My book on writing horror, Writing in the Dark (named after my blog), will be officially released on Sept. 16th in three glorious editions – hardback, paperback, and ebook. (You can find ordering information after this post.)
I always write a blog post whenever I have a new book come out, and this time I wanted to write about a topic that would complement Writing in the Dark without treading the same ground. Eventually, I decided to talk about the most important writing and publishing lessons I’ve learned, whether from teachers, colleagues, students, or my own lived experience. Once that decision was made, I started jotting down notes, and the content poured out of me quickly. All of the lessons I’m going to discuss are ones that have stayed with me over the years, so much so that I didn’t have to sit around racking my brain to try to come up with material to write about. Some of these lessons I’ve covered before in past blogs or in classrooms and workshops I’ve taught, and a few appear in Writing in the Dark as well. But some I’ve never written about before, and some I’ve never discussed with anyone until now. So if you’re a regular reader of my blog, hopefully you’ll still find plenty of new stuff here. What follows isn’t an essay, but rather a list of lessons, and there’s no particular rhyme or reason to how I organized it. You’ll get the lessons in the same random order that they came to me when I started brainstorming. Some of these lessons were life-changing, some of less so, but all of them were – and remain – important to my development as a writer, and I hope you’ll find something of value here.
Let’s get started.
· When I was an undergrad, I majored in theater education with a minor in English, but I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a play that was highly derivative of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, including lyrics (but no music.) I called it Dementia Praecox, and with more than a little trepidation, I asked my acting professor, Dr. Jeffrey Huberman, if he’d read it and give me feedback. Dr. Huberman was one of the toughest – and best – teachers that I’ve ever had, and I was really worried that he was going to hate my play, but I also really valued his opinion, so I waited anxiously for him to read it. He eventually did, and then asked me to come to his office to discuss it. At one point in our discussion, he referred to a stage direction I’d written that said, in part Standard horror shit. I was afraid he was going to object to the word shit, which I realized at that moment wasn’t exactly professional. But what he objected to was the word “standard.” “Why write standard anything?” he asked. “Write something original, something different, something you.” That advice sank deep inside me, and I’ve done my best to not write standard anything ever since.
· Several years earlier, during my sophomore year in high school, I took my very first creative writing class with Mrs. Vagedes. I wrote a story called “The Last Christmas Elf,” and she thought it was so good she decided to read it to the class. She said she wouldn’t say who wrote it, not unless the person wanted her to. I knew I should claim the story as mine, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Partly because I was fifteen and filled with social anxiety, but also because I was a weird smart kid who sometimes got made fun of for being weird and smart by other kids in the small town where I grew up, and I didn’t want anyone to sneer at me and call me a “brain.” I learned a couple things from this experience. One was that I should be proud of my work and accept it when people had nice things to say about it and want to honor it somehow, whether with a compliment, a positive review, an award, whatever. (I’m still working on this. I have a hard time knowing how to respond when someone praises my writing, especially when they do so face to face.) But I also learned that in many ways, it didn’t matter that I’d written the story. The story existed on its own at that point, and I could still take pride in it, still be gratified that people enjoyed it, regardless if they knew it was my story or not. Stephen King often says, “It’s the tale, not the person who tells it” that’s truly important, and in the end, I have to agree.
· This experience also led to my first time being interviewed as an author. A local free weekly paper wanted to run a story on my having been named the high school writer of the month. The reporter wanted to meet at her house (I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do that today), and since it was such an important occasion, I wore a three-piece suit and tie. During the interview, I tried to sound as intelligent as I could, and of course I came off sounding stiff and phony. (The interviewer made me sound good in print, though!) From this, I learned not to try too hard in interviews and to do my best to just be myself, although perhaps the best version of myself. I’ve been interviewed many, many times since – maybe hundreds of times by this point – but I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned from that first time. And I’ve never worn a suit to be interviewed since!
· As I was learning to be a writer and a teacher of creative writing, I read a lot of how-to-write books. One that I read (sometime in the 1990’s) by a writer whose name escapes me, dealt with writing popular fiction. In the preface, the author wrote that if readers didn’t follow his/her advice exactly, they would never be published writers. I knew that was bullshit, so I closed the book and threw it away. It’s one of only two books I’ve ever thrown away. (The other was a biography of Rod Serling that I bought used, and in which someone had literally filled the margins of every page with notes arguing with the author’s assertions about anything and everything. I figure the world didn’t need to be subjected to that nonsense, so I tossed the book and purchased a new edition.) There is no one way to do anything when it comes to the arts, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot or has very limited experience regarding the many different paths writers take to publication. A writer of how-to advice should be confident in the knowledge they have to share, but not so arrogant as to think their point of view is the be all, end all. That’s why I included mini-interviews with 89 other writers in Writing in the Dark – to make sure readers got to hear voices other than mine.
· I’ve told this next story many times over the years. During my freshman year in college, students were required to take two composition courses. I tested out of the first one, and after I finished the second, the instructor – a TA named Pam Doyle – had a final conference with students. During our conference, Pam urged me to “take your writing as far as you can.” This remains one of the most important pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received, and it’s a 100% achievable goal. Anyone can take their writing as far as they can, and the advice has no end point. Pam didn’t tell me to publish a novel or have a bestseller or make a million dollars or win tons of awards. She told to keep writing and improving my writing throughout my life. What better advice for a writer is there?
· In grad school, I wrote a short story about two young friends, one of whom drowns in a lake. The dead boy used to make up stories about a monster in the lake, and after his death, he reappears to his friend as this monster, as a way of saying goodbye. When I told a fellow student about my story, he asked me where it was set. I told him it didn’t matter, that the story was about the two boys, and the lake could be anywhere. Not giving a specific location made it more mythic, like something out of a folktale. My friend told me I had to specify a location because I was an American writer and “All American writers are regionalists.” I told him to read the story. He did, and he agreed that the specific location of the lake wasn’t important and that the story might be more effective for not specifying the location. From this, I learned that writers are given a lot of rules to follow – especially in college lit classes – and they have to be careful to not take these rules too seriously. I tell my students that there is only one real rule in writing: you have to use symbols to express ideas. After that, everything is custom and tradition, techniques that in general work for most readers most of the time.
· In my late twenties, I had a critique partner who was one of my friends in college. At the time we lived in different states, and in those pre-email days we swapped printed manuscripts via street mail. I also was fortunate to get into a writing group that had several professional writers in it, including fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan and science fiction writer Lois McMaster Bujold. I wrote a story called “Mr. Punch,” which I consider the first true Tim Waggoner horror story I ever wrote. It had a very surreal, symbolic ending, and when I shared the story with my writing group and my critique buddy, none of them liked the ending. They all thought it should be clearer. I tried rewriting the ending, but every alternate version I came up with felt wrong. I decided to stick with my guns and keep my original ending, for better or worse. “Mr. Punch” became my first professionally published story – appearing in the horror anthology Young Blood – and it received my first honorable mention from Ellen Datlow in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. From this experience, I learned that while it’s important not to dismiss feedback outright, it can be even more important to be true to your art.
· Sometime in my thirties, I was one of the faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. One day during a lunch break, the literary writer Clint McCowan said to me that “All fiction is mystery.” He wasn’t speaking of the genre of mystery but rather that people read to learn what happens next, who the characters are, who they are becoming, how they are affected by the challenges they face, and so on. Four words – All fiction is mystery – but they say everything about why readers read and how writers should tell their stories.
· Over several decades of publishing my writing, I’ve learned that people don’t change their reading tastes just because they love you. Almost no one in my family reads the stuff I write, although they’re all very supportive of me and my work. My wife doesn’t like to read scary stuff, but she’ll read my fantasy stories. My daughters, while proud of me, don’t read my stories. To them, my writing is just Dad’s work. My own dad has always been a voracious reader, mostly of science fiction and military adventure. I don’t think he’s ever read a single word I’ve written. My brother is my best friend, and he’s read only a few of my novels. Hopefully, the people in your life are loving and supportive of you and your writing, but don’t expect them to become fans of horror or romance or literary fiction or whatever you write just because they love you. Sure, it’s kind of a bummer sometimes, but I’ve spent my entire life loving all kinds of weird stuff that most people don’t care about, so I’m used to it. Plus, knowing my family doesn’t read my work frees me to write whatever I want without any fear that there will be repercussions in my relationships. You’ll find like-minded weirdos out there in the world, and they’ll become your artistic family.
· A few years back, I attended a show by magician David Copperfield. As I watched him perform, I knew that the illusions he created were, at their core, simple. What made them seem magical was the way he performed them. I thought of how the same thing applies to any art. We don’t create products for our audience – we create experiences. The best fiction writers know this, whether consciously or not. So don’t just be a writer; strive to be a magician as well. Give readers an experience they’ll never forget.
· People want horror writers to be weird, and they’re disappointed when they find out we’re no weirder than anyone else. Or at least, not as weird as they hoped we’d be. People who aren’t artists are fascinated by the artistic imagination, and they like to get as close to it as they can. If someone writes stories that have some sort of edge to them – such as horror, crime, and erotica – readers think that by getting to know us, they’re taking a walk on the wild side, that they’re flirting with a dangerous mind. (In reality, it’s more like a walk on the mild side.) I’ve experienced this enough over the years that I do my best not to be dismissive when someone asks a probing questioned designed to reveal the true darkness that dwells within me, but I also don’t play into the image of a horror writer that they’ve created for themselves. I do sometimes make a joke or a comment that has a bit of a dark edge to it, however. People come to us to be entertained, after all, and it can be fun to play “horror writer,” just so long as you don’t get carried away and start chopping people into pieces and hiding the parts beneath the floorboards of your house. That shit starts to smell after a while.
· I’ve had three agents over the years, and my second agent once told me that writers should “write what burns in their gut’ because that will create your best work and your best work is what will have the greatest chance at selling to editors and readers. Over the years, I’ve done my best to explore the things I feel most passionate about. How do we make meaning in a universe that’s designed solely to devour itself? How do we deal with the darkness within us? How can we overcome what divides us? These have all become themes in my work. So do a gut check to see what you feel strongest about, and remember that whatever it is, you can explore it through the lens of any genre. I choose horror and dark fantasy. You might choose mystery or western or mainstream/literary. Whatever works best for you.
· I learned a couple things from sitting on convention panels with SF/F writer Mike Stackpole. Like myself, Mike’s written a good deal of tie-in fiction, and someone in the audience asked him if he approached his original fiction differently than his tie-in work. Mike said that as long as a book has his name on it, it’s his book, regardless of whether he created the original property or not, and he does the very best job he can on it. I adopted his attitude, so no matter what I write, who I write it for, how many people will see it, or how much I get paid for it, it’s all my work, and I do the very best job I’m capable of at that time.
· Something else I learned from Mike: Once on a panel, he spoke about how it’s important to distill the most important elements of your setting/world into a few basic concepts that you need to introduce to the reader relatively early on in a novel. For example, he said that in Battletech fiction, the three most important things readers need to know is that in that universe the galaxy is ruled by families of nobles, they fly dropships, and fight battles in suits of mech armor. And as long as you introduce these concepts somewhere within the book’s first hundred pages, you can write whatever kind of story you want in that setting. He was speaking of a technique for writing tie-in fiction, but I think it can work well for any type of fiction, and it’s a wonderful way to remind writers not to get bogged down in unnecessary detail. For example, what do you need to know to tell a story in the Hellraiser universe? There’s a magic puzzle box. If you solve it, you summon otherworldly S&M gods/demons. If you don’t escape them, they will claim you, take you to their netherworld, and torture you for all eternity. That’s it. You don’t need to stick to just three things, but the fewer elements you focus on, the better, I think.
· Years ago, Barnes and Noble put out an anthology of flash fiction titled Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. It was originally going to be called A Horror a Day, and the concept was that each story was so short you could easily read one a day for an entire year. Marty Greenberg was the editor, and he put out a call for submissions. Each story was to be no more than 750 words long, and of course it had to be in the horror genre. And because he needed so many stories, he was open to buying more than one from an individual author. I ended up selling him nine stories for the anthology. One of these stories was “Daddy,” about a new father who realizes his baby is literally draining his energy, that this is what all babies do to their parents. At first he sees the baby as a monster, but he comes to realize that the cycle of life going from parent to child is ultimately normal, natural, and good. (Can you tell I was a new father at the time I wrote this?) I’d already written the story but not sold it when Marty put out his call for submissions. The story was fourteen pages long, and when I reread it, I realized I could cut the first eleven pages and the last scene – which was around 750 words – could stand as a story by itself. I had to do very little revision to make the shorter version work, and Marty accepted it for the anthology. From this experience, I learned just how much unnecessary build-up we often write for our stories, and how much better they can be if we focus on the core concept/imagery and get to it as soon as possible. It also taught me to, especially when it comes to short stories, begin as close to the end as possible.
· One year at a convention, I was talking with the writer John Vornholt. He told me about a recent novel he’d finished, one that had had an extremely short deadline. When he’d first signed the contract, he’d asked his agent how he was going to be able to get the book done in time, and his agent said, “When you’re up, you’re working.” I’ve had some short deadlines for novels myself, and I’ve used this maxim to help me get them written and submitted in time. I wouldn’t recommend this technique as a way to write normally. You’ll end up burning yourself out and wrecking your health. But in the short term, it works.
· Years ago at a convention (seems like I’ve picked up a lot of good stuff at cons over the years, doesn’t it?), I was talking with author Christie Golden’s husband in the hall outside a room where she was doing a panel. He said that one of the things that had surprised Christie – who by this point had published several novels – was that writing and publishing hadn’t gotten any easier as time went on. Just because you’ve published a few books doesn’t mean that you’ve got it made and you can coast for the rest of your career. You have to keep working, improving, and striving, and you need to learn to weather the ups and downs of a writing career if you hope to have a long one.
· At yet another con, I heard science fiction writer Mike Resnick say during a reading that “I never argue with readers’ opinions of my work.” I thought this was excellent advice, for several reasons. One is the word opinions. A reader’s response isn’t an all-encompassing final judgment on your work and your abilities as a writer. It’s simply one person’s reaction to something you’ve written. Another reason this is great advice is the word argue. How can you argue with someone’s response to your fiction? How can you tell them they didn’t have the correct response? They had the response they had, and that’s that. Plus, arguing takes energy and it can be draining, and ultimately in this case it’s a waste of time. You can’t somehow go back in time an alter a person’s perception of your work. Not only that, but if you do argue with readers, you come across looking like an insecure jerk. Better to forget that bad review and go on to write something else.
· And at yet another con, I watched my friend Ron Sarti, who’d published a trilogy of fantasy adventures, talking to fans in the con suite. I was new(ish) to SF cons at the time, and I’d noticed that pros tended to keep a certain distance between themselves and readers. They certainly didn’t hang out with them and treat them as – gasp! – equals. But Ron did. Later, I took him aside and gently tried to explain that he might want to reconsider how he interacted with fans. Ron, who was a couple decades older and wiser than I was, listened politely to my “advice,” and was kind enough not to tell me what an idiot I was being. Even as I spoke to him, I realized what a jackass I was being, and I’ve done my best not to view myself as Important Writer Who Cannot Be Bothered to Interact with the Riff-Raff at cons. Hopefully, I succeed more often than not. I understand why super-famous writers like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin can’t simply stroll around the halls at a con all day. They would be mobbed and never be able to get away. And as for editors and agents, they’d be stuck listening to impromptu hallway pitches the entire weekend if they didn’t maintain a certain distance. If I’m ever tempted to think of myself as Important Writer, all I have to do is remind myself that relatively few people read fiction and that of those who do, even fewer read horror. If I’m at a con where I’m TIM WAGGONER, all I have to do is step outside the hotel, and I’m nobody again. No matter what I do or where I’m at, I’m just a person, which is the most important thing to be anyway, isn’t it?
· Years ago I read a book called The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. The book was geared toward freelance nonfiction writers, and its premise was that the conventional wisdom new writers are taught about publishing isn’t really the way Things Get Done. I’d experienced some of this for myself in working with publishers by this point. I’d learned to approach editors working on invite-only anthologies and ask if I could write a story for them on spec. Every time I did this, I sold the editor a story. So I decided to try some of the advice in The Renegade Writer. Conventional wisdom says never to call editors, but Formichelli and Burrell said writers should try this. I called Wizards of the Coast. I’d sent writing samples in via their website as they requested of all writers who wanted to work with them, but I’d never heard back. Once I tracked down a phone number of an assistant editor via the Internet, I called and explained that I’d been sending samples for several years but never gotten a response. I received an apology (not that I was looking for one), and my call was forwarded to a senior editor. After some discussion, I ended up with a gig to write a couple books in the new Dragonlance YA series. I eventually wrote seven books for WotC before they cut back on publishing fiction. I called Byron Preiss at iBooks and asked if he had any tie-in projects I could write for, and I got a contract to write a novel based on the Defender computer game. I’m always hesitant to share this lesson with new writers, though. I was able to make those calls because I’d already published quite a few short stories as well as several novels. No one will give you a gig if you don’t have an established track record (even if it’s not a very long record), and you run the risk of alienating editors by calling them. Still, I do recommend checking out The Renegade Writer and seeing how you can adapt the authors’ advice for publishing nonfiction to your fiction career.
· For nine years, I taught in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. During one on-campus residency, I was speaking with writer Lawrence C. Connelly in the hall, and he said, “You know, the world will decide how we’ll be remembered.” I thought about this for a long time afterward. In a way it’s a frustrating idea. You can spend your entire career writing, and readers will always remember the one thing you wrote that wasn’t that big a deal to you (or the one thing you hated and wished you’d never created). But on the other, it frees you from worrying about whether this project or that one is more important. It frees you from thinking in terms of reputation and legacy or, in marketing terms, of brand. It allows you to focus on what you want to write at any given moment and not worry about whether this one will be the big hit that breaks you out and makes you a star. Write your stories. Let the world decide how to respond to them.
· And that seems as good a place as any to end, doesn’t it?
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Writing in the Dark: The Book
As I said above, Writing in the Dark will be officially released on Sept. 16th – only two weeks from today! I’ve been doing interviews and podcasts in support of the book, and initial reactions from reviewers have been overwhelmingly positive. Booklist says that it’s “a strong book that should prepare burgeoning writers to make better monsters and stronger stories.” All formats – hardcover, paperback, and ebook – are available to order. I hope you’ll help spread the word about the book when it’s released. My goal is to help as many people as I can write better horror, and I’ll appreciate any assistance you can give me.
Raw Dog Screaming Press
Both hardcover and paperback: http://rawdogscreaming.com/books/writing-in-the-dark/
Barnes and Noble
Some Kind of Monster
Some Kind of Monster, my new novella from Apex Publishing, is now out! Here’s the synopsis:
Throughout her life, Angie has lost loved ones to stupid, meaningless deaths. As an adult she begins researching urban legends, hoping to find proof that something exists beyond our mundane world. Is there magic? Is there an existence beyond this life? Is there any kind of meaning to it all even if that meaning is a dark one? In the end, Angie will get her answer, and she'll learn that reality isn't just darker than she thinks: It's some kind of monster.
Apex Book Company
Barnes and Noble
New Article in Nightmare Magazine Free to Read
I’ve written an article for Nightmare Magazine’s The H Word column titled “The H Word: The Irrational Vs the Rational.” It’s about the necessary and important tension between the irrational and the rational in horror, and it’s free to read online: https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/nonfiction/the-h-word-the-rational-vs-the-irrational/
Your Turn to Suffer Available for Preorder
My next book from Flame Tree Press, Your Turn to Suffer, is now available for preorder at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The book’s due out March 23, 2021. Here’s the synopsis:
Lorelei Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.
This book takes place in the same town at The Mouth of the Dark, although it’s not a direct sequel, and it’s the second appearance of the Nightway, an extradimensional highway that first appeared in my novel The Harmony Society way back in 2003! It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you’ll check it out.
Preorder Links for Your Turn to Suffer:
Barnes and Noble
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