Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What I Believe

A rare personal post this time.

I may be able to write fiction, but I have a terrible time putting my personal thoughts and feelings into written words when it comes to important societal issues. I’ve seen people on social media saying that if you have a platform, it’s important to speak out now, but my platform is small, and I’m doubtful that many people who see the world differently than I do follow me on social media or read my blog. And even if someone of a different mindset sees my message, what good would it do? If they’ve held onto their point of view this long – after everything that’s happened in America over the last few years – how can I get them to even think about what I say, let alone change their minds? Still, for whatever small amount of good it might do, here’s what I believe. I believe humans can accomplish more by working together than by being in conflict with one another. I believe that people matter more than things. Things mean nothing. People mean everything. I believe in seeking the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. I believe making a better world serves everyone in the long term, whether you’re altruistic or self-focused. A better world is a better world for everyone. I believe this is a position that’s equally supported by emotion and logic. I believe people should never stop growing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and that it’s our responsibility as sentient beings to seek to be the best version of ourselves we can be. We should never be afraid to question our beliefs and we should do so regularly. I believe we should never be afraid to change and never be afraid to apologize when we’ve wronged someone. I believe we should listen more than we talk because we learn so much more when we do. If you can’t listen, it means you believe what you have to say is more important than what anyone else has to say, and that means you’re either self-centered, arrogant, foolish, close-minded, ignorant or any combination. I believe humans are never finished growing until we die (and maybe not even then). I believe all human beings should have equal rights in all things and be treated with dignity. I stand with people of all races, all gender expressions, all sexualities, all religions, all backgrounds, all anything. I do not stand with hate of any kind, with those who believe certain people should be excluded or oppressed or marginalized or disenfranchised or brutalized or killed because they aren’t the “right” kind of people or living the "right" kind of way. I do not stand with willful ignorance. I believe it is wrong to exploit others, in any way, for our own benefit. I believe that everyone should support our LGBTQ family, and I believe that if your response to “Black lives matter” is anything but “yes,” you need to do some serious work on yourself. I believe if you need a gun in your hand to feel strong, you’re weak, and if you get off on the power of holding a gun and can’t wait to use that power against others, even if only to intimidate them or impress them, you are an extremely sad and potentially dangerous person. I believe I can speak only for myself and of my own experiences, and I cannot speak for others. I believe I was fortunate to be born white and male in a time and place where that puts me automatically at the top of the power structure. I’ll never fully understand all the ways this benefits me, and I’ll never be completely free of the attitudes that I was taught by society as I was growing up, but I will keep on trying for as long as I live. I believe in doing what I can to help others and using my privilege to make the world a better place. I am not religious. I don’t care if there is a god or an afterlife. I believe in doing the right thing because it’s right, not because some powerful being will punish me with hellfire if I do bad or reward me with a cosmic lollipop in the end if I do good. I believe in extending my hand to all of you to shake, holding out my arms if you want to come in for a hug, and if you turn away from me, and from the rest of us, that’s your choice. But I believe you will live a small, lonely, and ultimately empty life.

I never close comments on my posts, but I've closed them for this one, for obvious reasons.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Dealing with Self-Doubt as a Writer

As I’ve said before many times on this blog, I started writing seriously, with the intention of making it my life’s work, when I was eighteen. I’m fifty-six now. I’ve been writing for almost forty years. (It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that number. Forty? Really?) In that time, I haven’t become an international bestseller with a string of movie and TV adaptions of my work. I’m not rich, and I haven’t won a truckload of awards. But I’ve been regularly selling my fiction (and sometimes nonfiction) to traditional publishing markets for the majority of my career, and while I might not have a shelf full of awards, I’ve won a few. I’ve also taught college writing classes for most of this time. I like to write about writing, not only to help other writers but because everything about writing fascinates me, and every time I teach – whether in a class, at a workshop, or through an article or blog post – I’m able to clarify my thought and ideas about my art form. (Plus, teaching gives me a steady paycheck, healthcare, and retirement benefits, and them ain’t small potatoes.)

Coming this September, my how-to-write book Writing in the Dark (named after this blog) will come out from Guide Dog Books, an imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press. It’s available for preorder now. Links are at the bottom in case you don’t want to read the rest of this before ordering, and who could blame you?

One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is the increasing number of how-to-write books produced by self-published writers who’ve published few other books. I’m not here to trash these writers. Anyone can learn anything from anyone at any time, and if a particular how-to book speaks to you and helps you grow as a writer, then who cares what credentials its author has? (Although I’d say the more experience a how-to writer has in the field, the more likely their book will be useful to you.) Seeing those books got me wondering when in their career is a writer ready to produce a how-to book? And what does ready even mean? Was I ready to write Writing in the Dark? Had I earned the right to present myself as some sort of expert? I hardly felt like one. For that matter, do I have the credentials – the experience, the knowledge – to even write this blog?

I had, as you might guess, doubts.

One of the great – and maddening – dichotomies of being a writer is the endless struggle between believing your work is brilliant and that you know what the hell you’re doing and believing your work is shit and that no sane person would ever listen to your advice. If you only think that you’re a genius and that we’re incredibly fortunate that you share your stellar writing and amazing insights with the rest of us, then god bless you. The rest of us aren’t so self-assured.

People are sometimes surprised to learn that I still struggle with self-doubt. “But you’ve published so much, and you’ve been teaching forever!” Doesn’t matter. Self-doubt is emotional, not rational. Even so, there are some rational reasons for me to doubt myself as a writer.
·         There are already more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime. The world doesn’t need me to produce any more.
·         If I didn’t write a book (or teach a class), someone else would, and that someone could easily be as accomplished as I am, if not more so.
·         No matter what I produce, how many people I help, or what I achieve, it will always – always – fall short of what I can imagine. Therefore, in a sense, I’m always doomed to failure (in my own perception). Glass half full? Half empty? I’m not sure there is a glass, let alone any damn water.
But I’ve been able to continue writing and teaching for almost four decades despite my self-doubt. How do I do it, and more importantly, how can you?

1) Realize you’re doomed and accept your fate.

For whatever reason – whether we were born to write, chose to write, or some combination of the two – we’ve gotten hooked on writing and we can’t stop if we wanted to. If we didn’t put words onto the page, we’d still be coming up with ideas all the time, but they’d have nowhere to go. We’d still create, just in our heads. Nothing can stop us from creating one way or another, and we might as well admit it, make our peace with it, and get on with our work, self-doubts and all.

2) Writing keeps you sane – and that’s more than enough.

If I go too long without writing, everyone in my family knows it. I get grouchy and depressed (well, more depressed than usual), and I’m not a lot of fun to be around. Writing gives me a way to get out all the wild and crazy thoughts that swirl around in my brain 24/7, allowing me to bring some measure of order to them. I enter into an almost meditative state when I write, and when I’m done for the day, I’m usually relaxed, calm, and as close to content as I can get. This mental benefit alone is reason enough to write, and it’s plenty of reason to keep going despite your self-doubts. And what and how much you accomplish in terms of publishing isn’t as important as tending to your mental health. For so many of us, writing is self-care. Don’t let your doubts stop you from taking care of yourself.

And here’s something you might not have considered before: Engaging in too much self-doubt is a form of self-harm. We use our doubts as a weapon against ourselves for whatever reasons. We believe we aren’t good enough, we don’t deserve to succeed, don’t deserve to be happy, that we deserve to be miserable, etc. Sometimes it’s not as important where our self-doubts come from as it is how we wield them against ourselves. We need to try to be kinder to ourselves.

3) Writing (and publishing) can get you out of your own damn head.

I live my life primarily in my own head – I read, I watch TV and movies, and I muse about everything I come into contact with. I interact imaginatively with the world, and all of these activities feed my imagination. I get irritated when something pulls me out of my head, like a loud noise or a weird smell or a chore or a need to attend to a basic biological function (like eating). But writing can be shared with other people (through both publishing and teaching), and that helps me not stay in my head all the time. It helps me connect to the world and the people in it. I get to meet readers, other writers, editors, agents, students. I get to have actual conversations with actual people. Making these connections is healthy, and it’s worth combatting – or at least learning to live with – any self-doubts I have about writing. Hopefully, it can be the same for you.

4) Writing leads to growth.

Self-actualization is high on the lists of things I need in life. A therapist once told me that I was “hell-bent for growth.” Everything I learn about writing and teaching, everything that I experience because I publish my work, helps me grow as both an artist and a human being. My need for self-actualization is stronger than my self-doubts. In fact, dealing with self-doubt is more potential for self-actualization, so it’s a win-win for me. If you can focus on the growth aspect of writing more, maybe it will help you deal with your self-doubts.

5) Focus on the writing, not the outcome.

It’s not about you – it’s about the story. Focus on the characters, the events, the language, everything that you’re trying to get down on the page. Forget yourself. Remember how I said earlier that writing is like a meditative state for me? I do experience self-doubt as I write, but each time I do my best to let go of those thoughts and refocus on the writing. I take a breath, relax, seek a balance between my self and the page, and I do my best to stay there as I write. I’ve written before about how attachment to a specific outcome makes it hard to create, even such simple outcomes as This Must Be Good. If you’re not tied to a specific outcome, then you can more easily forget yourself and stay in the moment as you write. Doubts are the result of worrying about whether or not you’ll achieve a particular outcome. It’s okay to have doubts, but you don’t have to dwell on them, and you don’t have to give them any more power than they already have. Just write.

6) Use your support network.

I hope you have one, whether in physical life or online. I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had anyone discourage me from writing. Quite the opposite. So when my doubts get to be too much, I can go to my wife, my brother, my kids, or any number of writer friends for support. Hell, just reading social media posts from my writer friends – or writers I admire from afar – can help remind me that I’m not alone, that other writers experience the same shit I do and manage to find a way to keep going. You have to be careful not to let the writer’s disease – envy – get hold of you, though. If you start comparing yourself to other writers – Why did she get a movie deal and I didn’t? How come his work is translated into fifty different languages and I only have one story translated into Esperanto? – you’ll feed your self-doubts and make them bigger and stronger. Don’t be afraid to ask your support network for a pep talk. We all need them from time to time.

7) Do a reality-check.

I’m dysthymic. This means I suffer from a constant low-grade depression that, if I’m not careful, can become a far more serious depression. Part of this is that I view the world, and hence my writing, through a distorted filter. I’m prone to see the worst in every situation, and knowing this about myself tells me where a lot of my self-doubt comes from. Knowing this doesn’t automatically help me. I’m incapable of believing positive things about myself, to the point where I almost can’t perceive them. It’s hard to explain, but those positive things don’t seem real to me. (I imagine it’s kind of like being born without a sense of smell. You would understand the concept of smell, but not be able to experience it directly.) Knowing I have a distorted filter through which I perceive the world, I do my best to view any success or praise I receive dispassionately, almost as if it belonged to someone else. If one of my books gets a positive review, I remind myself that the reviewer’s point of view is accurate – for them. It’s what they legitimately thought of my book. It’s real. I don’t feel that it’s real, but intellectually, I understand that it is. Someone thinks my writing is worthwhile, therefore, I should write more stuff. Much of my self-doubt is due to my distorted filter, so I do my best to bypass it.

I read reviews – good and bad – of my work (and of my teaching) and I try to learn from them. The good feedback I use to help counter my self-doubt, but I also use it to see what works and what doesn’t. I learn the same thing from negative feedback, although that definitely doesn’t help my self-doubt. If you think seeing negative reviews will only make your self-doubt more crippling, ask a friend to find and send you only positive reviews of your work. Read them when you begin doubting yourself too much. Your writing won’t be loved by everyone, but it’s loved by someone, and knowing that can help you keep working when doubts start to creep in. And, of course, you can ignore all reviews, good and bad, of your stuff. Whatever works for you.

8) Create a writing persona.

I have a theory that we create a writer self – which some people call our voice – which we use as a kind of mask or filter as we write. New writers struggle because it takes time to create this persona, and they haven’t done it yet. I think we create many personas to get us through life, and they’re all aspects of us, but none of them are completely us. I’m a husband, father, son, brother, friend, writer, teacher, co-worker . . . I’ve learned how to be those things, learned which parts of me are those things, and when it’s time to be a husband, I do it through the persona of Husband-Tim, when it’s time to be a father, etc., etc. Over time, and with no real conscious thought on my part, I’ve developed a Writer-Tim. This Tim is confident. He knows he can write and publish because he’s done both so many times before. He knows his work will be decent enough because of the positive reviews he’s received over the years, and he knows his work is of a certain quality because of the awards and award nominations he’s received in his career. This Tim has a recognizable voice that’s different than Real-Tim (or maybe Complete-Tim would be a better term). I recognize it when I read my own writing, and I’m always like, Who wrote this? I know it was me, but I’m not this assured, not this good. I don’t express myself this well. But Writer-Tim is and does. Writer-Tim allows me to ignore my self-doubts and create.

I wish I had some idea how a Writer-Self is developed. Maybe it grows naturally over time. Maybe some of it is conscious choice. I’ve heard some writers say that selecting a pseudonym to write under, even going so far as to create a fake biography for the pseudonym, allows them to write because it’s not really them. Some people write using the pseudonym but publish under their real name. Others write and publish under the pseudonym. Whatever helps you deal with your doubts and keeps the words coming.

I often show Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech to my creative writing classes at the end of the semester. (If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plWexCID-kA) In the speech, Neil talks about a friend of his who had the opportunity to narrate an audiobook but was afraid she couldn’t do it. He told her to imagine she was someone who could do it and then just do what that person would do. She told him it helped. Imagine being a writer who can write well and confidently, and then do what that writer would do. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what a Writer-Self is: people imagining a persona, much the same way an actor might, and then doing what they think that persona would do. I know this sounds like weird psychology, but if it works for you, who gives a damn?

9) Learn how to use doubt positively.

I’ve been talking about doubt as if it’s all negative, but it has its positive aspects too. In fact, I’d argue that it’s vital to learning, if you don’t give it too much power and let it get the better of you. Maybe “questioning” would be a better term here than doubt. Questioning whether a sentence communicates what I want it to allows me to consider ways of making it better and, if one of those does a better job at getting what I want across, I can revise my sentence. If I write a line of dialogue, I might question if it’s really good, and that might lead me to read an article or watch a video about writing effective dialogue, and I might learn something that will allow me to improve as a writer. If I question whether a specific publisher is a good one to submit to, I can ask my writing network, and then I can proceed in confidence, whichever way I choose. This is the reason I read negative reviews of my work too. It makes me question a story element I included or a writing technique I employed. It makes me consider what I might do different next time. But I don’t dwell on the negative reviews – that would be giving questioning (really, our old nemesis doubt) too much power. Using doubt this way is like using a sharp blade. You have to wield it carefully so you don’t end up cutting yourself.

10) Get back to basics.

Writing is fun and makes me feel good. I like sharing what I write. I like learning. I like helping people. When the doubts start whispering a little too loudly in my ear, when my thoughts become too complex and mixed up, I remind myself of these simple things. They’re what I need, what I am. And when I focus on these simple core aspects of myself, my doubts may not disappear, but they cease to have power over me, and I can do what I need to do.

I write.

Writing in the Dark

I had doubts that I could write this book, and that if I did, it wouldn’t prove helpful to people. I wasn’t sure I was ready to write it – experienced enough, skilled enough. I thought about doing a book like this for years, but it took me a long time before I put a proposal together for my agent to send out. And then it took a while before I found a publisher. I pitched the book during Stokercon in Grand Rapids in 2019. I almost didn’t pitch it to Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog Screaming Press. What would Raw Dog want with a book by me? They published really good work, literary work, not the kind stuff I wrote. I didn’t listen to my doubts, though. The words may be different each time, but the voice that speaks them is the same, and I’ve learned to ignore it (although sometimes it’s easier than others). Jennifer liked my pitch, and soon my book will be out in the world. Whenever I doubted myself during the writing of it, I focused on two things: how much I love horror and how much I wanted to help writers. I tried not to focus on myself, and thankfully, I succeeded for the most part. This book was one of the fastest and easiest for me to write. Do I have doubts about how it will be received? Sure. But I’ll always have doubts. And that’s okay. I’m diabetic, I’m nearsighted, and as I said earlier, I’m dysthymic. I don’t feel old yet, but my body is aging every day. I think of self-doubt as being in the same category as these things – stuff I have to deal with and live with, but stuff that doesn’t have to define me or stop me. Eliminate self-doubt? Impossible. Write with it?



As I’ve already mentioned, my how-to-write horror book Writing in the Dark will be out from Raw Dog Screaming Press’s nonfiction imprint Guide Dog Books on September 16th, and it’s available for preorder now. Only the print version is up at the moment, but eventually the ebook will be available as well. I’ll post an update when it is.

Whether you’re a writer or not, I hope you’ll help spread the word about Writing in the Dark. While I’d like to sell as many copies as possible for my wonderful publishers John Lawson and Jennifer Barnes at Raw Dog, my goal for this book isn’t to make money – it’s to help as many writers as I possibly can and to give something back to the genre of horror. I’ll deeply appreciate anything you can to do help make that happen.

Pre-Order Links for Writing in the Dark

Excerpts from Writing in the Dark will appear on Writer’s Digest’s website and in Suspense Magazine around the time the book is released. I’ll post links when they’re available.

Monday, April 13, 2020

So You Want to Write About Coronavirus . . .

To anyone reading this in the future: In 2020, a virus called Covid 19 spread throughout the world, and a lot of people caught it and died. People were advised to self-isolate to slow the spread, and most of us did, and it worked, and it was a really weird time. Sad, of course, and for some of us absolutely devastating. But the survivors learned things about ourselves that we didn’t expect, and the experience changed us forever . . .

It’s only natural for writers to want explore a worldwide lifechanging event like Covid 19. Writing about such events are good ways to process feelings and can be cathartic. Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote – “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” – applies here. For so many of us, writing is thinking and feeling, and the bigger and more complex those thoughts and feelings are, the more we need to write about them.

But just as some people are expecting there to be a baby boom following our time of self-isolation, publishers are already fearing an onslaught of novels and stories about Covid 19. If you write about the pandemic just for yourself, with no intention of ever seeking publication, then it doesn’t matter what you write about Covid 19 or how you do it. So just let it rip! But one of the things I’ve learned after teaching English Composition classes for thirty years, is that there are shared human experiences that, while transformative for individuals, are common as dirt, and often as interesting to read about. Every mother has a birth story. Most people have accident, injury, or illness stories. The first time a person experiences death, loses their virginity, falls in love . . . Of course, a talented writer can make any subject into an enthralling piece of literature, but how many novels do you think publishers want to bring out each year exploring the same basic concept and theme, even if each writer has done so brilliantly? How many of those stories will readers want to read? Not a lot.

So if you feel compelled to explore your experiences during this time in your writing, and you want to try to get the resulting work published, considered listening to Emily Dickson’s advice from one of her poems: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Don’t write an essay detailing how your hair got long while you self-isolated, played Animal Crossing for several months, and hoped to hell you and your loved ones didn’t get sick. That’s telling the truth straight-on. Instead, try to find other ways to write about your experience, ways that disguise the real subject while at the same time digging into the actual emotional truth.

The following areas are can be explored in any genre: horror, fantasy, mystery, romance, mainstream, literary, thriller . . . You can interpret them through any lens, but no matter how you tell your story, your pandemic experience will be the seed from which your work grows.

First off, don’t write your version of The Stand, or The Andromeda Strain, or Outbreak, or . . .
This is the first thing writers are going to try to do to disguise that they’re really writing about their own pandemic experience. There will be an absolute glut of pandemic books hitting editors’ and agents’ inboxes within the next year or two. No matter what you do, a disease story will still be a disease story, and everyone and their cousin will be writing one.

On the other hand . . .
You could find an analogue for a virus. (Not a zombie plague, though, unless you can come up with a really original twist.) Vampire plague, werewolf plague, a violence plague (ala The Crazies) . . . Your analogue could be an ideology or a false belief that spreads and causes damage. Any type of contagion analogue could work.

Fear of death
You can write about this on a small scale: an individual fearing for his or her life or the life of a loved one. Or you can write about it on a larger scale: a threat of death to a family, a group of people, a town, a region, a country, the whole damn species . . . The threat doesn’t have to come from disease. It can come from anything. An alien invasion. A rogue asteroid heading for Earth. Mutant cockroaches. You name it. You can write about what an individual facing death might do, as in Breaking Bad, or how humanity will behave when they know the world’s coming to an end, as in Bryan Smith’s extreme horror novel Last Day or the Seth Rogan-starring comedy This is the End.

Fear of strangers
People fear catching Covid 19 from others, so write about the fear of the other. The classic Twilight Zone episode The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. The 1981 film The Wave, about a high school teacher creating a real-life “Movement” to teach his students how Nazi Germany happened. Don’t forget the racist reactions some have had – and are still having – to Asian people during the pandemic, either. Issues of racism, persecution, scapegoating . . . all of these can be themes to explore without you ever having to mention a disease.

Fear of doctors/medicine/hospitals
No one wants to get sick or injured, and doctors are not only the bearers of bad news – I’m afraid you have hypertension – they often cause discomfort and pain while treating us. Just relax. This’ll all be over in a few minutes . . . Medicines that have rough side-effects, painful surgeries with complications . . . Medical fears and anxieties are fertile ground for fiction.

Fear that you’ll be unable to save a life
Think how overworked and stressed-out medical staff feel knowing that no matter how hard they try, they can’t save everyone, and may in the end be overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients. Can you find a way to base a story on this fear, one that doesn’t take place in a hospital? I’d argue Sheriff Brody in Jaws feels this pressure. The same for the American President in Fail Safe.

Fear of not being supported
Medical professionals aren’t being supported by our government in America and feel lost and abandoned. Again, can you find a way to draw on that emotion to write a story without using disease or medicine? What about how an individual feels knowing they’re not supported by family, friends, their partner. . . ?

Write a survival story. (Avoid zombies.) Open Water. The Gray. Deliverance. Alive. Cujo. No disease in any of those stories, but the struggle to survive is front and center. The classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Breakdown,” in which Joseph Cotton plays a man paralyzed and seemingly dead after a car accident. He struggles to get someone, anyone, to notice he’s still alive before he’s taken to the coroner for an autopsy. Jack London’s famous short story “To Build a Fire.” Someone trying to survive a soul-crushing job or an abusive relationship. In many ways, survival is the ultimate story of our species, which is why it’s such a rich theme for writers.

Fear of running out
Of supplies (toilet paper, anyone?). Necessities: food, water, money, a place to live . . . Any or all of these things can be threatened by circumstances other than disease. Vampires that fear running out of blood. Angels who fear running out of good souls for Heaven. The days become shorter – 24 hours becomes 20, then 14, then nine – as the universe literally runs out of time. The fear of not having enough – whatever enough means to your characters – and what people are driven to do by this fear, can make for enthralling fiction.

Isolation and Separation
Bird Box. Castaway. The Shawshank Redemption. Cabin Fever. Buried. Room. Silent Running. The Shining. The Lighthouse. The Breakfast Club. The Martian. Cube (and its sequels). It Comes at Night. Gravity (also a survival story). All of these movies deal with one of humanity’s worst fears – being alone (or nearly so) and being cut off from others. Sure, some of us are misanthropes who prefer our own company, but in general, humanity is a herd animal, and we suffer when we’re too long apart from others. There are many ways to tell stories of isolation and separation as there are people.

Dying alone
One of the worst parts of Covid 19 is how many patients must suffer – and sometimes die – alone, quarantined from friends and relatives. This is the ultimate in isolation and separation, I think, and it’s such a strong fear that I think it deserves its own category. Choose a different situation than a deadly disease for your character and tell the story of their facing the ultimate human experience on their own (which is perhaps all our fates in the end, regardless of how and when we die).

Shutdown/Breakdown of society
There’s large-scale systemic breakdown of countries, but states, cities, and families are all societies. A workplace can be a society. Same with a family. What happens when the system – whatever its nature and size – starts to show stress, break under the pressure, and shutdown in whole or in part? Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale . . .

Empty world
There have been a lot of the Earth is empty (or mostly empty) stories. The Quiet Earth is one of my favorites. The Langoliers is another. So is A Vanishing on 7th Street. If you can find a way to give this trope your own unique spin, it could work well for you to write about how empty our streets and cities seem right now. Or you could write about how empty your house or apartment feels.

Untrustworthy, cold, calculating, incompetent, evil leaders
I think this one is self-explanatory, but the leaders in your story don’t have to be world leaders. They can be a boss, the head of a family, the dominant partner in a relationship . . .

How people behave in a crisis
Do people turn toward each other or against each other? Do they work together or go it alone? Do they play it safe or take a risk? Do they calmly and rationally debate the best way to handle it? Do they argue? Come to blows? Do they continue to abide by cultural norms and societal rules, or is it Mad Max land? You can explore these ideas through any kind of crisis: a natural disaster, a war, a large-scale accident, an economic crisis, a familial crisis, a hostage situation, a home invasion,  kaiju attack . . .

Trying to live daily life/find a new normal
One of my settings that I’ve revisited for stories is the World After. I first wrote about it in my novella The Last Mile. The premise is that the Masters (basically ancient, all-powerful Lovecraftian gods) have returned to reclaim the Earth and are now its new rulers. The few human survivors find ways to adapt to and survive in the insane hellscape their world has become. My theme in these stories is that no matter how bad things get, humans will find ways to adapt, ways that might once have been unthinkable, but which – like it or not – are necessary. We’ve all been striving to adapt and create a new normal in the wake of Covid 19, but that’s what we’ve done throughout our history. It’s a quality that you can explore in all kinds of stories, not just ones about pandemics. And trying to distract/entertain/teach/manage children during Covid 19 is something that parents have had to do during times of great change and societal upheaval, which adds a different wrinkle to the theme of adaption.

Trying to maintain mental health
The world is far more aware of the importance of maintaining mental health than at any other point in history, and people are working to take care of themselves and their families both physically and mentally during self-isolation. You can explore all kinds ways characters deal with normal mental-health challenges, but you can explore more uncommon – and interesting ones. How does the crew on a generation spaceship maintain their mental health? How would a superhero deal with PTSD after failing to save someone’s life, or maybe the lives of many someones? What sort of mental and emotional challenges would a psychic medium who regularly sees and interacts with dead people have to deal with? Think Larry Talbot, the tortured Wolf Man who suffers from guilt over the murders his fur-covered alter ego commits. The living vampire Morbius, who is driven to feed by bloodlust and then regrets his actions afterwards. How do characters like these keep going? How do they hold onto some shred of humanity? Or is it even possible to do so? Think about all the shit adventure characters go through. The various Star Trek crews, the different incarnations of the Doctor . . . it’s a wonder they’re not all locked away in mental institutions somewhere.

What’s the emotional reality of YOUR pandemic experience?
If you really want – or need – to write about your individual experience during these difficult times, ask yourself what that experience is, and write about it. What fears have you had? What mental and emotional challenges? Make a list, and then go through it and consider how could view the items on that list through different lenses, how you could tell them slant. Then start writing.
And we all know that writing is one of the cheapest forms of therapy, right? And sharing our stories is a positive community-building act, whether we submit them for publication, post them on our blogs, share them with friends and family, or just go back some day – when all of this is long over – reread our words, and remember.


Want some free stories to read/listen to during self-isolation? I’ve got you covered.

I have several stories available to listen to at Tales to Terrify:

·         My Bram Stoker-nominated story “A Touch of Madness”: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/tales-to-terrify-427-gwendolyn-kiste-tim-waggoner/id492711030?i=1000470370767

I also have several stories posted on my website:

Text: “Picking Up Courtney,” “Met a Pilgrim Shadow,” “Portrait of a Horror Writer.”

Audio: (read by Julia Morgan): “Water’s Edge,” “Foundling,” “Hungry Man.” (All Lovecraftian stories)

Free Story Collection: My third short story collection, Bone Whispers, is currently out of print. If you email me at twaggon1@msn.com, I’ll send you a free PDF of the collection.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Writing During Difficult Times

Writing isn’t always easy at the best of times, and I think you’ll agree with me that what the world is going through right now with the Covid 19 pandemic doesn’t even come close to the best of times. Most of us have day jobs or, if we’re full-time freelancers, we cobble together a living from different types of writing and writing-adjacent activities. We’re used to having to squeeze in our creative writing when we can, and we give it what energy we can muster.

But writing is even harder during times of great stress. A pandemic – with its health and economic effects – is obviously one of these times. But are there are more than enough personal stresses that we must confront in our lives. Illnesses, divorces, troubles at work, problems with our children, difficulty paying bills . . . It’s not a stretch to say we’re always dealing with stress of one kind or another in life, and while some creative people may thrive in the midst of stress, many of us – maybe most – find stress to be a creativity-killer.

So if you’re having trouble writing during quarantine (or any other stressful time in your life), here are some ideas that might help you get the words flowing again.

Before I continue, I should say that I’m well aware that I have it much easier right now than a lot of people. I’m an English professor at a community college in my day job. I’m full-time and tenured. My college closed down several weeks ago (like so many schools) and the faculty are working from home, teaching remotely. I’m still getting paid my regular salary (with its attendant health benefits), and there’s no reason for me to worry financially. Even so, my wife and I have some money saved up for emergencies. Not a ton, but some. My wife is great at managing money – me, not so much – and we have very little debt beyond house and car payments. We have a home to live in, and we have no reason to think we can’t continue paying the mortgage until things return to normal (or return to a new normal, whatever that might look like). I’ve also been writing and publishing for a long time, and I’ve had a lot of experience writing through hard times in my life – death of family members, my divorce, struggles with depression and anxiety . . . That experience is helping me keep writing now.

Plus, while we haven’t been officially tested, our family doctor thinks my wife and I had Covid 19 already. For me, it was like a medium-bad flu. It was more serious for my wife. She has asthma and other health issues. But we’ve both recovered, and we’re relatively confident that we’re going to make it through the next few months okay.

I don’t pretend that I know what your life is like right now and what you’re dealing with. It’s easy for me to give advice when I’m doing okay. I know that. But I hope some of what I offer might be of help to you.

And let me say this: you don’t have to write. You’re probably under a shitload of stress right now, and you don’t need to add more by thinking that if you’re sheltering at home you should be producing a ton of work. It’s okay not to write for a while. When things are better, you’ll write again. However, if you want to write during these trying times – if you find writing a good coping mechanism/release/escape – read on.

  •       Don’t tell yourself you have to produce a specific amount. If you decide you should write five pages a day, every day, and you don’t make this quota, you’ll feel like a failure and get down on yourself. Mental and creative energy is hard to sustain during extended stressful periods. If you write ten pages one day, two pages the next, and none for the next five days, that’s okay.
  •        Write when you can. You might not be able to follow a set schedule for one reason or another. If that’s the case, fit writing in when you can. Try to write something between the time you wake up in the morning and the time you go to sleep for the night. However much it is, whenever you produce it, if you get it done before your head hits the pillow, that’s all that matters.
  •        Write in short bits of time throughout the day. If you find it hard to concentrate for any length of time, write for five or ten minutes, then go do something else. Come back later and do another five or ten. Repeat this as many times during the day as you can manage. You can also set yourself a schedule: write ten minutes every hour (or every two hours or three hours). Set an alarm to help remind you.
  •        Write small stuff. Write flash fiction or poems. Write one paragraph, one sentence. Writing small can not only relieve the pressure to produce a lot of work in one session, it’s easier when you can only concentrate for short periods as well.
  •        Write something that’s not for publication. Forget the markets. Write something for the sake of writing it. Write something that’s just for you. Write something fun. Maybe it’ll turn out to be something you’ll polish and submit to a market later, maybe not. All that matters is that you’re feeding your creative self.
  •        Write for (and maybe with) your family and friends. Connecting to our loves ones during difficult times can make all the difference in how we get through those times. If you have kids and they’re home all day, write a story for them. Write a play for them to act out. Write stuff with them. Collaborate on a story with a friend. Do a round-robin story with a group of friends.
  •        Keep a quarantine journal. If all you can focus on is Covid 19, then write about it. Write about your thoughts, fears, hopes . . . If this is all you write, that’s okay. You’re still writing. But if you get your feelings out in your journal – especially if you write it earlier in the day – you might clear enough mental and emotional space in your head to write your creative work later.
  •        Write to your new biorhythm. If your daily schedule has changed, your biorhythm might have too. Maybe you used to write at night before bed, but now you can’t. Try writing first thing in the morning. Or if mornings used to work for you, try nights. When do you feel you have the least stress during the day? Try writing then.
  •        Try something new. The old saying “A change is as good as rest” applies here. If you normally write fantasy, try writing mystery. If you normally write fiction, try nonfiction or poetry. Write song lyrics. Write a script. The novelty of trying something new might give you fresh creative energy. And don’t worry about how good or publishable this new stuff might be. Just write it. Use it as therapy. Have fun with it. Learn from it.
  •         Write outside. I’m not big outdoor person, but my wife is. She needs to be outside every day, even if she just goes into our backyard and putters in the garden. If you find yourself getting depressed during quarantine (and unable to write), maybe you should try writing outside and see if that helps. If nothing else, it’ll probably be good for your soul.

Whatever you do, don’t put pressure on yourself to be anything than other than who you are at any given moment, and don’t put pressure on yourself to work more than you can at any given moment. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself. The writing will follow when it follows.


The Forever House Released

My new horror/dark fantasy novel from Flame Tree Press came out on March 26th! I’m extremely pleased at the response the book has gotten so far. Here’s a sample:

“The horrors inside the Eldred house are spectacularly realized . . . Waggoner’s tale delivers some solid scares.” – Publishers Weekly

“By and large, The Forever House works on multiple levels. It is a meticulous character study, a well-written social commentary without becoming overtly heavy-handed, and ultimately, a terrifying horror novel filled with creatures out of nightmare that will stay with you long after its astonishingly semi-hopeful yet dread-inducing ending.” – iHorror

“Fast-paced, hair-raising, and with a twist ending with enough spin to make you rethink who the real monsters are, The Forever House is the sort of phantasmagorical terror that keeps you reading through gore, grit, and grime until the very end.” – Seven Jane

Here’s a synopsis:

In Rockridge, Ohio, a sinister family moves into a sleepy cul de sac. The Eldreds feed on the negative emotions of humans, creating nightmarish realms within their house to entrap their prey. Neighbors are lured into the Eldreds’ home and faced with challenges designed to heighten their darkest emotions so their inhuman captors can feed and feed well. If the humans are to have any hope of survival, they’ll have to learn to overcome their prejudices and resentments toward one another and work together. But which will prove more deadly in the end, the Eldred . . . or each other?

You can order all three versions – hardback, trade paperback, and ebook – at the Flame Tree Press website here: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/The-Forever-House-ISBN-9781787583184.html

You can order from Amazon here:

Anathemas: Warhammer Horror

The Black Library has started publishing horror fiction set in their Warhammer universes. I’ve got a Warhammer 40K story called “Skin Man” in their latest horror anthology Anathemas. Check it out!


I send out a newsletter every month or so with information about new releases and writing tips. Most of the time I try to present different tips than I do here on the blog. If you’re interested in subscribing, you can do so here: http://timwaggoner.com/contact.htm

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mix it Up! Handling Diversity in Your Fiction

Several days ago on Twitter, Stephen King made this tweet about diversity (in response to the discussion about the recent Oscar nominations’ lack of diversity): “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” This was the second part of a message about the awards, and a couple hours later, King followed it up with a couple more tweets to clarify his feelings about diversity (he said he’s for it, by the way). The tweet – as you might imagine – engendered quite a number of responses. Some people were disappointed that someone with King’s platform would post such a message. Others came to his defense and said the tweet was taken out of context. You can go check out King’s tweets and judge for yourself. All the responses to King’s tweet that I read got me thinking about how I handle diversity in my own writing. I thought this might make a good topic for a blog post, so here we are.

First off, individual writers have to make their own decisions about how to handle diversity in their work. I believe it’s important to strive for diversity in one’s fiction, and I have a host of reasons for that belief. But if you dismiss the idea of including diversity in your writing as mere “virtue signaling” or pandering to an audience for political reasons, let me offer some – for lack of better term – self-focused reasons to consider adding diversity in your fiction.

1) We live in a diverse world. Adding diversity to your story makes it seem more real. This is called verisimilitude, and it’ll make your work better. The better your work is, the greater chance it will sell. If it sells, you’ll reach more readers and hopefully make some money.

2) Readers aren’t homogenous. They’re diverse in all kind of ways, and diversity in fiction is attractive to them. Because of this, they’ll be more interested in buying and reading your work. If they buy your work, you’ll reach more readers and hopefully make some money.

Whether you believe that representation matters and adding diversity to your work will help make the world a better place, or if you’re only interested about advancing your own career (or some combination of both), here are some tips for dealing with diversity in your fiction.

Should you write about people who aren’t like you?

“Write what you know” comes into play here. If you’re a man, don’t write from the point of view of a woman. If you’re not deaf, don’t write from the point of view of a deaf person, etc. The idea is that no matter what you do – how much research, how much you try to use your imagination and empathy – you will never be able to be anyone other than yourself. You won’t be able to write from earned experience. You’ll also be co-opting the stories of people who do have earned experience. Your story about a person of Maori descent might take away room for a story written by someone who actually is of Maori descent. Basically, you should stay in your lane and write from the point of view of people more or less like you, from more or less the same area, with more or less the same basic qualities and background when it comes to race/gender/sexuality, etc. Lots of writers do this and do an excellent job.

I understand the basic idea of staying in your lane when it comes to diversity in fiction, and to a certain extent, I support it. I think writers shouldn’t try to tell a story meant to illuminate important aspects of another group’s experience. Only a person who was raised in and still is steeped in a culture/race/gender/etc. can ever know it well enough to write in-depth fiction exploring the issues that group faces. No amount of research can ever give you as authoritative an experience as someone who actually belongs a group other than your own, and you will never do as good a job as a writer from that group would at telling those stories. That said, I think if your story isn’t about the African-American experience or the gay experience, or the fill-in-the-blank experience, you can write from the point of view of a character unlike yourself if their racial/gender/cultural identity isn’t central to the story. Men in Black is a good example. Agents J and K could be people of any race, gender, or sexuality without having an appreciable impact on the film’s plot. (One does need to be older than the other, though.) Some character bits, such as J’s jokes which arise from his race would change, but the characters’ essential personalities and how they solve problems would remain the same. The story isn’t about J being black and K being white. It’s about the weird aspects of their job and saving the world. I’m perfectly comfortable writing from the point of view of someone with a different racial/ethnic/gender/sexual orientation background than myself in this circumstance. I focus on the character’s personality, and while their backgrounds will affect the expression of their character to a certain extent, I don’t attempt to delve very deep into their race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. And if I do go a little deeper than usual, it’s because I have close relationships with people from those backgrounds, and I’m comfortable asking them if I misrepresented the group they belong to (or rather one of their groups, since we all belong to multiple ones).

If you’re absolutely determined to write an incisive character and cultural study of someone from  a group different than yourself, go ahead. Roll the dice and see how readers respond. But don’t be surprised if they want to know why a middle-aged white guy born in 1964 and who’s lived in Ohio most of his life (to use myself as an example) thinks he has any special insight into what the life of a black lesbian teenager from Los Angeles in 2020 is like.

Do a diversity self-inventory

Exploring your attitudes towards race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. – those you had as a child, as a teen, as an adult – can help give you more insight into how to deal with diversity in your fiction. Think back over how you were raised to view people of other backgrounds – race, religion, sexuality, gender expression, physical and mental capabilities, political beliefs . . . How did your parents view people of other backgrounds? How did people in your community? In your school? In your peer group? How did your views change (if they did) as you grew older? What prejudices and fears do you have about people from other backgrounds? How much do you know about people of other backgrounds? What would you like to know that you don’t? Be honest with yourself, even if it’s painful (maybe especially if it is). If you write your responses down, no one else ever has to see them. Taking such a self-inventory can reveal areas of bias, prejudice, confusion, fears, and misinformation you might have toward or about people from different backgrounds. Such an inventory can reveal areas where you need to educate yourself. Get to know people from different backgrounds, read about their experiences in books, articles, blogs, and on social media. If you ask direct questions of people from different backgrounds, do so respectfully and remember it’s no one else’s responsibility to educate you about diversity issues. If someone does you the courtesy of answering your questions, that’s great, but no one owes you answers.

A diversity self-inventory can also reveal areas that you feel passionate about. Say you grew up in an environment of toxic masculinity or with a parent who had bipolar disorder. Maybe you had to deal with being in an abusive relationship at some point in your life. Maybe you have a sibling who struggles with addiction issues. If any diversity issues are important to you, for whatever reason, your experience with and strong feelings about them can fuel some powerful fiction.

Some elements of my own diversity inventory: I’m a cis-het white male, born in 1964, who grew up in a small town in Southwest Ohio. Prejudice against African-Americans, sexism, homophobia, and ableism were common. There was prejudice against Catholics (though this was milder than the other issues). Prejudice against Jews was rare. I never heard anything negative about Hispanics or Asians (to the point where it never occurred to me that some people considered them separate races from whites). No one ever said anything about Muslims one way or the other. Trans people weren’t highly visible yet, so no one said anything about them, and the concepts of gender expression and fluidity were unknown. Bigamy was the closest anyone ever came to the concept of polyamory, and of course, it was viewed negatively. Mental illness was a stigma and rarely discussed. Antidepressants weren’t a thing yet. Autism, learning disabilities, ADD, etc. weren’t concepts people discussed. Hyperactivity was, though. Politically, most people were Republicans, but not like today’s extreme version. Democrats were primarily centrists. Communism was viewed negatively, and no one ever said the word socialism. Religiously speaking, faith was balanced with other aspects of life, and rigid Christian evangelism wasn’t a factor. General anti-intellectualism existed, but it was relatively mild. (This was my experience of what my town was like regarding issues of diversity. The reality may have been different in many respects, perhaps drastically so.)

That’s my background regarding diversity up until I graduated high school. I didn’t possess all the same views that people in my town generally had, but I couldn’t help but be affected by them to one degree or another. I could go on and describe how my attitudes toward people from different backgrounds evolved as I went to college, then grad school, got married, became a college professor, then a father, and so on, but you get the idea. This kind of introspection can not only make you a better person, but also help you learn to deal with diversity in your writing more effectively.

Don’t preach

When it comes to exploring diversity issues in your writing, do so through story and character, not in what amounts to personal rants. It’ll only turn readers off. Even if readers agree with your point of view 100 percent, they want to experience a story, not a lecture. And for godsakes, don’t mansplain, whitesplain, het-splain, or do splaining of any kind. Don’t tell people from backgrounds different from yours how they should view their experiences and how they should behave. In other words, don’t be an asshole.

Should you draw attention to diversity?

Some people advocate not mentioning characters’ race, sexuality, and other characteristics unless they are pertinent to the story. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character is white, black, straight, gay, bi, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc., why bring it up? Not only does doing so “other” characters by labeling them, telling readers too much about a character (even down to hair and eye color) can make it more difficult for them to picture characters in whichever way they wish. I understand this point of view, but I don’t share it. We were discussing diversity issues in one of my creative writing classes the other day, and an African-American student said that if a character’s race isn’t mentioned in a story, she always views that character as white since whiteness is the assumed default in America, and that’s what she’s been exposed to all her life. Plus, in real life, there are certain basic aspects of people’s backgrounds we can see by their appearance – basic racial background, basic gender background. We can’t – and shouldn’t – make any detailed assumptions about people based on physical appearance, but we do get some surface information. So not indicating race in our fiction seems unrealistic. If we do so, we should also describe white people as white and not assume everyone knows they’re white just because that’s been the expected default in America. I’m terrible about this. It’s so automatic for me to assume the default of whiteness that I often forget to describe a character as white even when I describe others specially as African-American or Asian. It’s something I need to keep working on.

Indicate background through names

One easy way to add diversity to your fiction is to use names – especially surnames – that indicate racial/ethnic/cultural background. If a character has a last name of Alvarez or Nguyen, you don’t have to specifically mention their race. Male and female first names can indicate gender. I think it’s harder to indicate that a character is African-American through names alone, and there’s no way to indicate sexuality through names. But while some diversity can be accomplished through names, athere’s no way a name can render a detailed background of a character.

Use random name and character generators

There are lots of sites on the Internet where you can randomly generate characters’ names and other characteristics such as race, sexuality, religion, etc. In the real world, when you leave your home, you never know who you might meet during the course of your day. Random name and character generators can reflect this. Just as we don’t choose the characteristics of real people we meet, we can let chance choose characteristics of our fictional people. This can also help keep you from defaulting to particular characteristics such as gender, race, sexuality, etc. in the people you populate your stories with.

Do your research

If you are going to write about characters from different backgrounds than yours, do your research. Talk to people from that background, read articles and books written by people of that background, watch movies and videos dealing with that background written by and starring people from that background. Ask for advice on writing about this background on social media. You might get some negative responses, but if you’re sincere and respectful in how you ask your questions, people with earned experience will answer.

Get feedback

Not sure if you got details right when writing about someone from another background? Have someone from that background read your work (or at least pertinent passages from it) and tell you where you got it right, where you got it wrong, and how to do better.

Go for it and let the world decide whether or not you were successful

I alternate between male and female main characters in my projects. Always have. I include characters of various race, sexualities, and belief systems in my work, not only because I believe inclusion is important in general, but also because it simply reflects the reality of the world I live in. I don’t dive very deep into my character’s various backgrounds, though, as I don’t feel I have the earned experience to do a good job. I’m well aware that I might screw up and offend readers. I hope I don’t, but I believe in inclusion, representation, and diversity, and I intend to keep striving to reflect them in my work. If I make mistakes, I hope readers will let me know so I can do better in the future. And if I fuck-up big time and end up at the center of a social media shitstorm, that’s okay. I’m willing to take that risk.

These are my current thoughts on effective ways to deal with diversity in fiction. I’m sure they’ll evolve as I learn more. To that end, I’d love to hear how you approach diversity in your own work. Please feel free to share your thoughts – and some tips – in the comments.


The Forever House

My next dark fantasy/horror novel, The Forever House, will be out in late March and is ready for pre-order. Reviews are starting to come in, and so far they’ve been good! You can order all three versions – hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook – at the Flame Tree Press site. The ebook isn’t available for pre-order at Amazon or B&N yet. I have no idea why. If you haven’t already read a synopsis of the book, I got you covered:

In Rockridge, Ohio, a sinister family moves into a sleepy cul de sac. The Eldreds feed on the negative emotions of humans, creating nightmarish realms within their house to entrap their prey. Neighbors are lured into the Eldreds’ home and faced with challenges designed to heighten their darkest emotions so their inhuman captors can feed and feed well. If the humans are to have any hope of survival, they’ll have to learn to overcome their prejudices and resentments toward one another and work together. But which will prove more deadly in the end, the Eldred . . . or each other?

Writing in the Dark (the book)

In November, I turned in the manuscript for my how-to-write-horror book, Writing in the Dark (named after my blog!), to my editors Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson at Raw Dog Screaming Press. It should be out sometime in 2020, but I don’t have a definite release date yet. I’ll keep you posted.

Some Kind of Monster

This is a novella I wrote for Apex Publishing. It’s about woman investigating urban legends who finds some very unexpected truths behind them. I’ve gone over page proofs and I think it’ll be out in 2020 sometime, but I’m not sure. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

Your Turn to Suffer

This is my next dark fantasy/horror novel for Flame Tree Press. I turned it in to Don D’Auria in December. This one also may be out in late 2020, and one more time, I’ll keep you posted. Here’s a synopsis:

Lorelei Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.