Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Forty Years as a Writer: Lessons Learned


Well, forty-two, actually. I was eighteen when I decided to dedicate my life to writing, and I’m sixty now. This seemed like a good time to take a look back and pass along some of the most important things I’ve learned about writing and publishing over the course of my long career. I mean, I guess it’s long. Seems like I just started yesterday, but old people always say stuff like that, don’t they? The following items aren’t in any particular order. I wrote them as they came to me. If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you may have encountered some of the following in previous posts, but hopefully most should be new to you.

·       Take your writing as far as you can. I pass along this advice all the time. When I was nineteen and a college undergrad, the teaching assistant who taught my composition class – Pam Doyle – held end-of-the-course conferences with students. During my conference, she said, “I urge you to take your writing as far as you can.” This is the best writing advice I’ve ever received. Pam didn’t say “Publish a zillion books” or “become a bestseller.” She told me to continue writing and growing as a writer. And her advice was open-ended. It had no end point. I can continue taking my writing as far as I can until they day I die (which is my plan!).

·       I never argue with people’s opinions about my work. I learned this from science fiction writer Mike Resnick at an SF convention. He was talking about whether writers should respond to reviewers, and his view of readers’ or critics’ reactions to his work as “opinions” is exactly the right attitude. You can’t argue with an opinion – it is what it is – so why bother? It also speaks to how we should take reviews of our work, both the good and the bad. They’re just someone’s opinions, not divine judgments from on high.

·       Scene and Sequel. I first learned about this technique from pro writers discussing it on convention panels thirty or so years ago. They presented it as the technique to master if you wanted to write publishable popular fiction. They said they’d learned it from a how-to book by Dwight V. Swain called Techniques of the Selling Writing. As soon as I could, I hauled ass to the closest bookstore, found a copy, bought it, took it home, and devoured it. Rather than give you a short explanation of the technique here, I’ll link to the Wikipedia entry that discusses it:

·       Listen to my instincts. The first story I sold to a professional-level market was “Mr. Punch,” which appeared in the anthology Young Blood from Zebra Books in 1994. This is the story I think of as the first true “Tim Waggoner” story, the first of the surreal/nightmarish type of horror tales that I’ve become known for. The ending was very abstract and symbolic, and when I read the story to my writers’ group, they advised me to make the ending clearer. I felt they were wrong, but I tried anyway, but no matter how I tried to revise the ending, I knew my original version was best. I submitted it to Young Blood, it was accepted, and when it was published, it was well received by the horror community. It made the Honorable Mention list in the Year’s Best Fantasy Horror, too. I didn’t disregard all feedback after this experience, but it taught me to pay attention when my inner author’s voice says, “Yeah, this story is weird and messed-up, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

·       Don’t tell people how to view or enjoy my work. During an undergrad creative writing class, I read aloud a chapter of a novel I was working on for feedback. The book was a fantasy adventure featuring mythological gods ruling a Mad Max-type wasteland. I was writing the book on two levels – one was as an adventure story, but another was as a satire of adventure stories. I wanted the satire to be very subtle, though. I read the chapter, which featured an action sequence. Afterward, I explained the satirical aspect of the book, and one of the students said, “Now I feel bad for enjoying it.” I realized then that it’s not my place to tell people how to read or respond to my work. Stories are like jokes. They should explain themselves in the telling. Sometimes in interviews I’ll talk about the different layers of my stories, but in general, I write them and then shut the hell up while readers read them.

·       The Rule of Twelve. Back before the advent of a little-known fad called the Internet, we writers used to get market information from print sources. Writer’s Digest Books’ annual Writers’ Market was the go-to source, and I’d buy a copy every year. The front of the book always had articles on writing and submitting your work, most of which I skimmed or ignored entirely, since they covered stuff I already knew. But one year I ran across an article titled “The Rule of Twelve.” (I wish I could remember who wrote it.) The author talked about how after one of her stories got a couple rejections, she figured it was no good, put it away, and started writing something new. I thought, “Hey, I do the same thing!” One day she decided she was going to send her stories out until they sold, no matter how long it took. She eventually discovered that her stories sold, on average, to the twelfth market she tried. After employing this technique, she began selling her stories regularly. I decided to try the same thing, and I sold my stories, on average, to the ninth market I sent them. Eventually, I began selling them on the first or second time out. What I love about The Rule of Twelve is that it’s a way to codify persistence that doesn’t require any emotional effort, so even if you’re depressed by a rejection, you know you’re supposed to keep submitting your work, so you do. I advise all writers to give The Rule of Twelve a try!

·       Do an ego check when dealing with editorial comments/changes. I haven’t been in a writers’ group for close to thirty years now, and I don’t use beta readers. I rely on my agent and my editors to give me feedback on my work. (I do traditional publishing, so these are editors at publishing houses, not ones I hire.) Since they’re professionals, I do my best to keep a tight rein on my ego (or on my natural laziness when it comes to revision) when my initial impulse is to say, “Screw you, it’s perfect the way it is!” Yeah, I know I said “trust your instincts” earlier, but trust doesn’t mean ignore feedback completely. If, after careful consideration, an editorial suggestion doesn’t seem right to me, I’ll discuss it with an editor or my agent and see what we can work out. But I work hard to truly consider suggestions instead of dismissing them out of hand merely because I hate revising.

·       “All American writers are regionalists.” As an undergrad, I worked in my university’s Writing Center, and a co-worker asked to read one of my short stories. I chose a contemporary fantasy with a surreal/symbolic ending that was a precursor to stories like “Mr. Punch.” My co-worker asked me where the story was set. I told him I didn’t identify the setting beyond it being a lake with a campground nearby. I wanted the setting to feel universal to readers. My friend said that I had to precisely identify the setting because I was an American writer, and “all American writers are regionalists.” I immediately recognized that he was parroting something he’d learned in a lit class as if it was law. I told him it didn’t matter exactly where the story was set. He read it, then said, “You were right about the setting.” From this, I learned not to pay too much attention to people when they try to tell me the “rules” of writing – especially rules they learned from a college lit professor. Yes, there are techniques that tend to work for most readers more often than not, but these are more customs than they are rules. I tell students that there’s only one real rule in writing: You must use marks on a page (or screen) to communicate ideas. Everything else is situational based on your purpose and audience.

·       Don’t compare yourself to other writers. When I was in grad school, other students would talk about wanting to write, but they always compared themselves to the writers they were studying in their classes, feeling like they could never possibly measure up to The Greats. And so they never wrote anything. Learning from other writers is essential. I learn something from every writer whose work I read. But if you compare your work to theirs, you’ll always find yourself wanting. Run your own race, and don’t worry about who’s ahead of you or behind you. We run the race because the race is good to run, because we have to run it, we can’t imagine living without running it. The running is the entire point of the race.

·       Strength-Based approach. Years ago, I read an article in Writer’s Digest written by Isaac Asimov. In it, he talked about how he was really good at plotting stories but sucked at writing well-developed characters. Instead of wasting a lot of time trying to get better at writing characters (which he doubted he’d ever improve much on), he decided to focus on his main strength – plotting – and work to improve that as much as possible. Many years later, this would become known as a strength-based approach. You focus on maximizing your strengths while getting just okay at areas you’re weak in. Some writers are strongest in plotting, some in style, some in dialogue, some in research, some in humor, some in generating ideas (this is me!), and so on. The more you lean into your strengths, the stronger – and more competitive – your writing will become.

·       Don’t keep your distance from fans – unless you need to. In the mid-1990s, a friend of mine named Ron Sarti sold a fantasy trilogy to Ace Books. We’d been going to SF conventions for years, but once the first volume in his trilogy came out, I felt uncomfortable seeing him talk to fans at cons as if – gasp! – they were equals. This was a subconscious thing on my part, and it took me a while to figure it out. I’d seen so many pros keep their distance from fans over the years that I’d come to view this as professional behavior. Since Ron had reached pro level, he should’ve acted like a pro, right? Once I understood where this feeling came from, I got over it quickly. Sure, some writers might – consciously or subconsciously – think they’re better than fans, but I think more writers are simply introverts that aren’t comfortable interacting with a lot of people at events, and so they keep to themselves or go hide in the bar or their hotel room when they need some alone time. Other writers are so famous that they’d be mobbed by fans wherever they went at a con, so they need to keep their distance to avoid getting overwhelmed. I’m an introvert, but I don’t go to cons to stay away from people. If I wanted to do that, I’d stay home. When I’m at a con, I always try to remember how Ron behaved, as if there was nothing separating him from the fans, because, of course, there wasn’t. We’re all people, gathered to celebrate something we love – writing and reading.

·       Editors work for the publisher, not for writers. Editors work with writers. Business-wise, editors are not your friend. They always represent the company’s interests, not yours. (This is less true for small-press editors who often are the company.) Artistically, they can be your friend, and they can be your friend outside of business matters (like when hanging out at a con). I’ve had book editors lie to me about advances (“This really is as much as we can offer right now”) when I know they’ve given higher advances to other writers. You can choose to have an adversarial relationship with editors and assume they’re always out to screw you, but that’s not true, and it’s certainly not helpful. I think it’s best to go into a relationship with an editor knowing the business and artistic aspects of it are two different – and often mutually exclusive – things.

·       Write with a close identification with a character’s point of view. Movies and videogames can deliver images and sound. But only fiction can put people into the heads of characters, allowing them to experience the story more deeply and intimately. Too many beginning writers write as if they’re passive audience members watching their story play out on a screen before them. Write your stories as if you are the character living them, so you can give readers the same experience.

·       Family and friends won’t become readers if they aren’t already. Your family and friends may be proud of you and talk up your writing to people whenever they get a chance. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read everything – or even anything – you write. People don’t change their reading tastes if they love you, and they don’t suddenly become readers if they aren’t readers already. I once gave my sister a copy of one of my earliest novels. During a visit to her place, I found it lying on the kitchen floor next to the cat food bowl. Gary A. Braunbeck once told me of visiting a relative’s house to find them using one of his books to help prop up their coffee table. I don’t offer to give family members copies of my book anymore, and they never ask. I don’t resent them for it, though.

·       You’ll never be an “expert.” Years back (seems like I’m starting most of these items with that sort of phrase), I saw a writer who’d gotten her first small-press book contract suddenly start giving everyone advice on the Horror Writers’ Association’s members-only message board. She’d never given out any advice before, but once she’d signed a contract, she acted as if she was the expert on all matters related to writing and publishing. Who knows? Maybe she was just so excited to finally land a deal that she was eager to interact with people. Maybe it gave her the confidence to share ideas about writing that she’d previously kept to herself. But I always think of her whenever I’m tempted to believe that I Know It All. I’ll never learn everything there is to learn about writing and publishing as long as I live. My goal is to learn as much as I possibly can before I die. Plus, it’s always useful to keep a beginner’s mind. That’s how we stay excited about our craft as the years go by, and that’s how we grow.

·       I can’t tell who will “make it” as a writer. I can recognize when someone demonstrates writing talent and ability, and I can tell when they have a natural feel for storytelling. But I have no way of knowing how hard they’re willing to work to develop their skills, and if they’ll be mentally tough enough to keep going despite all the obstacles and setbacks they’ll encounter. Someone whose writing doesn’t look very promising today can work their ass off for years and become a skilled professional. Someone else with a shit-ton of natural talent may not do a damn thing with it throughout their life. There’s simply no way for me to know.

·       You’re going to get your heart broken, probably multiple times. Rejections, deals that fall through, bad reviews (or worse, complete indifference from readers), being nominated for awards and not winning, never appearing on the end-of-the-year best lists, never having your work selected for Best-Of anthologies, never getting film and TV options on your work, seeing writers younger than you being catapulted to financial success and critical acclaim while you’re still struggling all these years later . . . There’s a reason why you need thick, adamantium-tough skin to be a writer. You’ll have lots of positive experiences, too, but you need to make peace with the fact that sometimes you’re going to hurt, and maybe hurt bad. In this way, a writing career is like life itself. You need to find a way to take a hit – sometimes an extremely hard one – and keep going.

·       Some people will glom onto you as their private unpaid teacher. Some beginning writers seek out pros to attach themselves to in order to get free feedback and career advice. I’m not talking about people who ask you a few questions every now and then, or who ask if you’ll read a short story or a novel chapter for feedback. I’m talking about needy, almost desperate people who want you to give them everything all the time. Of course, you can choose to help whoever you want, however much you want. At this point in my career, if I said I’d read people’s work for free, I’d have so many takers that I’d never get to do anything but read and critique others’ writing. I teach creative writing at my college, and I volunteer as a mentor in the Horror Writers Association mentorship program. Otherwise, I do my best to protect my writing time. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have any.

·       Some people will use you as a stepping stone. Some new writers befriend you for a time until they can move on to another writer who’s farther up the ladder of success than you are. Afterward, they may never interact with you again in any way. It’s like you no longer exist to them. Some may say hi if they see you at a con, but they won’t spend any time with you. It’s funny to watch them on social media as they comment on a writer’s posts and give them shout-outs and praise their work until they latch onto a bigger writer. It would be easy to become jaded and cynical and assume every new writer who approaches you only wants to use you. I get that. I choose to believe that any writers who approach me are genuinely interested in getting to know me, and if they eventually toss me aside without a second thought as they move on to someone they consider a bigger, more useful writer, I try not to let it bother me. I’m sad for them because this kind of career climbing in the writing world rarely, if ever, works. You don’t become a better writer by cynically using other people. And you end up with a reputation as a career climber without having built a true network of friends and colleagues. You end up alone, and usually no better off career-wise than where you started.

·       More writing is (often) the solution to writing problems. Life circumstances aside – illness, depression, new baby, new job, recovering from surgery, etc. – I think writers’ block is really writing avoidance. There’s some reason why you don’t want to – or are afraid to – work on a piece of writing. The solution is to write anyway (even if it’s on a different project) and to keep writing until everything starts flowing smoothly again. Sometimes I’ll have students who say they write better under pressure. I tell them this is an illusion. “You write better because you’re actually writing. You breathe better when you breathe, you eat better when you eat, you sleep better when you sleep. It’s the same thing. You’re writing better because you’re finally writing.”

·       You will never stop doubting yourself. Get to work anyway. This one doesn’t need much elaboration. There will not come a magical day when all the negative thoughts about yourself and your writing disappear forever. Just don’t let those thoughts stop you. As I always tell students, “Remember: Those dark voices always lie. They may speak, but you don’t have to listen to what they say.”

·       Write the stories only you can tell. I read an article by Dean Koontz in Writers’ Digest some years ago (there’s that phrase again!) in which he said the only thing writers really have to sell – or perhaps, the best thing they have to sell – is their unique vision. He used himself as an example. He started out writing run-of-the-mill science fiction novels, but he eventually shifted to writing his combo of horror/suspense/science fiction, and that’s when he started to have significant success in his career. It’s a simple transition to make. We all start out by imitating our favorite writer or by trying to figure out what’s most marketable and producing that. And trying to figure out your “unique vision” isn’t easy. It takes time, experimentation, exploration, and self-reflection. And it helps if you’ve gotten enough feedback on your work to start to get an idea of what elements readers particularly enjoy or respond most strongly to. I can write a lot of different things, but I’ve had the most success with my weird-ass horror novels, my action/character/humor- oriented urban fantasy, my media tie-in books, and my nonfiction books about writing horror. But it took time and my trying different types of writing to get there.

·       It’s all worth it. Every sacrifice I’ve made for my writing, every hardship I’ve had to deal with, every obstacle I’ve had to overcome, everything I had to learn, and every way I had to grow (sometimes painfully) for my writing has been worth it.

·       The most important thing to give a hero. I learned this from SF legend Lois McMaster Bujold, a couple decades ago when we were in the same writing group. “What’s the most important thing to give a hero? Pockets.” This is one of the wisest pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

These aren’t all the lessons I’ve learned in forty-two years, of course. I actually had a number of other items on my original list for this blog entry, but it was getting so long, I trimmed it down. But these are some of the most important, and the ones that I hope will be most useful to you.

Now go learn more lessons, and when the time comes, pass them on.


The Atrocity Engine is Unleashed Upon the World!

My horror/urban fantasy novel, The Atrocity Engine, was released this week, and so far, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. It’s the first volume in the Custodians of the Cosmos series, and the other two – Book of Madness and The Desolation War – will be released on July 30th and October 30th respectively.


Creatures from dark dimensions infesting your home? Demonic beings trying to drive you insane? Alien gods attempting to destroy your universe?


Just call Maintenance.


This underpaid and overworked secret organization is dedicated to battling forces that seek to speed up Entropy and hasten the Omniverse’s inevitable death.


Neal Hudson is a twenty-year veteran of Maintenance. A surveyor who drives through the streets of Ash Creek, Ohio constantly scanning for the deadly energy known as Corruption. Since the death of his previous partner, Neal prefers to work alone, and he’s not happy when he’s assigned to mentor a rookie.


But they better learn to get along fast.


The Multitude, a group of godlike beings who seek to increase Entropy at every opportunity, are creating an Atrocity Engine. This foul magical device can destroy the Earth, and they don’t care how many innocent lives it takes to build it. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot!)


Just another day on the job. . .


“Waggoner offers a fresh variation on the trope of a covert agency combating evil in his blood-drenched Custodians of the Cosmos series opener.” – Publishers Weekly


“This gripping dark fantasy boasts an indelible cast and an unwavering pace.” – Kirkus Reviews


"THE ATROCITY ENGINE is a wild ride full of entertaining scenarios and scary monsters!" – Booklist


“THE ATROCITY ENGINE is a kick-ass cross-genre thrill ride of a novel!”– Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of CAVE 13 and NECROTEK


"This is edge-of-your-seat Horror Fantasy. It's as if Stephen King wrote MEN IN BLACK!" —Scott Sigler, #1 NYT Bestselling author of EARTHCORE


“Fast-paced, cleverly thought-through, and deeply unnerving in all the right places—urban horror fantasy with a decidedly creepy difference. Don't read it in the dark!” – Diane Duane, New York Times bestselling author of TALES OF THE FIVE: THE LIBRARIAN


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New Short Story Collection Up for Preorder


My eighth short story collection, Old Monsters Never Die, will be coming out from Winding Road Stories on May 28th. It collects stories I wrote from 2017 to 2019.

From the mind of four-time Bram Stoker Award winner Tim Waggoner comes 18 provocative tales of terror that explore the darkest corners of the human mind. This comprehensive collection concludes with an unforgettable metafictional story on what it takes to be a horror writer. With this carefully curated selection of short stories. discover why no matter how much we try, in our deepest subconscious, Old Monsters Never Die.

“Tim Waggoner is easily one of today’s best horror writers.” – Jonathan Maberry

“His style is very unique — evocative enough to stand quietly with Charles Grant but visceral enough to punch with Richard Laymon.” – Brian Keene

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StokerCon 2024. May 30th to June 2nd. San Diego, California.


In Your Write Mind. June 27th to June 30th. Greensburg, Pennsylvania.


IGW Genre Con. August 17th and August 18th. Huntington, West Virginia.