Monday, December 15, 2014

Getting Lucky

“You’re so lucky . . .”
I can’t tell you how many times someone’s said this to me or posted it as a reply to a comment I made about my writing on social media. It might have been in response to an announcement about a new publishing contract I’d landed, or a new book release, or something as innocuous as a post about how I was sitting in Starbucks writing in the afternoon.
Many writers – myself included – find the phrase more than a little insulting. It implies that everything we’ve achieved is merely a result of chance and that all the hard work we’ve put in over the years, all the sacrifices we’ve made, had nothing to do with our success. And if we point out that talent and hard work might’ve had just a little to do with our success, we get responses from folks saying we’ve forgotten what it was like to be a beginning writer or insisting that luck has to be the main factor in success. Otherwise, they would be successful, too. After all, they’re brilliant and talented. If no one’s publishing their writing, it has to be because they’ve had rotten luck. What else could it be?
Now, I am in no way suggesting luck is unimportant in writing and publishing success. But there are two kinds of luck: the kind you have no control over and the kind you have at least some control over. And if you can learn to maximize the latter, you can increase your chances for success.
I was born a white male to a middle-class American family, with a father who read a lot of science fiction and fantasy (and a little horror) and who was happy to let me read his books when he was finished with them. My family was supportive when I told them I was thinking about becoming a writer, and I had an inheritance that allowed me pay for college. I was also born with a vivid imagination and a talent for language. I had no control over any of those things. (By the way, all of this is what the kids are calling "privilege" these days, just in case you're fuzzy on the concept.)
But I chose to read the books my father left lying around the house. I chose to start writing and drawing my own comic book when I was in sixth grade. I chose to use my inheritance for college, and I chose – after a short period of indecision – to major in English. I also chose to major in education so I could support myself by teaching while I wrote. I chose to start writing and submitting stories seriously at eighteen, and I chose to start my first novel then and I finished it when I was nineteen. And when the rejections kept coming in, I chose to keep writing. I chose to start reading Writer’s Digest and The Writer. I chose to take as many creative writing classes in college as I could. I chose to work in the Writing Center as a tutor to earn money while sharpening my skills as both a writer and teacher, and during my senior year I chose to apply to be the editor of the college’s literary magazine and I got the job. I chose to go to graduate school and major in English with a creative writing concentration, and while I waited for school to start, I chose to apply for a job as a reporter for a small-town newspaper to learn more about writing to deadline, and I got that job, too.
Sometimes luck was involved in these choices. For example, I had no idea that my college had a Writing Center until one day when I was standing at the drinking fountain when a student who was in the same creative writing class as I was stepped into the hallway, saw me, said, “Hey, you’re a good writer. You want a job?” and beckoned me to step into the Writing Center with him because they were hiring. His seeing me at that precise moment and speaking to me was luck. My accompanying him into the Writing Center was a choice.
So let’s talk about some ways that you can get some measure of control over luck – and maybe even generate some for yourself as well.
1) Examine (or Re-Examine) Your Dedication and Focus
In high school, I explored art, music, and theatre as well as writing as possible career paths. But once I hit college and decided that I wanted to be a writer, everything else was left by the wayside. With the exception of three days working for K-Mart and one summer working for a company that packaged and distributed Olympic commemorative coins and pewter products, every job I’ve held has been related to writing in some way.
Here’s an old piece of writer’s advice: make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater your chances for success. There’s only one item on my last that’s more important than writing: my family.
Ask yourself: How dedicated and focused am I? How could I arrange my life to make more room for writing? Set up regular writing times for yourself, go on weekend writing retreats, do whatever you can to increase your focus on your writing.
2) Maximize Your Talent
We have no control over the amount of talent we’re born with. But we can control what we do to hone it. Take as many classes and workshops as you can, read as many how-to-write books and articles as you can, read interviews with successful writers, go hear them talk at events, go to conferences and attend every panel that you can. If time and money are limiting factors, instead of asking for presents for Christmas or birthdays, ask for money to attend a workshop or take a class. Consider starting/joining a writers’ group – face-to-face or online – with serious, dedicated, talented writers who provide useful feedback. Keep reading and read widely, not just in your genre. Keep striving to do better with each story you write and never stop pushing yourself to hone whatever talent you possess to its finest, sharpest edge possible.
3) Make Choices That Further Your Writing
The above is so much easier said than done, but we only get so much time to live. It’s up to you what you do with that time. I don’t go out with friends as often as I’d like, I don’t travel as much as I want, and I don’t watch much TV. Most of my trips are writing-related somehow. I won’t miss kids’ soccer games or band concerts (remember, Family is Number One on my list), but otherwise, most of my non-teaching and non-family time is used for writing. Choosing writing may mean giving up some things you enjoy. It may mean being a bit more selfish that you’re used to. But the choices you make on a daily, hourly, and even moment-by-moment basis can make all the difference when it comes to maximizing your luck.
4) Learn to Say Yes to Writing Opportunities
Someone asks you to edit the company newsletter? Say yes. Your church needs someone to write a holiday play for the youth group? Volunteer. Whatever writing and publishing opportunities come up, say yes to them – especially when you’re starting out. You never know what you’ll learn or where these opportunities will lead unless you explore them.
A few words of warning here. Be careful not to say yes to anything that will end up harming you – an exploitative contract, unethical reading fees for faux agents, etc. Also, don’t say yes to so many things that you become overburdened and unable to deliver on your promises. (Something I’m still working on learning.)
Check out Writer Beware for advice on how not to get scammed:
5) Explore Different Avenues
I’ve written short stories, novels, novellas, plays, articles, essays, news stories, a regular column, and humor pieces. In fiction genres, I’ve written horror, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, action-adventure, mystery, erotic romance, literary, and media tie-ins based on movies, TV series, cartoon characters, video games, and role-playing games. I’ve explored all these various types of writing not only to hone my talent and add new tools to my writer’s toolbox. I did it to expand my opportunities for success. In other words, to increase my luck. I figured the more I learned and the more versatile I became as a writer, the more opportunities would come my way and the more prepared I would be to take advantage of them.
So try everything. Submit your work to publishers, magazines, and contests. Respond to every open call for stories that you can find, even if it seems like a long-shot. Especially then. The more chances you take, the greater your odds of succeeding.
6) Make Connections
The more people you come to know and interact with, the more writing and publishing opportunities will present themselves to you – and more importantly, the more people you’ll have to learn from and the more emotional support you’ll have. (The more psychologically healthy you are, the more you’ll be ready to take advantages of opportunities when they occur and the more confident you’ll be about taking risks.) Not only will these connections benefit your career, they’re the best part of having a writing life, at least for me.
Get to know people in creative writing classes, at writing events, at your local library, at bookstores . . . Join a writers’ group, meet other writers at conferences, attend conferences as a panelist and get to know the writers, agents, and editors sitting beside you. Introduce the new people you meet to people you already know. Follow writers, agents, and editors on social media. Memorize their faces so you can say hi to them at conferences (but don’t be a Creepy McCreeperson and stalk them the entire weekend!).
Here’s an example of how I helped make a butt-load of luck for myself. Years ago, I was preparing to attend a local science fiction/fantasy convention, the very first where I would serve as a panelist. The newspaper carried a story about the con, featuring the local authors who would be in attendance. (I wasn’t included in the article; I’d only published a handful of short-stories at this point.) Fantasy authors Dennis McKiernan and J. Calvin Pierce were going to attend. I’d already read several of Dennis’ books, but I’d never read any of J. Calvin’s. I ran out, bought his first novel, and read it before the con, so I’d have something to talk to him about. (It was a well-written, humorous fantasy adventure called The Door to Ambermere.) I ended up on a panel with Jim (as he preferred to be called), and we chatted a bit. Afterward, he was headed to a nearby pub to have a beer with Dennis and he asked if I’d like to join them. I said yes (of course). Jim invited me to come to his place a couple weeks later, and it happened to be the night of his writers’ group – which included both Dennis and Lois McMaster Bujold. He asked if I’d like to come along with him. I said yes. Eventually, I became a member of that group and I learned a ton. I chose to go to the con, chose to ask if I could be on programming, and chose to prepare by reading Jim’s book . . .   And when he asked if I wanted to have a drink with Dennis and him, asked if I’d like to come to his place and talk about writing, and asked if I’d like to go to his writers’ group, I said yes.
7) Ask
My mother used to tell me, “Go ahead and ask. The worst thing they can do is say no.” (Of course, it helps if you’re not a jerk when you ask. This is why everybody hates the writer on Facebook who immediately sends a request to Like his or her author page the instant you accept them as a friend.)
Querying agents and editors is of course asking. But if you learn of an invite-only anthology that’s in the works, ask the editor if you can submit on spec. (And once you make connections with editors, ask them now and again if they’re working on any projects you can submit to.) That’s how I managed to sell quite a few stories to anthologies Marty Greenberg edited. I just asked what anthos his company Tekno Books had coming up and if it was okay that I submit. Only one time did I get a story rejected from a Tekno antho, and I wrote another one over a weekend and that one was accepted. (It was for the anthology Alien Pets, if you’re curious.) Want someone to offer you a blurb? Ask. I get quite a few people asking me for blurbs these days. I just wish I had time to read all their books! Want advice on writing and publishing? Reach out to writers, editors, and agents on social media or via their websites. Attend panels at conferences and ask questions. And ask questions one-on-one when you run into folks outside of panels. Over the years, I’ve learned that editors and agents are happy to talk to you if they realize you don’t want anything from them other than to have a conversation. Treating editors and agents like human beings? Who knew that would work! Want to pitch a book project to an editor or agent? Ask if they’re willing to take pitches during the conference. Ask for their cards so you can follow-up.
But whatever you do, remember the Golden Rule about asking: Don’t be an obnoxious pain in the ass. And if you’re not sure you’re being one, ask!
8) Don’t Stop
This is a big part of the luck equation, in some ways maybe the biggest. You can’t prepare to take advantage of the opportunities that show up on their own and can’t create opportunities for yourself if you stop trying. Don’t stop writing, reading, learning, choosing, connecting, asking, and all the rest. You want to get lucky? Then never forget that get is a verb. (Yeah, I know it’s a noun, too. Don’t get picky with me.)
Department of Shameless Self-Promotion
My new young adult horror novel Dark Art is now available from Past-Curfew Press. Here’s a synopsis:
It began with a drawing.
High-school student Sarah Pennington is in art class one day when her desk mate, Ben Phelps, shows her a drawing he’s done of a sinister knife-wielding figure he calls Shrike.
Then came the dreams.
Sarah begins having strange dreams of Shrike in which he commits disturbing acts of vandalism. When she awakens, she discovers her dreams have come true. The destruction is real – and so is Shrike.
Now Shrike’s alive.
As Shrike grows stronger, his actions become increasingly violent, escalating to stalking, terrorizing, and ultimately, murder.
And he must be stopped.
Sarah must help Ben stop the monster he created. But how can they fight a being that was born from anger and shaped by imagination? A creature that lives halfway between dream and reality? They have to find a way – before it’s too late for them both.
They say art imitates life.
Sometimes, it imitates death.
Print and ebook editions are available direct from the publisher or via Amazon:
In October, I had two new novellas released:
The Last Mile:
A Strange and Savage Garden:
And two of my older novels have been released as ebooks:
Pandora Drive:
Darkness Wakes:


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Amazing Story Spiral

Teaching how to plot is hard. In essence, you’re trying to teach someone how to build something when they can’t touch the materials they’re working with, can’t watch a demonstration of someone building the thing, can’t get their hands on a finished physical product to take it apart, can’t follow a pre-made step-by-step blueprint, and so on.
Creative writing teachers show their students visual representations of plot structure in the hope that it’ll help. But there’s really not much to show about Classic Plot Design, which follows the ever-popular Hero’s Journey. It’s a simple linear progression from beginning to end, with a few basic elements labeled. There’s nothing wrong with the Hero’s Journey pattern. But the diagram doesn’t give writers much to work with, and it really doesn’t help people who don’t think linearly as create – which, let’s face it, is most of us. Classic Plot Design is especially unhelpful for writers who wish to produce more literary, character-centered fiction.
Every time I teach novel writing, I struggle to find techniques I can offer to help nonlinear plotters create their stories. I often show the movie Wonder Boys in class as an example of a character-based plot that doesn’t follow Classic Plot Design. Usually we watch the film and discuss how the various elements blend together, but last week when after showing the movie in class, I was struggling to articulate a metaphor for how such stories were created, and I had – check this out, literary writers – an epiphany. In my mind, I saw a wheel with multiple spokes coming from a central hub, or more accurately, spokes which were leading TO a central hub. These spokes were different plots elements, the hub was the climax or ending point of a story, and the main character was represented by a spiral line which started on the outside of the wheel and continued circling toward the hub, touching the different spokes at various points along the way, and at each point the character engaged with the spoke in a different way that moved that section of the story forward.
And thus the Amazing Story Spiral was born!
To create a Story Spiral, draw a small circular in the middle of a piece of paper (or in the middle of your computer screen if you’re using a drawing program of some sort). This is the climax or the end point of your story. Then decide on various main story elements and draw a line coming from the middle circle for each of those elements. Then, starting at the top of the circle, draw a spiral line representing your main character which progresses through the spokes, curving ever inward in a spiral until it reaches the middle circle. Then go through the spiral and pick points where your character intersects each spoke and decide what event/story/character development will take place at that point. You can write notes about those events on the spiral itself, or if you don’t have room, on other piece of paper or Word document. When you’re finished, you have an alternative outline you can use as you draft your story.

Image by Keith Minnion:

I realized this pattern could work well to help nonlinear writers – and writers looking to break away from classic plot design – so I introduced it to my students and we spent a class using the Story Spiral as a plotting exercise. Here are some of the things they discovered about the technique.

·         You don’t have to have your character progress through the spokes in lockstep fashion. Just because the spiral touches a spoke doesn’t mean you need to create a scene for that spoke right then. For example, in Jaws one of the story spokes would be the sheriff’s conflict with the mayor over closing the beach because of the shark attacks. Since this isn’t as important a story element as other spokes, the sheriff character only touches that spoke a couple times. Whereas, in Jaws, the sheriff is going to intersect the spoke representing the shark many times.

·         Spokes can end before they reach the hub, or the climax of the story. Some plot elements are resolved before the story’s end. For example, if one of the spokes represents a character, and that character dies halfway through the story, that character’s spoke ends.

·         You can create different Spirals for different characters/viewpoints. You can use the same spokes, but the different characters will intersect them at different times and in different ways.

·         You can use a Spiral to plot out a chapter or even a scene.

·         The tightening of the spiral mirrors the rising action of Classic Plot Design, but it implies a sense that opposing forces are drawing closer and closer to the main character, which more accurately depicts how a character feels as the events of the story draw near a climax.
So if Classic Plot Design hasn’t worked for you, or if you simply would like to try an alternative plotting tool, give the Story Spiral a try. And if you do and have any reactions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments section. (And when commenting, please be kind in critiquing my skills as an artist!)
Happy Spiraling!
My collaboration with Michael West, “In Vino Veritas,” which deals with Elliot Ness facing the Greek god Dionysus, is out in the anthology Streets of Shadows from Alliteration Ink.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Guest Blog: Why I Don't Believe in Ghosts by Jennifer Loring

Why I Don’t Believe in Ghosts
By Jennifer Loring
I don’t believe in ghosts. I think this ironically played a large part in why I wanted to write about them, to see if I could make my own tale convincing. I love ghost stories, actually, and a number of them have terrified me despite my disbelief. Conduits is essentially a ghost story too, but with a quantum mechanical twist. And while QM does not explain or verify the existence of ghosts, it’s a lot of fun to play with when you’re writing about them—as long as you understand its basic principles.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; that’s the conservation of energy. Ghost hunters routinely misinterpret this law by assuming that when one dies, his or her electrical energy remains in spiritual form—since it can’t be destroyed—and manifests as a haunting. This is exactly the interpretation I used in Conduits to explain the ghosts’ existence, as well as how they can travel through electromagnetic channels including brain waves. In reality, as Skeptical Inquiry editor Benjamin Radford has explained, the energy is shut off when its source dies, and stored energy is released into the environment as heat during the process of decay. Bacteria, worms, etc. absorb that energy when they eat us. Those who are cremated release energy in the form of light and heat. No lingering spirit energy, unfortunately, and thus no ghosts.

Science explains other classic forms of paranormal activity as well. Hypnagogia, for example, is the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep, and it is not uncommon while in this state to experience hallucinations and “sleep paralysis”, both typical of alleged haunting activity. No coincidence that many who have lived in or spent time in “haunted” houses often begin their stories with “I was lying in bed one night…” I frequently experience hypnagogic hallucinations in the form of sound—“exploding head syndrome,” not nearly as unpleasant as the name implies—in which I hear voices, buzzing, crashes and booms, and on occasion I even hallucinate being touched. It can be frightening if you don’t understand what is happening, but it does have an explanation. I think we’ve all sensed at one time or another that someone/thing was watching us as well. Hallucinations and paranoia often attend high electromagnetic fields, but the origin of high EMF fields isn’t a mystery; it’s just your large electrical appliances and water lines.
I fully admit to abusing the first law of thermodynamics and other physics principles in order to serve my own selfish purposes. My narrator is meant to be unreliable and does not have a firm grasp on science (or reality, for that matter). That said, I don’t blame people for wanting to believe in ghosts. Most of us wish we could see a deceased loved one just once more—I know I do—or that something of ourselves remains after death. Personally, I just hope that if science ever does discover the existence of ghosts, they’re much nicer than the ones that inhabit Conduits.

Bio: Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and she is signed to a four-book deal with Permuted Press. Her debut novel, Those of My Kind, is due out in October 2015. Jenn is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers, and she holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband and a turtle named—what else?—Ninja. Her latest book, the novella Conduits, was published by DarkFuse and is available on

Mara is a Japanese-American girl with a history of personal tragedy. Though she still cuts herself to quell the pain, she thought the worst was behind her. But her boyfriend’s sudden death, and a visit to one of the most haunted places in Washington State, sends her into a spiral of madness, landing her in a psychiatric ward.

Already suffering from dreams of a strange, ghost-infested house in the woods, Mara begins to question the very existence of reality. She is forced to confront the truth about her older sister's death and the reason the ghosts have chosen her as their conduit.

Twitter: @JenniferTLoring

Buy Link:


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Top Five Most Horrifying Movie Moments

“So what, if anything, scares you?”
I get this question sometimes, the assumption being that since I write horror, I’m so used to wallowing in absolute darkness that merely ordinary fears couldn’t possibly have any effect on me. But of course they do. Getting cancer (again), having my middle-aged heart suddenly explode like a rotten tomato in my chest, failing the people I love, losing my mind cell by cell to Alzheimer’s, getting that terrible, unimaginable phone call telling me my wife or daughters have died . . . Those are all things that frighten me and there’s nothing particularly weird or special about them. I am mildly concerned that the exact duplicate of me that lives on the other side of the mirror might one day find his way out and try to replace me, but that’s another story.
Sometimes people are more specific and ask what books or movies frighten me. None these days I’m afraid. (See what I did there? Afraid?) This is where being a lifelong horror fan and writer has had an effect on me. I’m too familiar with horror tropes and story patterns to be frightened by them. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve never been scared – sometimes outright terrified – by books and movies. The ending of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a young Ben Mears’ vision of Hubie Marsden’s hanged corpse in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot . . . Scenes like those will haunt me forever. But movies have had a stronger impact on me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because when you watch a movie you’re completely under the filmmaker’s control. With a book or story, you can regulate the pace of your reading. You can pause, take your eyes off the page, look around and remind yourself that you’re okay, it’s just a story. But a film unfolds at its own pace, shows you what it wants to show you, and as long as you keep watching (and you probably will) you can’t escape.
So here’s a list of my top five most horrifying movie moments. I’m going to describe the scenes to you (so SPOILER ALERT), and I’m going to tell you why these moments affected me so deeply as well as what I’ve learned from them that’s helped me become a better writer of dark fiction. I’ve arranged the movies in the order that I originally saw them – and you might be surprised to find that they’re not all horror films. Horror, after all, is where we find it. Or where it finds us.
I was probably nine when I saw this on Shock Theatre with Dayton, Ohio’s own horror host Dr. Creep. (I dedicated my tie-in novel A Nightmare on Elm Street: Protégé to him.) Not long before I saw the movie, my Uncle Red (great-uncle, actually) had died unexpectedly. Red (who hated his real name Lawrence) was like a second father to me, and his death hit me hard. In fact, it sent me into a two-year depression that was hard to climb out of. I’d loved horror movies (and horror comics) ever since I could remember. The movie’s title is self-explanatory, and in one scene we see the destruction that the giant spider has wrought on a small town. The spider is long gone, and there’s no one around, except a boy about my age, with blond hair (like me), wearing glasses (like me), with one lense broken. And he’s crying. In that moment, I understood that monsters weren’t fun. Not if they existed in real life, anyway. They killed people, and there were survivors of their victims who suffered from the grief of losing loved ones. Just as I was suffering from losing Uncle Red.
This simple, schlocky horror film had a profound effect on me. It taught me that true horror doesn’t come from the monster but from people’s experience of the monster. It happens inside them.
JAWS (1975)
In 1975 I was eleven years old, and my dad took me to see Jaws. It was one of the few movies my father ever took me to, and why the hell he picked this one to take an eleven-year-old boy to, I have no idea. The relentless suspense of the film put me into a state of complete terror that I’d never experienced before, and by the time the shark leaped onto the Orca to devour Quint, I was nearly out of my mind with fear. And then I got my first good look at the shark. I saw its jaws working frantically to grab hold of Quint, and more importantly, I saw how those jaws didn’t quite align. I thought to myself, This stupid-looking thing is what I’ve been afraid of for the whole movie? And I burst out laughing. Not normal laughter, either. Hysterical laughter. I literally fell off my seat and onto the floor, where I continued laughing, ruining one of the most important moments in the film for a packed house of moviegoers. Come to think of it, maybe this incident is the reason my dad didn’t take me to more movies.
So what did this experience teach me? Anticipation – or as we say in the horror biz Dread – is more powerful than seeing the Big Bad fully revealed in broad daylight. And if you are going to show the Big Bad, it sure as hell better be worth all the build-up you’ve given it. The lesson: people’s own imaginations can terrify them infinitely more than a fake rubber shark ever can.
I don’t remember exactly when I saw this movie. Maybe when I was around twelve or so. It’s the story of a young couple who rob a bank and go on the run from the law. The couple are presented as anti-heroes, and the story plays out as a fun adventure where you root for the leads to get away from their pursuers. At the end of the movie, the couple roar across the state line in their car, and the cops have to let them go. The couple looks back at the frustrated officers, laughing in delight, and then their car slams into a train and bursts into flames. The credits roll as the car continues to burn. I was absolutely gob-smacked, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my jaw was hanging open as I stared wide-eyed at those flames.
I was horrified, if not a bit traumatized, by the sudden violence of that ending. Stories were supposed to be predictable. More, they were supposed to be safe. There was nothing safe about that ending, and the movie was all the better for it. It taught me the value of unpredictable narrative, as well as giving me a glimpse into the horror of living in a universe without safety, and perhaps ultimately without meaning. A lesson in cosmic horror derived from a sleazy action film? Hell, yes. The Dark is everywhere.
I saw this not long after it came out, so I was probably seventeen or eighteen. The movie presents itself as a coming-of-age comedy. An awkward teen boy desires a beautiful and naturally unobtainable girl who has a boyfriend. The girl gets pregnant, her boyfriend dumps her, and the awkward teen – who’s a good guy with a good heart – helps the girl through an abortion (even paying for it), and consoling her afterwards. The two make love, and it seems as if they’re going to stay together and the movie will have a happy ending. But the next day at school, when the boy sees the girl, she’s with her boyfriend again. She looks at the boy who stood by her, took care of her, and there is nothing – absolutely fucking nothing – in her eyes. The boy turns away and departs, devastated. I was equally devastated. For me, that ending was a glimpse into an endless abyss of nothingness that I prayed I would never have to look into again.
The lesson? Emotional wounds cut just as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones. Jason may wield one hell of a machete, but he never sliced up anyone like the girl in that film did. Even worse – she didn’t intentionally hurt the boy who’d helped her. When Jason and his ilk kill someone, that victim matters, if only for that moment and only as a target. That boy didn’t mean a thing to that girl. He wasn’t worth hurting on purpose. This film taught me that the Death of the Self is the worst death of all.
I saw this a couple years after it came out. My daughters were both young then, ages seven and two. The film is a surreal head trip (See what I did there? Part 2) from Charlie Kauffman about a door that, if you pass through it, allows your mind to enter and control the actor John Malkovich (playing himself). At the end of the movie, the main character, played by John Cusack, attempts to enter Malkovich’s mind but (for various reasons) he ends up in the mind of his own young daughter, who is next in the chain of people the mysterious door permits entry into. Cusack’s character is only a passive passenger in his daughter’s mind, seeing what she sees and hearing what she hears. He will not be in control of her body until she’s grown. (Again, for reasons.) The end of the film shows the daughter looking at Cusack’s ex-wife and her girlfriend, who are both obviously very happy. Cusack, in a pained, pleading thought-voice says, “Look away. Please, look away.” But there’s nothing he can do to make his daughter avert her gaze. That’s horrible enough, but the implication is that eventually – and Cusack will not be able to prevent this – his personality will take over his daughter’s body and in the process her personality will be destroyed. He’s forced to be a passive observer as his daughter lives her life, knowing all the while that he’s a malignant psychic cancer growing inside her that will one day kill her.
What I learned here is as simple as it is awful: there are worse things than death. Way worse. Too many horror stories use death as the ultimate horror and sure, death is scary. I don’t want to die, and I bet you don’t want to either. But death is too easy, too generous an outcome in horror. From this movie, I learned to seek other ways to torture my characters than simply shuffling them off this mortal coil a bit earlier than their scheduled departure date. And my fiction has, I hope, been all the more effective for it.
So now you may be thinking to yourself, Cool blog post, but what does it have to do with me? Fine, you self-centered, greedy things – here’s your takeaway.
Make your own Top Five Movie Moments List and focus it on whatever type of fiction you write. Write science fiction? List your top five sense-of-wonder movie moments. Write suspense? Do a top five the-tension-is-killing-me movie moments. You can do the same for all genres: romance, mystery, thriller, etc. For those who write literary or mainstream fiction, I’d suggest doing a list of your five most emotionally impactful movie moments. Whichever list you choose to do, I urge you to look beyond your particular genre to film moments that truly, deeply impressed themselves upon you. Then look for the lessons these moments have to teach you, lessons about yourself that you can use to make your writing even stronger than it already is.
My surreal/psychological horror novella Deep Like the River is now out from Dark Regions Press. I’m especially proud of this one, and the advance word on the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s a blurb to whet your appetite:
"A descent into the madness of a ruined psyche, Deep Like the River puts Waggoner's talent for the eerie, desolate, and unpredictable in the spotlight. A must-read for those who like their horror tinged with desperation and guilt." - Ronald Malfi, author of Cradle Lake
Deep Like the River is available in both print and ebook editions. You can order from the usual online bookstores or directly from the publisher at
My latest urban fantasy novel is now out from the good folks at Angry Robot Books. It’s called Night Terrors and it’s the first in a new series. Audra Hawthorne and her nightmare clown partner Mr. Jinx are officers in the Shadow Watch, an organization which fights to protect the world from bad dreams made flesh. Available in both print and ebook editions from Amazon, B&N, etc. or you can order directly from the robots themselves at
My zombie novel The Way of All Flesh is still available from the usual suspects and directly from Samhain Publishing:

FEARnet says it’s “one of the most original and surprising takes on the zombie genre I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” Why not check it out and see for yourself?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Guest Blog by Simon Strantzas: Learning the Art of the Collection

by Simon Strantzas
It always starts with such clarity of vision. Time has a way of fogging things up.
When I first started reading the genre, naturally I gravitated to novels. It was the 80s, and that's where all the exciting things were happening. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit I loved short stories even then, and I discovered many (if not most) of my favourite authors through the anthologies like PRIME EVIL and DARK FORCES. That said, I was a reader, not a writer, and ideas I formed then in ignorance were carried with me long after I should have known better. (This is the way of things, I suppose; we all cling to our irrationalities from youth.) One of those ideas that overstayed its welcome was that a story collection had only one job: round up all those shorts an author wrote between novels and put them in one place. I had good reason to think this: virtually every collection I saw—whether it come from King or Straub or Lansdale or whoever—was this sort of collection. They seemed like after-thoughts. In music parlance, a collection of hit singles.
I went from reader to writer about twenty years later. And there were all sorts of lessons I learned along the way. When the day finally came where I’d been writing long enough to amass a collection's worth of stories, I immediately and unsuccessfully tried to get that book published. There were many reasons presented why my first collection wouldn't work—some based on the stories themselves, others on my rather nascent career—but at the end of the day no one wanted the book. And even then part of me was glad.
More so at the beginning of my career than now, I felt I wrote in two modes: the strange, and the weird. Some stories were more of the former, filled with enigmatic puzzles; some were the latter, more philosophical and cosmic. When that proposed book collecting the mishmash of them was rejected, I decided to entertain a thought that had been percolating for a while, but had until then been treated as only a fantasy—I gathered only the weirdest of my stories and published them together as my first collection, BENEATH THE SURFACE. The non-weird material I excluded would be left for the next book. It seems to me reckless in hindsight: I suspect any one who knew me at the time would have known me most for strange, ghostly stories, and yet my first book was nothing of the sort. Yet, I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I released a ghost story collection first. Would anyone remember it now, or would it have faded into the background of the genre? True, some didn't connect with BENEATH THE SURFACE as much as I would have liked, but those that did, really did, and it showed me the power of focus.
In some sense, I blame those collections of my youth for skewing my understanding of what a collection could be. Sure, it could be an odds-and-ends book, designed to fulfill a contract or kill time between novels. But I came to realize that, for me, a collection can be so much more. A collection can unite stories of similar themes or visions. A collection can distill a central idea and become greater than the sum of its parts. It can convey a world-view in ways a single story or novel can’t.
It was perhaps only when my last collection was published and I started thinking about what was to follow that I fully realized this. I already had the workings of the next collection’s anchoring novella in mind, and I also knew that the novella's title, "Burnt Black Suns", would be the perfect choice for the book's title as well. I had an itch to return to the sort of book my first had been, but I wanted to do it different. Rather than a hodge-podge written over years, I wanted the new book to be consciously focused, and in keeping with the novella, I wanted to incorporate some of the Lovecraftian tricks I'd been exploring. I also wanted to plant a flag in the Weird, to make an indelible mark. If BENEATH THE SURFACE was my first volley into the Weird, BURNT BLACK SUNS would be an all-out attack. By the time I finished, the book wasn’t what I expected, but it was altogether more than I'd anticipated. That clarity and focus I had in what a collection was and could do allowed me to shine in a way I don't think I could have before with a less-disciplined book. Focus brings out the best in my work.
There are many different ways to write a collection, and for some writers the best outlet for their muse is a showcase for their different styles and talents. I don’t begrudge them if that’s the case. (I’ve certainly read, and enjoyed, my fair share of them.) But for me, it's focus that’s most important. And I think the results, as presented in BURNT BLACK SUNS, speak for themselves.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


·         Horror Writers Association,

·         International Thriller Writers Association.

·         Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft

·         On Writing, Stephen King

·         Danse Macabre, Stephen King

·         On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, ed.

·         Writers Workshop of Horror, Michael Knost, ed.

·         How to Write Horror Fiction, William Nolan.

·         To Each Their Darkness, Gary Braunbeck

·         Writing the Paranormal Novel, Steven Harper

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

·         Dark Thoughts on Writing, Stanley Wiater

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

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

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