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All the things I wish I’d known as a beginner horror writer

Want to write horror? Read this first.

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I started writing seriously, with an aim toward making it my career, almost 40 years ago. I explored several genres – science fiction, fantasy, literary, mystery, and horror – before eventually focusing on the latter. It was inevitable, I suppose. Horror was my first love, after all, and I’d been obsessed with monsters and all things dark and wonderful since childhood. In my late 20s, during the first tentative days of social media, I started to make connections with other horror writers, and I quickly learned that the adage “pay it forward” wasn’t simply a saying in the horror community – it was one of its bedrock principles. But despite being the beneficiary of experienced writers’ advice, I still found there was a lot I didn’t know and had to discover the hard way. So, in the horror community’s tradition of paying forward, and with the aim of decreasing your learning curve, I’d like to talk about some things I’d wished I’d known when I was starting out as a fledgling horror writer.

Don’t be afraid to write horror.

I was reluctant to commit to writing horror when I started out, especially after the collapse of the ’80s horror boom. (More on this later.) Science fiction and fantasy seemed like more respectable genres and certainly more marketable at that time. I played around with horror short stories now and then, submitted them to small-press magazines, and even had a few accepted. But I didn’t even contemplate trying my hand at a horror novel. Who would publish it? What agent would bother to take a look at it? But horror was where my heart was, and even as I worked on other kinds of novels, I kept returning to the genre I loved. I published more stories and began to get some positive feedback from readers, and this finally encouraged me to at last say to hell with the market and write what I felt called to write. My first horror novel was called The Harmony Society, which came out from a small-press publisher in 2003, and I haven’t looked back since.

I made the mistake of listening to all the advice I heard against writing horror. I read many articles about how horror was dead as a market, and I once had a pitch meeting with a small-press horror publisher at a World Horror Convention, who began by telling me that “Horror is crap right now.” (Which made me wonder why she was bothering to take pitches at the con in the first place.) A former agent of mine once told me that writers should write what burns in their gut because that will produce your best fiction – and your best fiction is what will have the most chance to be successful. But I listened to all the other voices telling me to stay away from horror, and it took me a while to stop listening to them and start listening to my gut. It was a lesson I wish I’d learned much earlier.

Horror is a rich field. Know what’s come before.

As a kid, I devoured horror comics and watched every horror movie I could find on television (heavily edited in those pre-VCR days). I read Salem’s Lot in seventh grade, just as Stephen King was beginning his career, and it blew me away. King’s success ushered in the horror boom of the 1980s, and every publisher was determined to cash in on the public’s appetite for the genre. Horror novels flooded bookstore shelves, and most were stories based on well-worn tropes – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demonic possession, evil children – with black covers usually featuring a skeleton on the front. Most of the comics and books I read followed in the gothic horror tradition, and I had no idea that there was anything else to horror. My earliest attempts at horror fiction were Tales from the Crypt-style stories, with little characterization or originality. As the years passed, I learned more about the history of horror and discovered some of its best practitioners – authors like Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, and Dennis Etchison – as well as Thomas F. Monteleone’s essential Borderlands series of anthologies. I gained a deeper understanding of the horror field and its possibilities, as well as what type of stories had been done to death.

Fully understanding a genre – its past, its present, and where it’s going – can keep you from reinventing the wheel or unwittingly recycling lifeless clichés. I advise you to read widely in the genre, to sample different authors, styles, and approaches to horror. And if you want a quick education, hop on the internet and do a search on clichés in horror. You’ll find many lists of ideas, themes, and story types that are overworked and best avoided (unless you purposely want to put a new spin on them).

Horror is a marketable genre, but not always in the mainstream press.

After the death of the ’80s boom, the horror market was almost nonexistent. Horror writers began calling their work supernatural thrillers, dark suspense, or dark fantasy – anything to avoid the dreaded H word. Again, I was discouraged from writing horror because of its perceived unmarketability. But eventually, I came to understand that there’s an ebb and flow to horror’s popularity – only it’s often driven by film and TV rather than book publishing trends. Right now, thankfully, the genre is currently on an upswing in publishing, thanks to the popularity and positive critical response to films like Get Out, Midsommar, and Parasite, so it’s a good time to be a horror writer. But regardless of mainstream publishing’s fickle attitude toward the genre, the small press is the dark beating heart of horror. It’s always there, putting out good stuff, and, of course, these days indie publishing allows writers to reach readers directly. Modern horror writers have a lot of options on how to get their work in the hands of readers, meaning that despite the whims of publishing, horror really is very marketable, and always will be.

People often equate horror fiction with cheap, exploitative horror films.

Growing up as a horror fan, I was well aware that not everyone loved the genre as much as I did, but people in general seemed to accept and enjoy horror, at least in terms of film, well enough. But after the ’80s boom, and the rise of slasher films like the Friday the 13th series, people’s attitude toward horror changed. They began to equate all horror with slasher films, and they think that’s what we write. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good slasher film, but much of the public thinks horror fiction consists solely of stories about meaningless slaughter. There can be a dismissiveness toward horror that, in a way, is worse than disdain. This attitude can make it difficult to explain our work to non-horror fans, which in turn makes it harder to broaden our audience. If you want to reach a wider audience, you might need to make some compromises in the type of horror you write, so it’s more palatable for mass consumption. But keep in mind that for every reader who’s dismissive of horror, there’s another out there who loves it just as much as you do.

Be yourself – write from your own fears, experiences, and observations.

My first horror stories were influenced by fiction and film that I’d consumed. Simple justice/revenge tales, deadly encounters with the unknown tales, predator-prey tales. It wasn’t until I investigated my own fears and experiences in a quest to find my stories that I began to write “Tim Waggoner” stories. Effective horror is personal in that it comes from an individual imagination, not a generic one. We get to the universal through the particular. Fears we all have – fear of failure, abandonment, injury, sickness, death – don’t make effective stories in and of themselves until they’re embodied in a specific situation. Several years back, I dropped my youngest daughter off at middle school. On the way home, I saw a girl walking on the sidewalk who was dressed similarly to my daughter, and for an instant, I thought it was her. How could she have gotten there? What was she doing? I told myself it was my imagination and kept on driving. But later, I used this experience to write a story called “For She is Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” in which a father in my situation discovers the girl he sees on the sidewalk really is his daughter, and after stopping to confront her, he learns she’s much more than just his “little girl.” The experience I had wasn’t scary in the traditional sense, but the implications of it – that the rules of reality might not be as I thought they were, that I didn’t know my daughter as well as I thought I did, that she had her own power over which I had no control – were deeply frightening to me. Go beyond simple, easy fears in your horror fiction, and you’ll produce some awesomely creepy work that will get under your readers’ skin in the best way possible.

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Horror isn’t about monsters.

Monsters of one sort or another are the most obvious element of horror, especially in movies. But monsters are nothing by themselves. They are only impactful when shown through the viewpoint of a protagonist. Horror is about how characters react to monsters, to friends and family becoming monsters, to society becoming a monster, to themselves becoming a monster, etc. Horror, like all good fiction, is about character, and my earliest stories featured cardboard cutout characters who existed solely to give the monstrous force (whatever it might be) victims to dispatch, what acclaimed author Gary A. Braunbeck refers to as “getting slurped by the glop.” It was only when I came to understand that I wasn’t writing about monsters but the experience of someone confronting a monstrous force that my stories began to truly come alive.

Horror is internal rather than external.

Because so many of us, even those of us who read a lot, have watched so many films, we come to horror with an outside observer’s perspective. We see the emotion of horror displayed by actors outwardly. But horror happens within characters. That internal experience is the prime element of a good horror story, and that’s where a writer’s focus should be. Again, we’re writing about someone’s experience of encountering something horrific, not merely describing events as if we’re a passive viewer watching them take place on a movie screen.

The image is important, but it isn’t everything.

When I first started writing horror, I came up with an image, and the story was primarily a build-up to that image, almost like an introduction/artist’s statement to a painting. And then the decaying corpse shuffled toward him… This type of image-is-all story is probably inspired by experiencing visual horror in comics, movies, and TV shows. But words can never have the same impact as an image and vice versa. An image by itself is empty and hollow. And why end with a cool image? Consider starting with it and developing your story from there. For example, I once saw an image in my mind of a woman cradling her dead child in the middle of the street during a blood-like crimson rain. I tried to come up with a story to fit the image, one where circumstances would lead to this image. I did eventually finish a story based on this inspiration, but I didn’t feel like the story did the visual image justice because everything that preceded it was merely a lackluster lead-up to the image. So I used the basic concept – a woman and her child being drenched by a blood rain – and used it as the beginning of a new, separate story called “Long Way Home.” This one was also published in an anthology, and it’s one of my favorites.

Horror, like all fiction, needs an emotional core.

Impactful fiction has an emotional core that provides for developed characters, deeper reader engagement, and reader catharsis. It’s just as important for horror, if not more so, because of horror’s internal nature. Writing with a close identification with a character’s viewpoint – depicting their experience of the horror – is one way to develop an emotional core. Another is to give your characters some kind of personal connection to the horror. Take a story like King’s “Children of the Corn,” in which a couple encounter a strange murderous pagan cult of children during a cross-country drive. The plot in itself is terrifying, but the characters have no personal connection to the cult. It’s merely something they encounter during their journey. In comparison, look to Shirley Jackson’s haunting “The Lottery” – which is also about a pagan cult. In this classic story, the cult isn’t an external force to be feared but rather an internal, intrinsic force within the townspeople’s community.  The characters are all participants in the Lottery and have been all their lives. It’s part of their culture, their identity. In the movie Poltergeist, ghostly forces haunt a suburban family’s home, but the family’s personal connection to events deepens when the youngest daughter, Carol Anne, becomes trapped inside a spiritual dimension adjacent to their home, and her parents must rescue her. The more you can connect your characters to the horror in your stories, the stronger your fiction will be.

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If you’re going to use a trope, do something different with it.

Horror is about fear of the unknown, and well-worn tropes are the very definition of known. The haunted house. The mad scientist. The vampire. The serial killer. Every time readers encounter these tropes, they become more familiar with them, and each time the tropes lose more of their power. If you want to use old tropes, you need to come up with new spins/twists on them. I wish I’d learned this earlier. My first (unpublishable) horror stories featured ghosts seeking revenge on their murderers, or men who picked up women in bars only to learn that – gasp! – they’re actually vampires (a horror cliché known as “The Jaws of Sex”). Breathing new life into old tropes isn’t difficult. It just takes a little thought. You can reverse a trope. Instead of a haunted house, how about a house that is looking to create ghosts to haunt it? Instead of a ghost seeking to kill the person responsible for its death, what if a ghost works to keep its murderer alive – forever – denying him or her passage into the afterlife? You can also disguise a trope, in essence dressing it up in new clothes. Jason Voorhees is a reimagined grim reaper (a silent being wearing a mask resembling a skull, wielding a scythe-like object, coming to deal death to us all), and Hannibal Lecter is a modern-day Dracula (a veneer of sophistication hiding a monster who feeds on humans).

How you write a story is the story.

Writers don’t tell readers stories. We give them tools so that they can tell a story to themselves. Far too many beginners write bare-bones outlines that are more like scripts. These stories don’t engage the imagination. They’re just words on a page with no life to them. They communicate the simple “this happens, then this happens” of a basic narrative, but don’t give readers enough detail to create a fully fleshed-out fictional reality in their minds. Horror is created by style, by the way we present our stories, and by the words we use. Make your fiction vivid by employing a close point of view and providing effective details. Use the five senses. Depict your character’s thoughts and feelings, emotional and physical reactions. Take your time to build suspense instead of merely stating “this happened, then that happened.” Writing fiction is like composing a piece of music that we give to readers to play using the instrument of their imagination. Give your readers the very best “music” you’re capable of composing.

Don’t be transgressive simply for its own sake.

Years back, I had an adult student in one of my creative writing classes. Every story he wrote had only one goal: to shock the reader. These stories were always short, between 500 and 1,000 words, and involved various disturbing sexual and violent elements. Whenever someone would read one of his stories, this student would sit and wait for them to get to the gross part, and when they’d make a face or utter a sound of disgust, he would laugh with delight. I wasn’t much different when I first started writing horror. I thought my stories needed to be edgy and push the envelope (or what I imagined was pushing the envelope). I thought truly effective horror had to drill down deep into readers’ minds and genuinely disturb them, and this meant my earliest stories tended to be focused primarily on teeth and claws and blood and guts.

A lot of beginning horror writers go through this phase. We’re like comedians telling risqué (or downright filthy) jokes in order to get an immediate response from our audience. We don’t care what that response is just so long as there is a response. Writers who do the equivalent of this in their horror fiction think they’re bold and adventurous, going where no one else would dare to go. In reality, they’re like a child waving a dead lizard in another kid’s face just to make them recoil in disgust.

I’d be a hypocrite if I told you to avoid writing about violence and its effects. After all, one of my novels was nominated for a Splatterpunk Award (an accolade that honors superior achievement in extreme horror). What I am saying is that you don’t want your stories to be mere torture porn, spilling blood all over the page for no other reason than to shock or titillate your readers. It’s our duty to write responsibly about violence and death. Jack Ketchum was a master of writing extreme horror that is, above all else, good fiction. Check out his classic novel The Girl Next Door. It’s an emotionally rough read but an essential one in the field. You don’t need to use extreme elements unless you want to, however. They’re not required in horror. But if you do wish to use them, keep this in mind: Horror should be more than a psychological endurance test for readers. Readers want to enjoy stories, not be traumatized by them.

Horror has a history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism.

Women have been depicted as victims – and only victims – in a lot of horror fiction and film. Think of the iconic image of Janet Leigh’s screaming face as she’s attacked in the shower in the movie Psycho. Non-white people were depicted as evil cultists or simply as lesser humans in much of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, and in the film Deep Blue Sea, there’s a running gag that’s commentary on how often the single Black character in a horror story is always the first to die in a horror movie. Physical differences and disabilities have been presented as monstrous in a great deal of horror. Witness any number of human monsters, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as dozens of villains in Disney films, many of whom are disabled somehow or who don’t match society’s standards for physical beauty (but, of course, the heroes do). Often LGBTQ people have been portrayed as deviant/monstrous, such as the lesbian vampire in Carmilla or the seemingly trans character Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. I had absolutely no awareness of these issues when I began writing in my late teens, but (hopefully) I’ve evolved as a person in the last 40 years and am more sensitive to them now and more aware of the damage they could do to potential readers. Part of the importance of knowing the history of horror is not just knowing which tropes have been done before, but also what harm has been done to marginalized communities. We want to scare horror readers but never hurt them by perpetuating outdated and hurtful stereotypes in our fiction. Hiring sensitivity readers can help ensure that your work isn’t harmful to people outside your identity.

Non-horror people will think you’re weird (or even dangerous).

And some of them will be disappointed when you aren’t. They want to brush up against darkness, and that includes you as well as your fiction. People can’t understand how someone can simply imagine the kind of stuff we do. We must write from experience, right? Scary experience!

A gentleman once emailed me in the hope that I’d settle an argument he’d had with his wife. He’d read one of my novels, and he’d gotten into a discussion with his wife about where horror writers get their ideas. He believed we had to write from experience, and he wanted to know if that’s what I did. I replied with the following message: If I did some of the things my characters do, I’d either be insane or in prison – or both. Some people might think you’re sick and perhaps even dangerous. A woman in Florida once read my novel Pandora Drive. It disturbed her a great deal (which makes me wonder why she continued reading it), and when she saw in my bio that I was a college teacher, she wrote a letter to the police in my town begging them to investigate me because anyone who wrote the kind of stories I did must be a danger to my students. The police called my dean to ask if I was indeed dangerous, the dean laughed, and that was the end of that. People may look at you funny when they find out what you write. They may ask you when you’re going to start writing real fiction. (What they really mean is normal fiction.) They may be reluctant to talk to you altogether or even afraid to. Try not to be hurt or offended by these things. The poor dears can’t help themselves.

And the last thing I wished I’d known when I was starting out . . .

Horror has a wonderfully supportive community.

In the early days of social media, a lot of writers hung out on online message boards such as CompuServe or the GEnie network. I joined GEnie, and I was able to interact with writers far more experienced and accomplished than I was. None of them ever treated me as if I didn’t belong or wasn’t worth their time. I didn’t go to my first horror convention until I was in my 30s, and when I did, I discovered horror folks were just as kind and welcoming in person as they were online. As I said at the beginning: the notion of “pay it forward” is real in horror. The older generation mentors the younger. We’re all weird together. We know what it’s like to be outsiders. We get each other.

The horror community isn’t perfect, of course. It can be cliquish, and it hasn’t always been inclusive. We’re working on that, and while I’ve seen great strides in the last 30 or so years, we still have a way to go. But we’re getting there. So join the Horror Writers Association, follow your favorite horror writers on social media, interact with them, ask questions, go to horror conventions if possible. Not only will we be happy to see you, we need you in order to keep the horror field vital and alive (or undead, if you prefer).

My career in horror has been a rich and rewarding one. In horror, I’ve found artistic fulfillment, but more than that, I’ve found a home, a tribe, a life.

And you can too.

—Bram Stoker Award-winning author Tim Waggoner has published more than 50 novels and seven collections of short stories. He writes original horror and dark fantasy, as well as media tie-ins, and he’s recently released a book on writing horror fiction called Writing in the Dark.

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