Tag Archives: writing advice

Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

I’ve noticed a number of authors putting their own spin on Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules for writing, because nothing deepens a creator’s appreciation for their beloved medium than a set of strict limitations. Well worry not dear parishioners for the good reverend Drew has been to the mountain and he’s come down with his very own commandments for writing.

Screw the Noun, Do the Verb

Austin Kleon once wrote “Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”

Trust me, introducing yourself as a writer is an invitation for embarrassment until you’ve gotten something published. For every minute you spend talking about your writing you need to spend an hour with your ass in the chair actually doing the work.

Trick yourself into writing

Day jobs can be emotionally exhausting leaving you with only so much creative energy to write with. I’ve found the easiest way to play double duty is to trick myself into thinking I’m not. I do this by taking all the formality out of my process. I make do without a silent writing room, a bottle of wine, or a fixed amount of time.

I’ve tapped out a short story on the bus by convincing myself it was going off the rails so I might as well sputter out with it. After a few edits it turned into something I really liked. I’ve dictated descriptions of creepy environments as I’ve walked through them. I’ve written dialogue on dance floors.

Inspiration doesn’t always strike under controlled conditions. (It does the more you put yourself in the conditions, but you get my point.)

Wait to tell people you’re writing a novel

First drafts are fragile things, especially when you’re laying the foundation. It’s good to be excited about your blueprint, but resist the urge to share that vision too soon. Pitch to the wrong person and that castle you’re building will fall apart like a house of cards.

Try to approach writing a novel like quitting smoking. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing until you’re too far into the process to turn back. You’ll feel less ashamed if you falter and friends will take you far more seriously if you see it through.

Don’t give anyone other than your editor veto power

I’m a horror author in that I write supernatural fantasies not slasher-centric torture porn. That distinction might seem toothless, but aspects of my subgenre get me into trouble with my politically correct peers. Horror authors are shameless for mining other people’s strongly held religious beliefs for monsters, misrepresenting easily accessible information with a shroud of mysticism. Yeah, we’re probably the reason that Gypsies are still associated with curses, or that nature loving neo pagans are mistaken for devil worshipers, or that Voodoo dolls have anything to do with true Haitian Voodoo. Sorry. Our bad.

As new school horror writer I’m trying to be as progressive as possible. Historically if I felt iffy about an aspect of my stories I’d survey my friends. What I found was that the dismissive blanket term “problematic” came up when people had a bad feeling about a pitch but didn’t know how to put it into words.

Others were better at elaborating what was off about an idea, proposing alternatives and suggesting research avenues for me to pursue. When you ask for people’s opinions it’s on you to critically consider them, just don’t grant everyone veto power over your writing or you won’t dare write anything.

There are two types of feedback to consider

The first type is emotionally reactive feedback like, “This is garbage” which tells you nothing. Every pore of the Internet is clogged with emotionally reactive “feedback.” Trolling, name-calling, and dismissive blanket terms are the kinds of feedback worth ignoring.

Feedback worth considering comes in a longer form from people with the credentials to recognize what you were going for and the know how to fix it. It’s constructive.

Recycle your darlings

You’ve heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” As an editor you’ve got to be merciless, gutting your some of your favorite b-plots to keep the a-plot flowing. That said, don’t just highlight and hit DELETE, not when it’s an entire subplot that’s got to go. COPY and PASTE that into another document so that one day it may be recycled into something else.

Repurpose your fanfiction into original works

Face it. As an unknown author no one is going to license shit to. Mulder and Scully won’t be yours to order around. The mayor of Silent Hill isn’t giving you the keys to the city, and a new Highlandermovie is already in development rendering your fanfiction irrelevant.

It’s fun to fantasize in established universes because all the world-building and characterization has been done for you. All you have to do is come up with the situation. If you find yourself visiting someone else’s intellectual property in your mind I urge you to transpose your original situations into something that’s yours to copyright.

E.L. James did it with her Twilight fanfiction and look where that got here. (Not my favorite example, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.)

Be mindful of your soundtrack

Orchestral film scores that are too emotionally engaging have a way of tricking me into thinking I’m writing more effective scenes than I am. My hero’s emotional revelation might seem melodramatic without the soundtrack.

Find a soundtrack that leaves room for your imagination. I like dark wave synthesizer film scores and noir piano jazz.  Both genres fit the tone of my writing and both are slow and repetitive enough to fade into the background when I need them to.

Creating the perfect playlist can devolve into another distraction from your writing. Case in point: the playlist for my first novel is a nonstop month of instrumental music. These days I usually go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Spotify page and hit PLAY.

Hold something back

I feed too much of my art into the gapping maw of the Internet with its insatiable appetite for fresh content. I want people to check out my books, but I’ve found the only way to get them to look in my direction is to post something on the blog. Sometimes that’s an on brand article and sometimes it’s a short story I probably should’ve sold to somebody. I’ve given too much of myself away for the short-term benefit of a few measly clicks.

It’s gratifying to get an immediate reaction from something you’ve written. Try finding that gratification offline. Find a writer’s workshop or pass printed copies to friends.

Your writing should be a collaboration with your readers

Leave room in every story for your reader to make a contribution. You don’t need to play costume designer by describing every stitch of clothing on your characters. Give a partial description, like an idea of the character’s fashion sense. Leave it to the reader to choose the garments. Describe your settings to a point, but leave some abstractions for readers to fill in. You can describe the look on a character’s face without explaining the meaning behind each micro expression.

If your writing is entertaining readers will want to suss out the subtext and add their own meaning. So let them. Continue reading Drew Chial’s 10 Rules for Writing

Getting Lit with Leza: Drew Chial Interview

Here’s a link to an interview I did for the Get Lit with Leza podcast.

As an interviewer Leza has a talent for drawing out honed artistic statements and intimate details from her guests. She effortlessly navigates the professional, the personal, and in this case the paranormal.

We discuss the sleep paralysis I experienced throughout my childhood, the shadow demons looming at the foot of my bed and how I tried to cry out in terror. I never thought I’d get tipsy and joke about it all these years later. It was strangely fun deconstructing the neuroscience behind waking hallucinations with Leza as we unpacked the archetypes that make our minds see demons. Continue reading Getting Lit with Leza: Drew Chial Interview

How Not to Promote Your Novel to Strangers

This is one of those opposite day posts (with a little too much truth revealed in jest). There’s a note to myself: STOP DOING THESE THINGS and some good advice in between the lines. Writers ought to get a laugh out of it.

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In this age of hyper capitalism it’s important for salespeople to always be closing, influencers to always be networking, and authors to always be pitching.

If you’re a writer I can only assume you know all that already and that you’ve had a lot of success, naturally, of course you have. Print is more alive than ever and everybody reads all the time.

If you’ve taken the time to put words on paper then you’re probably racking money into your front door, but you know what they say, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Sometimes don’t you wish you had a little less “problems?” Don’t you wish your novels were just a wee bit less successful? Don’t you wish the people you meet on the street were a little less interested in what you’re working on now?

Well, if you’re looking to turn your good fortune down a notch than you’ve come to the right place. Here is my strategy for making sure your writing connects with no one. Follow these steps and you’ll be riding a wave back to that sweet sweet obscurity you crave.

PITCH IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME

Pitch your cerebral introspective hero’s journey in places where people don’t go to be cerebral or introspective like karaoke bars, trivia nights, and dance halls. Watch young lovers give out their numbers while you hand out links to places readers can preorder.

Try out your material on every captive audience. It doesn’t matter if they’re a barback washing the counter or a police officer taking your prints. They’ve got ears, put them work.

If your Uber rider rating is too high make it a point of pitching to every driver.

Pitch your story to clerks as lines build up behind you.

THROW PITCHES AT THE WALL HOPING ONE STICKS

Rehearse your elevator pitch until you’re certain you can nail it in fewer than three floors. Give all the major story beats a room in your memory palace and charge down that hall at full speed. Use finely tuned phrases with evocative language to encompass your plot points. Relish in your success when you wow a strange so much that they call a friend over. Then find yourself muddling the retelling because you’re concentrating too hard on trying to make it sound organic. Take your time improvising your elevator pitch like you’re riding the lift up to a space shuttle. When you realize you’re loosing your audience jump ahead to an out of context spoiler that while indeed is fascinating, completely ruins the story you’re trying to tell.

When it’s clear that this whole encounter has been socially awkward and your new friends could use an exit undermine your pitch by saying, “Well horror nerds will get it. It’s really for them.” Openly acknowledging that you’ve wasted everyone’s time.

BECOME YOUR BRAND IN THE REAL WORLD TOO

Social media personalities struggle with portraying themselves as relatable, down to earth, authentic individuals and being their actual true down and dirty selves. They work at honing a realistic personality that’s consumable without coming across as calculated and political. Yet the person we’re seeing in those punchy quick-cut YouTube videos is really just for show. It’s a brand.

In the real world writers are more than the niche genre enthusiasts they portray themselves as online, but if your aim is to NOT PROMOTE your novel then you have to be your brand full time so as to alienate anyone for whom you might make a genuine connection.

A great way to do this is to shoehorn book blurbs into otherwise organic conversations. When friends are talking about a film with a similar subject interject how your story does things a little different. Turn their informal chats into pitch meetings. When they share paranormal encounters hijack their breezy banter and give a sales presentations. When it becomes abundantly clear that someone you have a crush on isn’t reciprocating switch from flirting to networking on a dime. If you can’t make a connection then make a conversion.

TURN EVERY CONVERSATION INTO A BAIT AND SWITCH

Pretend you’re fascinated by what someone does for a living. Get them going. Ask about their aspirations, their five-year plan, and how it fills their life with meaning. Keep asking questions about their career path only to veer off into a conversation about what it means for you to be an author, which is really what you wanted to talk about the all along.

A good conversation is like a game of catch, but you’re trying to have a bad one, so it ought to play more like a game of hot potato and then dodge ball, in that you let them speak for a moment before blitzing them with information they don’t want.

CHOOSE A SUBJECT THAT ISN’T APPROPIATE FOR ALL VENUES

Base your story on something you think of as a dated mythological figure, like say the devil, you know a character others still take deadly seriously. Go ahead and name your story after Satan and put his likeness on all your business cards. Hand them out with no concern over alienating anyone with religious convictions. Design your pentagram promotional materials next to a pair of recovering alcoholics while they discuss their higher power.

Pitch your nightmare-inducing story at your day job. Bring up the seedier aspects of the plot around customers and clients.

Replace your social media thumbnails with your cover art and make the creepy iconography your sole identity.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Anyone can become a bestselling author. Everyone has a dozen great novels in them and they’ll all more than likely be made into movies (and in most instances the characters will be played by actors chosen by the author). I know this. You know this, and yeah, sometimes all that success can be overwhelming, but if you follow the above tips then hopefully you’ll sell a little less and have more time for that sweet sweet self-loathing you crave. Continue reading How Not to Promote Your Novel to Strangers

5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

When struggling writer and paranormal podcaster Noelle Blackwood gets the opportunity to ghostwrite for a bestselling thriller author, it seems almost too good to be true. The only catch is that she has to stay at The Oralia hotel until she’s done. Method becomes madness as she falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of her own story and the demons it awakens. He Has Many Names is a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil story in the age of artistic desperation.

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WRITING FROM A FEMININE PERSPECTIVE TAKES NUANCE

In the first draft of He Has Many Namesmy editor wasn’t sure if the hero was a man or a woman. The protagonist was named Noelle but she spoke with the stock phrases one might find in a detective film. I’d just been writing a mystery and the lingo had rubbed off on Noelle.

When asked to make Noelle more feminine I didn’t want to emphasize what she was wearing or file her jagged edges down. Characteristics we identify as feminine like gentleness, tolerance, and sensitivity don’t fit Noelle. The Hollywood studio scene has hardened her. This doesn’t mean she’s stoic, like many women written by men, just that she’s tired embodying all those things people in her field consider feminine.

Leza Cantoral gave me great notes on Noelle’s voice. It helps having a female editor.

Noelle has traits that aren’t traditionally feminine in horror fiction (especially in films). She’s skeptical of the supernatural, ambitious to a fault, quick-witted, a tad catty, a bit jealous, and extremely resourceful.

SinceHe Has Many Namesis a story about storytelling from the perspective of a writer I thought it would be fun for Noelle to comment on what audiences expect from women in stories (especially in film). A producer once told Noelle she shouldn’t write herself into her own stories because she’s not very likeable. They want women to be sympathetic and vulnerable, but so resilient they never waste time whining or sulking. They want women to be gorgeous yet so modest as to be unaware of their beauty. They want women to be driven but not competitive.

I thought it’d be cool if Noelle acknowledged those contrasts before telling the audience she’s not going to write herself like that.

IF YOU PROMISE A DEVIL DELIVER ONE

The title He Has Many Namesis a direct reference to you-know-who.

Who has horns on his head?

Who has skin that’s very red?

Who has a beard on his face?

Who keeps souls in a case?

Horns on head, skin that’s red

Beard on his face, souls in a case

Must be Satan, must be Satan

Lord of the dark realm

In the first draft the entity haunting Noelle was something else entirely. I thought I was being clever setting up Satan and then hitting the audience with a sucker punch, but it was a let down. While the final draft retains many of its twists the true devil makes a grand entrance. Make no mistake Hell factors heavily into this story.

As much as I wanted to play with the audience’s expectations I forgot the “Chekhov’s gun” rule of storytelling: if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act it ought to go off in the second. In the same sense: if someone speaks of the devil in your first act the devil better rain brimstone down on everyone in the second.

CENTER EVERYTHING AROUND THE THEME

When I started writing He Has Many NamesI had a good concept: horror writer is sequestered in a haunted hotel room, but no clear theme, no thesis statement to leave readers with, no enlightenment to go with my entertainment.

The theme presented itself in the second draft (which was more of a reimagining than a mere edit).

He Has Many Names is about creators’ relationships with their audience. Be it a writer contemplating what horror readers are looking for or a devil pondering the quality of worship their reputation hath wrought. It’s about creators using art to take control of their lives only to then lose control of their art.

Once I knew the theme it informed every storytelling decision I made from then on.

THERE IS SUCH A THING AS BEING TOO META

At a certain point in He Has Many Namesit’s revealed that the story we’re reading is the one Noelle is submitting to her publisher. This is shown in a scene where Matilda McDonald, the publisher, tears everything we’ve just read apart. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written and I tried to replicate that scene one too many times later on.

I’d over-complicated the story by including references to Noelle’s imagined ending, an alternate scenario that pandered to the psychological thriller twists readers had been conditioned to expect. It was my way of playing with the readers’ expectations while promising them that this story was going someplace different.

The problem with Noelle’s prophetic ending is that it made her an utterly unreliable narrator. While it’s clear that Noelle is taking artistic license in describing these events I didn’t want the reader to feel like she was bullshitting them. So I made some adjustments. Noelle references the alternate ending, but assures us we’re reading the one that’s based on actual events.

NOT EVERY SCARY STORY NEEDS TO END WITH AMBIGUITY

Some of my favorite scary stories leave readers wondering if anything supernatural happened at all. For great examples of this type of horror check out Paul Tremblay’s ambiguity trilogy: Head Full of Ghosts,Disappearance of Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World.

He Has Many Namesstraddles the line between psychological and supernatural horror but ultimately it picks a side. I thought about ending the story in such a way where the reader had to sift through clues to suss out what happened, but decided it would be more rewarding if suspicions were confirmed and given a hard “yes.”

I wanted to reward attentive readers for paying attention, while giving everyone a big bold note to go out on. Without spoiling everything I chose a grandiose conclusion over an ambiguous one. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing He Has Many Names

Why Stories About Satan Are Still in Fashion

I’ve always loved deal with the devil stories. From The Devil and Daniel Websterto Needful Things. There’s something about the whole situation I find appealing: the downtrodden hero, the devil incognito, the reality-bending bargain, the buyer’s remorse, and the last ditch effort by to find an escape clause. I’ve always found the situation compelling.

Despite the theology these stories draw from they’re essentially fables about grifters trying to outwit one another. But speaking of theology, I like how these stories play off our need to find cosmic conformation for our values, toy with our sense of mysticism, and challenge our beliefs.

I want to unpack why these stories work so well for me.

We’re Wired for Mysticism

Humanity has a tendency to see patterns in the chaos of nature. Scanning the forest we see faces in the bark. When the breeze shifts we feel the trees are reaching out for us.

We see things in the shadows, because darkness is not the absence of light, it’s the presence of mystery, of phantasmagorical figures and imperceivable whispers.

When our minds fail to grasp something we mystify it. Storytellers know how to exploit this glitch.

When you woke up paralyzed and saw a dark figure at the foot of your bed it might have just been a waking hallucination… but deep down you suspect a demonic visitation. Storytellers know how take your suspicions and turn them in myths.

How Satan Came From Mysticism

Stage magicians used to tell wild stories about the origins of their tricks. They’d say traveled to a misty mountain monastery in the east, in the Far East, where monks worshiped not the one true God, but many deities. It was safe for the magician to presume no one in his audience had been to the region so he filled it with giant sea monsters, strange customs, and cannibalism. The audience would believe him because they were already primed to fear what they don’t understand.

We’re wired to fear everyone outside of our tribe and the devil is the ultimate outsider.

Early Christians mystified foreign Gods by recasting them as devils. The biggest victim of this transition was the horned God Pan. At the time Greek sculptures had made more idols to Pan than any other figure. Perhaps they found his horns and hooves intriguing. Perhaps they identified with his naturalistic philosophy. Perhaps they enjoyed depicting his giant dong.

Early crucifix salesmen couldn’t handle the competition so they launched a campaign to smear Pan’s brand. The only problem was there was already an adversary in Christianity: Lucifer.

Lucifer was a fallen cherubim, a race of angels with four wings, four heads, and skin covered in eyeballs. The bible never says Lucifer changed forms when he fell from heaven, but theologians (beginning with Eusebius) decided that Satan should look like Pan. They gave the Shepard God the old Mephistopheles makeover. No longer would Pan guide weary travelers out of the woods. Now he’d try to swindle them out of their souls.

Many a Pagan deity got the same Satanic mani pedi, and in their demonization their titles got added to those of the devil. He has many names, because not all of them were his. They were stolen and handed down.

The Mystique of the Devil in the Details

The dated mysticism of the foreign other doesn’t work in a woke wired world. These days we need new unknowns to mystify. Judging by the popularity of shows like Black Mirrorwe are now mystifying technology. Even the most conditioned coders can’t help but fear the future. Most of us have a nagging suspicion that social media algorithms are unraveling our souls. There’s room for a new devil in all those ones and zeros.

Perhaps Satan is lurking in all those terms and conditions no one ever feels like reading. I mean do you have 76 days to scan through the privacy policies you agree to annually? For all we know there are incantations between the lines and that subconsciously we’ve found ourselves at the mercy of a form of bleeding edge bibliomancy. Which brings me to…

The Satanic Contract

Part of the appeal of the deal with the devil story is how it upsets the established order. The established order of things is unfair. The playing field isn’t level and many of us will spend our entire lives just scrapping by. It’s easy to be righteous when you’re rich, but when you’re sinking in the quicksand of car payments and student loans morality is a luxury.

So in walks a goat legged eccentric with a pocket full of cheat codes. He says with a little up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a select starthe can grant you whatever is in your heart. All it will cost you is that 21 grams of something that goes missing when you stop breathing. “I mean, what is a soul really?”

You take the Faustian bargain, make a pact with Satan, and get exactly what you want… only to realize it wasn’t what you wanted after all and that the game isn’t satisfying when you play it in easy mode. You want to buy your soul back, but you can’t afford the interest. Turns out the devil is a predatory lender, a shifty genie who never grants the extra wish that lets you get your ass out of debt.

Now you’re staring down the barrel of hell, your back is against the ultimate wall, and the stakes have never been higher. You’re going to have to get creative if you’re going to claw your way out of this.

I fucking love these stories.

Not because of Satan. He’s just the catalyst. He forces the hero to evolve, to better themself, and muster up all of their cunning. I love scary stories with well placed mysticism and epic villains, but secretly I long for a hard won happy ending, with a good life lesson. Deal with the devil stories are great vehicles for this. Continue reading Why Stories About Satan Are Still in Fashion

Questions Writers Hate Answering

Where do your ideas come from?

I can’t speak for other writers, but all my ideas came to me after I’d signed a contract with a strange fellow named Mr. Scratch.

A group of guys in my improv class had dragged me to a cabana party in the Hollywood hills. We found ourselves in an endless pool with a breathtaking view of West Hollywood. This was at the Chateau of a big director with an appetite for young actors. He was snorkeling through the shallow end dressed like a lifeguard. My buddies didn’t mind. They were hoping the situation would score them a role. I was hoping to score a drink. Good thing there was a bartender in the water. I drank until I was good and beached-whale-drunk. I propped myself up in my palm as everyone gossiped around me.

“Hey Drew, what do you think of all this Lindsay Lohan controversy.”

“I literally couldn’t give a shit.”

“So you’re constipated then?”

“What?”

“You said that you ‘literally’ couldn’t give a shit. So I took it to mean that you were incapable of shitting due to your use of the adverb literally.”

I found myself wandering through the woods in my swim trunks, ranting about how I’d be hot shit too if only I could put my thoughts into words.

“I’d literally be the toast of Hollywood, or wait, does that mean I’d be burned to a crisp?”

That’s when Mr. Scratch staggered into my path. He walked with a limp, because one his legs had been replaced with custom cloven hoof prosthesis.

“Shit, that’s cool.”

“I know right.” Continue reading Questions Writers Hate Answering

The Difference between a Good Muse and a Bad Muse

I’m going to be using the word “muse” a lot in this post. When I do I’m referring to people with the power to influence your material, not the arpeggio-laden rock band, or the nine daughters of Zeus and any of the sexist connotations that go with them (that conversation is being held in the lecture hall across campus, if you hurry you can still make it).

Call me a cosmonaut but I believe the arts are a form of telepathy, a way to express thoughts and feelings that simply talking (or texting) fail to do. I believe a subtle story of heartbreak has more power to resonate than a loud I feelstatement. By showing instead of telling the story draws out the reader’s empathy. It compels them to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. The abstraction makes the expression all the more genuine. It forces the reader to participate, to draw their own conclusions, and unearth their own theme.

So if art is telepathy and artists are psychics it stands to reason many of us have ideal minds we long to inhabit. Let’s call them muses. These muses could be family members, romantic partners, or associates with mutual interests.

Good muses enhance our writing. When we write with a close confident in mind we put our guard down, get intimate, and create work that resonates, but when we write with the wrong muse our work gets guarded, diplomatic, and disingenuous.

So how the hell are we to know the difference?

Lessons on Screening Muses from Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony the Great is considered to be the father of all monks (and more importantly one of the first Obi-Wan Kenobi figures). Anthony started life with every advantage. His parents were wealthy landowners. He had a stable full of camels and a pocket full of bling, but when he heard Jesus’s message of trading material treasures for treasures in heaven he gave away everything.

Anthony cast off his inheritance, ventured into the desert, and wandered the land. He abandoned human companionship in favor of the divine. He fasted, exposed himself to the harsh Egyptian sun and eventually he started to see things. Anthony had visitations from ethereal figures whose divine leanings weren’t always clear to him.

Angels appeared as scrubs. Demons came on as ballers. It was hard to tell the difference between an angel in humble attire and a devil that had cleaned up well.

Antony’s visions were impaired. Not every angel wore a halo made of tinsel and not every demon wore a vinyl smock with a picture of who they were supposed to be on the chest. Anthony had to rely on his feelings to know which of the creatures he’d encountered.

He realized angels left him feeling rejuvenated, hopeful, and optimistic, while Demons left him feeling drained, exposed, and humiliated.

When screening for muses consider your feelings for the people in question. Really consider. Just because someone is important to you, just because you admire them, doesn’t mean they’re the right person to have in mind when you put pen to paper. That person you’ve been crushing on could be throwing you off your game.

The Person You Most Admire Might Be the Wrong Muse for You

I’m drawn to emotionally unavailable people, people who say, “I don’t think I’m ready for a relationship right now. Not anything serious.”

I want something substantial yet I’m drawn to those people. Of course I don’t consciously admit I have a thing for vagabonds. I’m not the one driving when my subconscious decides whom I get to have a crush on. Yet when I do take the wheel I find myself fighting to stay on a winding road that in all likelihood lead straight into a ravine.

These relationships are built on a rocky foundation of abstraction, emotional dithering, and the tension that comes from knowing that at any moment the whole thing come crashing down.

What I’ve learned from my pursuit of these impossible people is they slow my narrative writing right down. People who make you nervous in your heart don’t make for great muses in your art. They do if you’re writing about the individual in question, but not if you’re trying to cover the broad spectrum of human experience. Especially not if you’re delving into a topic that’s outside of the scope of their interest.

Do An Inventor of Your Muses

You can’t always decide who you’re drawn to, but you can decide whom your ideal reader is. Maybe that person shouldn’t be the one you’re trying so damn hard to impress in life. A bad muse will make you feel too embarrassed to write something heartfelt. They will make you censor your life experiences and hide your humiliation. They will have you filing down your jagged edges when you ought to be making them sharper.

If your muse hates horror you’ll find yourself taking all the teeth out of your terror. If they’re prudish you’ll find yourself softening your sex scenes. If they have conservative leanings you’ll find yourself hiding your rebellious streak.

Conversely, if your muse thinks romance is an antiquated notion for sexist baby boomers guess what your stories are going to be lacking? If they harbor a deep hatred of yuppie squares you might get freakier than you really are. If they gag on sentimentality you’ll find yourself getting more sarcastic than you care to be.

A bad muse can stunt your growth or take your writing somewhere insincere. A bad muse slows your flow, they compel you to edit as you go, and ultimately give you writers block.

Closing Thoughts

Just because you want to impress someone doesn’t mean they’re the right person to let into your headspace when you start writing. Use Saint Anthony’s metric for screening demons. Ask yourself: How does this person make me feel the moment they leave the room. Rejuvenated or drained? If they’re someone who consistently pokes holes in your ego odds are they aren’t going to read your writing anyway. So who cares what they think?

Write for the people who hear what you’re working on and ask a slew of follow up questions, for the people who remember story details from one conversation to the next, for the people who make you feel good even after they’ve left.

How to Alienate People By Telling Them You Write Horror

I get around, wheeling and dealing in my hip bohemian community. I’m a man about town, getting recognized in my seasonally inappropriate dark t-shirt and jeans.

“The tall guy with the bulbous nose? Yeah, I know him. Why, what did he do?”

When I go to the grocery store the clerks double bag my eggs because they know I’m walking, at the coffee shop the baristas know that I’m mostly harmless, and at Chipotle they always have a bowl ready because a burrito is just not enough meal for me.

Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal. I shake hands. I make connections. I interject into the conversations when I’m eavesdropping.

I have a talent for reading people. My subconscious Sherlock catches every tell, every raised eyebrow, and bitten lip. No signal is misread. No micro-expression is lost in translation. I see you there giving me the eye by way of the floor. Now you’re rolling those eyes right up into that thought cloud about me. I know what you’re thinking.

You might go so far as to say that I’ve got game… until I make the mistake of telling you I’m a horror writer. Then it’s all down hill from there.

I might as well introduce myself as, “A stranger,” or wear a sash that reads, “Creeper,” or show people a photo of all the mounds in my basement and ask, “Can you guess which ones are mine?”

At least that’s how it feels based on the reactions I get.

In his book On WritingStephen King recalls getting caught selling his first horror story at school. He was a bestseller even then. The principle confiscated as many editions as she could get her talons on. She called young Stephen into her office to review the evidence.

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

Young Stephen was speechless. He had no answer apart from his hangdog expression. For decades after this encounter he felt ashamed of his work, as if the subjects he wrote about were manifestations of something wicked within him, something best reserved for abandoned Victorian asylums and horror conventions.

Horror Has a Stigma

I feel like young Stevie King whenever I make the mistake of pitching my fiction to a person of the puritan persuasion. Turns out there are a surprising number of devout individuals on the dance floor.

When you tell someone you’re a writer, they may ask, “What are you working on?” If your answer is, “A story about a woman trapped in a hotel with a demon.” they may follow up their question with, “Why would you write about such things?”

That one always stumps me, because I think the answer is self-evident: I do it because it’s entertaining. Any dangerous situation that activates our fear centers is instantly engaging. If that danger comes from someplace supernatural, in the great unknown where our nightmares thrive, then all the better.

I don’t think that automatically makes my stories bleak or nihilistic. Like any author I still have to strike a balance between hope and dread, I just skew a little further toward dread.

Still, I get it. Horror isn’t known for being the most emotionally engaging genre. It rarely enjoys prominent placement in Oprah’s Book Club. It rarely inspires readers’ life decisions. It doesn’t have the allure of a romance novel to inspire travel. It’s not going to give readers material for dinner party conversations.

Horror is the box wine of literature. Not that classy, but it will get you drunk.

I’ve spent many an evening defending my vocation when I should have been, well, dancing.

Should You Hide Your Affinity for Horror?

Is it possible to be a suave socialite when you spend your nights scripting secret ceremonies set in subterranean cellars? I have no clue, but I’ve learned something from all my time requesting songs from before half of the dance floor was born. Being myself is still the best practice. Not because people are more likely to be drawn to me, they won’t be, but because I’ll be rejected for the right reasons. I’d rather be brushed off for the asshole I am than for being a disingenuous creep.

If You Can’t Do Horror How Fun Are You?

I’m done catering to people with delicate sensibilities. From here on out I’m going to let my freak flag fly. I write horror, not socially acceptable thrillers with artisanal serial killers, but horrorhorror with ghosts, devils, and creatures made of tentacles, where villains win and bad things happen to good people.

If you won’t go anywhere near things that could give you nightmares then steer clear of here. If you don’t get the appeal of a ghost story around the campfire then I don’t want to share my S’mores with you. If you can’t stomach a schlocky piece of splatter house cinema, but you have time to keep up with the Kardashians, I doubt you’re that much fun.

In other words: if you ain’t into cool shit, you basic.

Closing Thoughts

Much of the above was “inspired” by actual events, not necessarily based on them. Don’t get me wrong. I get rejected a lot. Not for being a horror writer, just, you know, because.

The pulp bins of the 70s and 80s were clogged with forgotten horror novels. Writers dare not admit to working in the genre today. We’d rather say we write dark fantasy, or psychological thrillers, or bizarro fiction, but in our hearts horror is the genre we pledge allegiance.

It’s up to us to destigmatize it. Class it up. Horror is a great vehicle for gross out gags, but it’s also a great vehicle for morality plays, thought experiments, and reflections on current events.

The torture-porn films of the early aughts (Saw,Hostel, etc) have lowered the intellectual capital of the genre. We brave few who identify as horror authors have to raise it up again, even if that does mean pitching stories on the dance floor.

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Writing About Writers

A thought cloud forms overhead. Lightning flashes and you’re struck with the perfect premise, an eerie locale, and a clever twist. The idea is electric. You want to write it down before this thought cloud rescinds, but you’re convinced you need to write some quick character bios before you commit to draft.

Something tells you that your hero needs one of those jobs you’ve see on TV like a detective, or a lawyer, or doctor. Not because your premise demands it, but because it will feel familiar to readers. The only problem is writing about those careers requires knowledge you don’t possess.

You have no clue how to survey a crime scene. You have doubts about what the law considers a reasonable doubt, and you couldn’t do CPR to save your own life. Now before you move away from your inspiring thought cloud into a tunnel of endless research considering making your hero a writer.

Now I know, writers writing about writers is a cliché as old as writing itself, but there are a lot of benefits to centering your adventure on an author.

It’s What You Know

Writers write what they know, but all too often the subject we know most about is writing. This is why Stephen King has written so many stories about writers (I was going to count them all, but there are only so many hours in a day).

Writing is a subject you can talk about with authority. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published, if you’ve had meetings in New York, or pitched in Hollywood. You know what it’s like to wrack your brain over a single sentence that keeps giving you a hard time. You know what’s it like to draw inspiration from life events, from friends, and your surroundings. You know how writing makes you look at the world differently. You see stories in every anonymous interaction, scan your environment for hidden meanings, and see evidence of fate after the fact.

Writers are Sympathetic Characters

Writers are insufferable, grammar checking our friends. We’re longwinded, even though we know that brevity is the heart of wit, and we dominate conversation by turning them into impromptu pitch sessions. Writers may be jackasses, but we are sympathetic jackasses.

Why?

Most aspiring writers will fail. And… They… Know… It. Yup. Failure makes characters endearing. Even successful writers have a tall stack of rejection slips in their closet.  Audiences find driven characters endearing, and driven failures are sympathetic.

It’s also must be said the being a writer is a lonesome vocation. Everybody gets lonely, but a writer has to be. Chuck Palahniuk may, as he claims, write at parties, but the rest of us have to go into anti-social mode to get our two thousand words daily in. Even in public we have to tune out the noise in order transcribe our internal monologues.

How many Disney movies star solitary dreamers aspiring for something more? (I was going to count, but there are only so many hours in a day). Writers, even middle-aged ones struggling to get out from an unsatisfying career, are endearing, because they cling to the hope that somehow someday someone will read what they’re working on.

Writers Know A Little About A Lot

Well-read writers have a wealth of knowledge (surface level knowledge, but enough to be useful on trivia night). If your hero is a writer, and you’re writing in the first person, your hero can educate your audience directly. They can discuss story-telling mechanics as a foreshadowing technique, and explain plot devices moments before they happen.

If you ever have to explain how your hero knows something outside the field of their expertise, you can always say they picked it up researching a story.

“I picked up knife throwing skills when I wrote about an underground circus with life and death stakes.

“I learned how to count cards when I wrote about a back alley casino where players bet souls.”

“My lock picking skill came from that story I wrote about the stalker.”

Guillermo Del Toro’s life sized Edgar Allan Poe sculpture. Photo by me

Writers Have a Mixed Relationship With the rest of Humanity

Writers are fascinated with people. That fascination isn’t always full of childlike wonderment. We’re interested in people but we don’t necessarily love them. In fact we find them perplexing. They often act outside of their interest. They undercut their best efforts, and casually hurt one another with no consideration. Their capacity for empathy blinks off then roars back on. We want to understand people because we struggle to understand ourselves and that’s endearing.

As long as your curmudgeonly wordsmith is curious about the human condition readers will find them compelling.

Everyone Wants to be One

Everyone wants to be a writer or thinks they have one good novel in them if only they had the time to write it down. They may have even kicked at the tires of drafting something. That said they might have a pretty good idea what the writing process is like or yearn to read about the extremes another author’s methods require.

Just remember: the more extravagant your hero’s writing process is the more driven they’ll seem.

Writing about a Writer Opens the Door to Meta Storytelling If your hero is a writer they can explain what it means to be an unreliable narrator and then turn around and be one. They can backhandedly refer to scenes that they decided to cut. They can point to a plot hole and promise to fill it or suffer the wrath of the reader’s intellect. They can call out their own clichés before putting a fresh spin on them.

When your hero is a writer you get to play with storytelling mechanics, break the forth wall, and put the reader on the spot. A first person story staring a writer is a dangerous thing. At any moment the hero can go rogue and tell the reader that their theories about the twist are wrong.

Closing Thoughts

Making your hero a writer might feel like a cop out, but it will make your story feel authentic because you know what the job is like.

…and frankly don’t we have a enough stories about doctor, lawyers, and detectives already?

5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell

It’s said that there are many hells. Each specifically tailored to fit the damnation of the souls in question. Then it stands to reason there’s a subterranean superstore where rude people are put to work. Welcome to Retail Hell, a short story now available on Amazon.

Oppressive Situations Limit Character Development

When we meet Barbara she’s berating both a clerk behind a checkout counter and a call center representative. She’s a familiar Ebenezer Scrooge type character. She’s put through an ordeal. She has an aneurism and wakes up for her first shift in the literal Retail Hell. Just like Scrooge she’s taught empathy through supernatural means, but her journey doesn’t necessarily end with her gifting turkeys on Christmas morning.

My hell is so oppressive it leaves Barbara’s character with few places to go, other than with the flow.

I believe every story should have a change of some kind. Usually that change involves a character learning a lesson, being humbled then empowered, and rising to a challenge as a better person. BUT… Sometimes it’s the audience’s expectations of the hero that need to change. We go in thinking a toxic braggadocios brute is going to have a sense of modesty impressed upon them, and he does, but it doesn’t take. In those situations it’s the audience that goes through the change. Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned Writing Retail Hell