Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Writing with an Emotional Core



Aspiring writers are forever searching for The Secret: the single trick or technique that will elevate their writing from promising to publishable. Old pros say there is no secret to getting published, that it’s simply the result of hard work – reading a lot, writing a lot, getting feedback on your work, learning how to market your work, etc. – and I wouldn’t dispute that. But there is one element missing all too often from beginners’ fiction, and I’d argue that it’s one of the most important aspects of creating successful, compelling stories, and it’s as close to The Secret as anyone is likely to get: writing with an emotional core.


Successful stories should entertain, stimulate the imagination, and provide an artistic experience, but they also need to move readers emotionally. At the heart of a story – and there’s a reason we call it the heart – should lie a strong emotional core. It is, in a very real sense, what a story is ultimately about. For example, on the surface the movie Back to the Future appears to be about a teenager who goes back in time and prevents his parents’ meeting, thereby endangering his own existence. He needs to get his parents together, save himself, and then return to his own time. That’s the premise and basic plot of the film. But the emotional core of the film – why it moves audiences – is Marty McFly’s relationship with his parents and with Doc Brown. He gets to know his parents as teenagers like himself, gaining a new perspective on them. He feels connected to them as a family despite the gulf in years, and because he loves them, he can’t stop himself from trying to make their lives better in the past, even at the risk of altering the future in potentially disastrous ways. It’s the same for Doc. Marty loves him, and he can’t stand the idea of Doc getting killed in the future, so he tries to prevent it, despite Doc’s wishes. Simply put, the emotional core of the movie is love of family. Without this core, the movie might’ve been a fun adventure, but it wouldn’t be the much-loved classic it is today. The emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them.


Here are some things to think about in order to strengthen the emotional core in your stories.


What is the main emotional relationship/connection between characters in the story?


In Silence of the Lambs, the main emotional relationship is between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling, between predator and potential prey or, if you prefer, between wild animal and hunter. Starling wants to use Lector to catch another killer, and Lector wants to use Starling to amuse himself – and escape confinement. But the power dynamic between the two constantly shifts, and it’s unclear to the audience, as well as to the characters themselves, how they feel about each other and their roles. This ever-shifting unease – will Starling remain uncorrupted by Lector, can Starling’s inherent goodness, if not redeem him, reveal that he at least possesses some small measure of humanity? – is the true mystery that powers the story. And just like Back to the Future, it’s the emotional core that makes this story a classic, elevating it above a run-of-the-mill thriller.


So consider the characters in your story and decide what connects them. This doesn’t mean they have to have a positive relationship. Ahab’s relationship to Moby Dick isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Once you firm up the emotional relationship between the characters – once you’ve created a strong emotional core – then you can use that relationship as a foundation upon which the rest of your story rests. Or perhaps more accurately, as the seed from which your story will grow.


How is the emotional core reflected in the plot?


In Jaws, the emotional core is Sheriff Brody’s need to protect the people in his community. This creates conflict in the story because while Brody wants to keep people from being eaten by the shark, he always has a duty to protect the town’s economy, and the town depends on the money the summer people pump into it every year. If Brody closes the beaches, he kills the town. If he doesn’t close the beaches, more people will die. Brody is trapped in an impossible situation. He cannot protect everyone in every way. He must choose (just to be clear, this economic aspect of the story is more prevalent in the novel than in the film).


In my novel Mouth of the Dark, a middle-aged man’s twenty-year-old daughter is missing. The emotional core comes from his need to find her because he believes he’s failed her too many times in the past, and he’s determined not to fail her again – no matter what. Everything in the plot revolves around this need, and the character does things he would ordinarily never think of doing in order to find his daughter. In acting, this is called motivation, but when it comes to creating a story, the emotional core doesn’t just motivate your character, it motivates the story’s events as well. Write the emotional core of your story at the top of a piece of paper or Word document and list all the ways the core could be expressed in terms of plot events. If you have a plot event that doesn’t relate somehow to the core – especially for a short story – don’t include it when drafting.


How is the emotional core reflected in the setting?


In both Moby Dick and Jaws, the sea is the most important part of the setting. Ahab wants revenge and Brody wants to protect his town, but both of those motivations lead these characters to try to control the object of their respective hunts. But the sea is uncontrollable. It’s wild and dangerous, and it conceals rather than reveals. Struggling against it during the hunt will test each man and show what lengths he will go to, and what he’s willing to sacrifice, to find and kill his quarry.


In The Wizard of Oz, the land of Oz appears on the surface to be a beautiful, magical world, a place a little girl (in the book) or a young woman (in the film) would love to remain in forever – especially when she compares it to life in boring Dust-Bowl-era Kansas. But Oz is a confusing, dangerous place of Wicked Witches, deceitful (if ultimately kind-hearted) wizards, Tin Woodsmen created by mechanically replacing the lost body parts of a human man (read the book), creepy-as-hell flying monkeys, and other bizarre elements. It’s no wonder that Dorothy ultimately decides that the emotional core of the story – There’s no place like home – is a better choice than remaining in a beautiful but chaotic magical land.


Again, write down your emotional core and list all the ways your setting can reflect that core. Is the emotional core of your story Isolation? Think of all the ways your characters could be isolated, both the obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Is the emotional core of your story Sticking by a Friend No Matter What? Think of all the ways your protagonist could be challenged by the setting to continue sticking by his or her friend. For example, two characters are lost in the wilderness and one has a broken leg. What would make it difficult – maybe almost impossible – for the unhurt friend to remain with the injured one, despite his or her resolve to do so? Lack of food and water? Weather? Wolves?


How is the emotional core reflected in the theme?


First, a word about theme. Some writers make conscious decisions about theme while others don’t worry about it. If a theme happens to emerge while they’re writing, great. If not, no big deal. The important thing is to tell the story as well as you can. But I’d argue that an emotional core is the theme, at least with a little tweaking. Ahab wants revenge against Moby Dick, but he can never get revenge. The whale has no idea he hurt Ahab and nothing Ahab could do to him, including killing him, would ever make the whale sorry for what he did, would ever make him realize that Ahab was the one who killed him. So Ahab can never have the revenge he seeks, and thus the theme: Revenge is ultimately impossible and only leads to self-destruction. In Back to the Future, Marty’s love for Doc and his family leads to that story’s theme: Family connections transcend Time, and these connections define us, bind us, and in the end, might even save us.


Thinking about how the emotional core of your story can grow into a theme allows you to return to the story – to the characters, the plot, the setting – and strengthen the theme, making your story tighter, more focused, and ultimately more impactful for the audience.


How does the emotional core serve as a counterpoint to the plot and setting, and vice versa?


The emotional core, plot, and setting don’t have to complement each other. They can serve as counterpoints. A simple example would be a scene depicting a graveside funeral service. The emotional core is sorrow. The clich├ęd impact of the emotional core on the setting: a gloomy, rainy day. Counterpoint: a sunny day that seems at odds with the emotions the characters are feeling, or a pleasant, but bland day weather-wise, as if nothing important is happening when for the family, something extremely important is taking place: saying a final farewell to their loved one. By playing against the emotional core with the setting, you can actually intensify it.


In the movie Poltergeist the emotional core is the fear that your family isn’t safe even in their own home. Once the paranormal events in the house increase to a certain point, the family wants to get the hell out of there. The fear should drive them out, but little Carol Anne becomes trapped in a dark dimension adjacent to our world, a dimension only accessible through the house, so the parents must stay (they’re good parents, though, so they send Carol Anne’s older sister away rather than risk losing her, too). Plot-wise, the characters are forced to do the opposite of what they want to do, what the story’s emotional core is driving them to do. It’s the plotting power of emotional core counterpoint at its finest.


Each scene can have its own emotional core.


So far, I’ve been talking about emotional cores that serve as the center of entire stories. But each scene can have its own emotional core, one that may or may not be strongly tied into the overall emotional core. The example of the funeral service I used above can also serve as an example here. Sorrow might be the emotional core of such a scene, while struggling to maintain a marriage in the face of tragedy – such as the loss of a child – might be the overarching emotional core for the whole story. Adding emotional cores to your scenes will make each one of them have an impact on your audience, and they’ll build one upon the other, increasing people’s emotional investment in your story as it progresses toward its climax.


Emotional cores in short stories versus long stories.


Short stories need to be tighter and more focused than novels (tell us something we don’t know, Tim!). Because of this, you’ll likely have an important emotional relationship between two characters and no more. There simply isn’t room to develop multiple expressions of the emotional core in a short story. So if your short story is about an elderly man mourning the death of his beloved dog – a man who can connect with animals but who has trouble connecting with people – you won’t show multiple people trying to console him and reach out to him emotionally, as you could do in a novel. You’ll have only one person fulfill this role. His estranged son. The widow who lives down the street. A neighbor he’s never gotten along with but who understands the grief over losing a pet. Two main characters, one emotional core. That’s about all a short story can handle.


A novel, however, is another story (see what I did there?). If you want to write a novel about the elderly man who’s lost his dog, you can have all of the above characters be a part of it, and you can explore the emotional core on multiple levels and in multiple ways. Some writers claim that there are short story ideas and there are novel ideas, but the two aren’t interchangeable. While there might be some truth to this, you can often turn a short story idea into a novel idea – and the other way around – by expanding or narrowing the emotional core. By doing so, I could write about the elderly man at any length and complexity – and so could you.


Which should come first when drafting? The character, the plot, or the emotional core?


Short answer: It doesn’t matter as long as everything is in its place when the story is finished and ready to submit to an editor. I suggest starting wherever you feel the most creative energy and potential with a given story. If you’re really into the characters, start with them first. If you have an awesome idea for a story, but you’re not sure of anything else, work out the idea in detail and add other elements later. If you’re a planner, make decisions about your story’s emotional core before you begin drafting. If you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, start writing and work on firming up the emotional core in revisions. How you tend to the emotional core doesn’t matter. I’d argue that since the emotional core serves as a foundation for your story, the sooner you tend to it, the better, but the most important thing is that you do tend to it before you type The End.


Regardless of what kind of fiction you write – entertainment-focused, literary, genre-oriented, experimental, or some blend of these – make sure to write it with a strong emotional core. By doing so you’ll not only produce stories that readers will love, but stories they’ll remember long after they finish reading. Stories that change them, that make a difference in their lives. Stories that matter.


And in the end, aren’t those the kind of stories we all want to read and write?




Your Turn to Suffer


Reviews are coming in for my latest dark fantasy/horror novel Your Turn to Suffer, and so far, readers seem to dig it.


A few quotes:


“A lot of people get to suffer in Your Turn to Suffer, and when it goes batshit off-the-rails crazy, that's where the story finds its dark, bloody, shadowy heart.” – Beauty in Ruins


“The book is chilling, gory, surreal and heartbreaking. It’s not a story for people who like everything neatly tied up in a box with marshmallow endings. Instead, it’s more like a punch to the gut again and again and again.” – OutlawPoet


Your Turn to Suffer is the most intense book I've read in a very long time. This title is dedicated to David Lynch, and that definitely makes sense. The sudden slips between normalcy and the surreal dreamscape are nightmarish to say the least. It’s cryptic, bizarre, horrible, beautiful, and most of it remains just out of reach. Until it doesn’t.” – Yet Another Sarah


Order Links for Your Turn to Suffer


Flame Tree Website


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






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


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


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


Barnes and Noble


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


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


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


New Video Up at My YouTube Channel


I recently posted a new video to the Writing in the Dark YouTube Channel. This one deals with my top six tips on writing extreme horror. You can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mKqHIpVEjM


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Success is a State of Mind


In my last blog post, “So You’re Never Going to be Stephen King” (which you can read here if you missed it: https://writinginthedarktw.blogspot.com/2021/02/so-youre-never-going-to-be-stephen-king.html) I wrote about coming to terms with the success we actually get as writers, as opposed to the kind of success most of us can only dream about. The topic definitely struck a nerve. Where most of my blogs get 200-300 views, that one got over 3,000. One of those readers was Bryan Young, from the League of Utah Writers. He got in touch with me and asked if I could give the group a talk based on my blog entry. I said “Sure,” and I retitled my presentation “Redefining Success as a Writer,” which is a hell of a lot more upbeat than the original title. I decided to make a PowerPoint for my talk, so I pulled up my blog entry, read it over, and realized that its content didn’t really lend itself to a presentation. I’d need to create an entirely new version. So I did. I presented it, the group seemed to think it was worthwhile, and I was pleased (and more than a little relieved).


Afterward, I started thinking that this new presentation would make a good follow-up to “So You’re Never Going to be Stephen King.” And lo and behold, it has come to pass. Following is the information I presented to the Utah Writers Group, tweaked here and there, and with a couple additions that have occurred to me in the few days since I had the pleasure of speaking to the group. If, like so many writers (or creatives in general), you struggle with what success in our field means for you, I hope you’ll find this entry helpful. First, let’s talk about . . .


Common Views of Writing Success

There are lots of ways that writers view success, and we likely hold a combination of them at any given time. But the most basic of these are: 1) Finishing a writing project. 2) Getting it published in any way, shape, or form. 3) Having someone read your work, enjoy it, and think it’s good. Important foundational goals for a writer, I’d say, and healthy ones. You could argue there’s a lack of ambition to them, I suppose, but as I said, these are foundational goals, ones upon which you can build.


Getting a literary agent is a big marker of success for many writers, and some writers are so desperate to achieve this goal that they’ll sign with the first agent who asks them, regardless if that agent is a good fit for them or not. (Or even if the agent isn’t a very good one.) Just having someone in the publishing world believe in your work is a huge boost, and so many writers are starving for this kind of validation.


Even with the current ease of self-publishing, many writers see becoming traditionally published as an important marker of success. You have to make it over a lot of hurdles to get traditionally published, especially with the larger houses, and if you reach the finish line, it’s a huge accomplishment. Indie publishing is far more respected than it was when I started out in the early 1980’s, but I’d say writers in general still view being traditionally published as a greater badge of honor.


Having a large audience is extremely important for a lot of writers. The more people who read your work, the better it must be, right?


Getting good reviews is another measure of our work’s quality. The more stars readers give us on Amazon or Goodreads, the better. Same for book review websites and podcasts.


Many writers make it a goal to join professional writers’ organizations, such as HWA, SFWA, MWA, RWA, ITW, WWA, the IAMTW, etc. (If you don’t know what all these acronyms mean, Google Is Your Friend.) Writers need to meet certain requirements to be eligible to join, and once you have joined, you belong to an organization which considers you a professional writer. You can tell people you’re a member of HWA, put it on your website, your business cards, in cover and query letters, etc. This is another huge validation for many.


Being interviewed, asked to present workshops, asked to be a special guest at writing conferences . . . When people approach you for any of these things, it means they view you as a “real writer,” one whom readers are interested in hearing from or being taught by. There are people who view you as an Important Expert (or maybe just a lowercase important expert), and that feels good.


Making money. I’ve lived in America all my life, and the more money you make here, the more successful you are. And if you can make money from producing art – an activity American culture doesn’t place a very high value on – the better writer you must be, as well as being a savvy business-person.


Writers often refer to writing full time – making your living entirely from your writing – as The Dream, one of the most cherished and sought-after milestones in a writing career. If you can put food on the table and pay your bills solely by putting words onto a page, it’s like you’re some kind of goddamn magician. Full-time writers are often the envy of their peers who still have day jobs.


Winning awards. You get one of these, you have to be a good writer, right? Maybe even a great one. After all, you’ve got a physical trophy that says so.


Having your work adapted for film or TV is another huge marker of success. You get some money, which is awesome, but just as good, your work gets in front of the eyes of far more people than your written words will likely ever reach. Plus, even writers often view film or TV as more important mediums than the written word, almost as if their stories aren’t quite real – or perhaps haven’t reached their full potential – until they’ve been adapted for a movie or TV show.


So what’s the problem with these common views of writerly success? Most of these items are beyond our control. Once we’ve made our writing the best it can be, success in any of these areas depends almost entirely on market forces, the decisions of other people, and a hell of a lot of luck. It’s kind of like basing your idea of success in life on whether or not you win the lottery. Not the healthiest or most sustainable of viewpoints.


Drawbacks to the Common Views of Writing Success

You may not achieve all of them during your career. You certainly won’t – or at least are unlikely to – achieve them all at the same time.


You’re following someone else’s paradigms for success, not necessarily yours.


If you try to do too much at once, you might scatter your focus and energy, and you’ll have a difficult time achieving anything.


If you’re focused on achieving All the Things, you might not appreciate what you do achieve.


Lack of Success Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Failure

First off, the concept of failure isn’t necessary. Try to view goals as achieved or in the process of being achieved. And if you don’t achieve a goal, it doesn’t have to equate to failure. Society tells us it does, but you don’t have to buy into that thinking. Not achieving a goal can be a success if you take the attitude it moves you one step closer to achieving your goal. It can also be a success if you learn from not achieving your goal in a way that furthers your pursuit of the goal, helps you redefine your goal or select a new goal.


Focusing on Your Writing Career

Focus on furthering your writing career is good, but being overly focused – especially to point of becoming obsessed with success – can lead to depression and burn-out. In America, there’s an attitude that we have to be working all the time. Gotta keep grinding, grinding, grinding. And if you do anything other than work, you’re lazy and lack commitment. It’s not only good, it’s necessary to balance your writing with other aspects of your life for both your mental and physical health.


It’s okay for your focus to change over time. A friend of mine in college wanted to become a science fiction writer. He wrote sports articles for the college newspaper, and after graduation, he wrote for local papers, and eventually he began publishing sports articles for magazines. When he moved to Indiana, he specialized in basketball and racing articles. When he returned to Ohio, he switched his specialty to golf articles. He wrote some biographies of sports figures for young readers too. We’ve lost touch over the years, so I’m not sure what he’s doing now, but I always think of him when I think of how important it is to be versatile and adaptable when establishing and maintaining a writing career.


America culture tells you to pick a lane and stick to it the rest of your life, but John Jakes wrote science fiction novels before turning to the historical fiction that would make him a bestseller. Raymond Carver started out as a poet before gaining fame as a writer of minimalistic short stories. My college friend wasn’t a failure because he didn’t establish a career in science fiction. He was a success at writing sports nonfiction.


It’s okay to take breaks. My oldest daughter recently graduated with a master’s in oboe performance. She’s burnt out on playing oboe right now, and she began to think she might never play it again. But two of her teachers told her it’s quite common for musicians to take a break from playing after graduating from college, sometimes for years before they pick up their instrument again. My daughter had never heard this before, and I think that’s because people see taking time off as a failure to persist, to keep grinding away, and they’re ashamed to admit it. They shouldn’t be. The more people who talk about the importance of taking a break from their art if they need it, however long it may be, the more normal it will become.


Don’t set arbitrary time limits for success. I turned fifty-seven a couple weeks ago. I first started writing seriously with the intention of making a career out it when I was eighteen. When I started out, I told myself that if I didn’t have a novel published by the time I was thirty, I’d stop writing and seek a different career. My second agent called me on my thirtieth birthday to offer representation, so I figured that was close enough and kept writing. My first novel – a comedic erotic mystery called Dying for It – was published when I was thirty-five (I have a few copies of it lying around it any of you are curious enough to read it as it’s unlike anything else I’ve written). Thanks to movies, TV shows, and entertainment news, we get the idea that if you’re not a creative success right out of the gate, that you’re a failure, and that’s just bullshit.


Don’t wait for the magical day the stars align to start your writing career (or to make a change in it). Conditions will never be optimal. They never are, for anything. It’s not easy to write when you have to work a demanding job, have small children that need a lot of attention, have persistent health issues to manage, etc. Writing is a choice, though. Maybe you can’t make that choice every day. Maybe when you are able to make it, you can’t write for very long, or you have a hard time concentrating. Do your best, whatever your best is that day, and remember there’s no timetable for success. Just by writing, you’ve already succeeded at overcoming not-writing.


Never think you’re too anything – too young, too old, too new at writing, etc. – to begin. I once had student in her forties who wanted to enter a PhD program. “By the time I graduate, I’ll be in my fifties.” I told her she’d reach her fifties whether she had a doctorate or not, so if she really wanted one, she should go for it.


What Makes Someone a “Writer,” Let Alone a “Professional” One?

Some people say if you write, you’re a writer. Others say a professional writer is someone who approaches their writing professionally, regardless of whether or not they publish. Others tie the label of professional to someone who’s traditionally published, even if only a few times and if only in the small press. Others tie to the label to publishing with larger presses, while still others tie it to making a living solely from writing. People’s idea of a Writer with a capital W is often tied to one or more of these definitions. But I’ll tell you a secret: None of this shit matters. Writing isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. It may be a vital part of your life, but it’s still just a part. I love the first line on Ramsey Campbell’s website: “I’m Ramsey Campbell. I write horror.” He’s a person who writes, and the type of fiction he creates is horror. Don’t get hung up on the world’s many definitions of what a writer is or should be, and don’t get down on yourself if you don’t fit any particular definition. You’re a person who writes, so go do it. That’s all you need to know.


Looking Forward vs Being in the Present

Looking forward is a wonderful attribute in a writer. It helps you set goals and keep working toward them. But if you’re always looking forward, you might forget to appreciate present achievements fully. You might even forget to appreciate them at all. If you push too hard to get to the future, you might not take the time you need today to do your best work. You might rush the work to get to the next goal and the next one after that . . .


It’s always cool when a box of author copies arrives at my house, but they’re copies of a book I finished writing a year or more ago. I’m focused on the book I’m currently writing, sometimes to the point where I treat getting author copies like another item to check off a list. Copies of Your Turn to Suffer came today. Check. Time to put them on the shelf and then get back to work on the current novel. It’s important to appreciate present accomplishments, whether it’s writing a scene you’re happy with or getting an email from a reader who really enjoyed one of your stories. Those are wonderful moments, ones that feed your soul, and you shouldn’t let them pass you by.


However . . .


Being too satisfied with the present can keep you from continuing to work on furthering your goals. It’s important to not get too comfortable with where you’re at, to stay hungry and keep striving. – without becoming so consumed by looking forward that it’s all you do. You need to balance looking forward with being in the present. Breathing, drinking, and eating are all equally important to sustaining life. It’s the same for looking forward and being in the present. Both are equally important for a writer.



So much of how we define success as writers depends on whether we reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves. If we get better at how we set goals, as well as how we view those goals, the healthier our attitudes toward achieving them (or not) will be.


Make realistic goals. Starting your writing career by deciding your first novel will outsell Stephen King’s entire output is a sure way to set yourself up to fail. But if your goal is to start and finish your first novel, then you’re setting yourself up for success.


Make “shoot-for-the-stars” goals too. Go ahead, imagine your first novel getting a rave review in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Write the very best book you can, but once it’s out there for readers to see, don’t count on your shoot-for-the-stars goals to be fulfilled. Don’t invest so much of your mental and emotional energy in these goals that you’re devasted when they don’t happen. I imagine these type of goals like being a basketball player holding the ball as the last few seconds on the clock ticks down. They’re going to hurl the ball as hard as they can toward the opposing team’s net, knowing there’s a slim chance they’ll make a basket, but also knowing there’s zero chance if they don’t take the shot before the buzzer sounds. Accept that shoot-for-the-stars goals may take longer to achieve, and accept that some of them – such as winning a Pulitzer Prize – are less likely to occur than others. And for god’s sake, don’t let not achieving shoot-for-the-stars goals become reasons for believing you’re a failure.


Make short-term and long-term goals. Your long-term goal may be to find a great literary agent. One of your short-terms goals in this process is to research agents and come up with a list of ten to query. Once you’ve done that, you’ve succeeded in achieving a goal, regardless of how the long-term goal plays out in the end. Working toward goals is success in itself, and we should view it as such.


Enjoy the Victories

View achieving any goal, no matter how small, as a victory, and try to take time to appreciate these victories. And of course, celebrate the big victories too! Develop celebration rituals. Give yourself a treat at the end of each writing session. Allow yourself to finally start that series you’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix. Go for a walk. Go out for a drink with friends. When your first novel is published, throw a party. Celebrate alone or invite others to celebrate with you, both in real life and on social media. These rituals will help keep you centered on the present and help you enjoy your victories without immediately forgetting them in your race to achieve the next goal.


Keep mementos of victories around to remind you that success is possible. After all, these reminders are proof you’ve achieved success before and therefore can do so again. Display your author copies where you can see them. Frame an especially glowing review or an email from an appreciate reader and display it somewhere you can see it. On the bad writing days, they’ll serve as a reminder that there are people out there in the world who like your writing and are looking forward to more of it.


Keep a celebration journal. Log your victories in it, no matter how large or small they might be, and when you feel down about your career, page back through it. Savor your victories anew, allow them to become the fuel that will get you going again. (Plus, it’ll be a valuable resource for your future biographers once you become rich and famous.)


Dealing with Not-Success

Not getting what you want isn’t fun for anyone. It’s okay to feel your feelings, but . . .

Don’t overreact and vow to quit writing, destroy all your work, bash your computer to bits with a hammer, etc. Commiserate with friends who understand your pain. Create Not-Success Rituals to make you feel better, but avoid making them self-damaging. Revisit previous successes – mementos, journal entries, positive reviews you’ve saved – to remind you that not only is success possible, you’ve achieved it before and can achieve it again. Allow yourself a short mourning period, then get back to work.


Making a Living as a Writer

Very few writers of any type – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting, screenwriting – can make a living solely from their writing, especially if what you write isn’t deemed commercial by society at large (like the weird-ass surreal dark fantasy I often write). Those writers who do make a living solely from writing often live in near-poverty (if they don’t have a spouse with a good income). They often don’t have health insurance either. Living like this can be very stressful, and that stress results in difficulty creating. Because of this, people who write full time often don’t produce any more work, or any better work, than when they had a day job. And full-time writers often have various income streams that are writing-adjacent, such as teaching writing, freelance editing others’ work, freelance mentoring other writers, doing freelance business or technical writing, etc. Not long ago, I read an article with the director of an MFA program who said he advises his students to find a day job that allows them time to write. A job which keeps your body busy but allows you time to daydream. A job that doesn’t suck all the life out of you each shift so you’re too tired to write when you come home. A job where you have a certain amount of downtime, such as a night security guard. A job where you can earn an income that will allow you to live but still affords some time off, such as a teaching gig where you don’t have to work in the summer unless you want to. (Teachers are only employed for nine months. The other three months they’re unemployed unless they wish to teach part-time or work at some other job, such as their writing.) Finding a job that will allow you time to write is far easier said than done, but it’s a goal you can strive for. But never feel like a failure – or like you’re not a “real” writer – because of what you do to pay your bills.


Positive Views of Success That Are Under Our Control

Artistic Satisfaction. The making of something, of engaging our creative selves in the artistic process, can be satisfying and a worthy goal in itself. We may not always feel fully satisfied with each project we work on, but if we continue to create, we will experience such satisfaction. We need to take time to savor it.


Personal Satisfaction. When we write, we are doing the thing we enjoy the most, the thing which perhaps is the truest expression of ourselves. We show we have the courage to pursue our dream. All of this can be very satisfying on a personal level, and we need to savor it as well.


Community-Building Satisfaction. By sharing our writing with others, we contribute to enriching our culture. By connecting with readers and other writers, we build community, and we should appreciate this.


What else is writing for ultimately, if not these three things?


And that seems as good a point to end on as any.


Additional Resources: Eric Maisel is a psychologist and author who specializes in helping creative people. He’s written numerous books that can help creatives develop a healthy and positive view of success. You can find them listed on his website at www.ericmaisel.com. One of my favorites, which I recommend to writers all the time, is Creativity for Life.





 My next book from Flame Tree Press, Your Turn to Suffer, is out this Tuesday, March 23rd! 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.


Advanced reviews have been good so far, with the book garnering a cumulative Goodreads score of 4.13 out of 5 stars. Reviewers have commented that the book is something of a throwback to 1980’s horror and reminds them of early Clive Barker. They’ve also said it’s a dark, brutal book, with some going so far as to say it flirts with Splatterpunk. It also has elements of surreal, cosmic horror as well. Perhaps my favorite review quote so far comes from Donna Fox:


“For the last quarter of the story, I felt like I was caught underneath a freight train going one hundred miles an hour! My mouth was so dry I needed to get a drink, but I couldn’t put the book down. I had goosebumps, and I needed a sweater – but I couldn’t stop reading. The ending was that intense!”


Music to a horror author’s ears! If all this sounds like your cup of poisoned tea, I hope you’ll give Your Turn to Suffer a try.


Order Links for Your Turn to Suffer


Flame Tree Website


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






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


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


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


Barnes and Noble


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


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


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



The next Writing in the Dark Online Workshop will take place this coming weekend March 26th-28th. It's all about how to level up as an author. No matter what level you're at, there's always room to level up! Many guest lecturers have signed on to assist and it will cover a broad list of writing topics. The first symposium was a big hit, and I hope you’ll be able to join us for the sequel! I’ll be conducting a session on using three prime elements of horror fiction: Anticipation, Confrontation Point, and Aftermath, and I’ll likely be on several panels as well.


Follow this link to register:






I recently had the honor of being a guest on the Necronomi.com podcast. We talked about one of my favorite films, John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. It was a great discussion, and you can listen to it here:








Writing Media Tie-Ins:  May 4th. I’m presenting this workshop in conjunction with Clarion West. It’s online and there’s no fee. https://www.clarionwest.org/workshops/online-workshops/creating-media-tie-in-fiction-just-add-writer-with-tim-waggoner/




Stokercon: May 20th to May 23rd. Thanks to Covid, Stokercon will again be virtual this year. I’ll be conducting a guest of honor interview with the amazing Steve Rasnic Tem, and I’ll also be presenting a workshop based on my article “All the Things I Wished I’d Known as a Beginner Horror Writer.” I’ll be participating in a panel on the importance of horror for Stokercon’s Librarian’s Day, and I should also be on some additional panels and likely doing a reading. I’ll let you know when I have a schedule to share. http://stokercon2021.com/


Readercon 31: July 9th to July 11th. Readercon is going to be virtual this year, and I’ve been invited to be a quest. I should be on a panel or two, and I might do a workshop as well. http://readercon.org/


Want to follow me on social media? Here’s where you can find me:


Twitter: @timwaggoner

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