s Journey: Some Poor Bastard’s Descent into Hell. Horror works best when it focuses on normal people (hence the “Poor Bastard”), and the characters’ situation steadily and nightmarishly worsens (the “Descent”). “Hell” can be physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, internal, external – or better yet, a combination of them all. Possible Story Outcomes with this pattern: the Poor Bastard Escapes Hell, the Poor Bastard is Eternally Damned, the Poor Bastard Escapes with Severe Wounds and Scars, the Poor Bastard is Transformed by Hell, the Poor Bastard Carries Hell With Him, the Poor Bastard Drags Other to Hell or Brings Hell to Them, and the Poor Bastard Becomes the Devil.

·         Horror is internal more than external. In the movie Alien, the crew of the Nostromo aren’t trained to deal with monsters, so they’re terrified. In the sequel Aliens, the space marines are trained soldiers and while they might be frightened by the monsters they face, it’s not to the same degree as the characters in the first movie. Alien is a horror film because of the characters’ internal reaction to events. Aliens is an action movie because of how the characters in that film react. Write with a close point of view to show your characters’ emotional reaction to events in order to create effective horror.

·         Give readers characters they care about. Horror stories aren’t about the monster. They’re about how people react to the monster. (Or in some cases, react to becoming monsters.) If readers care about your characters, if they empathize with them, then the threats these characters face will be meaningful to readers. If your characters are the equivalent of video game avatars with no personality, the threats they face will be meaningless to readers.

·         Respect your characters – all of them. In horror, sometimes a character’s only function is to die in order to establish how serious the threat is and build suspense. Even if these characters only have a short time on stage, give them their dignity. For the brief time that they appear, try to present them as full, rich characters as much as possible. This will increase your reader’s emotional involvement in the story and make the threat seem even worse.

·         Avoid clich├ęs. Horror is about the unknown, and once a specific type of character, threat, or story structure becomes too familiar, it loses its power to engage and affect readers – especially in horror.

·         Make your horror personal. Draw from your own experience, observations, and fears to create horror only you can write – horror that’s yours and no one else’s.

·         Take new approaches to old archetypes. Instead of writing about a classic vampire, rework that trope. Put a new spin on it. For example, vampires drain lifeforce from their victims. So what if there was a creature that injected lifeforce into its victims? Perhaps the souls of people that have died, souls that eventually try to gain control of their new hosts. Instead of people spending the night in a haunted house, what if the house was broken into hundreds of pieces, and each piece was given to a different person? This way, the haunting comes to them.

·         There are no limits, but horror elements should serve the story and the characters’ journey. You don’t want your stories to be the equivalent of a simple walk through a carnival spook house, no matter how grotesque and bizarre the attractions inside may be. Character and story come first. After that, your tale can be as weird and extreme as you want to make it.

·         Physical pain is easy – too easy. In horror, characters are often under the threat of physical violence, injury, and ultimately death. But the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds characters suffer can be far worse than mere physical pain. Make sure that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen in your horror – not by a long shot.

·         Don’t save the best for last. In “The Body Politic” Clive Barker takes the old horror trope of the living severed hand that’s out for revenge and puts a new spin on it. Normally, stories using this trope end with the hand of a dead person returning to enact revenge on its murderer. “Oh my God, the hand is alive!” In “The Body Politic,” Barker begins with the premise that our hands – all of them – have separate lives and personalities, and they wish to be free from “the tyranny of the body.” Barker didn’t save his best idea for last. He began with his best idea and kept going from there. You should do the same.

·         How you write is just as important as What you write. Example Version 1: There was a monster outside the front door. A man opened the door and the monster ate him. Example Version 2: Bob had his hand on the knob, was just about to turn it, open the door, and walk outside to check the mail, when he felt the metal vibrate beneath his flesh. Not much, just a little. But it made him think that someone on the other side had put their hand on the outside knob, making it jiggle the tiniest bit. And was the metal starting to feel colder, as if a silent arctic wind caressed the knob outside? It was a ridiculous thought, but he removed his hand from the knob all the same and, without realizing it, took two steps backward. The way you tell your story is just as important, if not more so, than the kind of story you’re trying to tell. This is true with any type of fiction, but it’s especially true in horror.

·         Horror shouldn’t be safe – in any way, shape, or form. Horror should take risks with characters, story elements, and narrative techniques. Readers shouldn’t be able to guess what’s going to happen next, and once they think they have your story figured out, that’s when it should take a shocking left turn. Keep your readers off balance the entire time, and they’ll experience something of what your characters are going through in the story. They won’t feel safe – and they’ll love your stories all the more for it.


·         Horror Writers Association, www.horror.org

·         International Thriller Writers Association. www.thrillerwriters.org

·         Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft

·         On Writing, Stephen King

·         Danse Macabre, Stephen King

·         On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, ed.

·         Writers Workshop of Horror, Michael Knost, ed.

·         How to Write Horror Fiction, William Nolan.

·         To Each Their Darkness, Gary Braunbeck

·         Writing the Paranormal Novel, Steven Harper

·         Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror, Stanley Wiater

·         Dark Thoughts on Writing, Stanley Wiater

·         How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, J.N. Williamson

·         Now Write: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Laurie Lamsen

As I mentioned above, my novel The Way of All Flesh is out from Samhain Publishing. FEARnet says it’s “One of the most original and surprising takes on the zombie genre I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” So now you have to read it, right?
My novel Pandora Drive is finally available in an ebook edition thanks to the fine folks at Crossroad Press. This is the novel that caused a woman in Florida to write to the police in my hometown because she feared I might be a dangerous lunatic. So you REALLY have to read this one, if only to see what depraved depths my diseased imagination can sink to!
The Big Thrill, the newsletter of the International Thriller Writers Association, interviewed me about The Way of All Flesh and writing in general.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fiction Writing Assessment Form

Here's an assessment form that teachers and members of writing groups can use to provide feedback/assess fiction. Feel free to use this, copy this, revise it for your own purposes, and share it as you will.

This assessment sheet is based on a simple Likert Scale of 1-4. 1 means little to no evidence, 2 shows some development, 3 means proficiency, and 4 indicates mastery of outcome.

                                                       Mastery             Proficient          Some Skill          Lacks Skill


·         Engaging, interesting characters    4                              3                              2                              1

·         Well-developed characters             4                              3                              2                              1

·         Clear, believable motivations         4                              3                              2                              1

·         Clear character goals                        4                              3                              2                              1


·         Point of view is effective for story  4                              3                              2                              1

·         Clear, consistent                                 4                              3                              2                              1

·         Avoids point-of-view shifts               4                              3                              2                              1


·         Varied types of description used      4                              3                              2                              1

·         Types of description well-blended    4                              3                              2                              1

·         Natural –seeming                                 4                              3                              2                              1

·         Reveals character                                 4                              3                              2                              1

·         Advances story                                      4                              3                              2                              1

·         Conventions followed                          4                              3                              2                              1


·         Interesting                                              4                              3                              2                              1

·         Logical                                                     4                              3                              2                              1

·         Innovative                                               4                              3                              2                              1

·         Surprising                                                4                              3                              2                              1


·         Sharply defined                                      4                              3                              2                              1

·         Drives the story                                      4                              3                              2                              1

·         Reveals character                                   4                              3                              2                              1


·         Kept to a minimum                               4                              3                              2                              1

·         Well-blended                                          4                              3                              2                              1

·         Used only when needed                       4                              3                              2                              1


·         Focused                                                    4                              3                              2                              1

·         Vivid                                                          4                              3                              2                              1

·         Effective transitions                               4                              3                              2                              1


·         Well-controlled                                       4                              3                              2                              1

·         Forward-moving                                     4                              3                              2                              1

·         Varied                                                       4                              3                              2                              1


·         Word choice                                            4                              3                              2                              1

·         Precision                                                  4                              3                              2                              1

·         Effective imagery                                   4                              3                              2                              1

·         Effective rhythm                                    4                              3                              2                              1


·         Rules adhered to                                    4                              3                              2                              1

·         Rules “bended” where needed           4                              3                              2                              1


Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tale of Four Signings

A few years ago, I was signing books outside the dealers’ room at the Marcon science fiction convention. A man approached the table and spent a few minutes looking over my books.
“I might as well take this one,” he said, after picking up a copy of my novel Nekropolis. “I’m getting it for my wife. It was her birthday a couple weeks ago, and I forgot to get her anything. Just write inside that you’re sorry it’s late.”

I looked at him. “Do you mean write that you’re sorry?”

“No, write that you’re sorry.”

I looked at him again, a bit longer this time, then I shrugged and then signed it to his wife, adding I’m sorry your husband forgot to get you a present. Then I signed my name, handed him the book, and he walked off without checking to see what I wrote. I have a feeling that his present was most likely not well received.

The book-signing is one of the most common tools in a writer’s promotional arsenal, especially with the increase in self-publishing. When I was first starting to learn about marketing and promotion sometime in my twenties, the common wisdom old pros would pass down to us newbies in those pre-Internet days was that most self-promotional efforts were wasted time. The best way for your books to reach readers was to partner with a traditional publisher who could get your work into bookstores and who (might) spend a little money on promotion for you. Doing readings, signings, and attending cons were only worthwhile if you enjoyed such activities. (Or, as some of the more cynical pros would say, if you need to do those things to feel like a “real” writer.) Self-promotional efforts wouldn’t put any money into your pocket, and you’d be lucky to connect with one or two readers. And in the case of cons, you’d have to lay out your own money for travel expenses, food, etc. Bottom line, as far the pros were concerned: you’d be better off staying home and writing.

As I began publishing more regularly, I tried various self-promotional activities for myself, and my experience bore out the old pros’ advice. So while I was still happy to do signings, readings, panels, or workshops at a con, I stopped seeking out promotional opportunities. Occasionally, someone would contact me and ask if I could do a writing workshop for their school or organization, and I’d say yes. But otherwise, I was done.

But as the years passed, and more small-presses sprang up and more writers self-published, I began to see more writers doing promotional activities, especially signings. I wondered if times had changed enough that it might be worth it for me to try doing more promotion. I also began to wonder if, after publishing for so many years, I was getting lazy. So when a library not far from Cleveland contacted me and asked me to participate in their upcoming book fair, I said yes. The library was a three-hour drive from where I lived, but they had a bookseller coming in who would have presenters’ books for sale, so I wouldn’t have to schlep my own copies, and I’d never done any promotion in that part of the state. They also wanted me to be on a publishing panel with several other writers to kick off the event. I knew that money-wise, I’d be in the hole when it was done, but I wanted the experience. Besides, I try to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves (which often means I end up committing to more than I can comfortably do, but that’s a topic for another blog post). You never know what connections you might make, how they may pay off down the road, etc.

The library was new, big, modern, and extremely cool. As soon as I saw it, I thought that maybe this event would turn out to be something special. (I can hear some of you out there laughing already.) The opening panel wasn’t well attended. Less than a dozen people came. My fellow panelists were all literary writers who taught at area colleges, and the panel went well enough. Afterward, I asked a fellow panelist if he was going to stay for the book fair, and he laughed. “I did it last year. I’m going to skip it this time.”

His response did not bode well.

Soon after, many other writers arrived and began setting up their displays. The bookstore people came, and while they had my books, they didn’t have the new novel by one of my fellow panelists who did decide to stay for the fair, so she packed up and left, looking rather relieved to have an excuse to duck out, I thought. Then the fair began.

People trickled in steadily over the next few hours, but almost none of them bought books, and they certainly didn’t buy any of mine. I had a small poster and some fliers, but after checking them out, people would say some variation of “Horror? I can’t read that stuff. It keeps me up at night” and move on. Less than an hour after the fair began, most of the authors (who all appeared to be self-pubbed) started wandering around, introducing themselves to one another, swapping business cards, and asking for leads on other book fairs they might be able to attend to sell their books. (And asking me how much I had to pay to get my books published.) It was one of the most surreal – and sad – displays I’ve seen when it comes to self-promotional events. The librarians in charge were perplexed and dismayed that very few people came.”Maybe if we’d publicized the event more . . .” one of them told me.

The next signing I did was at the World Horror Convention. I participated in the mass signing at the con, and I did sign some books. But since the con was in New Orleans, few people bought books that weekend. They were saving their money for food and booze, and who could blame them? You have to have priorities in life. I saw one writer who had a stack of his new novel at his table. No one came to visit him until he put up a hastily scrawled sign that said FREE BOOKS! He had visitors then – as long as his supply held out. People will always take a free book. I wonder how many of those books get read, though.

The next signing event I did after WHC was during the spring residency for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Professional Fiction program, in which I serve as a mentor. The signing was actually put on by the program’s alumni, as part of the In Your Write Mind workshop they conduct during residencies. Between workshop presenters, program faculty, and alumni, there were dozens upon dozens of writers in attendance. Who knows, maybe close to hundred. There were certainly enough of us to fill an entire gym. I thought there would be a bookseller with faculty’s books for sale. There wasn’t. The organizers didn’t even have a name card for me or an assigned table. (I hard to write my name on a piece of paper for myself.) The organizers did an amazing job overall, so I figure I probably screwed up something along the way, forgot to email them or double-check that they received an email from me, etc. So no hard feelings on my part. I found a spot next to Lucy A. Snyder, who had a professional display of her books, along with the Bram Stoker Award she had won a couple weeks previously. I had brought some promotional postcards to pass out, but that was it. It was a bit embarrassing. I’ve published over thirty novels by this point, and I knew I should’ve brought at least a few copies with me, just in case.

So when the next signing came around, I was determined to do it right. I went to Staples and bought display stands for my books, I made my own nameplate so I wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else to make me one, I got a square card reader for my phone so I could take credit and debit card payments, I got a bloody gauze Halloween tablecloth to drape over the table, and I packed up a couple boxes of books. The signing took place at the Context science fiction convention last month, and again it was a mass signing, with maybe a dozen different writers in attendance. It went on for two hours, and I didn’t sell a single book. I signed several that people had brought with them or bought at the con, though.

So what did I learn from these signings over the last year?

·         Mass signings sound good to event organizers, but people only have so much money to spend. The more writers in attendance, the fewer (if any) books individual writers will sell. And of course, it’s harder to stand out in a crowd when there actually is a crowd.

·         The old pros were right. Signings in general probably don’t do much to promote writers, but if you’re going to be at an event anyway, it doesn’t hurt to participate in a signing.

·         If you’re going to do signings, bring your shit with you. Always.

·         Have free stuff people can take (but not your books!). As I mentioned before, I have a promotional postcard that has several book covers of mine on it. I also have a piece of flash fiction printed on the back.

·         If I wasn’t so damned lazy, I might make chapbooks of some of my how-to-write and how-to-publish articles to pass out at signings. People are most interested in what they can get from you, not what they can do for you. Many of the people at writing events want to become published writers themselves, and you can make that work for you. Whether such a chapbook would result in sales of your fiction is, not to make a pun, another story. But it might be worth a try.

·         The most valuable commodity any of us possess is time. Only do promotional events like readings if you believe they’ll be worth the time you’ll spend to do them.

·         There are lots of books on marketing and self-promotion out there. My favorite is Guerilla Marketing for Writers. There are tons of great tips in here, from cheap and easy to more expensive and effort-intensive – something for everyone! http://www.amazon.com/Guerrilla-Marketing-Writers-Low-Cost-Guerilla/dp/1600376606/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_pap?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381689472&sr=1-1&keywords=guerilla+marketing+for+writers

My latest novel, Supernatural, the Television Series: The Roads Not Taken has just been released. It’s an interactive novel (meaning you get to choose the characters’ paths throuthe story) featuring Sam and Dean Winchester from the popular TV series. I had a hell of lot of fun writing it, and I’m excited that people will finally get the chance to read it: http://www.amazon.com/Supernatural-Television-Roads-Not-Taken/dp/160887186X/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381689787&sr=1-3&keywords=tim+waggoner
My story “Unwoven” appears in the anthology Bleed. All proceeds go to fight children’s cancer: http://www.amazon.com/Bleed-ebook/dp/B00EYFPZW0/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381690372&sr=1-1&keywords=bleed+anthology