Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Thoughts About Literary Fiction

For nine years I served as mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, and I’ve mentored a number of writers one on one who’ve gone on to graduate programs in creative writing. These mentees usually go into programs where creative writing classes are taught by literary writers who have, at best, a limited tolerance for genre writing or, at worst, who outright loath it. These mentees become extremely frustrated, and they reach out to me for advice. “Why can’t I make my professors happy?” And if they try to write the kind of literary fiction their professors want, they ask, “Why can’t I write this stuff?” A former mentee emailed me recently to ask these questions, and I thought I’d share my response here, edited to remove any indication of my mentee’s identity.


I was lucky during my college career. None of my professors at Wright State University ever said a negative word about my writing genre fiction. Maybe it would've been different if I'd been in an MFA program instead of an MA program. I've heard from dozens of people over the years that professors who write literary fiction often view all genre fiction as worthless, although they have a difficult time explaining why. I think these professors just parrot what they were told when they were students, the same way high school English teachers tell their students never to use "you" in their writing, without ever knowing why. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Try not to let it get you down. Your thesis advisor's view is a limited one. Ignore his views on genre fiction and learn whatever you can from him. The only arbiter of what makes good fiction should be you, since you're the one writing it.

In terms of how literary fiction differs from genre fiction, I've thought a lot about that over the years. I don't write literary fiction. Twenty years or so ago, I wrote a handful of literary stories, but editors rejected them all, so I shelved them. So take my thoughts with at least a grain of salt! My advice to anyone who wants to write literary fiction is to leave out anything remotely resembling genre elements. Just tell a story about real people doing real things in the real world. Literary fiction focuses on character -- getting to know a character, watching character be revealed, watching character be transformed in some small but profound way. Despite this focus, literary fiction tends toward emotional restraint and intellectual distance. It's a paradox. Literary fiction deals with the emotional life of humans but does so at arm's length. I sometimes wonder if that's because it's written by intellectuals who struggle to understand their emotional sides. At times it almost seems as if they're naturalists writing about animals they're trying to understand. A couple quotes I've heard about literary fiction (I can't remember the sources): Literary fiction is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. (I take this to mean that the characters tend to be more intelligent and perceptive than normal; small events can move them and transform them profoundly.) A second quote: If you want to write a literary story, write a first-person, present-tense story then cut off the beginning and ending. That's usually meant as a joke, but I think there's some truth to it. Literary fiction eschews what its practitioners see as anything approaching what they view as simplistic, childish, pop-culture storytelling, and the basic linear narrative pattern – character with a goal takes steps to meet the goal, encounters obstacles along the way, works to overcome those obstacles, the obstacles get harder forcing the character to work harder until a crisis point arises, then climax and falling action – is too formulaic for them. I think a pattern for a literary story might be better described as a spiral. At the center is the conflict/emotional core/theme of the story. The main character circles around this core, drawing ever closer to it bit by it, until the character is forced to confront it. The moment of confrontation leads to an epiphany which changes the character in a profound way. This change is often not depicted “on screen” and is left up to the reader to ponder after the story is finished. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a good example of this spiral technique. If you haven't read it, Google it. You can find it free online.

Now, something weird about the Literary Story Spiral is that the same technique is often used in horror fiction, except that what lies as the center of the spiral is the Terrible Thing (whatever it may be).  Shirley Jackson's "The Summer People" is an excellent example of this. The epiphany happens for the audience as much or more than it does for the characters, and horror stories often end in a suspended moment, when the characters and readers are left in a situation that isn't resolved on the page, which is only resolved – or at least pondered over – by readers. So the Horror Story Spiral is almost the same as the Literary Story Spiral. The big differences are what lies at the center of each spiral, and the intellectual distance and restraint of literary fiction, and the deliberate attempt to evoke emotion (fear). So my theory – which I haven't tested out yet – is that horror writers should be able to write basic literary fiction because they have a deep familiarity with a spiral pattern.

My former mentee had been revising the same story for a couple years, trying to get it “right” for his/her professors. He/she asked if this was typical.

Is it typical to spend so much time working on a story? When you're using it as part of a longer learning process it is, and I think that's what's happening here. Any story can be reworked a zillion times, and eventually you reach a point where you're making it different, but not necessarily better. And whose definition of better do you use to judge it? Your thesis director? Mine? A friend's? In the end, only your judgment matters.

Long ago, I used to be in a writers' group, and I had a buddy from college who I exchanged stories with. One day I wrote a weird, surreal story called "Mr. Punch" that depended a lot on imagery and implication. It was the first time I'd written a story like this, and it felt right – SO right – but I was worried people wouldn't get it. I shared it with my group, and they liked it, but thought the ending was too enigmatic. I tried changing it, rewrote it a couple times, then I decided to say fuck it and trust my instincts. That story became my first professional sale, appearing in an anthology called Young Blood, next to stories by King, Poe, and Campbell. After the story was published, my college friend sent his feedback. The manuscript was covered in red ink. I decided at that point to trust my own sense of what makes a story effective, for good or ill. I still have moments of doubt, and I still try new things that I'm not sure will work, and sometimes they don't. I also still try to be open to learning new approaches to writing. But I do my damnedest to stay focused on my . . . I guess you could call it an inner artistic compass. I listen to other voices, but I don't let any of them speak louder than mine. Does that make sense?

I once had a dream long ago where I was standing in the middle of my high school gym. The bleachers were filled with silent people, and even though they didn't speak, I heard their voices in my mind. They said, "Trust your feelings." I grew angry, didn't want to accept what they said, started stomping my feet in a tantrum. As I did this, I began to grow larger and larger, but the silent people remained calm and quiet, and merely repeated their message: "Trust your feelings." The dream has stuck with me for decades, and I try to remember it whenever I get confused. I pass it along to you now. Trust your feelings. You have excellent artistic instincts. Just follow them.


The divide between literary and genre fiction can be summed up thusly: literary fiction primarily focuses on character, while genre fiction focuses primarily on plot. Yes, I know you can think of a zillion exceptions. There are literary horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery stories. I’m not sure there are literary romance stories, since that genre depends heavily on a specific plot elements – it must be a romance, there must be obstacles/conflicts during the course of the two main characters falling in love, and there must be a happy ending – any literary story that deals with a love story wouldn’t be considered a category romance.

The character/plot divide is a false one, and writers of all stripes would be better served not to worry about it and tell the best story they’re capable of, focusing on and stressing whatever elements each particular story needs to be successful. I believe many creative writing instructors would better serve their students if they understood this. The best book that addresses this divide and why it’s unnecessary – if not downright hurtful to producing good fiction – is Plot Vs Character by Jeff Gerke. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=plot+vs+character

Over the last few decades, genre elements have become more accepted by writers and publishers of literary fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is social science fiction, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a parallel world story, for example. There are many literary journals that accept fiction with genre elements – and some that focus on genre – so if you’re a genre writer and you’d like to explore writing for literary markets, they’re out there. The Poets & Writers website has a database of literary journals and what they’re looking for. You can find that database here: https://www.pw.org/literary_magazines

Go through it, read the guidelines for each magazine, see which ones accept fiction with genre elements, check out some sample issues (hopefully, they’ll have some online), and then submit your work.

Keep in mind that literary magazines are usually not high-paying markets, if they pay at all. In the academic world – which literary journals are often affiliated with – the compensation for articles/stories/essays/poems is that professors can use these publications to help them get promotions, tenure, merit pay, etc. Also, being published in the more highly regarded journals can help writers land an agent or a book deal. So while many genre writers will firmly tell you never to write anything unless you are paid with money, literary magazines don’t operate on the same philosophy. This is different than “For the Luv” markets that pay “in exposure” (and which rarely offer you any real exposure at all since hardly anyone reads them). Being published in literary journals does come with compensation, even if it’s not always immediate and financial. So yeah, you won’t get rich writing for literary journals, but writers of genre short stories who always insist on being paid – even if it’s only a token payment – aren’t getting rich, either. So if you want to submit to literary markets, do it. If you don’t want to, then why the hell did you read all the way to the end of this entry?



My latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions. Nothing literary about this bad boy! It’s meant to be an action-filled monsters-chomping-tasty-humans adventure.

They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .

. . . and it’s starting to rain.

My story "Cast-Offs" appears in this anthology. More a nightmarish horror story than something literary, but I think you'll dig it.
Welcome to Golden Elm Lane. It’s just like any other small-town street…or is it? Horrible things happen on Golden Elm Lane…vile, monstrous, evil things. Serial killers, ghosts, and monsters of all kinds hide behind the walls lining this cursed street. Each house tells a story…a horrifying story. And now, for the first time ever, fourteen masters of horror will give you a bloody tour of Golden Elm Lane and bring it to full, terrifying life. With an introduction by the legendary creator of Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th franchise, Victor Miller, you'll find it difficult to turn down an invitation to attend our…CHOPPING BLOCK PARTY. Featuring all new stories from: Ray Garton, Richard Chizmar, Adam Howe, Bryan Smith, Damien Angelica Walters, Gerard Houarner, John Everson, Hunter Shea, Jeffrey Thomas, Kristin Dearborn, Nate Southard, Paul Kane, Simon Wood, Tim Waggoner, and Brendan Deneen.

My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime. This one’s blood, gore, and insanity. Not literary.


My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press. Of the three works I’m promoting right now, I consider this the closest to literary genre fiction.

It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I’ve got a confession to make.
I hate writing action scenes.
Well . . . maybe hate is too strong a word, at least these days. I’ve written so many different books – horror, fantasy, tie-ins, novelizations – that writing action as gotten easier for me. And I’ve gotten fairly decent at it. One of the reasons my editor at Titan Books asked me to write the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle was because she thought I was good at writing action. And who am I to argue with an editor? Especially when she says nice things about me.
Recently, I posted about the Kingsman novelization on Facebook, and the wonderful literary dark fantasy writer Jeffrey Ford commented that I could probably give some useful tips on writing action scenes. I thought, “Hmm . . . a potential blog post idea!” And now that I have a new novel to promote – an action-filled sea-monsters-attack book called Teeth of the Sea – it seemed like a good idea to dive into the subject (see what I did there?). So let’s cut to the action.
I usually don’t listen to music when I write, especially music with lyrics. I find the words of the songs get in the way of the words I’m trying to write. But fast-faced music, often with a hard edge, helps me write action scenes. Not only does it get me in the proper mindset to write action, it inspires me to put the same kind of frenetic energy into the prose. I used Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” when writing the Kingsman novelization because I knew from the script that the song was going to be used in the film. When writing Teeth of the Sea, I listened to something a little different: Themes from Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, which features music from the giant-monsters-attack movies Tarantula and the Deadly Mantis, among others. Movie soundtracks work great, too. They can help inspire you to bring a cinematic feel to your action scenes.
Something else I do to prepare for writing action scenes is to watch action movies, and I also read action-adventure novels. I want to immerse myself in action sequences, both visual and written, so I have an action mindset when I sit down to write.
I first encountered this technique at SF conventions, where panelists would talk about how it was THE key to writing effective, saleable fiction. They all mentioned one book: Techniques of the Selling Writing by Dwight V. Swain. After the con, I hauled ass to the bookstore and snagged a copy. You can Google “scene and sequel writing” or “scene and sequel fiction” to learn more about this technique (and I encourage you all to do so), but here’s the short version. Fiction can be divided into two basic units. a SCENE, in which a character takes active steps to achieve a small goal that helps him or her make progress toward the larger story goal, and a SEQUEL, in which that character processes the outcome of the scene and decides on his or her next move, which leads directly into the next SCENE, and so on, until the story is finished.
One day while writing an action scene for a novel, I realized that action scenes were nothing but a fast-moving chain of Scenes and Sequels. For example: Bob wants to get out of a burning building, but his arch nemesis Jim is determined to keep him inside so they’ll both burn to death. SCENE: Bob wants to reach the front door, so he starts running. Jim tackles him and they both fall to the floor. SEQUEL: (which can be an instinctive reaction instead of a well thought-out plan) Jim is lying atop Bob, so Bob decides to slam his head back into Bob’s face. SCENE: Bob does so, stunning Jim, who rolls off Bob’s back. SEQUEL: Bob is now free to move, so he will. SCENE: Bob gets to his feet and starts heading for the door once more. Jim has a baseball in his pocket. (Why, I don’t know – just go with it). He pulls out the baseball and throws it at Bob. It hits Bob in the back of the head. SEQUEL: Bob: “Ow!” The pain of the impact causes Bob to stagger, slowing him down. He fights through the pain and dizziness because he needs to get to that door. SCENE: Bob continues toward the door, staggering and weaving, moving slower now. And so on.
Using Scene and Sequel allows you to choreograph a fight scene – especially when you remember that each character has his or her own chain of Scenes and Sequels. In order to determine Bob’s actions and reactions, I also had to know what Jim’s were. Scene and Sequel also helps you remain anchored firmly in the present action so you don’t rush it. (More on this later.)
In the above example of Bob, I focused on one goal: Bob wants to get the hell out of the burning building. Jim may be his arch enemy, but Bob doesn’t have time to settle old scores, no matter how satisfying that might be. He has to get out or he’ll burn to death. Everything in the action sequence needs to be focused on Bob trying to escape, and Jim trying to keep him from doing so. If physical action won’t work, maybe Bob will try to reason with Jim, even offer to make a bargain with him of some kind – anything that will get him out of the burning building. As the fire spreads and the situation becomes more dire, Bob’s actions will become more frantic, more desperate, and more instinctive. Maybe he’ll give into that, maybe he’ll fight it. The goal can change during an action sequence, too. Maybe Bob is almost out of the building when he hears a baby crying from somewhere in the room, and his goal shifts to save the baby, and then escape.
Staying focused on your characters’ immediate goals will help you write sharper, more intense action scenes.
Too often in action movies, everyone can do everything. All the characters are equally good at fighting, driving, etc., and all the fights, chases, and escapes are the same. (The only exception is Asian characters, who almost always possess superhuman martial arts skills that somehow their opponents can counter with only basic street-fighting moves.) But all of your characters have different backgrounds, training, and experience (or in the case of a normal everyday person thrust into an action scene, no training or experience). They also have different psychological makeups. How do they normally deal with problems? Do they tackle them head-on? Do they seek others’ help in dealing with them? Do they try to manipulate others into dealing with them instead? Do they try to ignore problems and hope they’ll go away? How do your characters deal with an unexpected threat? Will they immediately leap into whatever action is necessary? Will they stand there, stunned, in terror or disbelief? How do they deal with stress? (The stress of conflict takes its toll on characters no matter what sort of story they inhabit). Do they rise to the occasion? Do they check out mentally? Do they go over to the Dark Side so they can survive? Do they betray companions so they can survive? Knowing how each character deals with problems and reacts to stress (both immediate and long-term) will help you decide what they’ll do, and not do, in action sequences.
In general, I believe an immersive point of view is the best way to go when writing fiction. So far, none of our other ways of experiencing story – movies, TV shows, videogames – is capable of getting into characters’ heads, allowing us to experience what they’re experiencing. It’s one of the great strengths of prose fiction. If you write with an immersive point of view, we’ll know what a character thinks and feels, both emotionally and physically, during an action scene. The action will be intense because, in way, it’s happening to us. Avoid writing your action scenes as if you’re viewing them on a screen. Write them as if you’re living them. When I talk about this in classes, I show an action clip from one the Bourne movies, then I show the video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker.” The latter is filmed from the point of view of a James Bond-like spy. I tell students to imagine action scenes (any scene, really) as if they’re the character in that video. Here’s a link if you’ve never seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rgox84KE7iY
I was an acting major for a time in college, and one of the most important lessons an actor has to learn in is to “play the moment.” This means don’t rush dialogue, don’t rush past the emotional beats in a scene. When writing action scenes, don’t rush through the chain of events. Allow your characters to have responses and make choices, however quick they may take place. Allow them to having physical and emotional responses to the actions they take or are taken against them. Staying in the moment is what makes an action scene feel real, and it helps create intensity and build suspense.
Too many writers write about characters who, while supposedly human, possess superhuman strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to injury. Even if your character is an action-adventure badass, he or she will slow down during an action sequence, from the build-up of lactic acid in their muscles if not from injuries. The most believable action sequence I’ve ever seen in film was in John Carpenter’s They Live. Roddy Piper and Keith David are fighting in an alley. The fight starts off high energy, but as it goes on, the combatants slow down, become out of breath and exhausted. That’s the way a real fight would go.
There’s little suspense with characters like Batman and Superman, until Batman’s back is broken and Superman is suffering from kryptonite poisoning. It’s not what you give heroes that makes them interesting; it’s what you take away from them. So consider not writing about superheroes in the first place, but if you do, try to make their action scenes believable. Let them get winded, get tired, get hurt. And let them make mistakes. Maybe they don’t make every jump they take or hit every target they shoot at, even if they ultimately succeed in a story.
And think about how your characters will feel physically and emotionally after the action is over. Tired but exhilarated? Sick to their stomach over the violence they committed? So upset they’re determined never to raise a fist in violence ever again? Surprised – and maybe more than a little ashamed – to discover they like violence and want to commit more? The aftereffects of action are just as important as the action itself.
Writers forget that the bodies of characters in action scenes are flooded with adrenaline and stress chemicals. It doesn’t matter if these characters are well-trained and experience action veterans or newbies. The veterans will be able to handle the effects of these chemicals better, but they’ll still experience them. Here are some of the effects:
·       Increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
·       Dilated pupils to take in as much light as possible.
·       Constriction of veins in skin, which causes the chilly sensation associated with fear.
·       Increased blood glucose.
·       Tensing of muscles and goose bumps. Relaxation of smooth muscles.
·       Shutting down of nonessential systems such as digestion and the immune system.
·       Difficulty concentrating on small tasks (the brain is directed to focus on the big picture).
·       Once the threat diminishes, the body releases cortisol to calm itself back down.
Questions to ask yourself: How does your character’s body work during fear? After fear? How does your character’s senses perform during fear? How effectively can your character process information during an action/fear scene? How effectively can they think and react?
I read once that the reason so many shots were fired during the gunfight at the OK Corral was because the participants’ bodies were so full of adrenaline, their physical actions were too fast, too broad, too erratic for them to shoot accurately. If that’s true, maybe it explains the lousy aim of the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe.
How far is your character willing to go in an action scene? What risks will he or she take? Will your character jump off a cliff like the anti-heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Will he or she be willing to face a shark in its own element, as in Jaws? In a fight, how much violence are they psychologically prepared to commit? It’s easy to hurt and kill humans. Stick thumbs through their eye sockets into their brains. Slice their carotid artery. Bash their brains out with a heavy object. But most people won’t immediately go for those moves. You need to know what moves your character will make naturally, and which they’ll make when pushed somewhat, and which they’ll make when they’re pushed to the wall and feel they have no other choice.
One of my favorite sentences that I’ve ever reach in fiction came from a novelization of one the Friday the 13th movies, written by Simon Hawke: “Jason surged out of the water like a Polaris missile.”
I still laugh at the silliness of the image. The simile doesn’t work at all (nothing against Simon Hawke. I enjoyed the rest of the book just fine). A Polaris missile is military tech, science-y instead of slasher-y, and a missile is far more deadly than one dude with a machete could ever be, making Jason seem like a much lesser threat. Readers need to be able to picture clearly and accurately everything that’s happening in an action scene, not least because it’s (hopefully) fast-paced and they’re reading it quickly. If someone read the above sentence too fast, they might think a missile actually followed Jason out of Crystal Lake. Even if they realized it was a simile, they’ll still picture a Polaris missile shooting out of the water, and the image will clash with what’s really going on. Because of this, I try to avoid using similes and metaphors in action scenes, and I advise you to do the same.
Put energy into your writing so the words themselves feel like action. Instead of saying,
“She ran into the shadows,” say “She plunged into the shadows.” Instead of saying “Bob hit Jim,” say “Bob slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw.” Instead of saying “Jim let out a gust of air!” say “The wind whooshed from Jim’s lungs.” You have to be careful when writing like this, though. If you overdo it, you risk plummeting (see what I did there?) into parody.
In order to make action sequences more fast-paced for readers, write with shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Avoid excess description and focus in the action itself, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
I think the above says it all. Use action figures if you want or those posable wooden models that artists use. Use toy cars, boats, guns, etc. Anything that will help you visually conceive of action moves and help you describe them more effectively. If nothing else, it’ll give you an excuse to play with toys and act like a crazy person (as if writers need an excuse.)
By this point, I’ve spent all my energy, I’m gulping air, my muscles feel like lead, and I’m lightheaded and a trifle nauseated. (Writing is action, right?) I think I’ll go rest for a bit. Next time you write an action sequence, try using some of the above tips, and you’ll kick more ass and take more names than ever before.

Now that you’ve read my tips on writing action, you know you want to see if I practice what I preach! As I said earlier, my latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions.
They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .
. . . and it’s starting to rain.
My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime.
My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press.
It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


When people find out I write novelizations, they usually ask the same questions: Did you get to meet the stars? (No.) Did you help write the script? (No.) Did you get to see the movie ahead of time? (Well . . .)
I’ve written three novelizations so far: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. I’d always heard that authors of novelizations never get to see the films before they write the books. And that was the case for my first two novelizations. But that changed when I got to travel to LA and see Kingsman: The Golden Circle almost four months before the rest of the world.

I enjoyed the first Kingsman film when it came out, and when I was offered the gig to novelize the sequel, I was thrilled. Not only would it be a lot of fun (I hoped), but the film would be the highest-profile novelization I’d worked on yet. Maybe this project would be a step up career-wise, but if not, the fun – not to mention the money – would be enough.

Once I signed the contract and non-disclosure agreement, I was given access to the script. For the Resident Evil book, I received a print-out of the script. For the xXx book, I received an electronic copy of the script. For The Golden Circle, I was given access to the script on Fox’s intranet – and my access was only good for a few days at a time. No one told me this, so when I suddenly couldn’t access the script one day, I had a minor panic attack. As it turned out, I needed my access renewed regularly, which the good people at Fox were happy to do for me.

I started as I usually do with novelizations. I read through the script, making notes about places where I could expand the story, and then I typed in all the dialogue into a Word file to see how many words I had that were already prewritten for me, and how many more I’d need to write to reach the contracted length of 80,000 words. The dialogue came to around 12,000 words, so I only had 68,000 to go. I also scoured the Internet for images of the actors in costume and stills from the film to use as visual references.

There were some song lyrics in the script, so I emailed Ella Chapell, my editor at Titan Books, and asked if we had the rights to use the lyrics in the book. Presumably the studio had the rights to use the lyrics in the film, but did that deal extend to the novelization? Ella wasn’t sure and said she’d check. During our conversation, it came out that the script Ella had read used different lyrics than the one I had. We both assumed that she’d been given an earlier draft of the script, and we thought no more about it. (Eventually, Ella told me to cut the lyrics. I could mention the song title, but that was all.)

I continued writing, and a few weeks later I finished a draft and sent it to Ella. She suggested changes, I made them, and she sent the draft off to the licensing department at Fox for approval. And that’s when we learned that somehow I’d been given the wrong script. I had the earlier version while Ella had the most current one. This was frustrating, of course, but I knew it was an accident, so I got to work on a rewrite using the correct script. When the new draft was finished, off to Fox it went. And that’s when Matthew Vaughn, the film’s director and co-writer, chimed in. He told Steve Tzirlin, the head of licensing at Fox, that it was vital that the novelization be exactly like the finished movie. This meant I had to see the film . . . which also meant I would have to revise the book a third time.

When you write tie-ins, you are hired to write for a flat fee. The more work you have to do on a project, the lower your per hour rate becomes. But that’s all part of the deal when you write these kinds of books, so I didn’t worry about it. (My agent did, though. She did her best to make sure I didn’t do more work than I was being paid for, God bless her.) So Titan Books arranged for me to fly to LA to see the film, stay at a hotel overnight, then fly back the next day. I’d never done anything like this before, so I thought if nothing else, I’d get to have a bit of an adventure.

I live in Ohio, which is on Eastern Standard Time. I was scheduled to view the film at 4:00 pm Pacific Standard Time on Friday, June 2nd. My flight left at 6:00 a.m. EST, which meant I had to get up around 4:00 am to leave for the airport. So of course I didn’t go to sleep until after 1:00 a.m. – the curse of being a night owl – so by the time I finally reached LA the next day, I was wiped. After checking into my hotel, I decided to head out in search of lunch. The hotel was located within walking distance of Fox Plaza, so I headed that direction and hoped I’d find somewhere to eat along the way. For years, I’d heard that, as the Missing Persons’ song says, “Nobody walks in LA.” The area of town the hotel was in had plenty of buildings – most notably some smaller studios – but it was mostly just empty sidewalks with cars zipping by on the street. No restaurants or fast-food joints anywhere. I walked around for a while, trying to find something to eat. I had several hours to kill before my screening, so I went to the Fox Plaza building – the 35-story skyscraper which served as Nokatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Lucky for me, inside was a combination café and coffee shop. I bought a turkey sandwich as big as my head, got a cup of coffee that wasn’t much smaller, and set up camp.

The Plaza’s first floor interior isn’t very large. Most of the space is taken up by central elevators. There are two entrances on either side of the building, each with a small kiosk staffed by a security guard. Employees have to stop at the kiosks and scan their ID cards. They also need to use their IDs to activate the elevators. I told one of the guards that I was there for an appointment and was going to get something to eat first. The man cheerfully let me pass, no ID required. (Everyone I met in LA during this trip was pleasant and friendly. It was kind of creepy.) It was a Friday afternoon, but there was a steady stream of people coming and going – and the majority of them appeared to be in their twenties.

In the café-slash-coffee shop, I worked on a short story while I watched people. A lot of younger employees came to pick up to-go orders that had been called in. Assistants, maybe? Once in a while someone in their forties or older came down to get something, but they were rare. I’m fifty-three, so I occasionally received curious glances from some of the older patrons, as if they were trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was doing there. The younger people ignored me.
I saw a number of men – usually in their late twenties to early thirties and carrying leather satchels – come and go. After listening to one such man complain to a friend who worked in the building that he’d had a meeting scheduled with an art director who cancelled due to illness without informing him – “If I’d known, I could’ve set up another meeting somewhere else and not waste the time.” – I decided the satchel-carriers were probably writers and artists coming to pitch ideas and look for freelance work. They all exuded an odd combination of nervous energy and world-weariness. My guess is that this is a fairly common emotional state in the entertainment industry. (And before you ask, I don’t know why I didn’t see any satchel-carrying women that day.)

While I was writing, observing, and eavesdropping, Nicole Spiegel from Licensing texted me and asked if I’d like to come up early to get some swag. Of course I said yes. She met me in the small reception area near the café, and she took me up to the Licensing Department. It was a cube farm with only a handful of actual offices, and by this point it was around 3:00 pm and hardly anyone was there. Maybe they knock off early on Fridays in LA. The desks were decorated with all sorts of cool products that tied into Fox properties like The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Alien, Predator, Planet of the Apes, etc. Nicole was really nice, and she took me to a couple storage areas filled with T-shirts, mugs, action figures, books, etc. She tried to give me way more swag than I could possible take back with me on the plane, but I managed to resist and only accepted almost more than I could carry home.

Around 4:00 pm – or maybe it was closer to 5:00 – Steve Tzirlin arrived. He’d been in a meeting, but now he was ready to screen the film for me. He’s a great guy, and we chatted about movies and books as well as what it was like to work at Fox as he led me to the studio lot. A security guard let us pass through a metal turnstile gate, and it felt like we were entering a prison. The lot looked just like the stereotypical movie lots you see in photos and films – a collection of plain warehouse-like buildings. No one was on the lot that I could see. It was like Steve and I were the only two people there. We entered a building, one of the oldest on the lot, Steve said. It was filled with offices, but all of them were empty. Even the security guard who was supposed to be on duty was nowhere in sight. The hall was lined with extremely cool framed movie posters and photos from film shoots, and if I could’ve found a way to steal a few and sneak them home, I’d have been sorely tempted.

Steve took me downstairs to a screening room, a small theater which he said execs once used to screen films. Now there’s a full-sized theater elsewhere on the lot, and employees get to watch movies before they’re officially released. I liked the idea of watching The Golden Circle in the smaller, older theater. It looked like the screening rooms I’d seen portrayed in TV shows and films about Hollywood over the years. Steve and I took our seats, and a gentleman in the booth worked the projector, which in reality was probably a computer system of some kind. Steve wanted me to write down everything that happened in the film: every line of dialogue, every action beat. Because that was what Matthew Vaughn wanted.

The film began, and I wrote in my notebook as fast as I could while Steve followed along with the latest script he had, noting major differences. He periodically checked with me to see if I’d gotten down all the information regarding a particular scene. If I hadn’t, he’d ask the man in the booth to rewind the film one minute, two minutes, three, five . . . The film would start again, and I’d write feverishly once more.

It took more than five hours to watch the film that way. Five hours of me writing like a madman in my notebook without a break. By the time we finished, it was around 10:00 pm PST. One a.m. by my biological clock. I’d been awake for twenty-one hours, and my brain was beyond fried. Steve graciously offered to give me a ride back to my hotel, and I gratefully accepted. Almost as soon as I entered the room, I flopped onto the bed and conked out . . .

. . . only to wake a couple hours later with a start of horror when I realized I’d left my own leather satchel with all the notes I’d taken in the back of Steve’s car. I didn’t have his cell number, but I had his work email, and I sent him a message. I figured since he worked for a studio, he probably checked his email regularly, even on weekends. Thankfully, Steve did, and he dropped off my satchel the next morning before I had to leave for the airport.

Back home, I began the third revision of the book. A number of changes I’d had to make from draft one to draft two had to be changed back because that’s the way the material appeared in the film. Working from my barely legible notes, I wrote what I hoped would be the final version of the book. Most of the film’s action sequences were somewhat more elaborate and exaggerated than in the scripts I saw, although in some cases the action was scaled back or eliminated entirely in the finished movie. Most of the character development in the two scripts disappeared from the film, too. (The same thing happened with xXx: the Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. So before you complain about lack of character development in action films, know that at least with these three movies, that material was in the script, even if it didn’t make it onto the screen.)

Before I’d left LA, I told Steve that I was going to have to keep some material from the two scripts, regardless of what Vaughn wanted. Otherwise, there would be no way the book would reach 80,000 words. Steve understood and said we see what Vaughn thought when I turned in the new revision.

So the last draft of the book was cobbled together from three different version of the film – two scripts and the finished movie – and I kept everything that I thought was cool: all the action that didn’t make it into the final film, as well as all the character development. I also kept the scenes that I created myself to flesh out various aspects of the story. There’s one thing I didn’t change to match the finished film, though. In the movie, Fox New appears in several scenes, and the network is portrayed as a legitimate non-partisan news organization. Fuck that noise. I kept the more generic news broadcast scenes as portrayed in both scripts. I haven’t received my author copies yet, so I don’t know for certain if everything from my last draft made it into the final printed novel, but Steve told me Millar approved the text, so I’m hopeful. I’d hate to give Fox News any goddamned publicity.

So what did I learn from all this? I got to work more closely with my editors and the licensing folks than ever before on a tie-in project, and they were all thoroughly lovely people who did everything possible to help me write a good book. I learned that while LA’s entertainment industry might be mythologized in most people’s minds, it’s just another place where real people do real work. Cool work, yeah, but real. Most of all, I learned that Matthew Vaughn is a control freak. But despite all the extra work I had to do because of him, I think it’s cool that he cared so much about how the novelization turned out.

Who knows if I’ll get to do any more novelizations? I hope I will, but you never know. But if I do, I know that none of them will probably be as frustrating, challenging, and ultimately as much fun as working on Kingsman: The Golden Circle.


After reading all of the above, you know you want to read the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Why deny it?

With their headquarters destroyed and the world held hostage, members of Kingsman find new allies when they discover a spy organization in the United States known as Statesman. In an adventure that tests their strength and wits, the elite secret agents from both sides of the pond band together to battle a ruthless enemy and save the day, something that’s becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy…


Earlier this month, I had another tie-in project released. Supernatural: The Men of Letters Bestiary is a guide to the monsters, demons, and foul fiends the Winchester brothers have battled over the years, written by Sam and Dean themselves! (Really written by me in the voices of Sam and Dean, but why nitpick?) There are lots of cool illustrations by Kyle Hotz to accompany my text, too. 

This immersive in-world guide based on the highly popular Supernatural television show reveals the strengths, weaknesses, secrets of the deadly ghosts, demons, angels, and creatures that the Winchesters have hunted. 


Thursday, May 4, 2017


On April 29th at Stokercon in Long Beach, California, I received the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction for my novella The Winter Box. For those of you unfamiliar with the awards, they’re presented annually by the Horror Writers Association at the organization’s yearly conference. Works are nominated and voted on by members, with juries in each category adding works of excellence to the ballot that may have been overlooked by the membership.
 During my acceptance speech, I spoke about a conversation I had with author and editor Thomas F. Monteleone at a World Fantasy Convention some years ago. We got to talking about writing awards, and Tom asked me if I’d won any yet. I assumed Tom was talking about major awards, and feeling a little embarrassed, I said no.
“That’s okay,” he said. “You will.”
His simple faith that I was capable of producing fiction that someone might find award-worthy meant the world to the young writer I was at the time. Tom continued.
“The good thing about awards is that they’re an acknowledgement from your peers that you’re doing good work.”
Tom taught me that awards aren’t about what works are “best,” nor are they about “winners” and “losers.” They’re recognition that you’re doing good work. This means that every work nominated also receives the same recognition, regardless of who carries home a statue. (Yes, it really is an honor to be nominated!) Every person who voted for your story recognized you. Even if only one person in the whole damn world recommended your story for an award that means that person recognized you’re doing good work.
The first award I remember winning wasn’t for writing. It was for art. I was in sixth grade, and the school had an art contest. The winner would get a ticket to see the high school play. (It’s very possible this was only one of the contest prizes. I don’t remember.) I decided to copy the cover from a Wizard of Oz adaptation that Marvel Comics published (which I choose to view as artistic inspiration instead of outright plagiarism). I won the ticket, and I got to see a play called The Ghoul Friend. There were lots of cool monster costumes, but in the end it basically turned out to be a Scooby Doo Mystery (sorry for the spoiler), which was a bit of a letdown for a monster kid like me. Still, I enjoyed the play well enough. This was the first time my creative work was acknowledged beyond a few encouraging words from teachers, and it felt good. And getting to see the play was something special that marked the occasion, something that made it more than a teacher saying, “Good job.”

I was a sophomore in high school the next time I received an award for creative work, this time for writing. I was in Mrs. Vagedes’ creative writing class, and I did another homage (which as you all know if French for rip-off). A few years earlier, I’d read a story in a horror magazine – Creepy or Eerie, most likely – about the last Christmas elf. Santa and all the other elves had died, and this elf carried on alone, flying the sleigh and delivering presents. But since this was a horror magazine, the present he delivered was killing an abusive relative for a kid. I thought the writer missed an opportunity to tell a better story, one that was about what it was like to be the last elf, struggling to carry on Santa’s legacy. So I wrote “The Last Christmas Elf.” Mrs. Vagedes liked it so much she read it aloud in class, but she didn’t say who wrote it. She didn’t want to embarrass the writer with the extra attention. She gave the author (psst, it was me) a chance to out him or herself, but I kept quiet. Partly because I was an awkward teen, but also because it was cool to see the reactions of my classmates to the story itself, without the identity of the writer (still me) influencing their response.

Thanks to Mrs. Vagedes, I was honored as The Writer of the Month for that story. I had never heard of this honor before, and I never heard of it again. Sometimes I wonder if I was Milton Union High School’s only Writer of the Month. Maybe I got a certificate. I don’t recall. That was cool, but then a reporter from a weekly newspaper called me to ask if they could publish my story along with an interview with me. This turned out to be my first publication AND my first interview. I showed up at the reporter’s house wearing a suit and tie because I had no clue how writers really dressed (hint: NOT in suits and ties). When my story and interview came out, that was the concrete part of the recognition, the Something Special that helped commemorate it.
My next writing award came when I was a junior at Wright State University in 1985. I’d submitted a story to the spring issue of Nexus, which ran a contest every year, and I won second place. My friend Pete Ficht won third, and I can’t remember who won first. The winners would receive certificates and checks (I think I won $40) at an awards ceremony at the end of the quarter. Before the ceremony, I went over to Pete’s place, and we got drunk and high. (I drank plenty in college, but this was literally the only time in my life I’ve ever smoked weed.) Unsurprisingly, I don’t remember much about the ceremony. I managed not to trip on my way to the podium or giggle like an idiot when I received my award, so I consider it a win. Next year I was the editor of Nexus, and I got to choose the contest winners along with the rest of the staff. I was sober for that ceremony. (I swear!) In this case, the $40 was the Something Special that I received.
The next writing award I won was first place in the Authorlink! 1998 New Author Awards Competition in SF/F/H category. I don’t remember how I learned about the contest, but you had to submit the first chapter of a novel. I sent what would become the first chapter of Nekropolis, and I was surprised (maybe even a bit shocked) that I won. I got a certificate and a gift voucher for a bookstore. I knew it wasn’t a “big” or “important” award, but I still framed the certificate, and it’s still on my office wall, and it’s still Something Special.

Over the next twenty years, my work received several award recommendations. In 1999, my story “Anubis Has Left the Building” was a finalist for the Darrell Award for Best MidSouth Short Story. In 2008, 2013, and 2014, I had work nominated for a Scribe Award for Best Speculative Original Novel, presented by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. And my novella The Men Upstairs was a finalist for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award in Long Fiction. This was the closest I’d come to winning a major award, and I was proud to take home the small rock token that nominees got. I had no idea what the rock represented, until my wife said, “Shirley Jackson? ‘The Lottery’?” That rock is – you guessed it – Something Special.

In 2016 I was honored to receive the Sinclair Community College 2016 Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. (Sinclair is where I’ve taught full-time for the last eighteen years.) I mention this one because my writing was a big part of why I won the award. The Horror Writers Association presented me with the 2016 Mentor of the Year Award, which – while not for my writing specifically – was still a great honor. And this year, I won a Stoker. Which for horror writers is like winning an Oscar. (I think the Shirley Jackson Awards might be horror/weird fiction’s equivalent of the Tony Awards.) So, after all these years, what have I learned about awards?

                  The recognition that you’re doing good work isn’t just the most important thing – it’s the only thing that really matters.

                  The Something Special is just a physical symbol – a cool physical symbol, true – of the recognition you received. It can serve as a useful reminder that at one point someone thought your work didn’t suck on those days when you’re sure your current work in progress is a steaming pile of shit.

                  Awards can be useful marketing tools. From now on I’m Bram Stoker Award-Winning Author Tim Waggoner, and I’ll use this however I can and see where it takes me. I’d be a fool not to.

                  A wonderful side benefit to winning an award is how many people are excited and happy for you. At least in the horror community, there a lot of good will and support.

                  Sometimes you need to apply for awards, and sometimes you have to let people know your work exists. I used to think awards just happened, and sometimes they do. I did nothing to make The Men Upstairs available to the Shirley Jackson Award judges. But there was an application process for the Faculty Scholar of the Year Award, and I made sure The Winter Box was available to voting members of the Horror Writers Association. I didn’t promote The Winter Box or urge anyone to vote for it, but these days, so much is published – traditionally and indie – that there is no way in hell that any one person can keep up with it all. People need to know your work exists if they’re to have a chance to vote for it. This year, I learned that you can submit work to the World Fantasy Awards. (Although I think you can only submit one work on your own. Your publisher can submit more, I believe). You can ask your editor to submit your work to the Shirley Jackson Award judges, too. You need to make sure your work is seen. And yes, giving free work for voters’ consideration might cut into your sales – especially if you publish with a small press or are an indie writer. You’ll have to make your own choice about that. You might consult with your publisher, too. If your book just came out and you start giving away free copies, your publisher might not be happy about it.

                  Don’t be an asshole. It’s rare, but in the past, I’ve had people contact me and offer to swap award recommendations. (You recommend my story, I’ll recommend yours.) I’ve had people push me to vote for their work, and I’ve had people ask me to talk about their work on social media in the hope that it’ll help generate some award interest. (I have no idea why these people think anyone gives a damn what I think.) I didn’t do any of these things because they’re wrong. Your moral mileage may vary, I suppose, but I refuse to bend on this. It’s okay to offer free copies of your work to voters or to see that your work is submitted to judges, but that’s it.

                  I’ve served as a juror for the Scribe Award several times. There were only a handful of us on the jury, so our personal (and very subjective) preferences obviously came into play. From this, I learned another way to look at awards: A particular group of people decided to honor a particular work at a particular time. There ultimately is no such thing as “best” work when it comes to awards.

                  Waiting to see if your name will be called is nerve-wracking, and if you are summoned to the podium, you won’t hear anyone cheering or remember anyone’s faces. You’ll be lucky to remember your name.

                  Have a speech prepared ahead of time, even if you don’t think you’ll win. I don’t write speeches down (I’ve taught for thirty years, and I’m used to talking extemporaneously.) But I’ve had an award acceptance speech mentally prepared for many years. It was the anecdote about that conversation I had with Tom. So now that I’ve used that, I have to come up with another acceptance speech, should I ever be lucky enough to be nominated for another writing award.

                  Beware of envy and jealousy. These destructive emotions created the Sad and Rabid Puppies in the science fiction field. (If you don’t know who they are, Google them.) I’ve heard several award presenters begin their presentation with some bitter variation of “I’ve never been nominated for the award I’m presenting, let alone won one.” They always act like they’re joking, but everyone knows they’re not. I’ve presented awards – and accepted them for friends – before winning one of the big ones myself. I know what it’s like to stand on stage and give a trophy you’ve never won to someone else. Of course, I’ve felt envious and jealous. I’m only human. But you can’t let those negative emotions fester inside you. It won’t do you or your writing any good.

                  I’ve seen people lament on social media that they’re never nominated for awards, and if they are nominated, they never win. And of course people bitch about those works that did win because they’re obviously not as good as what should’ve won – namely, the bitchers’ own work. I’ve known people to get depressed because they haven’t won an award, or even if they’ve already won a shitload, that they didn’t win this time. All of these negative feelings just make it that much harder for you to write. And they can turn you into a miserable sonofabitch no one wants to be around – at least during award season – if you’re not careful. And if you can’t help feeling bitter, for Christ’s sake, don’t go on a social media rant about them. All you’ll do is damage your brand as a writer.

People hunger for validation. Some of us are practically starving for it. You want validation as a writer? Write the very best you can each time and try to improve every day. Publish your work and get paid for it. Listen to readers who enjoy your work, whose lives may even have been changed by it. All of these things are the most important types of validation for writers. Awards are just the cherry on top.

But I have to admit, that cherry tastes pretty good.
Want to check out my Bram Stoker Award-Winning novella? (See what I did there?) The limited edition hardcover of The Winter Box sold out a while ago, but the ebook version is still available. Here’s an Amazon link for your shopping convenience: