Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Secrets and Mysteries

My novel They Kill, my second release from Flame Tree Books, is now out. Like a lot of my horror fiction, the novel is filled with weird shit. Like, a lot of it. I don’t really label my horror in any specific ways, although readers, editors, and reviewers have called it surreal horror, nightmare horror, weird horror, and dark fantasy. And several of my short stories have appeared in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. Any of these labels is fine with me, but I just think of my fiction as being my horror, fiction where the psychological states of characters are mirrored in the outer world – sometimes figuratively, sometimes quite literally. When I write this kind of horror, I walk a fine line between explaining exactly what is happening and making it seem plausible and allowing the images and concepts to speak for themselves without much, if any explanation. Not every reader or editor likes my approach to horror, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the last twenty-five years. But it first appeared in my work about thirty-three years ago, in a story that wasn’t horror at all.

I was an undergrad in college – we’re talking mid-eighties here – I wrote a short story whose title escapes me now. I have a vague memory of calling it “The Clearwater Monster,” but it could just as easily have been titled something else. But I certainly remember the story’s plot. It concerned two young boys who live near Lake Clearwater. One of the boys has a fanciful imagination (I wonder where I got that idea) and he likes to make up stories about a monster living in the lake and pretend that there really is one. The imaginative boy drowns in the lake one day, and his friend grieves. Years later, the friend – now an adult – returns to Lake Clearwater for the first time since the imaginative boy died so many years ago. The friend looks out upon the lake and is amazed and delighted to see a lake monster, just like the one the imaginative boy described, swimming in the water. He believes the monster is a manifestation of the boy’s spirit, who’s made his stories become reality and who’s appeared to say a last farewell to his old friend.

I showed this story to a guy I worked with at the university writing center. We’ll call him Bob (because that was his name). Bob read the story and gave me two pieces of feedback. One was that I should specify where the lake was located. I hadn’t done this because I wanted to create an almost fairy-tale sense that Clearwater could be any lake, anywhere. “But you have to say where the lake is” Bob told me. “You’re an American writer and all American writers are regionalists.” (And that, boys and girls, is why you shouldn’t take Lit majors too seriously.)

The second bit of feedback focused on the story’s ending, where the grown-up friend sees the lake monster swimming by, as if purposefully putting on a show for him.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Bob said.

I explained my concept to him and said that I didn’t want to overexplain it in the story because I felt doing so would rob the final image – and the character’s emotional reaction to it – of its impact. Bob insisted that the ending needed to be clearer, and since the story was an experiment for me, I figured I’d try to do what Bob suggested and see how it turned out. Giving Lake Clearwater a specific location was easy. I lived – and still live – in Southwestern Ohio, so that became my lake’s home. But as far as explaining the ending, everything I tried only made the story worse. A lot worse. Instead of depicting a moment of magic in a person’s life, a brief instant when he felt connected to his childhood friend once more, the ending became bogged down with authorial narrative, and the more concrete reasons I provided for the lake monster’s manifestation, the less magical the image seemed. Eventually, I said to hell with it and gave up on the story entirely. My creative instincts told me that my original approach was the right one, but the rational part of my mind decided Bob was right, my instincts sucked, and I moved on to other stories.

Bob’s feedback wasn’t the only reason I abandoned the story. I’d read a ton of how-to-write books back then. (This was long before the current wave of self-publishing, when only professional authors wrote writing guides.)  So many of the books and articles I’d read advised beginning writers to always be specific, never vague, and they advised writers to avoid such literary tricks as leaving a story ending up to the reader to decide. They also warned that purposefully making a story too abstract didn’t make you brilliant. It meant you were an artistic poseur.

But as I kept writing, my urge to write these kind of abstract, imagistic stories grew, and from time to time, I’d give it another try. But when I did, I always made sure to offer at least some explanation/justification for the story’s central image. A couple of these stories sold to small-press magazines, back when the small press was really small, but most didn’t sell at all.

And then one day when I was twenty-nine, I decided to submit a story to a pro-level horror anthology called Young Blood. The concept behind the anthology was that all the stories in it had to have been written before the author’s thirtieth birthday. I wrote a story about a monster tree called ‘Yggdrasil” that was quickly rejected. Then I wrote a story called “Mr. Punch.” I’ve talked about writing this story a number of times over the years – in interviews, and in past entries in this blog. “Mr. Punch” was a total trust-my-instincts story, and when I received feedback from friends that the ending needed to be explained more clearly, I didn’t listen. I submitted “Mr. Punch,” the editor bought it, and it became my first professional sale. Later, Ellen Datlow selected it as one of her honorary mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

I continued writing and selling such stories, ones that – as a colleague at the college where I teach once told me – center on the “logic of the image.” Eventually, I tried to write this kind of story at novel length. The result was The Harmony Society, which was followed by my first Leisure Books release Like Death. (You can buy more recent edition of these books in both print and ebook versions – hint, hint.) Today, thirty-something years after writing about the Lake Clearwater Monster, this is the type of horror fiction I’m known for, stories that have garnered awards and appeared in various Year’s Best anthologies. Even so, I still occasionally have editors ask me to explain my stories’ central concepts a bit more. Sometimes I make changes, sometimes I don’t. It depends on whether I think a clearer explanation will make a story better.

I can write stories that are clear and easy to understand. I do it all the time when I write my urban fantasy or tie-in novels. But there are very specific reasons why I think overexplaining can be death for a horror story. (See what I did there?) Let me tell you why.


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

If you’re a horror writer, you’ve likely seen this quote a jillion times before. The word unknown is key here. Vampires ceased being scary as fictional characters long ago. They’re too known. Not only do readers – especially rabid horror fans – know everything about basic vampire lore, they’ve been exposed to images of vampires in media since they were kids. When it comes to horror, overexplaining and overfamiliarity have killed vampires (and werewolves and ghosts and . . .) with more finality than sunlight and wooden stakes ever could. This is why vampires relocated to urban fantasy and romance. Vampires are now primarily adventure and romance characters. They aren’t Monsters with a capital M. By not overexplaining a supernatural entity in a story – perhaps not even naming it – you keep readers guessing, keep them uncertain, make them uncomfortable, make your story not safe . . . Do these things, and you’re harnessing the power of the Unknown.


I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. Imagine yourself as a character in a horror story. You’re driving down a country road in the middle of the night, and you see a full moon in the sky. You find this strange because you could’ve sworn a full moon isn’t due for a couple more weeks. You peer at this unexpected moon through your windshield, only to see its lid rise upward, revealing a single, horrible gigantic eye gazing down at you. Do you really think you’d ever be able to understand what the fuck was happening? That you could pull over to the side of the road, park, grab your phone and do a Google search for “big-ass moon eye” and a web page would pop up telling you exactly what the monstrous eye is and precisely what to do to defeat it? Fuck, no! In real life, shit happens all the time, and we hardly ever know for certain why it happens the way it happens. We just have to try to deal with it the best we can.

The movie Sinister is a great example of unnecessary and story-damaging overexplaining.
The monstrous fiend in the film is called Mr. Boogie (as in Boogeyman, of course), and the shit that he causes to happen is creepy as hell – until our hero consults a college professor who explains that Mr. Boogie is really an ancient god called Bagul who collected the souls of human children a thousand years ago.


Mr. Boogie was scary when he was a thing, a creature of unknown abilities and motivations, who might not have any motivation, at least none mere humans could ever understand. But Bagul? He’s just a fifth-rate god in some obscure mythology text. What could be more dull? (My guess is that Bagul shit was added at the direction of some dumbass studio executive.)


Overexplaining kills any sense of mystery in a story. There’s mystery in the Xenomorph in Alien. Not so much in the sequel Aliens. In that movie, the Xenomorphs are more numerous, easier to kill (at least as individuals), and their capabilities and life cycle are much better understood by Ripley (though not completely). The Xenomorph in Alien is a monster. The Xenomorphs in Aliens and every other sequel are basically animals. You could replace them with a pack of hyper-aggressive wolves and get pretty much the same story.

Alien: What is this thing? Where did it come from? What does it want? What can it do? How does it hunt? Reproduce? What can it do to me? How can I kill it?

Aliens: “Look, Xenomorphs!” Colonial Marines fire a shitload of bullets at Xenos, tearing them to shreds.

Now I love Aliens, and while I think of it as an action-adventure movie with monsters, I don’t consider it horror. Horror-adjacent at best.

Want an example of a fantastic horror story that is drenched in mystery and the unknown? Read Jack Ketchum’s “The Box.” You can also watch a great film adaptation of the story as one part of the anthology film XX.


Sometimes readers (and viewers) don’t respond well to stories that are only metaphor, so giving them some explanation can help. It’s like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar – it helps the medicine go down. After I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Mother in the theater, I had to hit the restroom. The guy using the urinal next to me asked if I’d just seen the movie and if so, did I know what it was about? I told him what I thought, he told me his theory, and then when were finished and our hands were washed, he went into the hallway to look for other people who’d seen the movie to find out what they thought it meant. While it was weird to have a discussion with a stranger about a movie while we were both pissing, it was a good example of an audience member who was almost desperate for a little more guidance in how to view a story. So while I bitched about the Bagul stuff in Sinister earlier, a line or two that at least hints at an explanation can go a long way to help audiences who need something to hang onto when reading (or watching) a weird story.


I like stories that stimulate my imagination. Explanations – especially unnecessarily detailed ones – don’t feed my imagination. On the contrary, they starve it. They keep me outside a story, when as an audience member, I want to be inside, interacting with it intellectually and emotionally. Remember our old friend Mr. Boogie? For most of Sinister, he was a mysterious, malign, inhuman presence, and this invited me to try to imagine what the hell he might be, what he could do, and what he wanted. But when I was told that he was just another pagan god, there was nothing left for my imagination to work with. The script told me what the story was instead of allowing me to help make the story. People attempt to define the difference between simplistic fiction meant solely for mindless entertainment and stories that strive to achieve more artistic goals. I’d say that inviting the audience to collaborate in the creation of the story by allowing room for their imaginations to interact with the text (or film) instead of merely spoonfeeding them everything, is a pretty damn good definition.

There’s nothing wrong with stories that are designed primarily to be fun. I’ve written two creature-feature novels for Severed Press – The Teeth of the Sea and Blood Island – and I created them solely to be enjoyable pulp adventure-horror. There’s no great mystery to them, no strange imagery or ideas dredged up from my subconscious, nothing but monsters chomping on people and people trying to escape being chomped. But these books are the kind of thing readers read once and then forget about. These stories don’t have any impact on readers, don’t make them think or feel, and – most importantly to me -- they don’t stimulate readers’ imaginations in any meaningful way. They’re the simplest kind of horror, Goosebumps for adults. They’re fun, but that’s all they are.


If you want to write more challenging horror stories – stories which I think get closer to the dark heart of what horror is instead of merely using horror tropes to create simple entertainment – try playing around with how much, or how little, you explain the weirdness in your stories and see what happens. Who knows? You’ll at least add to your toolbox of narrative techniques for writing horror, and you might just find a brand-new writer’s voice for yourself as well.


They Kill

As I said earlier, They Kill has just been released, and is available simultaneously in hardback, paperback, ebook, and audio. Advance reviews have been good! Here’s one of my favorite review quotes:

“This is gory, unsettling and definitely strange and I loved every minute. It’s what a horror story should be and has reignited my love for the genre. Brilliant.” – The Bookwormery

Can’t beat that for a blurb, can you?

Here’s a synopsis:

What are you willing to do, what are you willing to become, to save someone you love?

Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet.

Corliss gives Sierra a chance to make Jeffrey’s resurrection permanent – if she makes a dreadful bargain. Can she do what it will take to save her brother, no matter how much blood is shed along the way?

Audio: Available soon.

Writing in the Dark – the Book!

I’m thrilled to have recently signed a contract with the good folks at Raw Dog Screaming Press to write a horror-writing guide named after this blog: Writing in the Dark. I’ll post information about release dates, etc., as it becomes available. For now, you can find the official announcement about the book here:

Prehistoric Anthology

I mentioned earlier that I’ve written a couple monsters-chomping-people books for Severed Press. I’ve also written a story for their anthology Prehistoric, which presents stories about dinosaurs eating people. My story, “Closure,” is actually a reimaging of a story I wrote for one of my college creative writing classes when I was an undergrad over thirty years ago. I thought it would be cool to see what I could do with the idea now, and “Closure” is the result. Check it out!

Alien: Prototype

My Alien novel for Titan Books, Alien: Prototype, was recently approved by Fox Studios, so it’s good to go! It’ll be out in October, and it’s also a fun monster-eating-people novel – but in SPACE! Why should you read it? One word: Necromorph. (Yeah, I got to invent my own alien species!) It’s available for preorder now.

Writing in the Dark Newsletter

Besides this blog, I also have a newsletter you can subscribe to. I send issues out a bit more frequently than I post here, and while the announcements about my current and upcoming projects are mostly the same, I include writing and publishing articles that are different than what you can read in my blog. The current newsletter has an article on “The Rule of Twelve.” If you want to know what that is, subscribe! You can do so by following this link at my website:

Monday, May 20, 2019

Riding Out the Storms

Over the last month or so, I’ve seen social media posts from writers who are discouraged – so much so that they want to quit writing entirely (and some who have already done so). A writer who believes he wrote a book that was essentially invisible. Writers who are depressed because their newsletter stats show that no one clicked on the links to their books for sale. Writers encountering one rejection after another, dealing with shady editors and agents, volatile and unstable markets, markets that take forever to pay (if they ever pay at all), lack of reviews, lack of readers . . . And maybe worst of all, feeling like they’ve made no impact at all, that they might as well have chucked their stories down a hole for all the good they’ve done in the world.

I know that a lot of people use social media to vent, and that these feelings of discouragement might only be temporary. But I also know that there are plenty of people who struggle to keep writing day after day. I know writers who’ve quit. You might even be one. Over the years, I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone to intense workshops such as Clarion or gotten an MFA and haven’t written a word since. I know writers who’ve written three books, had their publisher pass on a fourth, and who have stopped writing altogether. I know writers whose books are constantly pirated and who see no point in creating new content if other people are only going to keep stealing it. And of course, I’ve known writers who’ve had so much to deal with in their personal lives that finding time to write seems impossible.

I’ve had my share of discouragement, too. My first novel contract was abruptly canceled by the publisher because they “no longer felt comfortable with the book.” I’ve been nominated for awards nine times but I’ve only won once. My first agent gave up on me after a year. My second agent lasted nineteen years, but toward the end of our relationship, he stopped responding to my attempts to contact him. Editors have lied to me. I’ve pitched short story collections to some who tell me they don’t do collections, except they’d already published a bunch and went on to publish many more in the future. I’ve had editors tell me their publisher doesn’t offer advances only to learn they are giving other writers advances. I’ve requested blurbs from writers who say they don’t have the time but go on to regularly blurb others. There are editors who, after I’ve made progress on a project with them, ended up ghosting me. I’ve had editors publish my stories and never pay me. I’ve had interest from and worked with Hollywood people on stuff that goes nowhere. I’ve been offered tie-in projects that end up never happening, getting canceled, or which are given to someone else. I’ve written and published books that got little notice and few reviews. There are a lot of Year’s Best anthologies I’d love to have stories in but never have. I’ve had publishers drop me after a few books. I’ve had book contracts canceled after I’ve written the book for the publisher. And I could go on.

I didn’t write the above to engender any sympathy (but if you want to feel bad for me, I’m not going to stop you). I want to show you that writers who most people might see as successful (or semi-successful), have plenty of things happen to make us discouraged, too. The truth is, discouragement is a perpetual part of a writing career.

 So how can writers – those who are just beginning, those who’ve stopped writing, and those who’ve been writing for a while and find it hard to keep going – do to deal with discouragement?

·         The Darwinian view. Many professional writers take the attitude that if someone can be discouraged from pursuing writing as a career, then they don’t have what it takes to become a writer. And maybe there’s some truth to that view. But it’s also a facile way of avoiding any responsibility for nurturing the next generation of writers, said nurturing being part of what makes a good literary citizen. But as I often tell students and attendees of workshops I present, a writing career is, in many ways, about mental and emotional resilience. And ultimately, that can only come from within us. No one can give it to us, not even the most gifted of teachers and devoted of mentors.

·         It’s okay to stop. No one ever tells you this, but it’s perfectly fine to explore something – like writing – and decide for whatever reasons it’s not for you. Or to write for a while and then decide you’ve gotten what you needed from that time, and move on to explore something else. If you do this, you’re not a quitter or a loser.

·         It’s okay to take a break. You don’t need to write 24/7 365 days a year to qualify as a “real” writer. You can write for a couple years, take a few (or many) years off, and come back to writing when you’re ready, when you feel like you’re creatively energized again. Plus, while you’re taking a break, you’re living life, which means when you return to writing, you’ll have more experience to draw on. And sometimes you need to take a break for your mental and physical health, what I call “maintaining the machine.”

·         Don’t buy into society’s – or any other writers’ – paradigm for success. In America, people are what they do, and their success is judged by how many things they can acquire with the money they make. Writers often believe that that the ultimate expression of a writing career is to be able to write full time and support yourself financially solely with your writing. That’s when a writer has “made it.” But this is bullshit. I’ve known many writers who write full time and are barely living above the poverty line. Plus, they have no healthcare. They are so stressed by trying to pay bills and so worried about getting sick or injured, that they don’t produce any more work than writers with day jobs. Stress is the enemy of creativity. Feeling like you have to live up to some imaginary standard that others have created – and feeling that you’re constantly failing to reach that standard – can make you feel like you’re a failure before you even begin. Each of us make our own path as a writer, and it’s fine if your path is different than anyone else’s. In fact, it should be different. It’s yours. Do what you need to do to be able to make a life that’s conducive to writing, whatever that means for you. I decided a long time ago that what I wanted wasn’t to become rich or win a ton of awards or have millions of readers. I couldn’t control whether or not I got any of these things. I decided I wanted to have a life in writing. That aim was entirely within my control, and I’ve achieved it. I won’t know the ultimate shape that life has taken until right before I die, but there’s no doubt I’ve created it.

·         It’s okay to have a small audience. Writers are often told – either directly or implicitly – that they need to have the biggest audience possible. We need as many followers on social media as we can get, as many subscribers to our newsletters as possible, as many reviews as we can get on Amazon, as many books sales, and on and on. If your goal is to make a ton of money, then all of this is true. But if you want to make money, why the hell did you choose to become an artist? If you want to make money, go to law school or medical school. We pursue art because it’s what we love, it’s who we are, we can’t imagine living life without doing it . . . If you’re writing what you love and feel satisfied with your work, then it’s fine if you have a small audience. If you cook a meal, how many people do you need to serve it to in order to feel satisfied? Bigger is better is a fallacy created by American consumer culture. Better is better, and you decide what’s best for you.

·         Stick to your guns or explore new territory? Writers are often told they need to pick a genre, to create a brand, and then stick to it. That’s marketing talk, not artist talk. There’s nothing wrong with taking a market-based approach if it helps you create your best work and you find that approach fulfilling. But you don’t need to write the same kind of thing forever. It’s okay – and healthy – to explore different types of writing from time to time, especially if you haven’t had much success with one type so far. By trying different types of writing, you might find the success that’s eluded you so far. A friend of mine in college wanted to be a science fiction writer. Instead, he became a well-published author of sports articles. I know writers who started out in one genre – YA – and became a hit in another, like romance. If nothing else, trying something new can re-energize you when you return to your main focus. Earlier this year, I wrote a one-act play, the first play I’ve written in over thirty years. I wrote it just for fun, as a kind of creative vacation from the horror and tie-in fiction I usually write. Remember the old saying: A change is as good as a rest. I don’t know if anything will ever come of this play. I’ve submitted it to a theatre company, but even if the play is never produced, it still gave me what I needed, and I returned to my usual writing feeling refreshed.

·         It’s a long haul. Sometimes REALLY long. How long does it take to establish a writing career? If you go immediately to self-publishing, hardly any time at all. (And whether that’s a good thing or not is very much up for debate.) But in the case of traditional publishing, the amount of time I’ve heard most often from people – and which my experience bears out – is about ten years. And that’s just to get to the point where you’re regularly selling your work. How much longer does it take to become a “success”? The rest of your life. In any art form, there is always more to learn, more to explore, more to achieve, both creatively and in terms of the business aspect. The truth is no artist probably ever reaches whatever they consider to be ultimate success. Stephen King craves acceptance from the literary establishment. Literary writers want a larger audience and more money. Writers of entertainment-based fiction covet awards for literary excellence (to the point where some of them tried to rig the Hugo Awards in their favor several years in a row). Dissatisfaction and restlessness are important fuel to an artist. They might even be two of the defining qualities of an artist. Once you reach the summit, there’s nowhere left to climb, and the climbing is where all the fun and challenge is.

·         Rejection means nothing more than a no from one person at one time. Rejections are the most common part of a writer’s life. They are inevitable and, when you’re starting out, they’re numerable. They begin to add up fast, and they have a cumulative effect. They seem like a chorus of voices saying your work sucks, you suck, and you should never write again. Now it’s true that at the start of a career, when a writer is still learning his or her craft, that the stories they produce may not be publishable yet. But if you keep writing and growing as an artist – and you get better at targeting your submissions to specific publications/publishers – you’ll start selling. The rejections will still come, though, (I still get them) and you have to remember that unless you get specific feedback that helps provide insight on how to improve your writing (which editors are under no obligation to give you), one rejection is just one, and it’s not a statement about you and your writing. It’s just a no. Do your best to put it behind you, keep sending your work out, and keep growing as a writer.

·         Don’t set unreasonable deadlines for yourself. When I decided to become a professional writer (I was probably eighteen or so) I gave myself until I was thirty to sell a novel. If I couldn’t do it by then, I’d put my energies into some other career. As my thirtieth birthday approached, I still didn’t have a novel contract. But on my birthday, the man who would be my second agent called and offered to represent me, and I figured that was close enough. I’m sure I would’ve kept writing anyway, but I soon realized that it was foolish of me to set a stupid deadline like that. Don’t set yourself up to fail – or at least feel like a failure. The writing life is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.

·         Envy is the writer’s disease. I have no idea who first said this, but I’ve heard it many times over the years. It’s too easy to compare ourselves to other writers who get larger advances, have greater sales, larger audiences, better reviews, more awards. Don’t do this. I repeat DO NOT DO THIS. This way lies madness. Admire other writers’ work, learn from it, learn from their accomplishments and their setbacks, but never compare yourself to them. Unless you’re a narcissist, you’ll always come out second best when you compare yourself to someone else, if for no other reason than it’s impossible for you to be someone else. You can’t have anyone else’s career. You can only have yours.

·         Social media makes envy worse. I’m fifty-five. As I said earlier, I started writing seriously when I was eighteen. Back then, there was no Internet. You learned about other writers’ careers by reading interviews with them in physical magazines or by watching them be interviewed on TV. You could also read books about writing and the writing life written by authors. I didn’t start going to writing conventions until my late twenties – by which time the first public message boards were appearing – but you could learn from other writers there (especially after they had a few drinks). Since there was less information out there, there was less to be envious of. Now every writer trumpets their successes (no matter how minor) on social media as part of relentlessly promoting themselves (as they’ve been told they have to do). Now there’s a shit-ton of information out there to make us feel bad about ourselves. It’s harder than ever to stop ourselves from making destructive comparisons. That’s why it’s so vital that we keep fighting the writer’s disease.

·         It’s a calling. We write because we have to. It’s an essential aspect of ourselves and how we manifest those selves in reality. We can stop writing, but if we do, something inside of us withers away. We stop being our authentic selves. (And if this isn’t true of you – especially if you have other creative outlets – then the thought of quitting writing shouldn’t bother you at all.) So regardless of what level of success we achieve, we have to write anyway, so why let success or failure bother us? They are both immaterial to producing writing. But on the other hand . . .

·         It’s a job. I don’t know if the magazine still does this, but for years, The Writer proclaimed on its masthead that it was the oldest magazine for literary workers. That’s a wonderful way to think of ourselves: literary workers. Everyone knows that a job isn’t all sunshine and rainbows every day. Hell, it’s almost never sunshine and rainbows. And we don’t get upset by that. We expect it, we deal with it, and we keep forging ahead (assuming the job isn’t so awful we have to quit to protect our mental and/or physical health). But by thinking of writing as a job, it’s easier to accept the drawbacks and the hardships because you understand that sure, they suck, but they’re also par for the course. So keep grinding it out.

·        We need to create many things to make one truly lasting, impactful thing. I read an article recently that discussed a study on creativity. The researchers came to the conclusion that an artist needs to make a lot of things to create something truly special, something that strongly resonates with an audience and has a chance to make a lasting impact. And the kicker? Artists don’t know when they’ve made a special thing. In fact, they’re a terrible judge of their work. As an example, the researchers talk about Toto’s hit song “Africa.” It was a song they tacked onto the album just to finish it, and no one thought much of it. But almost forty years later, it remains well known, by old and young alike. Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” Poe’s “The Raven.” Sure, these authors produced other great works, but those two works are the most famous, at least as far as the general populace is concerned. The lesson here? You’ve got to write a lot of stuff in order to have a shot at producing your own “The Lottery” or “The Raven.” One work of art that you’ll be known by, that will become your ultimate brand. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker and Dracula, George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire (which will undoubtedly always be better known by the TV show title, A Game of Thrones.) Yes, you can find examples of artists who produce one work – Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird – but they’re exceptions. So if you don’t keep writing, you may never produce the one great work (which could be a series or a character, not just one story or one novel) that will become your artistic legacy, and perhaps change the field you write in forever.

“Perseverance furthers” the I-Ching tells us, and writers love to pass along this piece of advice to each other. This advice has the beauty of being absolutely achievable. It doesn’t guarantee how far perseverance will take you, but it clearly implies that it’s the only way you’ll get anywhere. The trick is to think of your path as a journey of learning, discovery, and growth as opposed to a race to some imagined finish line. Write, write, write. Send your work out into the world. Write some more. Get better. Repeat.

And don’t let the bastards get you down.

My novel Supernatural: Children of Anubis was recently released.
Sam and Dean travel to Indiana, to investigate a murder that could be the work of a werewolf. But they soon discover that werewolves aren't the only things going bump in the night. The town is also home to a pack of jakkals who worship the god Anubis: carrion-eating scavengers who hate werewolves. With the help of Garth, the Winchester brothers must stop the werewolf-jakkal turf war before it engulfs the town - and before the god Anubis is awakened...

My horror novel They Kill is coming this July from Flame Tree Press.

Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet.

My novel Alien: Prototype is coming in October.

Corporate spy Tamar Prather steals a Xenomorph egg from Weyland-Yutani, taking it to a lab facility run by Venture, a Weyland-Yutani competitor. Former Colonial Marine Zula Hendricks--now allied with the underground resistance--infiltrates Venture's security team. When a human test subject is impregnated, the result is a Xenomorph that, unless it's stopped, will kill every human being on the planet.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Power of You

            “This is a hell of a story, but I’m not sure this is the way to tell it.”
            A number of years ago, I submitted a story titled “Ghost in the Graveyard” to an anthology called Gothic Ghosts, edited by horror legend Charles L. Grant. I knew Charlie a little from the Genie boards (a forerunner of today’s social media), but not so well that I felt comfortable writing him and asking him to clarify his comment. I didn’t really need him to explain, though. I knew what he was reacting to: the story was written in second person. For some people, reading a story in second person is an acquired taste. while others would rather gargle with battery acid than subject themselves to second person.
            I can’t remember if “Ghost in the Graveyard” was the first time I wrote in second person, but a quick glance at my bibliography shows that it was the first such story I had published. It appeared in All Hallows in June 2000. Since then I’ve written around twenty more second-person stories, which is about a seventh of all the short fiction I’ve had published. Not a huge proportion of my overall output, perhaps, but enough to form a collection of its own. As the years go by, I seem to be writing in second person more often, and one of my most recent second-person stories, “How to be a Horror Writer,” has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
            If readers have been exposed to second-person fiction at all, it’s most likely through Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But unless they read literary fiction or were an English major in college, they probably haven’t encountered it anywhere else. Which is a shame, because second person can achieve effects that first and third person can’t. Here are some things to consider when writing in second person.
·         Use present tense with second person. Past tense – “You were eating an apple and you thought it was delicious” – doesn’t work well with second-person stories. Using you already keeps the reader at a distance from the story (which I’ll talk about later), so using past tense would push them away even farther. Present tense works better for second-person stories. Present tense is weird in fiction. You would think that present tense would indicate to readers that the events they’re reading about are happening right now, this very instant, creating a sense of immediacy and urgency. But instead present-tense narratives come across as passive and lacking in energy. This is one of the reasons literary writers often favor present tense. They want to avoid any hint of melodrama in their work, want it to appeal to the intellect rather than emotions. The passive nature of present tense can intensify the distancing effect of passive voice.
·         Second person creates cognitive dissonance in the reader. You’re constantly telling the reader that he or she is doing something when they damn well know they’re not. It’s almost as if their subconscious is always reminding them that You are not this person and you are not doing this thing, you are not this person and you are not doing this thing. This is one of the main reasons readers have trouble with present-tense stories, I think. But it’s also one of the great strengths of second person. Instead of inviting readers to relax and fall into the story, second person makes them wrestle with it mentally. Reading is always an interactive experience for readers, but second person creates a different sort of interaction. This effect works well for horror and weird fiction. Readers feel uncertain, unsure what to expect. They aren’t safe. Safe fiction is comfort food for the mind, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But unsafe fiction can affect readers far more deeply and leave a lasting impression.
·         Second person creates a distancing effect. It puts the reader in the position of being an observer rather than a participant in the story. It keeps them at arm’s length, keeps them off balance. This isn’t the normal way a story is told (as far as they’re concerned), so they aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen. They aren’t sure of the “rules.” As I said earlier, they aren’t safe. And good horror fiction – any fiction that matters – should never be safe.
·            Second person creates a numbing effect, and it has a flat, steady pace. If a character is experiencing something outside of what they believe to be the norm, something that is unreal or nightmarish, second person can create the same sort of detached numbness people experience when they’re dreaming. Second person allows readers to experience the same dreamlike detachment that the viewpoint character in a story experiences. The flat pace works well to create a sense of creeping menace, of a slow, inexorable progression toward whatever awfulness awaits at the end.
·            Second person tends to work better at short lengths rather than long ones. Jay McInerney’s famous second-person novel Bright Lights, Big City is a slim book, running under 50,000 words. I think the effects of second person – the distancing, the observer effect, the numbing, the flat, steady pace – can wear on most readers after a time. The effect can’t be sustained past a certain point. Exactly where that point is depends on the individual reader, but in general, I’d say that second person works best at short story or novella length.
·            Second person appeals more to readers of literary fiction than readers of commercial fiction. This is another reason narratives written in second-person are rare. Commercial fiction doesn’t necessarily mean hackwork. I write a great deal of commercial fiction, usually for the media tie-in novels that I do, and I strive to make these novels just as good as anything else I write. But commercial fiction is intended to appeal to the widest audience possible. To do this, it needs to be relatable and readable. It needs to welcome readers to the story and its characters, not keep them outside the story, as second person does. Since Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories directly address the reader at each decision point – If you want to open the door, turn to page 37. If you want to leave the door closed, turn to page 113 – second person works well. This is the only regular use of second person in commercial fiction that I’m aware of, though. Second person is more of a literary technique than an entertainment-focused technique.
           Second person can broaden a reader’s perspective on what fiction is and what it can do. It’s always good for readers to encounter narrative styles they may be unfamiliar with. The more varied reading experiences they have, the better readers they become overall. Stronger readers are more likely to expand their reading tastes and try new types of stories, which in turn makes them even better readers, further enriching their lives. Second person can be one more tool to help readers gain a deeper appreciation of literature, making writers better ambassadors for our art form.
How do I decide when to use second person?
1.      When I want to create any of the previously mentioned effects.
2.      Instinct. Sometimes a story feels as if it should be written in second person. Why, I don’t know. When I feel this, I don’t question it. I just go with it.
3.      When I’m not sure how to find my way into a story, I play around with different techniques. My short stories tend to be less plotted out than my novels, and they often focus on very abstract or imagistic ideas. This means that I’m not always certain how and where to begin a story. I’ll draft different beginnings, using different techniques and voices, and whichever turns out to be the key to unlock the story for me, that’s the one I use. Sometimes second person is that key.
4.      What I’m writing is very personal. I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City earlier. McInerney’s novel is based on his experiences as a young man living and working in New York City during the 1980’s: lots of partying, lots of coke, lots of sex. He had trouble writing the book until he tried second person. I believe using second person created the distancing effect he needed in order to write about his experiences, even in a fictionalized form. It works the same for me. When I’m writing a story that’s drawn very closely from my own experience, so much so that it could almost be a personal essay if I wrote it differently, second person gives me the distance I need in order to write about that experience. It helps me be a more detached observer of my own life, which allows me to work more effectively with my experiences as words and ideas on the page.
5.      When I’m having trouble getting started on a story, I often go straight to second person without trying different techniques. Writing stories in second person is as natural to me as breathing. The words pour out of me like water when I use second person. I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s a part of me that’s always a detached observer of my own life. (I wouldn’t be surprised if most artists are like this.) Writing in second person allows me to tap into that observer part of me. I serve as a mentor for the Horror Writers Association, and a while back I was mentoring a gentleman who was an award-winning playwright and teacher of playwrighting. He wanted to learn to write fiction more effectively, but when I read his stories, I could see that he was writing them as if they were plays, just with more words – description, narration, etc. – surrounding the dialogue. I knew that he was writing stories from the same perspective as he was writing plays: from the perspective of someone sitting in the audience and watching. I wanted to show him that he needed to write with a close attachment to one character’s viewpoint, as if he were one of the actors on stage experiencing the events of the play as they progressed. I wasn’t sure how to explain this, so I sat down to write a story, paying attention to how I focused my awareness when I wrote, hoping that I’d come up with the right concepts and vocabulary to communicate to my mentee the difference between writing from an audience member’s perspective and writing from an individual character’s perspective. I wrote a second-person story, which already has a detached observer’s point of view embedded in the technique. It worked. I was able to show my mentee the difference between the two ways of approaching writing. And the story I wrote just as a teaching tool? It was “How to be a Horror Writer,” the story that was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.
If you’ve never tried to write fiction in second person, read some examples then give it a shot. You might find it an interesting and rewarding, challenge. You’ll add another technique to your writer’s toolkit, and who knows? You might discover a new voice to speak with.

If you’d like to check out an example of my second-person fiction, you can read one of my stories for free on my website. “Portrait of a Horror Writer” was originally published in Cemetery Dance 48:
If you’d like to read “How to be a Horror Writer,” you can find it in Vastarien Volume 1, Issue 2:
The Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented at Readercon on July 14th. Wish me luck!