Friday, October 28, 2011

Shadow Walking

"I find it hard to believe you write that kind of stuff. You seem like such a pleasant person."

One of my students has caught me in the hallway between classes. Her question is half-joking, half-serious, and there's a probing intensity in her gaze, as if she's looking for an answer to a question she can't quite articulate. I smile as I respond.

"Writing that stuff is what keeps me pleasant."

Since it's Halloween (or as horror professionals call it, Amateur Night), I thought I'd talk about writing horror this time around. I can't tell you where my love affair with the Dark began. One of my earliest memories is being a very small child, not even a year old yet, and being carried around the neighborhood at night by my mother. My parents have dressed me in a pink bunny suit -- the kind for kids that leaves the face open -- complete with bunny ears on the hood. I have no idea why they've put me in this thing, nor do I have any idea why we're going from house to house, knocking on doors. The neighbors make a fuss when they open the door and see me. Isn't he darling? I have no clue why they react the way they do, and I don't really care. I'm too fascinated by the small figures walking around, all of them dressed as strange creatures the like of which I've never seen before. They visit one house after the other, candy bags swelling ever fuller with each stop, but the treats don't interest me. I'm intrigued by the distorted faces, the dark colors, and the way these nameless figures move silently through the night.

A few years later when I'm four, maybe five, my parents let me watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man on TV with them. Afterward, my father teaches me a simple way to draw the Wolf-Man's face. I can still replicate that drawing to this day.

Not long after, one of the kids in the neighborhood shows me a book he's just gotten. It's called How to Care for Your Monster, and it's by Norman Bridwell, better known for the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. This book tells kids how to find a monster and keep it as a pet. I have to have this book, and I trade the kid a stack of baseball cards for it. Best deal I've ever made.

I could go on and on, from devouring issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland to watching scary movies on Shock Theatre with Dr. Creep every weekend. (After every program, the Creeper signed off with, "I'll be seeing you -- in your dreams. Muhahaha!") Reading Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and more. And then, in seventh grade, a friend told me about this book he'd just finished reading called 'Salem's Lot. I could also tell you about the very puzzling day in high school when, just before Thanksgiving, the teachers herded us into the gym and played Psycho for us while they stood outside and smoked. I couldn't figure out why the faculty decided on that movie as an appropriate holiday film, but I wasn't complaining.

But that's just the fun side of the Dark, like the costumes kid wear for trick-or-treat. Beneath those costumes is where the true Dark lies. I could tell you about what it was like when my Uncle Red died when I was nine years old, an event which sent me into a several year existential depression. What's the point of living when the end product is a corpse? What's the point of experiencing something good when even as you're experiencing it Time (just another face of Death) is stealing it from you? I could tell you what it was like to grow up with an agoraphobic mother who suffered strange fainting spells at least once a month, a condition doctors were never able to diagnose. I could tell you what it was like to be the weird kid in school, the smart one who tried to pretend he wasn't smart, but who still wore T-shirts with Frankenstein's monster on the front. But if I did, I wouldn't be telling you anything you don't already know. All of us experience this kind of Darkness, and many of you have probably experienced it a far greater degree than I ever have.

For a while after Uncle Red died, I hated monsters and wanted nothing to do with them. I realized that the way I felt -- the pain, the sorrow, the inexpressible loss -- was exactly what monsters in the stories I had once so loved caused. I now understood that when Dracula killed a victim, friends and relatives of that person felt what I felt. And if that victim rose from the dead to become a monster in turn, how much more awful would it be for the victim's loved ones and, if the victim had even a scrap of humanity left, how awful would it be for him or her?

I learned that horror isn't just about fear. It's about pain. And not just physical pain. Emotional, spiritual, intellectual, primal, types of pain for which we don't have words yet . . . The best horror writers and filmmakers know this. It's why I admire Rob Zombie's films so much. Zombie never shies away from his characters' pain. All of them, heroes or villains (although those terms are gross oversimplifications when applied to Zombie's films) are given their due, and their pain is respected.

So if you want to write effective horror -- or even just employ horror effectively as one element of your story -- here are some points to consider.

1. It's not about the monster.

A good horror story is about people. The "monster" -- whether literal, figurative, symbolic, situational, internal or external -- is a catalyst for conflict and change. The core of the story is what happens within your character's hearts and minds as they struggle to deal with their monster. An exception to this: stories like Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, in which the monster's emotional needs are just as important to the novel -- if not more so -- than any other element.

2. Physical pain is easy -- too easy.

A lot of beginning writers -- or writers raised on a steady diet of by-the-numbers slasher and torture porn films -- make the mistake of thinking that if a character is hurt physically in a story, that's enough to evoke horror. Any idiot can write "And then the Hash-Slinging Slasher cut off SpongeBob's arm with his Satanic Spatula." Of course your characters may suffer physical pain depending on the events of the story, but that should be the least of their problems. Cut my arm off, I'll hurt. Cut off the arm of someone I love as I watch, I'll hurt more. Make me cut off the arm of someone I love, I'll be devastated. Make me need to cut off that arm, want to, love to, beg to, and I'll be plunged into a nightmare of insanity from which I will never escape.

3. Horror is internal more than external.

As I said earlier, horror is about what happens inside your characters, not what happens to them. The horror in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" doesn't come from the murder the narrator commits, but from Poe allowing us inside the narrator's head so we can experience his (or her) insanity firsthand. In the movie Poltergeist, the horror doesn't come from the ghosts haunting the house, but from the parents' desperation to retrieve their youngest daughter from whatever otherworldly dimension the ghosts have taken her to.

4. Respect all your characters.

If you're going to kill someone off in your story, allow them their humanity. Don't treat them like a generic video game character who exists only to be mowed down by the player. You don't need to provide a character's entire life story, but readers need to get to know that character a bit before he or she bites it, and their death -- however bizarre and horrible it may be -- needs to mean something.

5. Dig deep. Don't be afraid to get personal.

Beginning horror writers go for stories based on well-worn tropes. Vampires, zombies, serial killers, ghosts, etc. Yes, you can write effective stories with these tropes, provided you put a unique spin on them. But if you want to write really good horror, you need to dig into your own psyche and find what disturbs you and then make it disturb me. I don't mean writing about spiders if you hate the eight-legged beasties. For example, when I was four and my sister two, our mother left us at home while we were napping. She left to run a couple errands (this is back when she still would leave the house) and she thought she would be back before we woke. We woke up early, though, and we had no idea where she was. We had never been left alone before. I tried to reassure my sister that everything was okay, and because I'd seen people on TV pace when they were worried, I told my sister that we should pace in a circle until Mom got home. She did return shortly after that, and my sister and I rushed crying into her arms. Mom promised she would never leave us alone again, and as the years went by and she became a true agoraphobic, you can bet that I recalled her promised to us with more than a little guilt. This specific experience is mine and mine alone -- my pain -- and I can use it as the basis for a horror story that will seem fresh and unpredictable to readers because it doesn't really on hoary old spookhouse tropes. Plus, they'll be able to relate to it because at its core, the experiences of being abandoned and feeling guilt are common human ones.

Be careful when mining your past for story nuggets, though. Avoid writing thinly disguised autobiography. Use the events as seeds to grow stories from, not as essay topics. And if you've experienced major trauma in your life, revisiting those places inside you might not be a walk in the park. But then again, as it says in the Super Chicken theme song (Google it): "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

6. Don't wallow.

Avoid the temptation to go on and on about a character's pain. Too much drawn-out detail -- whether physical or emotional -- and your audience will become numb to your character's fictional suffering. If that happens, readers can't fully engage with your story on an emotional level, and your story loses impact.

7. Be careful.

Is there such a thing as going too far in horror? Clive Barker's famous quote, "There are no limits" would seem to suggest there isn't. But keep this in mind. Readers read to be entertained, even readers of literary and classic fiction who read more for intellectual than emotional stimulation as a general rule. The more extreme your horror is in terms of dark content, bizarre imagery, violence, sex, and emotional pain, the more readers you'll turn off. As John Trent asks in John Carpenter's excellent film In the Mouth of Madness, "People pay to feel like that?" Some of us seek out the darkest fictional journeys we can find, but a lot of us prefer our horror on the less intense side. So if you want a larger audience, consider tempering your horrific elements. If you don't care how large your audience is, then feel free to go as dark as you want. But don't confuse dark with a bunch of blood and guts mindlessly strewn about the page.

So don't be reluctant to walk through the shadows, no matter how dark they get or how many strange shapes you see lurking there. But as you walk, remember: it's not the shadows outside that will thrill your readers, but the shadows within you, within them, and within us all.


Speaking of horror, the new edition of my critically lauded novel Like Death is available for pre-order. If you order between now and Nov. 4, you'll receive 25% off the cover price. Want to see if I practice what I preach? Want to read a horror novel unlike anything you've ever read before? Want to know why everyone talks about the infamous Chapter Thirteen? Then head on over to Apex Books and order a copy!

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Write, Therefore I Am

About twenty-five years ago, I worked as a reporter for a small-town weekly newspaper. It was the kind of job where I wrote my stories on an electric typewriter, and people would call in to complain if we forgot to run the bridge scores from the nursing home that week. One day a young guy came in (I say young now, but he was probably a few years older than I was then) and asked to speak to a reporter. Since my desk was in the front office, he got sent to me. He introduced himself as a local writer name David Sain. He had just self-published his first chapbook of poetry, and he wanted the paper to run a story on him. Since I was always scrambling to find copy to fill the paper (there were two papers produced in our office, and I was the only reporter working on mine), I thanked the Universe for dropping a story in my lap and proceeded to interview David. He was a well-spoken man, eager to promote himself, and he gave me plenty of information for a story, along with a publicity photo we could run.

"I call myself a poet now," he said at one point. "I didn't used to because I felt I hadn't earned the title. But I sent some of my poems to Nikki Giovanni, and she wrote me back with some great comments in which she called me a poet. So since she bestowed the title upon me, I feel that now I can say with pride that I am a poet."

Last week I was teaching a class, and one of my students asked me how I saw myself, as more of a teacher or a writer. I told him that I have so many roles in life -- father, brother, partner, friend, writer, teacher, citizen, etc. -- that I simply define myself by my name. "Tim Waggoner" encompasses all the roles I play, and all those I'll play in the future.

The student's question reminded me of David Sain and got me thinking about how important it seems to be for writers -- especially beginning ones - to define themselves as writers. And how in many cases, that identity they're trying to create for themselves is just as important to them as writing itself. Sometimes even more so.

I initially resisted self-identifying as a writer. Starting in sixth grade, I began drawing a comic book series of superhero adventures featuring myself and my friends. The Six Million Dollar Man was one of my favorite TV shows, so I turned us into The Bionic Team, four kids who were injured in a roller coaster accident and, thanks to the addition of cyborg parts, were made better, faster, and stronger. I kept the series up throughout junior high and most of high school, but as much as my friends enjoyed reading these adventures, they always said my writing was better than my art. This irritated me to no end because I wanted to become a comic book artist when I grew up -- not a writer. I was only writing the damned comics to give me a story to draw!

In high school, I explored all the creative options I could. I played trumpet in band, took art and writing classes, and was a member of the Drama Club. I was in several plays (only in the spring since I was in marching band in the fall), and by my senior year I'd switched from wanting to be an artist to wanting to be an actor. Laurie Eckert, the Drama Club director, gave me a blank journal as a graduation present. Her inscription urged me to fill it with all my "creative ideas." While I was touched that she recognized me as a highly creative person, I was a bit irritated. "I'm going to be an actor," I thought. "Not a writer!"

A year earlier, I had taken a creative writing class with Mrs. Vagedes. I wrote a story ripped-off . . . uh, I mean inspired by a comic tale I'd read in Eerie magazine about the last surviving Christmas elf who continued delivering presents on his own, only he was a murderous psychopath. I decided to take the basic premise -- which I thought hadn't realized its full potential in the Eerie version -- and I wrote a non-horror tale called "The Last Christmas Present." Mrs. Vagedes was so impressed that she read it aloud to the class. But she didn't tell who had written it. She said that it was up to the author to identify him or herself. I said nothing. I was proud of how the story turned out, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to publicly claim authorship of it. I was just a kid who'd written a story. I wasn't a "writer." I was eventually outed and awarded the honor of Writer of the Month at my school for the story, and the local paper published the story along with an interview with me. (I actually wore a suit to be interviewed by the reporter, and at one point used the word "chagrined" to sound smart.)

Sometime during my junior or senior year, I read an interview with Stephen King in an issue of Dracula Lives. He was a relatively new writer back then, just starting out, really. I remember that in the photo of him which accompanied the article he wore a pair of plastic vampire fangs. Probably not something he'd do today, I'd wager. Reading that interview was the first time I realized that a person could actually choose to be a writer as a career path. King chose it. I could choose it. I left my bedroom, walked down the hall and into the family room, and told my mother, "I think I might like to be a writer." She looked at me for a second, and then said, "I think you would be a good one."

The King interview was a revelation to me. Up to that point, I'd never considered becoming a writer. I'd been inventing stories all my life. Sometimes I'd draw them, sometimes act them out with toys, sometimes act them out on the playground with friends, but it was always Story. It was as natural and necessary to me as breathing. And who decides to make something as simple as breathing their career? I didn't immediately dedicate my life to writing at that point, but I was a step closer.

When I was a freshman in college (this was after I'd switched my major from acting to theatre education), I was sitting on the porch one day when my father got home from work. He walked up to me and handed me a brown paper bag. Inside was a copy of Writer's Digest. "I saw this at the bookstore, and I thought you might like it," he said, and then he went inside. I sat there on the porch and read the magazine from cover to cover, not only because I was interested in the articles, but because my dad bought it for me, because -- even if he hadn't said it aloud -- like my mom, he thought I could be a writer.

During college, I began writing and submitting work for publication in earnest. I took a job as a tutor in the Writing Center. My senior year I became editor of the school's literary magazine. After I graduated, I decided to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration. In my mid to late twenties I began regularly publishing short stories, and my first novel came out when I was in my mid-thirties. But at no point in my life was there one moment when I decided that I was now a WRITER. I grew into that identity, just as I've grown into my others.

Some writers, like David Sain, need someone they respect and admire to anoint them as writers, whether that person's a teacher, a mentor, a publisher, or a reviewer. Others seek to invent themselves as writers, as if they can become whatever their ideal of a writer is through sheer force of will. And some seek to purchase it, although they'd probably never look at it this way. And to make it even harder to develop an identity as a writer, there's a lot of bad advice people get along the way. So let's talk a bit about some of the larger potholes and pitfalls to be encountered on the road to developing a writing identity.

If you write, you are a writer.

I've seen this bit of wisdom posted on many a message board. The idea is opposite of what David Sain needed. Instead of waiting for someone to pronounce you a Writer with a capital W, you are one from the moment you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and begin writing. On one level, this is freeing. There's no need for someone to anoint you. But it doesn't leave room for you to grow. If you're automatically a capital W Writer from the moment you begin, why bother striving to get better? Why bother listening to feedback? Why bother to continue writing at all, really? You wrote once, right? That was good enough to earn your capital W.

There's more to writing than typing. Just ask Truman Capote.

You're only a REAL writer when you (fill in the blank).

There are lots of way to fill in the blank. You're only a real writer when you . . . publish your first story, publish your first story for pro rates, publish you first story in Well-Regarded Magazine, get an agent, publish a novel, get a five-figure advance, get a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, make the New York Times bestseller list and so on. All of this is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. Don't allow others to define your writing identity for you. If you do, either you'll drive yourself crazy trying to achieve one particular goal or, if you do achieve it, it won't be enough. Eventually the glow of success will fade, and you still won't feel "real" yet. (Besides, being real is overrated. I'd rather be a surreal writer.)

Full-time vs day job.

This could also be filed under "You're only a real writer when . . ." Some people believe you're not a writer until you can quit your day job and make a living solely from your writing. (Teaching writing doesn't count, just publishing and being paid for it.) It's long been established by people who calculate this kind of thing that the average yearly income of a writer from writing is $5000 a year. This average includes bestsellers, as well as writers of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, etc. Many writers who try writing full time find that they don't produce any more work than they did when they had day jobs. Plus, not having health insurance or a steady income to pay bills leads to a ton of stress which, you guessed it, impacts productivity. A lot of people act like writing full time is the Holy Grail of the writing life when it's more like a double-edged sword. There are a lot of pros and cons to writing full time, and only you can decide if it will work for you and your family. But do you need to write full time to be a capital W? Of course not.

Literary vs genre.

Some people think "real" writing must be literary. Anything else is pandering to the lowest common denominator. Others believe "real" writing is writing that people read: stories that entertain, and only genre writing does this. Both views are horseshit. You and you alone determine what you write. Write what fulfills you for whatever reason it fulfills you. Anyone who tells you any different is either an idiot or so insecure in their own identity as a writer that they have to push their artistic values on other people in order to feel good about themselves.

You must approach it as a business.

I've heard this piece of advice I don't know how many times from genre writers. The only "must" in writing is that you must use words to communicate ideas in written form. After that, it's up to you. Now, if you want to have a career as a selling writer who makes money, approaching it as a business is a good idea. If you write to please yourself, for artistic fulfillment, and you don't give a damn about making money, that's okay too.

Writers must always get paid.

In a perfect world, we all would be paid for every word we write. In reality, not so much. If you want to use money to keep score of your success as a writer, that's your business. But if you want to write erotic haiku about lemurs in love, go for it. (Then again, you might find there's a thriving market for lemur love poetry.) But don't let anyone take advantage of you. If you choose to write for a nonpaying market for whatever reason, fine. But if a publisher is going to make money from your writing, you should too. And of course, never, ever pay anyone to publish your work unless you desire to self publish and you go into such a venture with your eyes wide open.

Writing programs

University creative writing programs have exploded in number over the last few decades, and for one simple reason: they generate money and employ literary writers. That doesn't mean these teachers are poor ones, but if they could make a living from writing full time, most of them probably would. A lot of beginning writers feel they need an MA or MFA in creative writing so that they are sanctioned as writers by society. It makes sense. You're not a doctor until you get your MD or a lawyer until you get your JD. But often enrolling in a creative writing program is an attempt to purchase an identity as a writer. Yeah, you have to do the course work as well as pay tuition, but getting a degree doesn't make you a writer. It just means you earned a degree from one institution. (And where you get your MFA makes all the difference, but that's a topic for another blog.) Statistics show that most graduates of MFA programs never go on to even modest writing careers. If they do remain in writing, it's as the next generation of creative writing teachers. A graduate program can be a wonderful growth experience for a writer, but you don't need a degree to write. The vast majority of the professional writers I know don't have degrees in writing, and most of the people I know who have degrees in writing don't write and publish. Make of this what you will.

Writers groups

Some think, "I'm a writer because I'm in a writing group." I hate to break it to you, but no, you're not. You're just a person in a writing group. Too many people treat critique groups (or writing classes -- see above) as validation of their identity as a writer -- but they never actually finish work and submit it for publication. Writing groups can be wonderful things, but only as a part of the process of one's growth as a writer, not an end in and of themselves.

I'm a (fill in the blank) writer.

It's tempting -- especially in these days of corporate branding -- to want to label yourself as a romance writer, mystery writer, or even more broadly as a fiction writer or poet. Most people consider me a horror writer, but I write fantasy and media tie-in work as well, mostly for adults but sometimes for younger readers, and my work is often cross-genre and perhaps ultimately unclassifiable. If you love one type of writing to the exclusion of all others, then by all means, call yourself a (fill in the blank) writer. But don't let it limit you. If you're a western writer who wants to try writing an absurdist play, then go for it. There's something to be said for branding when it comes to marketing your work, but there's no need for you to make a brand your identity.

Writers who rush to self-publish

I'm seeing this more and more these days -- writers who feel they must have a book published in order to legitimize themselves as writers . . . at least in their own eyes. E-pubbing has become incredibly easy over the last few years, and it's only going to become easier. If you really honest to God believe that your book is the very best that it can be, that it's of high enough quality to be competitive with other books that are out there, that it's going to be worth a reader's time, attention, and money, that it's so good that YOU would pay to read it if you hadn't written it, then self-publish away. But if you're just in a hurry to be a capital W, do the world -- and yourself -- a favor and hold off until you've written something truly worth taking public. Because when you publish, you begin building an identity in readers' minds, and who wants an identity as someone who produces sub-standard work? Sure, you may improve as the years go by, but why should readers suffer through your growing pains? And do you really think they're going to keep buying your books while you grow? And do you think all those one-star reviews on Amazon and bad reviews on blogs will magically vanish the day you finally write a really good book?

I guess what I'm trying to say with this blog entry is not only be yourself, but create yourself. And it's not a bad idea to have a little fun along the way, too.


Ghost Trackers, the novel I co-wrote with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show, is out in trade, mass market, and e-book formats. My horror novel Like Death is due to be reissued as the inaugural release from Black Room Books, hopefully by the end of the month. Both make wonderful Halloween reading fare and deserve an honored place on your shelf. (Hey, it's called shameless self-promotion for a reason!)