Writing Horror: Lessons in not sucking

“Why does this suck?” is a question I’m asking myself a lot these days. I’ve got two projects going simultaneously, because trying to control either is impossible, and trying to contain myself is worse. I’m working on a rewrite of Wake the Dead, and have simultaneously started writing the second book in the series at the same time.*

To be clear: it’s not the process of writing two things at once that sucks. This is the question I’ve posed to myself whenever a character does or says something stupid, or I discover that something doesn’t fit the way it ought to.

I’ve come up with a few answers for this question as I’m machete-ing my way through the draft and reconfiguring the identities of a couple of key players at the onset. Th simple answers are tied to what I want:

  • A stronger development of the character arcs
  • More drama, more danger, more of the unknown sitting just outside of the peripheral vision
  • This is horror, for eff’s sakes, and when I write horror, I don’t want to make my reader chuckle at the sheer idiocy of what’s happening on the page unless I intended it.

Let me backtrack a bit, because I think it’s fair that I clarify the following:

“Horror” means something different to everyone. The reaction I’ve encountered the most (no joke — this happens a lot) when confessing that I write the dark stuff, is that the popular tendency is to assume I’m drawing inspiration from the yuck-yuck classics for inspiration: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw, hack and slash, don’t go in the basement, don’t split up, he’s not really dead, etc.

Ten by Gretchen McNeilGuys, if you know of anyone who’s written a horror novel that has sustainable gore and suspense, that fits into the framework of any of the classics, that didn’t make you burst your gut laughing the whole way through, I’d really like to read it. This is not to say it hasn’t been done successfully: Gretchen McNeil grabbed and smashed a classic scenario of isolating a group of teenagers on an island in Ten, killing them off one at a time, and it was done well, but while I can watch a bunch of movies in serial with this sort of scenario, I definitely don’t want to read ten books in a row about it. I definitely don’t have the inclination to write one myself. Not yet, anyhow.

To me, these films are hilarious, but it doesn’t fall within the realm of my interests to create a new take on it. I don’t love it that much. My investment in the spoopy is a little too hard-worn at this point to disengage myself from the monsters, the beasties, the undulating knot of bad stuff found in human beings. My supernatural investments are so tried and true that I can’t get my claws out of the meat of it without losing both hands. If you follow me.

They’re not the sum total of the genre. They’re just the first and most recognizable layer of the cake.

What constitutes “good” horror is relative and based on personal preference. I went into writing these books with the following aspiration (it’s painted in blood on my wall as a reminder):

Horror should instil a feeling on unease in the reader. It should inspire a feeling of being unsettled. It should be dark fiction at it’s core, but be dappled with the weight of dread in key places.

For me, this works. Ellen Datlow divides dark fiction and horror with a similar mandate, but she’s clarified her criteria as such:

To me it’s the genre of unease. It makes me feel really uneasy and it gives me kind of a creepy feeling. It can border on wanting to look away, it can border on disgust—but that’s a type of horror.

Horror can be any genre. There’s science fiction horror, there’s dark fantasy that’s really really dark, there can be mysteries that converge on horror. It depends on how far you want to go down the path of darkness. Science fiction is about the future, but horror can be about any period of time. As Doug Winter said, it’s your emotional response to the material. So I think it’s in the perception of the reader if something is horror or not.

In my mind, I subconsciously create a separation between dark fantasy and horror as I’m reading. I’ll think, “I’m not going to take this for the Best of the Year because I really like it but the story just isn’t quite dark enough for my purposes.” It’s a question of degree—my personal reaction to the material. I’m deep into working on my Best of the Year, so I’m reading a lot right now and as I read something I constantly judge the material—not just “do I like it” or “is it a good story” but “is it dark enough for me and my readers?” Is it hitting the buttons that makes me squirm and think, “ooh this is really creepy?” Is it making me uncomfortable?

– Ellen Datlow, in Nightmare Magazine

For me and my characters, I aim to translate what it means in a way that the reader can understand and relate. This takes a believable character first and foremost, and an implausible but compelling scenario. Darkness might feel like a small space, or something unending that stretches out forever. My characters might feel lost in it. She might think of it like space; like dark matter or depression; like it has a certain gravity.

True darkness has a feeling of despair sitting behind it. That there’s no way out. That you’re trapped. It’s a moment of self-doubt that polarizes everything you know and inverses it so that anything is possible. That there’s something waiting for you. That there’s something watching you just outside of your reach.

You can make the choice: you either shrink against it and hide, hoping it goes away, or you can stumble blindly into it and put yourself into danger. I ran into a wall once in a hotel room because my (now) ex shut the light off too soon, and my lizard brain didn’t remember that there was a wall between me and the bed and I ran straight into it. I collapsed onto the floor, clutching my head and howling as the lights came on. Dumb panic. Dumb panic that recalls the baser animal instinct of fight or flight.

Elsewise, I want to pull the covers up to my chin.

A couple of things I’ve learned the hard way have helped me along so far. Granted, this is all trial and error, what works for me may not work for you, etc, but since these are my hard lessons that have proven effective, I hope they’ll help you step out of your head bubble and get to the grit.

 

A few tips on writing horror, being sympathetic, and getting back to the spoopy shit.

This is in no way exhaustive. The more I learn, the more I share. The more I make mistakes, the more I holler. The only real advice I can ever offer anyone is to write as honestly as you can even if you’re lying through your teeth. Remember what makes us human while the monsters are knocking at the door at night too. Onward:

 

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Acknowledge what wakes you up in the middle of the night

Do your best to transcribe it, even and especially while your heart’s still pounding and you’re face-first in the damp left on your pillow. Do remember how fear made you feel: do find new ways to describe dread, despair, the constrictions of feeling trapped, panicked — the stimuli that brought you there is half of what you need to deal with; the difficulty is often trying to bring a similar, mutual understanding of the experience out in your reader.

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Revel it in, wallow in the gore

While its not advisable to go out an eviscerate someone, I’ve sliced my fingers enough while chopping tomatoes to know what that first sliver feels like. Use it. Even and especially when it makes you a little sick to your stomach. Finish the scene. Finish the chapter. See it through to the end. Don’t skimp on the re-read even if you’re afraid. (And remember, when you do reread, that came out of your noggin. Don’t worry about what mom and dad will say later on. Worry about what mom and dad will say when they say it. Or they look at you funny.)

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Be critical when you’re reading other people’s fiction

Think about why certain things work, how they built up to a particular moment, and whether or not it fails. Probably record your impressions someplace. I fail at doing this too often, but when I succeed, I’m using DayOne. Its on my phone, my tablet, and my laptop, and it’s all tagged and organized so I can get to it later when I’m stuck or I need a swift kick in the inspiration department.

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Sentence structure is a crapshoot experiment

Play with pacing, trim your words down with things get heavy, and read House of Leaves if you want a post-modern revelation into “anything is possible” when it comes to structure and screwing with the reader. Literally, there are no rules that are not worth breaking.

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Forget about your critique workshop, your end goals of publication, but remember who you wrote it for

I find myself worrying a little too much if the way its written (the language, the subject matter, the rapid rate of decay experienced by these characters and the manner in which it happens) will make these books better suited for an older audience. Then I take a pause. Make a cup of tea. Walk around a bit while gibbering haplessly to the voices in my head that tell me things should be done differently. And come back to the manuscript with the understanding that I am the fussiest, most hyper-critical, and most difficult reader to please to begin with — if I am delighted and surprised at the results of my efforts, chances are, the person these books are meant for at the end of the day will be too.

 

*”The second book” does indeed have a title, but I’m refraining from using it anywhere as it is a pretty good indicator of where things are going following the end of Wake the Dead. Let’s just call it “that other thing I’m writing” from now on. Easier.

 

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