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Writing Horror

I'm wary offering advice to other writers. 

First of all I've got the whole imposter syndrome thing and whatever advice I give feels like a good way of revealing how little I know about anything. Second, what I've learned mostly relates to solving problems in my own writing. What advice does a dog have to offer to a duck on how to swim? 

Spiral Structure by Morgan Crooks (2017)
However, for Arisia 2018, I'll be participating on a panel of doing just that - giving advice to aspiring horror writers about writing horror.

So, what truths can I impart?

Some advice feels absolutely true, if a bit self-evident.

You must read. If you're trying to write horror then you must read horror. Not just one novel. Not just one author. You should make a sincere effort to read everything by everyone. The more recent the better. The classics are always going to be there, but if you want a sense of where your stories could fit, you need to see what is being published out there.

You must write. I do not think you have to write every single day or anything like that. You'll find a system that works for you. But I would suggest that the more you write the better. It is possible you are that one pristine genius who can regurgitate the next shining masterpiece of horror the first time you plop your butt in front of a blank screen. My experience suggests practice is important. So, write down your ideas. Finish whatever you start. Don't be afraid to write outside of your comfort zone. And even when the world has shown you how little interest they have in you or your writing, heroically refuse to stop. It's that simple.

You must reflect. Carve out some space to think about what you read and what you write. Did you really like a book? Why? What specifically did the writer do to make you enjoy the work? Did you hate a short story in "Nightmare" or "Clarkesworld" Why? If you hated it so much, why do you think it got published? Someone liked it, what about it interested an editor?

Beyond those simple prescriptions, I've a few other thoughts about horror writing specifically. I'm not sure if these are universally true but they do help me remain focused while writing horror stories.

First off, be specific. I'd embrace the idea that horror fiction is about specific people facing specific problems. Nothing destroys the effect of horror more quickly than generic characters facing some generic horror. To borrow a piece of advice Kelly Robson reports receiving from the famous editor Steve Barnes: if you have a character, think of the worst problem for them to face. If you have a problem, think of a character least prepared to face that problem. Go. As an example I'd give Laird Barron's excellent short story "Proboscis" about a washed-out actor named Ray and the unseen things hunting for him. It is own particular strain of isolation mixed semi-fame that draws in the monsters and it's own failures as a person that make him particularly susceptible to them.

Second, strive for empathy. Be a fan of your characters, even the terrible ones. Understand that decent people make horrible mistakes and the worst horrors stem from honorable intentions. Tom Deady's "Pink Balloon," (available in the "Hardened Hearts" anthology, centers a family tragedy with supernatural undertones on a single plausible character. Whether he deserves the punishment or not, the reader is invested in Dave, willing to follow along with the consequences of his decision.

Play fair. If you're writing a horror story clue the readers in on that fact. You're not spoiling them; you're telling them to pay attention because they're going to encounter unpleasantness. You know that feeling of "Don't go in there!" That's not a bad thing. You want your readers aware, on some level, that they are watching a car crash play out. I'd point to Gwendolyn Kiste's "40 Ways to Leave your Monster Lover," (also in "Hardened Hearts") as an example of a writer supplying exactly what a reader needs to know. Written in second person, a tricky POV, Kiste describes at each step along the way what the character could have done to avoid the onrushing collision.

Establish isolation. Whatever the peril is, it's always worse when you think you're facing it alone. This doesn't have to be physical isolation. It could be a societal situation preventing the protagonist from getting help. In "Rawhead" for example, Hillary Monahan describes a protagonist aware she needs to make a terrible choice on her own, that bringing in other people will simply result in her own son's death.

Survival is not a reward. Think Ripley's PTSD regarding the xenomorphs in "Aliens." Facing something uncanny is a trauma and traumas cannot be undone by simple survival. In my own story, "Implicate Order," I endeavored to leave the reader with the impression that the main character was not going to be "okay" simply by virtue of surviving. The thing that almost killed him is going to linger in his dreams and imagination for a long, long time.

To conclude, everything in the post was written with the intention of helping aspiring writers. If it meets that aim and helps you solve a problem in your writing, then I'm glad. On the other hand, please don't allow anything I've written here to dissuade you from telling a story in your own way. Rules are meant to be broken.


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