Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Sun's Getting Low

I’m currently in Virginia, visiting a childhood friend of my wife’s. The woman’s husband died unexpectedly in September, leaving her with three young children, and we’ve come to do what we can to help her get through the holidays. My wife and her friend are about the same age, and they both married divorced men a decade-and-a-half older than they are. And the friend’s husband and I share the same birthday, just one year apart. My two daughters are adults, and my current wife and I have no children together, so the parallels end there. I can’t imagine what my wife’s friend is going through, and I know that while she appreciates us being here, we can’t really do anything to relieve her pain or shorten grieving. So given the situation, you can understand why mortality is on my mind.

I read on Facebook recently of the death of author Paul Dale Anderson. He was in his seventies and suffering from advanced cancer, so his death wasn’t entirely unexpected, but as I read the various tributes to him that people had posted, I began thinking about what it means to have a literary career – and what, if anything, becomes of that career after we die.

If you’re not familiar with Paul or his work, you can check out his website here: http://www.pauldaleanderson.net/

I saw Paul at a couple conventions over the years, maybe was on a panel or two with him. I can’t remember. I know we didn’t spend much, if any, time in private conversation, so I can’t claim that he was an acquaintance, let alone a friend. I first became aware of Paul through an article he wrote for Mystery Scene magazine in 1989 or thereabout. In those pre-internet days there were no author websites or social media accounts to follow, so if you were an aspiring writer like me, you had to read essays by and interviews with authors in print media. Mystery Scene, as you might guess from the title, covered the mystery field (and still does to this day), but back then it also covered the horror genre, although to a lesser extent. Paul’s article dealt with how he found his authorial voice. He’d published a supernatural horror novel under a pseudonym – I can’t recall the book’s title – but he’d recently taken a turn toward writing about human monsters, novels that were as much psychological thrillers as horror. The first book in this new direction was Claw Hammer, and it would eventually become the first volume in his Instruments of Death series.

After finishing the article, I decided to check out Paul’s work, so I bought Claw Hammer and its follow-up, Daddy’s Home. I started to read Claw Hammer, but I couldn’t get into it, so I put it aside, figuring that I’d give it another try someday. I didn’t even start Daddy’s Home. I never got around to reading either book, and eventually they went off to a used bookstore during one of my I-have-too-many-goddamned-books-in-my-house purges. I didn’t hear anything about Paul for years. It wasn’t until we were at a con together that I learned he was still writing and publishing with the small press. I was glad to discover he was still in the game, but I was a bit sad the new direction he’d taken with Claw Hammer hadn’t resulted in a bigger career for him. When I learned of his death, I bought the ebook version of the re-release of Claw Hammer from Crossroad Press and started reading it. So far, it’s a decent piece of entertainment, and I’m enjoying it.

There’s a large used bookstore in the town where I’m currently staying, and last week I decided to check it out. They have a huge horror section, but they didn’t have any of Paul’s books. They did have a few of mine, and I of course dutifully signed them. Perusing the books, I was struck by how many of their authors I’d gotten to know in real life over the years, and how many of them had died since I began writing in the early eighties. And then it occurred to me that the shelves were a graveyard for dead fiction, with the books themselves serving as their stories’ headstones.

Occasionally in interviews, I’m asked how I see my legacy as a writer. Sometimes I say I hope that I’ll have contributed to the genre I love in some small way. If I’m in a snarky mood, I say I don’t expect to have a legacy. Once I’m gone, I don’t expect anyone to remember me or my work. Both answers are true. Any artist would love for his or her work to outlive them, for people to continue enjoying it long after they’re gone, for it to maybe change the art form itself. But the used bookstore tells a different story. So many of those books have been forgotten – if they ever made any impact at all – and they’ll remain on the shelves, unbought, until eventually they fall away to dust. And yes, I know digital versions of books can theoretically exist forever, but that doesn’t mean anyone will actually read the damn things. The files may be archived somewhere and never accessed again.

So for the vast majority of writers, the best we can hope for is that a few people will read and enjoy our work when it comes out, and we might get a few dollars to pay a couple bills as well. Our work is as temporary as that of an ice sculptor. When you’re younger, it’s easier to ignore the impermanence of things. Young writers are focused on honing their craft, finding their voice, reaching an audience, on making it. But when you’ve been writing and publishing for almost forty years – as I have – you are quite aware that time is passing at hyperspeed, and there aren’t as many years ahead of you as there are behind. You’ve probably settled into a career, the same way you’ve settled into the rest of your life, and you know it’s far too late to be a wunderkind, that you’ve likely had whatever impact you’re going to have on the field, that you’re not going to be getting larger advances, and you damn sure won’t become a bestseller. Not only is it too late to become an overnight sensation, it’s too late to become a sensation of any kind. If you think too much about these kinds of things, it can make it damn difficult to start a new project. After all, you already know the end result of writing a book: a moldering collection of yellowed pages resting on a used bookstore shelf somewhere, forgotten. Not exactly a motivating image, huh?

I used to wonder why so many writers stopped producing work as they grew older. I thought maybe they’d simply lost the energy and drive – the hunger – of youth. Or maybe they’d decided to make more time in their lives for family, friends, and other interests. All of this might be true, but I also suspect that many writers realize that they’ve taken their writing as far as they can, and once they know this (or at least think they do) it becomes hard to keep going. What’s the point of attempting to continue a journey when you know no matter what you do or how hard you try, you’re unable to take another step forward, and may, in fact, start taking steps backward?

Pretty fucking depressing, right?

But as much as I’m tempted to quit writing some days, I’m a stubborn sonofabitch (it’s a Waggoner family trait), so what can I – or you – do when the mid-to-late career blues start getting you down?

1. Get (or stay) involved. Share what you know. Volunteer.

Paul Dale Anderson didn’t just write. He was an active member of HWA, SFWA, the Authors Guild, the International Thriller Writers Association, and Mystery Writers of America at different points in his career. He taught creative writing at the University of Illinois and for Writers Digest School. He also attended conventions and served on panels. And from the Facebook tributes I’ve seen, Paul mentored younger writers as well. Not everyone is a joiner, of course, but as with many things in life, it feels good to be part of something larger than yourself. It helps create meaning in our lives, and meaning is what keeps us going.

I have a full-time teaching gig at a community college. When I retire (ten years from now, but who’s counting?) I’ll find other ways to work with writers. Maybe I’ll volunteer as a writing tutor or start teaching my own fiction-writing classes online. Maybe I’ll become more active in the writers’ organizations I belong to. I already mentor writers through HWA’s mentorship program as well as informally. I plan to keep this up and hopefully expand those efforts. You don’t have to do a ton of things, and you don’t have to wait until retirement to get started. Just get involved somehow.

2. Try something new. Challenge yourself.

I majored in theater education for my undergrad degree. I wrote a couple plays back then, but I hadn’t written any since. The last several years I’ve felt an itch to write a play again, and I finished a short one-act horror play called The Chaos Room a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what to do with it yet, but hopefully I’ll figure out something. But even if The Chaos Room is never staged, the challenge of writing it – the fun – recharged my creative batteries. Write a poem, an essay, an article, a song. Write for kids, write erotica, write comedy, write whatever. Try experimenting with different narrative techniques. Collaborate with someone.

3. Make a BIG change.

If you’re a fiction writer, try focusing on nonfiction for a while. If you write horror, try writing a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or tackling that dream project you haven’t gotten around to yet. Maybe you’ll end up with a whole new career. John Jakes and Dean Koontz wrote SF before going on to write historical fiction and hybrid horror/suspense respectively. Thomas F. Monteleone also wrote SF before moving on to horror/dark fantasy. Lawrence Block started out writing soft-core porn and lurid pulp crime novels before creating the various mystery series he’s famous for. It’s okay to change lanes when you’re an artist. Reinventing ourselves from time to time can keep us creatively young, if not literally so.

In the end, the doing of our art, the now of it, has to be enough, and the connections we make with others through our art – with audiences, peers, students and mentees – have to be enough. What we learn, how we grow by making our art and walking in the world as artists has to be enough. Because those are the things that we have control over. The only ones that are (more or less) guaranteed to be achievable. And if you want to get more abstract, know that by writing and sharing your work, you’re participating, even if only in a small way, in the great conversation that is Art. Know that your actions in the writing community – however you define that community – can create ripples that spread out into the world, affecting many others. And your words will create echoes, which in turn will inspire more voices to speak. In this way our words can, in a sense, be eternal.

Author Lawrence C. Connelly once told me that the world will decide how we’ll be remembered. We all create a legacy, whether we know it or not, but that legacy is not ours to control, at least not entirely. So focus on today’s writing, plan for tomorrow’s, and let Time and the World sort out the rest.


Coming Soon

I’ve got a couple books up for pre-order.

My next horror novel for Flame Tree Press, They Kill, is due out in July.

What are you willing to do, what are you willing to become, to save someone you love? Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet. Corliss gives Sierra a chance to make Jeffrey’s resurrection permanent – if she makes a dreadful bargain. Can she do what it will take to save her brother, no matter how much blood is shed along the way?

My latest tie-in novel, Supernatural: Children of Anubis, is due out in April.

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

I’ll also have a new creature-feature novel called Blood Island coming from Severed Press in 2019, but I don’t have an official release date yet. In the meantime, here’s a synopsis:

The Mass, an island-sized creature formed entirely of mutated blood cells, has drifted across the world’s oceans for millions of years. It uses sharks – the most efficient predators the planet has ever produced – as extensions of itself to gather food. For the most part, the Mass and its Hunters have avoided contact with the human race, but now it’s entered the waters off Bridgewater, Texas, where a film crew is busy shooting a low-budget horror film called Devourer of the Deep. The Mass is about to discover something called human imagination, and the humans are about to learn that battling a monster in real life is a little harder than fighting one on screen.

Here's a link to my author page over at Severed Press in case you want to keep an eye out for Blood Island – or buy my previous Severed Press novel The Teeth of the Sea. Blood Island isn’t a sequel to The Teeth of the Sea, but they take place in the same world and there’s a bit of overlap: http://www.severedpress.com/authors/tim-waggoner/

Short Stuff

I have several short stories and an article that have appeared in anthologies lately.

“In the End There is a Drain” appears in Tails of Terror: Stories of Cat Horror from Golden Goblin Press: https://www.goldengoblinpress.com/store/#!/Tails-of-Terror-Digital-Format/p/116311665/category=14026709

“Voices Like Barbed Wire” appears in Tales From the Lake Vol. 5 from Crystal Lake Publishing: https://www.amazon.com/Tales-Lake-Vol-5-Horror-Anthology/dp/1644679671/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1545155537&sr=1-1

“The Deep Delight of Blood” appears in Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets also from Crystal Lake: https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Tales-Terror-Historys-Darkest/dp/164467968X/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545155651&sr=1-1&keywords=fantastic+tales+of+terror

My article “The Horror Writer’s Ultimate Toolbox” appears in It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life again from Crystal Lake. (Those guys love me!): https://www.amazon.com/Its-Alive-Bringing-Nightmares-Weaver-ebook/dp/B07L3XX2QY/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545155707&sr=1-1&keywords=it%27s+alive+crystal+lake

If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter yet, you can do so here: http://timwaggoner.com/contact.htm

Until next time, keep writing!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

You Never Forget Your First

 This March will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first professional fiction sale. My story “Mr. Punch” appeared in the anthology Young Blood, edited by Mike Baker, and published by Zebra Books in 1994. Before that, I’d placed a half dozen stories in small-press magazines, but this sale was the biggie, the one that by the standards of both the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America counted as my first pro sale. I’ve published over 40 novels and 150 stories since then – with more to come, the dark lords willing – but whenever I’m asked in an interview which of the stories I’ve written is my favorite, I always say “Mr. Punch,” and while there are many reasons why that tale is so near and dear to my shriveled black heart, the fact that it was my first pro sale is a big one.

I was twenty-nine when I wrote “Mr. Punch.” I’d first started writing seriously with an aim toward professional publication when I was eighteen, and the fact that ten years passed before I wrote “Mr. Punch” should tell you something about a writer’s learning curve (or at least mine). I’d written a ton of stories and maybe a half dozen novels, and only a few of the stories had seen print at that point, and those in small-press markets. During this time, I didn’t write horror exclusively. I wrote fantasy primarily, and humorous fantasy at that. I wanted to be the next Piers Anthony, author of the long-running Xanth series. But horror was my first love – I’d been a horror fan since I was a child – and I explored the genre in my short fiction now and then. I’d begun to think that maybe I should focus on my horror more, but it wasn’t until I read Ramsey Campbell’s excellent collection Alone With the Horrors that I felt I was beginning to get an understanding of how to write a really good horror story.

I’d been trying to develop a style of fiction that was mine and no one else’s – trying to find my voice, in other words – for several years by that point. Now I was ready to let go and follow my artistic instincts wherever they might lead me. My future ex-wife and I had recently gone to a small renaissance fair held on the Ohio State University campus, and we’d watched a Punch and Judy show, the first one I’d ever seen in real life. An idea popped into my head: what if there was a serial killer who thought he was Punch? I liked the idea, so I did some research into the history of Punch and Judy shows and read various scripts for them. One of the versions of Punch and Judy ended with the Devil coming for Punch, but Punch kills the Devil and then says, “Now we can all do what we please!” I was fascinated with the idea of Punch being pursued by the Devil, and so I began writing.

The writing went well at first. Better than well – it was the best I’d ever done. I could feel it. And that’s when I choked. I became afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pull off this story, that if I kept writing, I’d ruin it. So I stopped about three quarters of the way through. I didn’t stop for long, though. I told myself to suck it up and get back in there and finish the goddamned story. (Quick aside: I’ve since discovered that other writers have had the same experience when they wrote their first professionally published stories. It makes me wonder how common this experience is for writers, and how many of them never find the courage to return to their stories.)  

I was in a writers’ group at the time with professional writers Dennis L. McKiernan and Lois McMaster Bujold, and I also regularly exchanged stories for critique with a friend from college. I mailed a copy of my story to my friend (email wasn’t a standard thing in those days), and I read my story to my critique group. Lois had moved to Minneapolis by then, but Dennis was still there, as well as a number of would-be writers, of whom I was one. The story ended with a strangely surreal twist that felt right when I originally wrote it, but which I’d since come to doubt. When I finished reading the story, I immediately said, “Okay, what’s wrong with it?” And everyone said, “The ending.” They weren’t sure what to make of it and suggested I try rewriting. I went home and did just that, writing a new, more realistic ending that sucked bigtime. I knew how bad it was, so I said to hell with it. I was going to trust my instincts and go with my original ending, even if no one else understood it. Hell, I didn’t understand it. I just knew it was right.

I’d read a submission call – probably on the old computer network GEnie, an early precursor to social media sites like Facebook, but I don’t remember for sure – for a horror anthology called Young Blood. The premise of the anthology was that all the stories in it had to have been written by the authors before their thirtieth birthday. The name authors who would appear in the book – Poe, Howard, Block, Campbell and King – had been under thirty when they’d written their tales, but the rest of the anthology would feature new young writers. I’d figured this was a great market to try. I was under thirty, and the age limit would cut down on the competition, right? I’d already written and submitted a piece of shit called “Yggradsil,” about a murderous tree, which the editor Mike Baker had rightly rejected. I decided to try “Mr. Punch” on the editor, printed out a fresh copy, popped it in an envelope, and headed to the post office. Baker accepted this story, and as you might imagine, I was thrilled. And I felt more than a little smug that my story had succeeded with its original ending. I felt smug again – and more than a bit sad – when not long after this my friend from college sent my manuscript back to me with red ink on every page and told me my ending was terrible and that I had to change it. That was the last time I sent him a story to critique, and when Dennis moved to Tucson soon after, our writers group fell apart, and I’ve never used one since.

When Young Blood came out, I didn’t want to wait for my contributor’s copies to arrive, so my wife and I went to a Little Professor bookshop to buy a copy. I still remember seeing the book on the stand, remember what it felt like to touch it, what the damn thing smelled like. I opened the book and looked at the table of contents to see the title of my story and my name listed alongside legends like Poe, Howard, Block, Campbell and King, and alongside names I recognized from small-press magazines or from the message boards on GEnie. There were a lot of names I didn’t recognize, though, and that was cool, too. I couldn’t stop grinning as we walked up to the counter and paid for the book. I still remember the little brown paper bag the clerk slipped the book into, and I remember the feel of that bag, with the weight of the book in it, as I carried it outside to the car. I’d done it. I could now legitimately call myself a professional writer.

“Young Blood” got mentioned in several reviews of the book, and I was pleasantly shocked when Ellen Datlow chose it as one of her Honorable Mentions in the next edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Ellen has chosen a number of my stories for honorable mention in the years since, but none was as special as that first time.

My first pro sale wasn’t an entirely positive experience. Mike Baker never paid any of the contributors, a fact I kept to myself when I listed “Mr. Punch” as one of my three qualifying sales to apply for full membership in both HWA and SFWA. I decided to forget about the money and move on, but years later I met another contributor at a World Fantasy Convention who was still upset at never having been paid for his story. There was supposed to be a Young Blood 2, but for whatever reasons it never happened. Mike Baker died before I could meet him. I have a vague memory that some disease took him young, but I’m not sure that’s how it happened.

When I look at the table of contents now, it’s a bittersweet feeling. Young Blood was supposed to make a statement: Here’s the future of horror! But it didn’t really have that kind of impact. It came and went without making much of a splash, as I recall. Some of the authors are still writing a quarter of a century later. Pamela Briggs writes the extremely popular Mercy Thompson urban fantasies. Barb Hendee (who with her husband J.C. published some of my first stories in their small-press magazine Figment) has published a number of fantasy novels, some in collaboration with J.C., some solo. J.F. Gonzalez went on to publish many horror novels – including the classic Survivor – but tragically, he died in 2014, a victim of cancer. Killercon has recently established the Splatterpunk Awards for extreme horror, including the J.F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award, and author Brian Keene is working hard to keep his legacy alive. Gordon Van Gelder went on to edit The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is now its owner and publisher. Brian Everson has gone on to write many well-regarded literary novels of dark and speculative fiction. Christa Faust went on to write crime and media tie-in novels, and while Poppy Z. Brite doesn’t write much these days, her work is still considered vital in the genre and continues to be reprinted and read to this day. And then, of course, there’s me.

As for the rest of the authors . . . I don’t know. I haven’t seen most of their names recently, and some I’ve never seen except in Young Blood’s TOC. Are they still writing? Are they creating in other literary genres? Did their lives take them in different directions? Have any others passed away in the last twenty-five years? I could Google them, and maybe someday I will. But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll discover. Or maybe I’m afraid I won’t discover anything about them at all.

I’ve continued to write the kind of bizarre, surreal horror that I first explored in “Mr. Punch,” and although I’ve written urban fantasies and media tie-ins, it’s this kind of horror that I think of as Tim Waggoner Stories. “Mr. Punch” allowed me to find my voice and its publication confirmed that I had what it takes to be a professional writer. And for that, I owe a great debt to Mike Baker.

Below is the table of contents for Young Blood. There are still used copies of the book floating around out there somewhere if you’re inclined to read it. If you’d like to read “Mr. Punch,” it appears in my first short fiction collection All Too Surreal, which you can currently purchase in ebook form from Crossroad Press: https://www.amazon.com/All-Too-Surreal-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B00UCGXOXM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537661961&sr=8-1&keywords=tim+waggoner+all+too+surreal

You can also find “Mr. Punch” in the collection Cemetery Dance Select: Tim Waggoner, along with story notes for each selection: https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Dance-Select-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B071Y8929X/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1504388605&sr=1-12&keywords=tim+waggoner

Young Blood Mike Baker (Zebra 0-8217-4498-4, Mar ’94 [Feb ’94], $4.50, 349pp, pb)

Introduction · Mike Baker
Ms. Found in a Bottle · Edgar Allan Poe
Pigeons from Hell · Robert E. Howard
The Skull of the Marquis de Sade · Robert Bloch
Cold Print · Ramsey Campbell
The Mangler · Stephen King
Rattle Rumble · Michael Scott Bricker
Little Black Bags · Clark Perry
An Eye for an Eye, A Tooth for a Tooth · Lawrence Schimel
The Weepin’ Tree · Tia Travis
Hysterical · Pamela Briggs
Spooge Monkeys · Wayne Edwards
Bringing Home a Stranger · Barb Hendee
Anything for You · Lorelei Shannon
Fixing Mr. Foucher’s Fence · Todd Mecklem
Mr. Punch · Tim Waggoner
Playing the Game · J. F. Gonzalez
Pieces of Prison · Jak Koke & Jonathan Bond
Paper Animals · Christopher A. Hall
Something More · Gordon Van Gelder
Judas Window · M. Francis Hamill
Storm Warning · James C. Bassett
Hébé Kills Jerry · Brian Evenson
To a Mr. R. J. Guthrie, Edinburgh · Adam Corbin Fusco
Crawlspace · H. Andrew Lynch
Armadillo Village · Terry Campbell
Payday · Sean Doolittle
Momentos of an Only Child · Dominick Cancilla
Depths · Marc Paoletti
Saved · Poppy Z. Brite & Christa Faust


The Mouth of the Dark

My most recent horror novel is The Mouth of the Dark from Flame Tree Press, and it’s been getting some great reviews:

“Waggoner is imaginative and original, and The Mouth of the Dark takes readers to an entirely new world of monstrosities. It’s easily one of the most fantastic books I’ve read this year.” – The Ghastly Grimoire

“An eclectic assembly of everything macabre and terrifying, The Mouth of the Dark is a riveting read you’ll keep reading long after the sun has gone down.” – Splattergeist

Here’s a synopsis:

Jayce's 20-year-old daughter, Emory, is missing, lost in a dark, dangerous realm called Shadow that exists alongside our own reality. An enigmatic woman named Nicola guides Jayce through this bizarre world, and together they search for Emory, facing deadly dog-eaters, crazed killers, homicidal sex toys, and — worst of all — a monstrous being known as the Harvest Man. But no matter what Shadow throws at him, Jayce won’t stop. He'll do whatever it takes to find his daughter, even if it means becoming a worse monster than the things that are trying to stop him.

The Mouth of the Dark is available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.

Dark and Distant Voices

My latest collection Dark and Distant Voices is available from Nightscape Press.

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

"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones, author of Mongrels

They come to you at night.

The voices.

Spinning tales of blasphemous wonder, terrible wisdom, and unspeakable truth.

You try to shut them out, but you can’t.

For the voices you thought were coming from so far away come from inside you.

And they won’t stop screaming.


Nineteen stories of the bizarre and fantastic from the mind of Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tim Waggoner, “horror fiction’s leading surrealist” (Cemetery Dance Magazine).


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Friday, August 31, 2018

On Dark Fantasy

My latest horror novel, The Mouth of the Dark, is out Sept. 6th from Flame Tree Press. Advance reviews have been good, but I’ve been surprised by how many readers refer to the book as a combination of horror and dark fantasy, or simply as dark fantasy. The term dark fantasy has been used in a lot of different ways over the years. Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels were considered dark fantasy, although that subgenre is referred to as grimdark these days. Charles L. Grant called his brand of quiet horror dark fantasy, and Thomas F. Monteleone uses horror/dark fantasy as a genre term. Dark fantasy was what urban fantasy was called before a separate designation was created for it, and when the horror boom of the 1980’s became the horror implosion of the 1990’s, writers began calling their fiction anything but horror to avoid using the dreaded H word: dark suspense, dark thrillers, supernatural thrillers and – you guessed it – dark fantasy. So dark fantasy has never seemed to me to be a term that referred to one identifiable genre. But what pleasantly surprises me about seeing the term applied to The Mouth of the Dark is that when I first started writing seriously thirty years ago, my goal was to create a fusion of horror and fantasy. It was, not to be too precious about it, my artistic vision.

I’d loved horror as a kid, but when I hit my teens, I started reading fantasy novels and comics. Horror was still part of my creative diet, but no more important to me than fantasy and science fiction. Comics were the first medium that showed me how different genres could be combined to make something new. One month Spider-Man might foil a mob boss, the next he might battle an alien, and the next fight a vampire. When I started writing fiction with a goal of making a career out of it, I wrote novels and short stories, trying my hand at different genres. By this point, I’d become sick of reading quest fantasy and starting reading what was called contemporary fantasy at the time. Charles de Lint and Robert Holdstock were two of my favorite writers of contemporary fantasy, and I especially liked how they used elements of horror in their work. But I was also frustrated by how the fantasy and horror weren’t completely blended and kept separate from the real world. I thought fantasy should allow writers’ imaginations to run wild, but most fantasy writers were very conservative in terms of the genre elements they used. The same for horror writers. The supernatural should’ve given them the opportunity to create highly imaginative stories, but their tales were just as conservative as those of fantasy authors. It seemed to me that these writers were missing out on an opportunity, and I began thinking of ways to create a true fusion of horror and fantasy.

I didn’t focus on this idea overmuch in my writing, though. I kept writing more traditional fantasy novels because I thought they were more marketable, but I had no luck getting them published. From time to time I mulled over my notion of fusing horror and fantasy, but when I finally began thinking about writing a horror novel, the horror boom died, and there seemed to be no point in trying my hand at a horror novel. But there was a strong small-press scene for horror short fiction, so I began writing and submitting those. My writing continued along these two tracks for a while. I kept focusing on fantasy for novels and horror for short fiction. Then I wrote the first story where I felt I had found the horror/fantasy fusion I’d been searching for. “Mr. Punch” became my first professionally published story, appearing in the anthology Young Blood from Zebra Books in 1999. (You can find it in my first short story collection All Too Surreal.) The first novel where I explored this horror/fantasy fusion was The Harmony Society, which came out from Prime Books in 2003. (Dark Regions has since republished it, in case you want to check it out.)  Since then, I’ve written numerous horror/fantasy novels and stories, and I’ve become known for writing such tales. When I refer to myself as a type of writer, I usually say I’m a horror writer just because it’s easiest. Still, seeing the term dark fantasy applied to my work pleases me and makes me think that maybe – just maybe – I’ve reached the goal I set for myself so long ago of taking full advantage of both horror and fantasy in my writing.

So what advice do I have for those of you who would like to try writing this kind of dark fantasy?

1. Don’t limit yourself to genre expectations.

Fantasy implies otherworldly forces – magic – and other worlds. There’s nothing in the term that says your story has to be set in a version of medieval England and follow the pattern of a quest adventure. Horror implies an emotional reaction to something awful that’s beyond the reality we know. This doesn’t have to be confined to one unnatural element invading the normal world – a ghost, a vampire, a serial killer, etc. Try to combine the core of both concepts – otherworldly/unnatural forces and imaginary worlds. These worlds might be separate from ours, overlap ours, exist as hidden parts of our world, etc.

2. Use nightmare images and logic.

Nightmares are individual to each of us, and they contain images and events that are often different from the usual tropes of horror and fantasy. Old, worn-out tropes have no power to affect readers, but images drawn from your nightmares – or your darkest daydreams – can be more original, and in their originality lies their power. The way events proceed in nightmares can make us feel out of control because we can no longer tell what’s real and what isn’t. We can’t trust our own senses and minds. Try to develop story situations that will create this state for your characters, and in turn, for your readers. 

3. Make the inner world outer.

Characters’ psychology – their fears, desires, obsessions – can be reflected in the unnatural presences or environment they contend with. For example, in my Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box a married couple whose relationship is rocky is haunted by the ghosts of their dead love for each other, and the couple experiences nightmarish scenarios based on their shared past. In short, make your characters’ nightmares – their interesting, original nightmares – become real for them.

4. Look to the real world for inspiration.

Every day I see strange things in the world around me that seem to hint at a sinister, hidden aspect to existence. I know this is just my imagination at work (at least, I hope it is!), but I use these odd little observations in my fiction all the time. For example, I once followed a Kia Soul whose owner changed the logo on the car to read SOULLESS. The vehicle had a personalized license plate that read CUTTER, and the driver ended up in the parking lot of a restaurant called The Chop House. I haven’t used this in a story yet (so don’t steal it!), but if and when I do, I’ll ask myself what larger weirdness could that driver be connected to? What hidden part of our world – or perhaps another world – could he or she be part of?

5. Focus on your characters. They're the story.

All the weirdness of dark fantasy is fun, but it's meaningless unless it's shown through the perspective of your characters and has an impact on them. I write with a close point of view to keep the story grounded. The world and events my characters are confronted with may be surreal, but I make my characters very real. It's this balance that I think (at least I hope) makes my dark fantasy effective.


As I said earlier, my dark fantasy novel The Mouth of the Dark is out in hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook, and reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive. If you want to see how I write dark fantasy, it’s as good an example as anything I’ve ever produced. Check it out!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Keep It Brief: Writing Short Stories

Dark and Distant Voices, my fifth short story collection, has just been released. All told, I’ve published over 150 short stories in the thirty-six years since I began writing seriously at the age of eighteen. But when I started writing, I had no special fondness for short stories. I preferred reading novels, and that’s what I wanted to write. But I figured if I wanted to become a professional writer, I should be skilled at writing different types of fiction, so I decided – somewhat grudgingly – to begin working on short stories as well as novels.
Short stories didn’t come easily to me then, and after all this time, they still don’t. They make my brain hurt when I write them. My imagination feels cramped and constrained, and it’s an uncomfortable experience. But you know what? The limits of the short story help focus my imagination and keep it controlled. My imagination – like that of so many artists – is a wild thing that wants to run as fast as it can in all directions at once. Short stories keep it from doing that. And the focus I’ve learned from writing short fiction has helped me write more focused scenes in novels. Plus, short fiction allows me to experiment, to try different narrative approaches and explore different themes, both of which sometime find their way into my novel-length work.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things about writing short fiction over the years, both from doing it myself and teaching others how to do it. What follows is an overview of what I think are the most important considerations when it comes to writing short fiction. Whether you’re a beginning writer or you’ve been doing this for a while, I hope you find something of value below. (And I’m quite aware that there are exceptions for every bit of advice I give. As I tell my students, “The only real rule in writing is that you have to use written language to express ideas. Everything else is simply custom, ways of doing things that in general work most of the time for most readers.”)  
Some Basic Advice
Length: As a rule of thumb, short stories tend to be around 1000-5,000 words (4-20 pages). They of course can be shorter or longer, but this is a solidly marketable range, as well as a good range for beginners. It’s long enough to practice the basics but not so long that writers are too intimidated to revise.
Keep it Simple: Keep your ambitions in check when learning to write short stories. Avoid massive research or worldbuilding. Elaborate research and worldbuilding can make a story so complicated that you can’t properly tend to the basics of characterization, dialogue, etc.
Story Content: Use violence, sex, politics, profanity, religion, etc. when necessary to serve the needs of the story. Don’t try to shock readers with naughty words and sexy scenes or beat them over the head with political or religious messages. The story is what’s most important. But follow market guidelines, too. If a magazine says that it will not publish a story that portrays violence against children, don’t submit that story to that particular market. Editors say beginning writers ignore their guidelines all the time, and it’s a sure way to receive a fast rejection.
Short Time Frame: One way to keep a short story under control – as well as to maximize its intensity – is to limit the events to a relatively short amount of time: minutes, hours, maybe a day or two at most.
Limit the Number of Characters: Only have two or three main characters, and don’t add too many supporting characters. There’s not a lot of room in a short story (obviously), and because of this, you don’t have the opportunity to fully develop more than a couple characters, and there’s only enough time for readers to become emotionally invested in one or two. If you have too many characters in a story, it makes the story too complex for its length and makes it difficult – if not impossible – for readers to connect emotionally.
Limit the Setting: Another way to maintain focus in a short story is to confine the action to one setting. This can be as limited as one room, one house, one street, one town, etc. The fewer settings there are in your story, the fewer times readers’ imaginations will be yanked from one setting and plunked down into another. Such transitions can be jarring for readers, and unless you’re looking to create a such jarring effect, keeping the setting limited works best. 
Point of View: In general, stick to one character’s point of view in a story. As I said above, too many shifts in a story can be jarring for readers. Readers need to time to attach to a point of view in a story, and while novels have plenty of room for readers to become attached to multiple viewpoints, a short story doesn’t.
Simple Story Problem: Stick to one main story problem. Again, novels have room for multiple – and major and minor – story problems. Short stories do not. Stay focused on one story problem, and your story will have more impact on readers.
Scenes: In general, try not to have more than two or three scenes in a short story. Again, for the same reason I keep mentioning: short stories don’t have a lot of room.
Obstacles: Avoid having too many obstacles (because . . . you guessed it: short stories are short). There’s room for a number of simple obstacles, such as a locked door or a character who momentarily doubts another. There’s less room for major obstacles such as an earthquake or a kaiju attack.
Begin Close to the End: One way to keep a story short and focused is to begin telling it as close to the climax as you can. If I was writing a story about a person trying to defuse a bomb, I’d begin with the character already in the process of defusing it, and then I’d work in whatever backstory was needed, probably in the form of short snatches of memory that pass through the person’s mind, distracting him or her while working. Not only is this a great way to keep your story focused, it can maximize story tension as well.
Show Don’t Tell: Don’t tell us your character is an angry person. Show us who the character is through the character’s actions and thoughts, as well as the dialogue of central and supporting characters.
Who Cares About Their Hair?: Describe the physical aspects of characters only when necessary. Again, there’s not a lot of room in a short story, and unless it’s important what color eyes a character has or what sort of clothes he or she is wearing, these details may not only be unnecessary, they may slow the pace of the story.
Background Check: Limit the amount of background information you present on a character’s past. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character had a poodle named Bitsy as a child, then don’t mention the damn dog.
The Most Important Aspect of Character: A character’s personality – his/her psychological make-up – is the most important thing for a writer to know. How does a character meet obstacles, try to obtain goals, react to people, places, changes, challenges, etc.? What is this character like under stress? If you know all these things, then you’ll know what your character will do in a given situation, which will help you plot your story.
Vivid Fiction
Sensory Detail: Beginning writers usually rely on sight and sound in their stories for two reasons. One is that these are the strongest senses humans possess, and therefore we pay the most attention to them. The other reason is because all our visual media is made up of sight and sound, and that’s how we’re used to experiencing stories. No matter how much you read, you’ve probably watched far more movies and TV shows, and played more video games, than you’ve read fiction. So don’t forget to evoke the other senses – taste, smell, and touch – in your fiction. And here’s an important tip. Since taste, smell, and touch are weaker senses for us, we have to be in close proximity (sometimes very close) to whatever it is that we smell, taste, or touch. This means that these three senses are far more intimate than sight and sound and have a greater emotional impact on people. They’ll do the same for your readers.
Don’t Hide What’s Inside: Visual media can’t get inside a character’s head, but written fiction can and should. To make your fiction more vivid and help readers more deeply identify with and attach to your main character, portray his or her internal world, their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, memory connections. Also use psychological comparisons: similes and metaphors. When your main character watches the sun rise, does he or she mentally compare it to anything? “Bob thought the sun rose like a giant orange lollipop in the sky.” That’s a terrible simile, but it tells you something about how Bob perceives the world.
Anchors Aweigh!: We experience the world as an ever-shifting deluge of information that comes from both outside and inside us. To create a sense of this for your readers, use what I call Anchor Points. Use a blend of different techniques – a sense, a thought, a bit of dialogue – to help anchor a scene in reality for your reader.
Conflict = Story: Characters can directly deal with conflict, indirectly deal with it, try to avoid it, try to ignore it, but they are always reacting to it somehow.
Conflict = Plot: The character dealing with conflict is what gives the story its shape and forward momentum.
Use Only as Needed: Don’t let your stories become bogged down with too much unnecessary information. Include only pertinent background information. Try to blend exposition in smoothly, in different places, using varied techniques, and avoid expository lumps. If you’re unsure how to do this, write your first draft without any exposition at all then have someone read it. Ask them to mark places where they have a question about something. Any place they marked is a place where they need more information. Add the least amount of information necessary to answer that question and no more.
Straight to the Point: Dialogue must be purposeful, and each line of dialogue should advance the story. Not just the plot; dialogue should advance our understanding of each character. 
Keep It Real: Remember how people really speak – in fragments, simple words, slang, and they interrupt each other.
He Said, She Said: Keep dialogue attributions simple and to a minimum. Bad: “Look out!” he articulated with great passion. Good: “Look out!” he shouted.
Lights, Camera, Action!: Avoid having action and dialogue take place simultaneously. Bad: “Look out!” Bob said as he fired six shots, hid behind a dumpster, reloaded, stood, and fired again. Good: “Look out!” Bob said. He fired six shots then hid behind a dumpster. He reloaded, stood, and fired again.
Format: Start a new paragraph whenever you switch speakers. Use italics and no quotation marks for internal dialogue. EX: “Hi, Sandra!” God, I can’t stand this woman!
Event-Centered Plot
The event-centered plot is the classic and most commonly used plot design (but this doesn’t mean it’s always the best).
It begins with a character who has a goal.
Character takes steps to reach the goal.
Character encounters obstacles on the way to reaching the goal.
Obstacles force the character to work harder to meet the goal.
Obstacles get worse; the character works even harder to overcome them.
At the climax of story character either . . .
Achieves the goal completely.
Fails completely.
Succeeds or fails partially.
Succeeds or fails in an unexpected way.
The classic plot design is useful for novels because it allows for expansion. Keep the goal relatively simple the obstacles fewer in a short story.
Character-Centered Plot
If the story is intended to focus on a character, then the purpose is for readers to get to know the character and gain insight into that character. Create the character first, then write detailed character notes. Look for aspects of character’s life that will show character at his or her best and/or worst. Search for problems and crisis points. Use these problems and crisis points to develop a plot that reveals character through story action.
Organizational Patterns
Chronological order: This is an obvious one, and as I said earlier, consider beginning close to the climax. Also, it’s okay to skip stuff that’s not important. You don’t need to show your characters arguing for twenty minutes about where to go out to eat. You can just say: Jill and Sam argued for twenty minutes before finally deciding to get pizza. Or can end a scene and begin the next one with Jill and Sam already at the restaurant eating pizza.
Flashbacks: These can be overused. If you’re a beginning writer, I’d suggest keeping them to a bare minimum or leaving them out entirely. But one or two in a short story can be a good way to present exposition in a dramatic way instead of through dry narration.
Alternating Timeframes: I’ve used this technique a lot over the years. I’ll have a present-day story that alternates with a past story featuring the same character which provides insight into the present-day story. Sometimes the pattern will be fifty percent Present and fifty percent Past, and sometimes it’s more like seventy-five percent Present and twenty-five percent past. Whatever seems to work best.
Snapshot Technique: If your story covers a long time period, you can’t cover every moment. So instead, choose several key moments of the story to dramatize in detail. It’s like pictures in a photo album. The album might be labeled Christmas 2017, but it doesn’t have pictures of every single moment of how you celebrated the holiday. There might be ten photos that, taken together, create a collage that communicates what the overall experience was like. At a guess, you might have anywhere from three to five scenes like that in a short story written in this manner.
Point of View
Generally Speaking: Stay in the same person/point of view for a short story. Point of view shifts within a scene break the illusion of reality for readers. While it’s of course possible to alternate point of view in a short story, such back-and-forth shifts tend to be jarring in a short piece.
Emotional Core
I Heart You: At the heart of a story should lie a strong emotional core. This emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them – and writers neglect this all the time (and often leave it out entirely). For short fiction include an important emotional relationship between two characters and use this relationship as a foundation upon which your story rests. The emotional core doesn’t have to be between two people. In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the emotional core is right there in the title. Can the fisherman still do his job – can he still master the sea – or is he too old and weak? The man’s struggle to catch a swordfish and bring it back to land is only the surface action. The story is the emotional core: the man’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle against mortality and Time itself.
Hopefully you’ve got a few new tools, or at least a different perspective, on writing short fiction. Now go out there and write short fiction that will knock readers on their asses and make them say, “Damn! Now that was a story!”
My latest story collection Dark and Distant Voices is now available in both print and eBook editions. Here’s what people have been saying about the book:
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. "Especially the one we see in the mirror," implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection. – Mort Castle
"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones
Tim Waggoner's Dark and Distant Voices is quite the short story collection. Bizarre, weird, and utterly intriguing, the stories found here will get under your skin. – Horror Novel Reviews
And now that you’re dying to get the book, here’s some Amazon linkage: