Monday, September 6, 2021

How I Write A Lot (and How Maybe You Can Too)


 

Yesterday, I finished my fifty-third novel.

I’ve written more novels than that overall, but I don’t count the unpublished ones. If I did, I’d probably have to add maybe ten more to the total. And since this latest novel was written on spec (meaning I don’t have a publisher lined up for it yet), I guess it counts as unpublished too, but at this point in my career, I feel confident that someone somewhere will publish it. (I hope, anyway!)

Whenever people find out how many books I’ve written, they’re amazed. But I finished my first (unpublished) novel when I was nineteen. I’m fifty-seven now. I’ve written steadily for most of my life, so it doesn’t seem all that surprising to me that I’ve produced so many books. Whenever I announce on social media that I’ve finished a new book, I get a lot of similar responses, especially from fellow writers.

“I’m jealous of how prolific you are.”

“Can you lend me some of your productivity?”

“I wish I could write that fast!”

And

“What’s your secret?”

I’ve taught college writing courses almost as long as I’ve been writing, and as part of helping other writers, I think a lot about process – especially my own – and try to glean insights that I can pass along to my students, offering them craft tips and tidbits of advice. But whenever I think about what my “secret” is to being prolific, I keep coming back to the same answer: It’s just who I am. But that – true as it may be – isn’t helpful for anyone, so I thought I’d write a blog entry about why and how I’m prolific, for whatever good it might do for other writers.

So here we are.

First off . . .

What’s so great about being prolific?

I honestly don’t know why anyone would be jealous of how much writing I produce. I sometimes wish I wrote more slowly, that I could spent more time constructing plots, developing characters, honing sentences, sharpening imagery, revising multiple times until my fiction is the absolute best it can be. My output averages three books a year, along with several short stories and articles, but none of my work stands our particularly. Yeah, I’ve won a few awards, but it’s not like I’m a bestseller or a critics’ darling. My books come, and my books go, and while I’m gratified to know some people enjoy them, I don’t have a gigantic readership. In traditional publishing – even in the small press – if your book sales aren’t high enough, your publisher will drop you, and I’ve had this happen to me several times, and it may well happen to me again in the future. (So go buy lots of my books so I can avoid re-experiencing this terrible fate!)

My mind has always worked fast, and whatever I produce, I produce it fast. In grade school, I’d always be the first one done with a test, and teachers would chide me for it, tell me to go back to my desk and check over my work. I started waiting to turn in my tests until two or three other students had so teachers would leave me alone. But the point those teachers were trying to make was that fast does not always equal good. I like to create something, finish it, and then move on to the next thing as fast as I can, and that doesn’t always allow for my work to be the best it possibly could be. So those of you who write more slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully may well end up producing work superior to mine. Donna Tartt produces a novel every ten years, but they’re phenomenal, and they have a huge impact on readers and the field of literature. It’s okay to be the hare, but it’s just as okay to be the tortoise, especially in the arts.

I know that in the realm of indie publishing, putting out work at a fairly rapid pace is viewed as the key to success, but that’s a business decision, not an artistic one. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and a fast writer like me could probably do fairly well with this production model, especially if I wrote series fiction. But right now, I don’t have any interest in indie publishing. I like the challenge of traditional publishing, as well as its collaborative nature. And since I have a day job as a college professor, I don’t need to maximize my writing income. Maybe I’ll feel differently about indie publishing one day, but for now I plan to stick with trad publishing.

A lot of what allows me to be prolific are aspects of my personality and experiences that can’t be replicated, at least not easily. For example . . .

·         As I said earlier, I think fast. Always have.

·         I have ideas running through my head 24/7. Always have.

·         I tend to live in my head most of the time, so in a sense I’m always imagining and creating. This means that when I sit down to write, I’ve already got a lot of fuel for my creative engine.

·         I have a natural aptitude for language – which is why I went into writing and teaching writing.

·         When I was nine, I almost drowned, and then a few months later, my great uncle – who was like a second father to me – died. These two experiences made me confront the fact that life is limited, and I vowed never to waste a moment of it, so I become more focused on getting things accomplished at an earlier age than most people probably do.

·         I grew up with relatives – my dad and my maternal grandmother – who worked all the time, on the job and on tasks and hobbies at home. I internalized not only leaving the house to work at a job but working on your own stuff once you got home.

·         My mother was an agoraphobic, so my family never went anywhere or did anything. I spent a lot of time living in my imagination – reading comics and books, watching TV, thinking up my own characters and stories, etc.

·         I can make choices easily and quickly. On the Meyers-Briggs scale (yes, I know it has no scientific validity, just go with it) I’m an INFJ. My J helps me write fast because I don’t belabor or second-guess my choices (at least not until later).

·         I’m generally physically healthy, and when I am sick, it’s pretty mild. So health issues don’t interfere with my writing.

·         My spouse, however, does have a number of health issues, so we tend not to go out a lot. This means I have more time to write than I might otherwise. (I don’t view this as a positive. I wish my wife enjoyed good health.)

·         I am, however, dysthymic, which means I suffer from a constant low-grade depression that can be become a much worse depression if I’m not careful. I take meds and have gotten counseling on how to deal with my depression, but writing – despite all its ups and downs – is one of the things that helps me keep the black dog at bay.

·         I have two daughters, but they’re both in their twenties now, so I don’t have young children I need to care for throughout the course of a day.

·         College was a hell of a lot cheaper when I went in the Eighties, and I had an inheritance that paid for almost all of it, and when I went to grad school, I had a teaching assistantship that did pay for everything, so I didn’t have to work to pay off student loans later.

·         I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy. I don’t like to dabble in things, and I don’t enjoy casual relationships of any kind. This quality helps me focus on writing and producing writing.

·         And probably the most fundamental aspect of my psychological makeup that contributes to my prolificacy is that I have to create stories. It’s as natural and necessary to me as breathing. It’s a core aspect of who I am.

But there are things I’ve learned along the way – or stumbled across by accident – that any writer can do. (Depending on their particular circumstances, of course. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience the same privileges I’ve had, and I know this.)

Principles Any Writer Can (At Least Try) to Put Into Practice

·         I started out as an acting major in college. During one class, the professor said we should make a list of all the things that are important to us in life, and that the higher acting was on the list, the greater the chance we’d succeed at it. Well, acting with nowhere near the top of my list (which is why I changed my major), but I think writing was the second or third item. Having a family was the first. This taught me that I have to make writing a priority in my life – and keep it that way – if I want to be a success.

·         When I first started writing, old pros used to say that “the first million words are practice.” (This was back before anyone could self-publish the first thing they wrote by uploading it to Amazon.) I internalized this advice as a need to start working and keep working steadily in order to improve, and that I need to write regularly in order to keep my writing brain in shape.

·         When I decided I wanted to devote my life to writing, I decided to get an MA in English. (If I’d understood the difference between an MA and an MFA back then, I would’ve gotten the latter degree.) I knew that an MA would allow me to teach composition courses part-time, and that I’d have at least some time to write this way. I was married to my first wife at the time, so between our dual meager incomes (and not having any kids yet) we got by. This meant I had time to learn how to be a writer, and more importantly, what it meant for me to be a writer. So when I started regularly publishing in my thirties, I didn’t have to deal with a steep learning curve and could just write.

·         I spent my twenties continuing to teach part-time and learning how to be a writer, without any expectation of publication (though I had hopes, or course!). Old pros used to say that it took around ten years to learn how to write and establish a writing career, so I’d made peace with the fact it might take me a while to get where I wanted to go. This kept me writing and producing regularly because I wanted to get through those ten years and start my career in earnest.

·         My first daughter wasn’t born until I was thirty-one, and I didn’t land a full-time teaching job until I was thirty-five. This means I’d spent a long time learning how to be a writer before I had major responsibilities that would’ve made practicing, learning, and producing writing harder.

·         Being a parent taught me a metric fuck-ton about managing my time. My girls came first, and I fit my writing in when I could, and I gave up all the stupid things I used to do that wasted my time – watching dumb TV shows I didn’t really care about, playing videogames that had no purpose, etc.

·         Being a parent also meant that I stopped going out with friends. I didn’t have time, and when I did, I was exhausted. Plus what little spare time I did have went to writing. I prioritized my writing above any needs that didn’t relate to my family.

·         I still don’t have any friends to hang out with. Not because I don’t want any, but because most of my friends are fellow writers who live a good distance away from me. We interact online and at conferences, but that’s about it. But since writers tend to be introverts, this arrangement probably works out well for us all.

·         I had – and still have – no other hobbies or interests that take up my time. Everything I do is writing, teaching writing, or reading and watching stories to learn how to be a better storyteller. I don’t have what some people might consider a healthy work/life balance, but that’s because my life is centered on doing the activity I love above all other activities – which, as far as I’m concerned, is the healthiest way for me to live.

·         My full-time job allows me time to write. I don’t work nine-to-five, so I can juggle my writing and teaching in such as way that I can write regularly. I don’t have to teach in summer, although I do for extra money, but I don’t teach as many classes, so I have extra time to write then. It’s not easy to find a job that allows you time to write, but if you can, it’s a massive help. Jobs that don’t require a lot of creativity or brain effort are good too, so you can save your creativity for your writing.

·         My full-time job hasn’t made me wealthy, but I don’t have to worry about money usually. It’s difficult (to say the least) to be creative when you have financial struggles.

·         I’m fortunate that my family understands and supports my need to write. I don’t have to struggle with them to get writing time.

I have learned some aspects of craft that I can pass along to you, though.

Tips for Being a Productive Writer

·         I’m not a health freak, but I do my best to take care of myself. I try to eat right, get (some) exercise, and get enough sleep. Your brain can’t be at its best when your body isn’t at its best.

·         I try to take care of my mental health. (I’m dysthymic, remember?) I’ve gone through a lot of therapy to deal with baggage from my childhood and my divorce and to generally make me a healthier person. I also have issues with anxiety, so I’ve learned techniques to deal with that, plus the antidepressants I take also help a lot. The healthier your mind is, the more stuff you can create, and the better that stuff will be.

·         I’ve learned my creativity bio-rhythms. I discovered a long time ago that I run on twelve-hour shifts when it comes to writing, so instead of writing once a day, I write once every twelve hours (when I can; life doesn’t always cooperate). Learning this increased my productivity quite a bit. Find out when you have your most energy – early in the day, late at night, before or after you eat, etc. – and use your natural biorhythms to help boost your productivity.

·         Over the years, I’ve learned to apply my creativity to how and when I write as well as what I write. So whenever the words aren’t coming, instead of stopping, I change things up. I write in a different place, at a different time of the day. I handwrite instead of type. I switch to writing story notes instead of prose. I switch to a different project for a bit. I leave the house and write offsite. I go for a walk or drive so that I can think. I bounce ideas off my wife. I seek out a book or film that I think will inspire me creatively. It’s kind of like juggling. If I drop one ball, I forget about it and focus on the ones I still have in the air. I can always pick up the dropped ball later.

·         I once read a book by Brenda Ueland called If You Want to Write. In it, she talks about healing yourself through writing, and I’ve done this for years. When I’m not well physically or emotionally, I seek healing and solace in my writing instead of staying away from it when I’m sick or depressed. (This assumes you’re not in a coma or something – kind of hard to write then.)

·         I constantly cultivate my imagination. I write down ideas in the notepad app on my phone whenever I think of something/see something cool. I take photos of cool/weird stuff too. I’ve always got material to draw on, whether I want to write a novel, a short story, or an article.

·         I spend a lot of time visualizing scenes in my fiction, thinking about how I’m going to structure things, contemplating bits of dialogue. I do a lot of pre-drafting in my head, so when I sit down at the computer, the words come much more easily than they might otherwise.

·         I outline novels. Sometimes I have a very simple list of events for short stories, but sometimes I just write them and see where they go. I always outline nonfiction. Sometimes I use PowerPoint to outline nonfiction – and then I have a presentation I can use for a workshop somewhere down the line. With novels, I have an overall outline and character/place notes. As I compose the novel, I write shorter, simpler outlines for scenes – sometimes just a few lines on a sticky note or maybe in a notebook. As I compose, I may write notes for what’s to come. I write those in all caps right in the scene and compose that material later, maybe during that writing session, maybe during another.

·         I write linearly for the most part. I have macro and micro outlines to follow, so there’s no need for me to jump around, write things out of order, and figure out how the hell to organize them later. This saves me a huge amount of time. I’m not a writer who needs to write multiple exploratory drafts in order to figure out what I want to say and where I want my story to go. Nothing wrong with that approach at all, but it of course takes a lot of time.

·         I set production goals. Because I usually have a contract in place before I write something, I have a deadline to meet. I figure out how many pages a day I need to make that deadline, and then I do my best to produce that amount of pages every day. Some days I produce more, some days less, but usually I make the deadline, sometimes with time to spare.

·         The last few years, I’ve been getting up at 5am so that I can start writing by 6am. Years ago, I used to be a night owl, but having kids cured me of that! Even though I usually have time in the afternoons to write too, I produce what I can in the mornings and then produce more after I’ve taught my classes for the day. I can produce a lot this way.

·         I tend to revise as I go. A specific work is always a single file on my computer, and if I realize I need to fix something, I go back into the earlier part of the manuscript and do it. I start each writing session re-reading what I created during the last sessions and cleaning up the prose and fixing any continuity problems, etc. Because of this, when I finish a draft, it’s close to being the final version. I go over it one or two more times after that to catch anything I might’ve missed, but I usually don’t find anything major.

·         I do my best to avoid decision fatigue before I write. I read an article a few years back about how after humans have made a number of decisions, they become fatigued and, while they can still make decisions after that, those decisions are lousy ones. Writing earlier in the day – before I have any other decisions to make, such as when I’m teaching a class – helps me, as does writing later in the day or evening after my brain has had a chance to recover from making decisions.

·         I try to think of writing as going to work. I don’t have to be enthused or full of energy or feel particularly inspired. I need to show up and start typing, and I need to keep typing until I’ve produced my quota of words for that session. Part of this attitude is approaching my writing as something perfectly ordinary and normal so I don’t get anxious about whether it’s good or publishable or whether people will like it, etc. Forward movement is what matters when I’m at the keyboard.

·         I try my best to remain in a calm, relaxed state when I write so that my own brain doesn’t get in my way. Having simple rituals – getting up, making coffee, sipping coffee while I check email and peruse social media – helps. For others, meditating before you start writing might be effective. I think a lot of what people call writer’s block is really writer’s anxiety, and the calmer we can be when we write, the easier the words will come.

·         I think story when I write; I don’t think publishing. I’m aware someone will (hopefully) read my words, but I don’t think too much about reader expectation as I write. It’s too easy to become self-conscious that way, and then the words come harder.

·         My publishing history gives me confidence. I’ve published (or will soon have published) fifty-three novels, three nonfiction books, around 200 short stories, and dozens of articles. Knowing I’ve successfully done this thing before helps me relax and write when I’m afraid I may not be able to do it this time.

·         I don’t listen to the darkest part of me. I’m not talking dark in the sense of writing horror, but dark as in the negative part of myself that is always critical, always depressed, always doubtful, always lacking confidence. Part of me believes that I’m worthless and that anything I create will be worthless. This part will always believe these things, no matter what I do and no matter what anyone says to me. No matter how many things I publish, how many awards I win, how much positive feedback I get from reviewers and readers, this part will still believe I’m nothing. I’ve accepted that this part of me exists and will always exist, that there’s nothing I can do to change it, but I’ve learned I don’t have to listen to it, amplify it, and give it power, and I write anyway. This isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking a tightrope, but most days I manage. I can’t help but hear the darkest part of me when it speaks, but I tell myself it’s a liar, and I keep going.

·         Years ago I learned about strengths theory. This is the idea that no one can be good at everything, so we should identify what our strengths are, work on improving those as much as we can, and then just try to get competent at the other stuff. An extremely successful and accomplished actor, singer, athlete, etc. maximizes their strengths and is competent enough in areas they may be weak in. They don’t waste time trying to get excellent at everything in their profession because they can’t. No one can. Over time, I’ve learned what my strengths are through my own analysis of my work, but also from feedback from agents, publishers, reviewers, and readers. This is why I always read reviews of my work – so I can get a better feel for what my strengths are and continue to enhance them and learn what my weaknesses are so I can try to get good enough at those areas. Thinking of my writing using strengths theory means I don’t worry about all the things my writing isn’t and likely can never be. That sort of worry – Why aren’t my characters more distinctive? How come my prose isn’t more musical? Why can’t I write something funny? – can really mess with your head and make it harder to get any writing done.

·         Lastly, I have a sticky note in my writing space that has two simple sentences on it: Writing is a choice. Writing is a commitment. When I don’t feel like writing, I re-read those sentences and remind myself that I need to commit to this session’s work, that I need to choose to sit down, begin, and keep at it until I’ve produced my quota. I know that not everyone can make this commitment or make this choice every day for whatever reasons. But the more you can, the more you’ll produce.

In the end, being prolific doesn’t mean anything, though. What matters is that you find fulfillment in your writing, however fast or slow it comes to you, or however much you produce in your lifetime. If you’re not fulfilled – if you’re not having fun, not growing as a person – why write at all?

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

Halloween Kills



My novelization of the latest in the Halloween saga comes out next month, and it’s now available for pre-order!

Minutes after Laurie Strode, her daughter Karen, and granddaughter Allyson left masked monster Michael Myers caged and burning in Laurie’s basement, Laurie is rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries, believing she finally killed her lifelong tormentor.

 

But when Michael manages to free himself from Laurie’s trap, his ritual bloodbath resumes. As Laurie fights her pain and prepares to defend herself against him, she inspires all of Haddonfield to rise up against their unstoppable monster. But as a group of other survivors of Michael’s first rampage decide to take matters into their own hands, a vigilante mob forms that sets out to hunt Michael down. Evil dies tonight.

 

Pre-Order Links

 

Titan Books: https://titanbooks.com/70487-halloween-kills-the-official-movie-novelization/

 

Amazon Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Halloween-Kills-Official-Movie-Novelization/dp/1789096014/ref=tmm_mmp_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1629213230&sr=1-2

 

Amazon Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Halloween-Kills-Official-Movie-Novelization-ebook/dp/B092HR2N78/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner&qid=1629213230&s=books&sr=1-2

 

Amazon Audiobook: https://www.amazon.com/Halloween-Kills-Official-Movie-Novelization/dp/B099TMFB8N/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1629213230&sr=1-2

 

Barnes and Noble Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096019

 

Barnes and Noble Nook Book: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096194

 Your Turn to Suffer



My latest novel for Flame Tree Press is still available!

“If you like your horror to be dark, deeply themed with a sly smile on the pulse of Barker and Lovecraft whilst making his own unique addition, you cannot go wrong with Your Turn To Suffer. An Excellent read.” – The Literary License Podcast

“While having some grisly splatterpunk elements this novel maybe leans more into weird fiction, and reminds me of classic 80s horror (think Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser.) It was a lot of fun.” – Only the Darkest Reads

Lori 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.

Order Links:

Flame Tree Website

This is my page on the Flame Tree site, where you can order any of my Flame Tree novels, including Your Turn to Suffer.

 

https://www.flametreepress.com/authors/Tim-Waggoner.html

 

Amazon

 

Hardcover: https://www.amazon.com/Your-Suffer-Fiction-Without-Frontiers/dp/1787585182/ref=sr_1_1?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=36&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=14&qid=1595094938&refinements=p_27%3Atim+waggoner&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1

 

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Your-Suffer-Fiction-Without-Frontiers/dp/1787585166/ref=sr_1_2?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=36&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=14&dchild=1&qid=1595093899&refinements=p_27%3Atim+waggoner&s=books&sr=1-2&unfiltered=1

 

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Your-Suffer-Fiction-Without-Frontiers-ebook/dp/B08CVSNW16/ref=sr_1_1?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=36&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=14&dchild=1&qid=1595095017&refinements=p_27%3Atim+waggoner&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1

 

Barnes and Noble

 

Hardcover: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-turn-to-suffer-tim-waggoner/1137330372?ean=9781787585188

 

Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-turn-to-suffer-tim-waggoner/1137330372?ean=9781787585164

 

NOOK Book: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-turn-to-suffer-tim-waggoner/1137330372?ean=9781787585201

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YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZEz6_ALPrV3tdC0V3peKNw

 


Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Waggoner Fiction Formula!

 


I’ve served as a mentor for the Horror Writers Association for a while now, and one of my current mentees recently sent me an email to ask where I get my ideas for stories. She told me about a time in third grade when she was afraid of one of the school restrooms – something about it just seemed wrong to her – but she wasn’t sure how to use that experience as fuel for a story.

The only way that I could think to explain my process to her was to literally work through my story-generating process using the experience she told me about, as if it was my idea that I wanted to turn into a finished story. After I sent my reply to her, it occurred to me that other people might find it useful/interesting to read, so I copied it and have pasted it below. I don’t know if you could call it a formula for writing a short story precisely, but it is the closest I have to one.

Dear ______

Over the years, I've trained myself to look for horror story ideas. If I see or hear or read anything that strikes me as odd or strange, I write a note to myself about it (usually using the notepad app on my phone). I write down phrases and images that I encounter while reading and watching TV/movies that seem weird too. Then when it's time to write a story, I go through my idea list and pick two or three items I like, but which aren't necessarily related. Sometimes I might have a cool-sounding phrase in my idea list that might make a good title. I then try to connect these ideas to some kind of experience I've had so I can give the story an emotional core. I don't follow all the specific details of my experience. I change them as needed to fit the story, but the emotional core is still there.

I was never afraid of a bathroom at school, but let's pretend I was. I did have an experience in junior high where two bullies waited in the restroom for me and one punched me in stomach (not too hard). They did this two days in a row and never bothered me after that. So I could use that experience to give the haunted bathroom story an emotional core. Maybe I'll create an adult character who encounters the same young bullies that bothered him in junior high in a restroom where he works. The kids haven't aged a day, and each time they bully him, their actions are more violent. One of the phrases on my current idea list is Wolves in the Woods. That could a make a cool title for the story because the bullies are like wolves hiding in the woods waiting to pounce on a victim. Once I have these things to work with, I think about my character, who he is, where he works, what's going on in his life that might be causing him to relive the humiliating experience from junior high, only it’s so much worse now. I ask myself what would he do? The first encounter with the bullies would be unexpected, and the character might think he hallucinated or is going crazy. He might try to forget about the experience, but then it happens again. After the second time, what does he do? Avoid the bathroom at work? See a therapist? Do the bullies start harassing him in other places? Does his therapist suggest he confront the bullies in the hope that their attacks will end? I like to give my stories an unexpected ending that takes the basic concept/theme of the story and turns it on its head. So during the last confrontation with the bullies, they taunt him to the point where he attacks them and beats them up severely. The bullies, all beaten and bloody, say that he's just like them, he always was, he just never had the courage to lash out.  The bullies have come to bring out the bully in him. In their minds, they're doing him a favor. The bullies fade away then, but I'd have traces of their blood remain in the bathroom to make the reader wonder if they were real or not. The main character leaves the bathroom, and he becomes a bully finally. Now that I know the ending, I'd go back to the beginning and have the character be humiliated by someone at work -- a boss who berates him, a co-worker who's taken credit for something he did, maybe someone who's rejected him romantically. Or maybe I'd have all three of those people humiliate him. Then at the end, because he's now a bully -- one who's killed two maybe-real, maybe-not-real kids -- he's going to go kill the people at work who humiliated him. As I start drafting the story, I might change any of these story elements if better ideas occur to me, but once I have a story plotted out this far, I usually don't make any huge changes when I write it. As i write the story, I focus on the main character's thoughts and feelings, trying to show his fear and his slowly rising anger at the bullies (to set up the ending), and I'd try to create an atmosphere of dread and suspense throughout. To start it off strong, I'd begin the story with the last encounter with the bullies in progress, then I'd flashback to the day when the main character was humiliated with his co-workers (and I'd show a flash or two of anger that he doesn't act on). Then I'd write the first encounter with the bullies. I'd show the reader that he was bullied by these same two kids in junior high (maybe by having him check an old year book to make sure it's them). To make things weirder, I'd have him check social media and discover the two bullies are alive and are adults. I might even have him email one bully who apologizes for being a jerk in school to him. I'd intercut his investigation of the bullies' current lives with one or two more encounters with the young bullies. At this point, I probably wouldn't want to add any more characters, so I'd drop the therapist character and have the adult bully write something in his email about the importance of confronting one's past, etc. That would motivate the main character to have one last confrontation with the kid bullies. By this point, the story has caught up with the opening scene, and I'd finish it as I talked about above and end the story.

Once I have enough elements for a short story – the main character, his humiliation at work, the bullies in the bathroom at work, the adult bullies in real life – I stop adding elements and do my best to create the story from the ones I have, fleshing them out and connecting them, and making those connections tighter and stronger as I write.

I have no idea if any of this information helps, but it's a good description/explanation of where I get ideas and what I do with them to turn them into a finished story.

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

Short Fiction

If you’d like to see my process in action, you can read or listen to some of my stories for free on my website:

https://timwaggoner.com/stories.htm

You can also check out my most recent short story collection, the Bram Stoker Award Finalist Dark and Distant Voices.



“This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will.” – Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians and Mongrels.

“‘Hell is other people,’ Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. ‘Especially the one we see in the mirror,’ implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection."-Mort Castle, author of The Strangers and Cursed be the Child

Amazon

Print: https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Distant-Voices-Story-Collection-ebook/dp/B07C1CCWLM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner+dark+and+distant&qid=1626639167&s=books&sr=1-1

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Distant-Voices-Story-Collection-ebook/dp/B07C1CCWLM/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=tim+waggoner+dark+and+distant&qid=1626639604&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

Barnes and Noble

Print: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dark-and-distant-voices-tim-waggoner/1129652960?ean=9781938644252

Nook: Not available.

Halloween Kills: The Official Movie Novelization



I was thrilled to get the gig to write the novelization of the upcoming film Halloween Kills. Michael Myers is my absolute favorite slasher icon, and it was a dream come true to get to write a Halloween story. The book’s due out Oct. 19th, a week after the film releases, but it’s available for preorder now.

Amazon

Print: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1789096014?pf_rd_r=T3ZN1040TM7QC88PKW82&pf_rd_p=5ae2c7f8-e0c6-4f35-9071-dc3240e894a8&pd_rd_r=e3092045-b59a-404a-a03c-49acbd5505f9&pd_rd_w=2w0Er&pd_rd_wg=bfW1r&ref_=pd_gw_unk

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Halloween-Kills-Official-Movie-Novelization-ebook/dp/B092HR2N78/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Barnes and Noble

Print: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096019

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/halloween-kills-tim-waggoner/1139229840?ean=9781789096194

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Saturday, July 10, 2021

Horror Story Worksheet

 


HORROR STORY WORKSHEET

TIM WAGGONER


I’ve been writing and teaching writing for almost forty years now, and as you might imagine, I’ve given feedback on a lot of student stories – I mean, a lot. I see many of the same problems with beginners’ fiction, especially horror and dark fantasy, since that’s what I specialize in. While I know there’s no such thing as a fool-proof formula for writing a short story, as a teacher, I try to give students enough guidance in terms of structure to get them started on their way. This morning, as I was reading a couple stories for feedback, it occurred to me that it might be helpful for beginners if they had a story worksheet that they could fill out, and so I decided to make one.

A couple words of caution. A worksheet like this isn’t for everyone. If you find it stifling rather than inspiring, don’t use it. (Although, if you ever find yourself blocked, you can give it another try and see if it helps.) You don’t need to provide information for every item. Fill in however much or little you want. Hell, you can just read over the worksheet then sit down to write without filling in anything. This isn’t a school assignment. It’s a tool to use however you see fit. Also, the worksheet is a basic one. It doesn’t cover all the ways that a story can be structured. How could it? Each time we write a story, it’s at least a little different from any we’ve written before, than any story anyone’s written before. But I think the worksheet provides a decent framework for writers still learning how to write short stories. Also keep in mind that the areas I include on the worksheet are what I think are important for short fiction. Other writers would present items/have different advice – which is as it should be. You should learn from as many people as you can, take what works for you, and forget the rest.

One last thing to consider. I’ve created this worksheet to help people write horror stories, but it’ll work for many different kinds of fiction. For example, one item on the worksheet is the Bad Thing. In horror, that could be a killer, a monster, a malicious force, but in realistic fiction, it could be a decaying relationship or someone realizing they’re living a life that’s not genuine to who they really are.

Okay, I lied. Here’s the last thing to consider. Feel free to adapt the worksheet to your own needs, adding or subtracting elements as you wish. Feel free to use it in writing groups, and in classes and workshops you teach. I’ll be grateful if you give me credit for creating the worksheet, but I don’t care if you do. I only care that the worksheet helps people write more successful stories.

All right. Let’s get started.

MAIN CHARACTER

Normal or Not-So-Normal

Short stories should focus on a single main character and have only one or two supporting characters. They’re short, so there’s not a lot of room for a larger cast.

Horror stories tend to have one of two characters types. A Normal Person (for lack of a better phrase) or an Abnormal Person. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a prime example of an abnormal main character. The character’s abnormality is usually a psychological one (such as a pathological fear of being caught outside in a thunderstorm) that may or may not have a direct bearing on the main story threat (although it often does). Having an abnormal main character can add to the overall weirdness of your story, but it might be harder for readers to relate to your character.

HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER SOLVE PROBLEMS?

Does your main character directly confront problems? Indirectly confront them? Seek others’ help in dealing with them? Ignore them for as long as possible? Try to avoid them completely? Manipulate others into dealing with them? How your character deals with problems gives your story its shape. It’s the most important thing you can know about your character.

HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER REACT TO STRESS AND DEAL WITH FEAR?

In horror stories, bad stuff happens. Characters are under stress and they experience fear. You need to know how they react to stress and fear, and what toll stress and fear takes on them. (This may overlap with how they solve problems.) Do they keep going despite stress and fear? Do they feel they have to stop partway through the story? (Don’t let them!) Do they deny bad things are happening? Do they find their sense of reality shaken? What will they do when pushed to their breaking point and beyond?

STORY CONCEPT

What makes your story different? A lot of beginners’ horror stories have only the most basic concepts. There is a ghost. There is a killer. There is a werewolf. Those aren’t full-fledged concepts, though, and there’s nothing different about them. Recently, I was asked to write a story for an anthology dealing with classic monsters. I chose to write about a werewolf, and the concept I came up with is that when a member of the pack gets old, he or she goes into the woods, and a loved one “hunts” them to give them a final fight and a chance to die what, to their kind, is a dignified death. Werewolf is a trope. The concept is the approach to or spin on a trope. It’s what you do with a trope.

BAD THING

A lot of time in beginners’ horror stories, the Bad Thing is merely a trope – a witch, a zombie, a haunted house. But a Bad Thing should have some connection to the character. So instead of writing about a character encountering a generic ghost, write about a character confronting the ghost – hopefully, an atypical one – with a connection to them. Maybe your character must confront the ghost of a dog that he or she failed to watch properly as a child, and the dog got out of the yard and was killed. The character feels guilt and the dog-ghost feels that its master betrayed it. I’d end this story with some kind of twist, like the dog actually wanting the character to die and join it as a ghost so they can be together again.

EMOTIONAL CORE

A short story should focus on a single emotional core. The dog-ghost story’s emotional core is guilt and that guilt is centered on one specific incident – the character’s failure to properly supervise the dog and the dog getting killed because of it. Everything in the story, whether directly, indirectly, or symbolically, should connect to the emotional core.

MAIN CHARACTER’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE EMOTIONAL CORE

For the dog-ghost story, the most obvious connection is the character’s relationship to the dog, and his or her guilt over the dog’s death. I’d extend this to the rest of the character’s life, and have them become hyper-vigilant as an adult, maybe working as a security professional in some capacity. If the character’s need to watch over others becomes pathological, then he or she would become an abnormal character.

ANTICIPATION/BUILD TO CONFRONTATION POINT

The Confrontation Point is when your main character is forced to confront the Bad Thing. It’s what your story builds up to. These are small encounters with the Bad Thing, incidents that may be direct or indirect encounters, and which become increasingly worse/bigger/more blatant as the story goes on.

CONFRONTATION POINT

Your main character comes face-to-face with the Bad Thing. What happens? In horror, the most clichéd ending is “. . . and then the character died.” Try to avoid that. See if you can have the Confrontation Point be something that both grows out of the emotional core and which also isn’t a cliché. For the dog-ghost story, I would have the ghost-dog chase and knock down the character. The character thinks they’re going to be killed, but the ghost-dog licks their face (which sets up the ending). Yeah, the character dies, but they end up as a ghost companion to their dog.

COOL ENDING

The encounter with the Bad Thing is resolved in a way that makes your reader say, “Whoa! I did NOT see that coming!” This could be a positive ending or a negative one. Your character succeeds fully in obtaining their goal, succeeds partially, fails completely, fails partially, succeeds or fails in an unexpected way. I often go for what I think of is a weirdly happy ending. I’ve already said that my hypothetical ghost-dog story ends with the main character becoming a ghost and staying with the dog. The character is dead (which is a failure to survive the encounter) but they’re happy being reunited with their dog and are free of the guilt they’ve carried for so long (an unexpected success). In horror, if you can give your reader a last scare, a final eerie image or idea, so much the better.

The following items aren’t necessarily horror specific, but they’re issues beginning writers of all types need to address.

NARRATIVE APPROACH

·         Straight (Beginning, middle, end). In general, this is the best approach for beginners to take. When you get good at this, you can try more advanced narrative approaches.

·         Straight intercut with flashbacks (Current event, flashback, current event, flashback, etc.).

·         Frame (Present, Bulk of story is in the past, Present Ending).

·         Nonlinear (This is like a mosaic approach; events are presented to the reader in whatever order you wish.)

NARRATIVE STARTING POINT

This is the beginning that your readers will read. Start as close to the Confrontation Point as possible – always good advice for writing short fiction.

INCITING INCIDENT

May not be the Narrative Starting Point. An Inciting Incident is what kicks off the story problem (which in horror is the Bad Thing). For the dog-ghost story, the dog’s death is the inciting incident. My Narrative Starting Point might be when the dog’s owner, now grown, drives past his or her childhood home for the first time since the dog’s death. (The family moved shortly after.) The ghost-dog follows the character home and the story gets moving.

BACKGROUND/HISTORY

Keep this to a minimum. Horror often has an aspect of the past impinging on the present, and there’s always the issue of the character’s background too. Too often, all this background/history overwhelms the actual narrative. In general, try to keep the background/history to only 10 percent of your story (if that much). If you have trouble restraining yourself when it comes to background/history, keep two files open as you write. One is for the forward-moving story, the other is for background/history. Jump back and forth between them as needed, but don’t put any background/history into the forward-moving story. When you’re finished, take only the most absolutely necessary background/history details and sprinkle them into your story.

That’s it for the worksheet. I’ll put the items without any explanation below, so you can copy them and use them more easily. I hope you find this worksheet useful! If there’s something you think should be added to the worksheet, let me know.

 

HORROR STORY WORKSHEET

 

MAIN CHARACTER

 

HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER SOLVE PROBLEMS?

 

HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER REACT TO STRESS AND DEAL WITH FEAR?

 

STORY CONCEPT

 

BAD THING

 

EMOTIONAL CORE

 

MAIN CHARACTER’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE EMOTIONAL CORE

 

ANTICIPATION/BUILD TO CONFRONTATION POINT

 

CONFRONTATION POINT

 

COOL ENDING

 

NARRATIVE APPROACH

 

NARRATIVE STARTING POINT

 

INCITING INCIDENT

 

BACKGROUND/HISTORY

 

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

Want to read more of my writing advice? I’ve got two books you can check out.

Writing in the Dark is my Bram Stoker Award-Winning book on how to write horror. It’s available in both print and e-editions.

You can order direct from Raw Dog Screaming Press here:

http://rawdogscreaming.com/books/writing-in-the-dark/

From Amazon here:

Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Dark-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1947879197/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=tim+waggoner+writing+in+the+dark&qid=1625928712&sr=8-1

Hardcover: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Dark-Tim-Waggoner/dp/1947879235/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1625928712&sr=8-1

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Dark-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B08GCZ6GK9/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1625928712&sr=8-1

From Barnes and Noble here:

Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-in-the-dark-tim-waggoner/1137057460?ean=9781947879195

Hardcover: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-in-the-dark-tim-waggoner/1137057460?ean=9781947879232

The Art of Writing Genre Fiction, written with Michael Knost collects craft essays from both of use. (Currently only available in print.)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Writing-Genre-Fiction/dp/1644678993/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+art+of+writing+genre+fiction+knost+waggoner&qid=1625928927&sr=8-1

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