I will write faster. Having planned and plotted stories beforehand, I will be able to write them at least 2500 words per hour.
I will write to market each chance I get. Having mastered the art of storytelling and writing much and more quickly, I will write stories for open calls to increase my chances of getting published (instead of writing only my ideas and trying to place them offhand in markets).
I will write flash fiction. I will turn poems I’ve written into flash pieces or short stories.
I will develop and write a self-editing text, reading and compiling source notes, outlining, and writing chapters until I’m finished. I will submit a proposal to a publishing company.
I will revamp my backlist so that I win steady sales. This will include creating new covers for my one-off short stories and shorter collections.
I will learn how to market books on Amazon, including placing ads.
I will read a book on writing craft monthly. I will continue my writing studies, reading at least one craft text each month.
I will redesign my website and launch it. Leeallenhoward.com needs a facelift! Stay tuned.
I plan to make progress on all these goals in 2021. Have you set goals for the new year? What would you like to accomplish? Perhaps more reading? 🙂
Antichrist (2009), by controversial director Lars von Trier, is the most disturbing horror film I’ve ever seen.
It opens with one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie I’ve watched. The ending scenes are even more excruciating. I won’t go into details to avoid blunting the shock factor, but consider yourself forewarned.
After the death of their toddler (“Nic,” played by Storm Acheche Sahlstrom), a couple who remain unnamed throughout the movie (Willem Dafoe as “He” and Charlotte Gainsbourg as “She”) deal with Her atypical grief over this heartbreaking loss. After She is hospitalized for a month, He, a psychotherapist, transports Her to their wilderness cabin, which harks back to the Garden of Eden and is in fact named “Eden.” There, they embark on psychotherapeutic exercises to help Her overcome Her grief and fear.
They seem to make progress, but His strange encounters with dead and dying animals—the Three Beggars: Grief, Pain, and Despair—coincide with Her descent into madness. He discovers Her thesis notes on “gynocide” that have degenerated over time into incoherent scribbles. He realizes She’s not as good a mother as He supposed.
She tells Him at one point, “Women do not control their own bodies; Nature does. … Nature is Satan’s church.” She demonstrates when she begins to terrorize him.
Fearing He will leave Her, She’s convinced He has become the enemy and intervenes violently to prevent abandonment. These climactic scenes are unbearably intense, gory, and sexually explicit. (Several scenes should have earned the movie an NC-17 rating, so beware.)
Von Trier’s perverse film is not for the squeamish. He developed it during a severe depression (which I admire because I’ve been unable to write while depressed), and his mental and emotional state during the writing and filming leach through to infect the mind and soul of viewers.
At the cabin, She renounces Her thesis and tells Him She believes that women are evil. Is the movie misogynistic? That depends on your point of view. Von Trier’s female characters are often abused, and NPR paints Him like male characters in von Trier’s other works as “a smug, sententious fool.”
While this film is sinister and unpleasant, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is gorgeous—especially the black-and-white scenes, the close-ups, and out-of-focus shots.
The acting is exceptional. Dafoe, who played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), always gives a good performance, and Gainsbourg (Claire in von Trier’s Melancholia ) is stellar.
The movie deals with biblical themes about Satan, the Fall, and the nature of evil. But I couldn’t understand why the film was titled “Antichrist”; it had nothing to do with the man of lawlessness. When the handwritten credits rolled, I found out why: the director is billed as “Lars von Trier Antichrist.”
You will either love or hate this film. But as a study in dramatic horror, it’s a must-see for film students and enthusiasts alike. 4.7 stars.
Horror writer John Grover lives in Massachusetts, not far from Boston, where he was born and raised.
“I first started taking writing seriously around the age of eighteen,” Grover says. “I’ve always loved telling stories ever since I was young. I used to staple paper together to make books and would write into them and draw pictures to go along with the story.” But it wasn’t until high school and his English classes that he really started to write real fiction. “My work is mostly horror with some dark fantasy on the side. My stories tend to have a Twilight Zone flavor or a bit of a creature-feature vibe.”
Which book inspired you to begin writing?
I was lucky that my English classes in high school introduced me to a lot of gothic and horror fiction. Most people would say they were influenced by Stephen King to write horror, but I was excited to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
The author I remember inspiring me most early on was Shirley Jackson. Her story “The Lottery” amazed me at the time, and my favorite book growing up of hers was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I still remember everything about it today and the class discussions we had in school.
How hard is it to sit down and actually start writing something?
Sometimes it can be very hard, but I try to manage it every day. I have no shortage of ideas but sometimes the motivation isn’t there. In those cases I try not to force it because I feel the work suffers if I do. I do something else or take a couple days off to recharge and then get right back to it. Most of the time the story flows and I’m in the zone.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have. I actually wrote one book under a pen name. It didn’t really take off or do much in the way of sales. I had a hard time trying to market something under a different name and keep it a secret, LOL. Despite that, I have another book in the works under the same pen name and I’m going to give the experience another try.
What are your favorite literary resources (magazines, websites, etc.)?
I used to have a subscription to Writers Digest when I was younger. I learned a lot using that as a reference while I was growing as a writer. For fiction over the years I’ve enjoyed Cemetery Dance, Shroud magazine, Flesh and Blood, and others. I also regularly visit Dark Markets and Ralan.com to stay up-to-date with the writing markets and publishing news.
What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?
The ability for it to take you away from the world for a little while. It’s all about escapism, and I really feel books do that for us.
Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
I check out my reviews but I never respond to them. The reviews aren’t really for me; they’re for other readers, but I do try to learn from any negative ones.
How much of yourself do you put into your books?
There’s a good part of me in all of my books, but I tend to pull from the people around me as well. I love to people-watch and observe everyday life. So I use a little bit of my friends’ and family’s quirks, habits, humor, and use a lot of my own experiences from traveling, reading, and going through daily life.
Which of your books took you the most time to write?
I’d have to say my dark fantasy book Knightshade: Perdition Bleeds. It has a very rich world and mythology, and I wanted to make sure I really got it right and it delivered the experience I was looking for.
Are there any recurring themes in your horror fiction? If so, what are they, and why do you think they keep cropping up?
Family ties seem to come up a lot for me. In my novel Let’s Play in the Garden, the central plot is about the children in the family playing a cat-and-mouse game with the adults as they try to uncover their family’s dark secrets.
In many of my short stories I have a theme of parental betrayal or something the parents are trying desperately to keep from their children. But it’s not all dark family secrets. In my “Underground” series, a post-apocalyptic story filled with zombies, family drives my main character to keep going and to protect those he loves.
In my new Kaiju book Behemoths Rising, the hero keeps his family in the forefront as he tries to save the world from a monster mash-up and the terror that comes with not knowing if his loved ones made it out of the crumbling city in time.
Has COVID affected your writing routine this year? If so, how?
I lost my job due to COVID in late March, but I didn’t let it stop my creative endeavors. I decided to use the time to throw myself into my writing. So it has actually lit a fire under me to write more and got me really excited about my writing again. I feel lucky that I’ve had the free time to dedicate to my books and be a lot more productive than I ever dreamed.
Tell us about your current project.
My newest book is a supernatural thriller set in the eighties called Goddess of Bane that is part of my “Retro Terror” series. It’s about a malevolent entity who seems unstoppable rising up in a small town to seek revenge for her defeat at the hands of the town’s ancestors. It’s filled with mythology, eighties schlock, and some gooey fun. I’m doing edits on it now and hope to have it up on Amazon at the end of this month.
Mark Allen was born and raised in rural Texas in the 1960s and 70s. “I grew up watching the classic Universal monster movies and 50s scifi ‘Big Bug’ movies,” he says. “I wrote my first short story in third grade at age ten as part of a homework assignment. I got an A+, and I’ve been writing in one form or another ever since.” He’s concentrated on horror throughout his writing life.
What does horror mean to you, and why do you write it?
In my opinion, horror is not a genre, per se. Horror is a feeling. It is creating a sense of tension and dread in the reader, getting that sense of creep under their skin. And then when you’ve got them where you want them for dramatic purposes and they’re begging you for release, you spring your trap and outright terrify them. I personally love when a novelist or a filmmaker can completely sweep me up in their story and take me somewhere I’ve never been, and somewhere I never expected. All really good horror does this.
As for why I write horror, it’s simply my first love. I work in other genres occasionally, especially when I’m writing feature film screenplays. But I never stay away from horror for very long. I personally love taking classic tales or classic monsters and trying to bring something new and different to their particular mythos.
I understand the conventions of the genre, and I get a kick out of trying to turn some of those tropes and conventions on their heads and see what shakes out. Further, I love to write stories that have something more to them than just blood and gore or sex and nudity. While I have no problem using these elements (sometimes quite liberally!), they must serve the story; otherwise they become gratuitous and boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin for a writer.
Ultimately, my goal as a horror writer is to use the genre to actually talk about deeper themes and discuss topics important to me. And within the wide parameters of the genre, there’s so much fertile ground to plow. I can’t just throw blood and gore and sex and nudity at an audience and expect them to take me seriously as an artist. I must have something to say. To paraphrase the late George Romero, I don’t really write horror stories. I write stories with horror elements in them so I can talk about other things.
Some writers believe in a muse. What are your thoughts on inspiration, and how does it fuel your writing process?
Inspiration certainly has its place in the creative process, but it’s a minor one for me. I firmly believe that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Inspiration is where I get my ideas or concepts for new work. I have to make sure I get the ideas jotted down, then I come back to them later.
I agree with Stephen King’s quote that “Some people wait for inspiration. The rest of us get up and go to work.” When I’m working, it’s all about getting the seat of my ass into the seat of my chair and doing the grunt work to make it happen. I have a word count I want to hit every day. When working on a screenplay, it’s about hitting a certain page count per day.
Do you have a daily habit of writing?
I write every day. Every. Single. Day.
Do you plan a plot or prefer going wherever a story takes you?
Sort of both. I start with creating character sketches/bios for my main characters and key support characters. Since my work is character-driven, I have to know who these people are before they trust me enough to allow me to tell their stories. I’ll write a logline so I have my theme clearly defined, and I usually write a general synopsis. By that time, I usually know how I want to start, where I want to end up, and maybe two or three major plot points. That’s it. My characters tell me how to get there once I begin writing.
What’s a favorite novel that you think is under-appreciated? Why?
Transfer by Terry M. West. Damned fine story that creeped me out. But he’s an indie author (like me), so the masses don’t know who he is or know his work.
What’s the most effective way you’ve found to market your work?
Facebook ads, and absolute blanket advertising across all my social media platforms. I am relentless. I know most people need to see your ad at least seven or eight times before they decide to buy. So you have to keep at it.
And don’t skimp on review copy. Get glowing reviews in magazines and online sites that your audience goes to. And give your reviewers a three- to four-month lead. For instance, if you plan to release your book in September, be sending out review copies in May and June. Reviewers and bloggers have a ton of material to read. It takes them time. If you get a glowing review on a few sites that get 100,000 hits a month (or more), that can really push sales.
Have you ever attended a literary event or conference? If not, are you interested?
Yes, I’ve attended book festivals as a vendor. My work has sold well at these events.
Name one book or story that you like most among all the others you have written. Why is it your favorite?
Among my finished works, it’s got to be Nocturnal because, at its core, it’s a story about love—a love that transcends the earthly boundaries of life and death.
Has COVID affected your writing routine this past year? If so, how?
Not really. I’m sort of a semi-hermit type guy to begin with. Writing is usually a solitary pursuit, so keeping to myself is simply how I approach the craft. I’m also retired military and a combat vet. So keeping to myself was already a lifestyle choice for me.
Tell us about your current project.
My upcoming novel is Blood Red Moon. I’m attempting to shake up the werewolf mythos much the same way I tried to shake up vampires in Nocturnal.
In Blood Red Moon, a lone, noble werewolf battles a global conspiracy to butcher half the human race, enslave the survivors for food and sport, and establish werewolves as the dominant species on the planet, thereby plunging mankind into an eternity of darkness.
Corey Farrenkopf is a thirteenth-generation Cape Codder. His family has been around since most of the towns were colonized along the peninsula (it’s the arm that sticks off the end of Massachusetts into the Atlantic). “Most of what I write is set in nearby coastal towns,” Farrenkopf says, “so my place of origin very much makes its way into my writing.”
He’s been writing seriously for about ten years, publishing for the last seven. “I’m usually drawn to supernatural horror, weird fiction, dark fantasy, quiet horror, and literary fiction with a dark bend to it. Most of my stuff is pretty fluid between all of those, which makes it difficult to say exactly what I’m writing at any given time.” He also dabbles in dark sci-fi and light fantasy from time to time.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I’ve always been compelled to create. When I was young, I’d tell stories and draw very terribly articulated monsters.
Then I played a lot of music in my teen years, mostly punk and indie stuff with different bands, while still dabbling with writing. But in college I really committed to writing, recognizing that in order to be happy I had to be creating and writing. It was what I was best at and enjoyed the most, so it won out over music. I’d given up drawing way before that point. You can only draw the same terrible dragon a thousand times before you get tired of it (I mean this fairly literally, I’d draw the same dragon endlessly in middle school, so I’m glad I moved away from that.)
What books have most influenced your life?
There are definitely a handful of books that have very much steered my writing course. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez and Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges were both important early on, along with Pastoralia by George Saunders, Saint Lucy’s Home for Girl’s Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, and all of Poe’s short stories. Probably the two most important books for my writing, though, as far as what’s brought me to what I write today, are Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
I studied creative writing as an undergrad. My professors weren’t into genre fiction, so I didn’t get exposed to as much as I should have, and the stuff I wrote was always somewhere between realism and the weird, so I never really found my place on the literary spectrum until I read those two books. They showed me where I fit in, where the type of writing I always wanted to do could go… and that there are a ton of awesome writers writing in a similar vein.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I don’t know if I can say I have a favorite author, but the first three that come to mind are Karen Russell, Laird Barron, and Caitlin R. Kiernan. As far as what strikes me about their work…
Karen Russell has the best sentences, character descriptions, and humor out of any writer I know. There’s a line in her story, Bog People, that describes the main character’s uncle as the kind of guy who would, “eat the sticker on a green apple rather than peel it off.” I think that’s the most beautiful and hilarious way of saying someone is lazy.
Laird Barron just kills it in every story. His ability to write about nature is second to none, and the darker imagery he creates never leaves you. I think about the horse scene in Hallucigenia way more often than is healthy. I also love how so much of what he does plays with structure and blends the best parts of so many genres together.
Caitlin R. Kiernan also kills it in every story. I think I can apply much of what I love about Laird’s work to what Kiernan does. In addition, they do such an amazing job at creating shared worlds for their stories. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do in my own work. I’m thinking about the four stories that make up The Dandridge Cycle, or Jacova Angevine showing up across short stories and novels, or their linked Tinfoil Dossier novellas. Also, everyone needs to read Houses Under The Sea—it’s very necessary.
Do you write every single day? What’s your writing routine like?
COVID has made my usual routine a little weird, but I generally get some words down every day. I usually shoot to write between 1000 and 2000 words a day. I don’t have a specific time when I write. Just when I can. I snatch an hour here or there, write on my lunch break, write before bed… basically whenever I can.
I’ve gotten in the habit of starting off by editing whatever I wrote the day before and then jumping into drafting to make sure my voice stays consistent. (And to save myself from having to do that first horrible straighten-every-terrible-sentence edit like I used to.)
What do you think is more important: characters or plot?
I’ve always been a plot guy, which has actually been a challenge for my own writing. I love plotting, but the most common feedback I get usually focuses on a desire to have a more rounded/likable character (at least in my novels). So I think the true answer is character is more important. If the character is good enough, the plot should come along fine.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing one of your stories?
I was writing a story on an island off of Cape Cod, doing an eco-horror sort of thing, when I stumbled on the fact there was a bunch of unsolved murders out there. I was originally just trying to write about bird populations, but that fact really swayed the direction of the story. I’m still working on it, so we’ll see how it turns out in the end. A murderer who loves bird watching maybe…?
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I hear from my readers through Twitter pretty frequently. I have many friends in both the horror community and the flash fiction community, so I think we all pretty much read each others’ work and get excited about what everyone else is doing and try to be as supportive as possible.
How active are you on social media? And how do you think it affects the way you write?
On Twitter, very. Everywhere else, so-so.
I don’t know if Twitter has helped my writing, but it has enabled me to find so many publishing opportunities that I never would have seen before. All the open calls that get posted there, or announcements for flash contests or guests editors… I would have missed so many opportunities if I wasn’t tuned in. Also, a lot of my Twitter friends are super supportive, so it makes writing feel much less lonely with all of them metaphorically around.
Has COVID affected your writing routine this year? If so, how?
Oh, definitely. My work schedule is all over the place now, so I don’t have a normal time of day that I write. Like I said previously, I just snatch the time when I can. And like so many others out there, I find it hard to focus some days depending on what new terrible thing is going on.
Tell us about your current project.
Right now I’m working on edits for an eco-horror/weird fiction novel set on Cape Cod with my agent, a handful of supernatural horror stories (most of which are also set on Cape Cod), and five or six short stories for different venues. I’ve been writing about a lot of lake/ocean/pool/pond/river monsters lately, so figure there are a number of aquatic creatures spread out across those projects 🙂
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don’t be afraid to submit your work. Yes, you need to polish the heck out of it, but don’t wait too long or you might never get it out there.
Also, always try to write something that you’d want to read. That’s my goal anyway. I think of what a version of myself maybe five years ago would get stoked to read, and I try to create that.
Everyone always says read a ton, and I echo that, and I want to add that when you find a writer you really click with, devour as much of their work as you can. This always helps inspire me and get me excited to sit down at my computer. Whatever I can do to get me excited about typing is cool with me.
Natalie Edwards (aka TC Parker) hails from a UK town in the East Midlands called Leicester, where she now lives, though she works mostly in London and the US.
“I haven’t actually been writing fiction very long at all by the standards of many people in the horror community,” Edwards says. “I only really started a few years ago in my mid-30s, and only started publishing this year. ” She admits she was evidently trying on some level to compensate for the earlier lack. She has published four books in 2020 and a fifth is ready to come out in January 2021.
“That said, I’ve done a few jobs that are fiction writing-adjacent: I’ve worked as a copy-writer and copy-editor, taught media and communications at university and college level during and after grad school, and now run a semiotics and cultural insight agency, which involves producing a fair number of written reports for clients.”
In terms of fiction… “I write predominantly crime and horror.” The horror tends to feature a lot of grisly death and mythical creatures (though she’s currently working on what’s rapidly evolving into a sort of cosmic splatter Western), and the crime tends to be more heist-focused. “I’ve just wrapped up a trilogy about a gang of London-based con artists, though even they ended up populated with more than their fair share of serial killers and sociopaths, which suggests I can’t get away from horror, whatever genre I’m writing in!”
Edwards promised a friend that she would try her hand at a romantic comedy sometime in 2021—”though I think we both secretly know there’ll be at least one murder in there somewhere, if I do.”
“Possibly the other thing that characterizes what I write is its queerness,” she says. “I have a lot of very strong opinions about increasing the visibility of LGBT+ characters in fiction, especially lesbian characters—so queers tend to pop up in central roles in almost everything I write, and I suspect always will. They’re not always pleasant, but they’re always there, and not just on the peripheries.”
Are there any new authors that have captured your interest? Why?
God, so many! From the horror community, I absolutely love Hailey Piper, Laurel Hightower, Steph Ellis, Kev Harrison, Ross Jeffery, Wayne Fenlon, Alyson Faye, Zachary Ashford, Sonora Taylor, and a hundred others—all fantastic writers and incredible people. E(dward) Lorn is a gifted writer, terrifyingly prolific and a wonderful human being to boot. Quite honestly, though, every one of the horror guys I’ve come to know over the last year has been prodigiously talented. Getting to know them has really been one of the highlights of an otherwise quite dismal 2020.
Beyond horror/dark fiction, I’ve been loving Lucy Bexley and Bryce Oakley, who write lesfic, and am excited to see where they go next—especially since they’ve already released one horror/lesfic crossover.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into? Have they impacted the way you write now?
I wish I could say there were some! My undergrad degree was in English Lit, and I suspect I was slightly inoculated against taking any real pleasure in some of the “classics” I had to study. (Looking at you, anglophone novels of the mid to late eighteenth century.) That said: A lot of the MR James and Robert Aickman I’ve read has left me cold—but I’m conscious of how much of an impact they’ve had on a lot of the writers I love and admire, from King onwards. So when the opportunity arises, I’ll probably give them both another go.
What do you see as the biggest differences between horror and crime fiction? Where do the genres intersect in your work?
In practical terms, the sort of crime fiction I write (labyrinthine mysteries with a lot of twists and turns) tends to need slightly more rigorous plotting than the horror fic. (Though I’m an assiduous plotter anyway, so I kind of like it.)
In terms of the content itself, there’s often a huge overlap. The horror novels and stories I’ve written tend to have elements of mystery/thriller, and the crime stuff often gets quite dark. So I don’t necessarily consider them radically different beasts. (To the extent that I now slightly regret using a pseudonym to separate one from the other!)
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Finding time to do it! I run a business, have two young kids (one pre-school) and not a lot of spare time to play with—to actually being able to sit down somewhere quiet to just write can sometimes be a challenge. Thankfully, I think it actually helps here that I’m a plotter: I rarely write anything without a full outline in front of me, so I don’t often lose time worrying about what comes next and how I’ll get there.
What are common traps for aspiring writers? Are these things you’ve overcome in your own writing?
I wouldn’t want to comment—I’m probably still stuck in them myself!
Has COVID affected your writing routine this year? If so, how?
As for a lot of people, the primary impact has been on the amount of time I’ve had free to write at all. The kids have been in the house a lot more, since a lot of nurseries and schools here have been closed and classes quarantined, so I’ve been spending more time on childcare and trying to juggle that with my day job. And previously, I traveled quite a lot for work, so was able to do bits and pieces of writing on longer train and plane journeys—which obviously hasn’t been possible this year.
On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot less time commuting back and forth between cities so probably have more time at home in front of the laptop than before.
What does literary success look like to you, Nat? What goals do you have to reach that aim in 2021?
2020 has been in some ways oddly wonderful in terms of writing. It’s been incredible publishing books and seeing people I love and respect read and enjoy them. So my primary goal is to keep writing and to keep producing publishable fiction that people will want to read.
Beyond that… I love my day job, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to give it up, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the idea of writing full-time (or even part-time) quite attractive.
Are there any recurring messages in your work that you want readers to grasp?
There are definitely recurring themes and ideas. Queerness, obviously—and perhaps difference more generally—and what that means in terms of the social construction of identity. I’m very interested in social/cultural environments and technologies as determinants of individual and group behavior, so both of those probably crop up often too.
And, probably more specifically, I’m fascinated by what Marc Augé calls non-places and what Foucault calls heterotopias: spaces in which the conventional rules of conduct and behavior, and even conventional understandings of things like time, are temporarily suspended, and where—therefore—unexpected things might happen. So places like airports and transit zones, hotels, hospitals, prisons, abandoned buildings, shopping malls, even casinos (and probably Vegas as a whole, come to think of it). These sorts of heterotopic spaces lend themselves well to horror especially, I think. It’s probably not a coincidence that so much horror fiction plays out in them.
Tell us about your current project.
I’ve just started writing the horror Western, with the first two chapters down and twenty or so more to write. I suspect it’ll net out at something like novella length, though I tend to write long, so who knows?
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Mostly… if you’ve read anything I’ve written: thank you. I’m exceptionally grateful, and honestly still a little stunned that people actually sit down and read things I write. It’s the best feeling in the world, knowing that the weird ideas that live inside your head have taken on a life of their own in other people’s.
Zachary Ashford was born in England but now makes Australia his home. He grew up in the Brisbane area and still lives there.
“I’m a teacher,” he says, “but in the past I’ve been a copywriter, sub-editor, and radio creative, so I’ve always had a background in writing.”
Ashford started to take writing seriously in 2018 and had a couple of stories published. “Most of what I’ve had published so far has been of the creature-feature variety. I’ve seen it called ‘splatter,’ but that’s not really a genre I’m super familiar with—I just like a good monster story that goes for the throat and splashes on the gore.” Indeed.
When did you first start writing? How did that develop to where you are now?
I guess like everyone, it started while I was in school. I always knew I wanted to write fiction but didn’t really do too much of it. I was a real procrastinator in that respect.
I studied a minor in creative writing at university and wrote a few small things, but it was more just something I always wanted to do. I had some ideas but never put them to paper until I decided I should actually apply myself and make it happen back in 2018.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Yeah, for sure. I think everyone experiences emotions differently, and the best stories are the ones that are full of empathy, but absolutely.
How important is research to you when writing a book or story?
It depends. Like everyone, I’ll flick for small bits of research, but I really just want most of what I do to be fun, and if a few truths get bent for the sake of moving the plot along, I’m not too fussed. Obviously, some things require research, but I certainly don’t invest hours—I just do a bit of reading, watch some YouTube videos, and move on.
Tell me about your writing style. How does it differ from other writers’?
I hope that it flies off the page. I’m a big fan of metal music, and I love trying to capture that same energy in my stories.
I think my two novellas (one coming out soon) and my upcoming Demain story are humorous, but I also like to think I have range. Some of what I’ve written has been quite serious in nature (even if it’s over the top).
What books have influenced your life the most?
Tough question. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. It’s probably my all-time favorite, but then I love The Old Man and the Sea, Frankenstein, Lord of the Flies.
Is your family or significant other supportive of your writing? If so, who’s the most supportive?
My wife is amazing. She’s very patient when I’m trying to pump out some work, and she’s always the first to tell me whether a story is any good or not. I think my kids think it’s pretty cool, but sometimes when I show them the books, they’re just like, “Oh, yeah.”
How do you see writing? As a hobby or a passion or a job?
I’d love it to be a job, but I have a pretty good career as a teacher—and that takes up a LOT of time. At the moment it’s a passion. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some books released, and they seem to have reviewed well. It’s got me on a couple of podcasts and things, but it certainly hasn’t made me any money! One day, I hope.
What is that one thing you think readers generally don’t know about your specific genre?
Oh, man, that’s hard. Horror fans are a pretty knowledgeable bunch. They’re like metalheads. They’re really passionate about their genre, and they know the history. I think most readers know all there is to know, especially if they read wider than Stephen King.
Is there any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?
Just keep writing. Don’t self-reject. You have to back yourself and promote yourself. Others won’t do it for you.
Tell us about your current project.
At the moment I’m making some changes to a novella for a publisher who’s asked me to tweak some things for them. They’re a bit of a dream publisher, and they’re holding a slot for it, so hopefully I don’t screw it up.
After that, I’ve got a really cool idea for an alien sci-fi/horror that I’m gonna play with. I’m also 50,000 words into another novel that’s been kicking my arse for a while now. I’ll need to finish that up sooner rather than later as well.
As for releases, I have two coming up in the early months of this year—one for Demain and another novella for a rad publisher I’ve worked with before—that are yet to be announced.
Eric Raglin is a writer and horror educator from Nebraska. He’s been writing since he was in elementary school, but “only seriously started paying attention to writing craft in the past few years,” he says. Most of Eric’s stories are horror, weird fiction, or some variation of speculative.
Eric, when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in fifth grade, but I’ve only taken serious steps to make that happen in the past couple years. Having a few publications out there has fueled that desire further.
Do you recall the first ever novel you read?
The first novel I remember reading was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As a kid, I went to many Barnes & Noble midnight releases for the Harry Potter books. It was always an event, and I wish there were more book events like that today.
Whose work do you enjoy reading the most?
I’m not sure I could narrow that down to just one writer, but Livia Llewellyn’s prose never ceases to amaze me. It crackles with energy, weirdness, and emotion.
Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?
I try to write for at least thirty minutes a day, but other than that, I don’t have a set schedule. I tend to write a lot more on the weekends when I have more time and energy.
Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?
I don’t keep track of the number of words I write each day, but I shoot to complete a short story roughly once every two weeks. If I’m managing that, I consider it a success.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Most of the time writing energizes me. However, there are some stories that don’t come as easily as others, and those ones tend to give me headaches. Thankfully, that’s rare.
Do you hide any secrets in your stories that only a few people will find?
Sometimes I’ll model characters off of real-life people. When those characterizations are less than flattering, I disguise the character so their real-life inspiration won’t find out.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I would have joined Twitter sooner. I know that sounds silly, but I’ve found some great writing friends, beta readers, and inspirations through the website even if it is a hellish place at times.
Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?
I’m generally good at accepting feedback and making changes accordingly. More often than not, the people who give me feedback have solid judgment. Taking their words seriously has helped me hone aspects of my writing craft that otherwise would have been neglected.
Tell us about your current project, Eric.
I’m currently co-editing ProleSCARYet: Tales of Horror and Class Warfare. It’s an anti-capitalist horror anthology that should be out in May 2021. I’m also revising Nightmare Yearnings, my collection of weird, queer horror stories. That should come out in September 2021.
Every scene needs conflict. And every scene must “turn.” Here’s some insight about the turning point, a crucial ingredient of every scene.
What’s a Scene?
A scene is a discrete story segment in which your characters engage in conflict and take significant actions that you portray memorably as if the events were happening in real time. Robert McKee in his seminal STORY recommends that every scene be a story event. And every scene must “turn.”
What’s at Stake for Your Character?
A scene is like a story in miniature: it has a beginning, middle, and end. “No matter locations or length,” says McKee, “a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.”
A scene begins with a problem or goal that’s based on some value at stake in your character’s life at the moment. What’s at stake? Love? Truth? Safety? Honor? Justice? Meaningfulness? Action genres turn on values such as freedom/slavery or justice/injustice. Educational stories turn on interior values such as self-awareness/self-deception or life as meaningful/meaningless.
In chapter 1 of THE SIXTH SEED, my protagonist Tom Furst’s freedom is at stake, both personal and financial.
Examine each of your scenes and identify what’s at stake for your character.
What’s Your Character’s Objective?
Tom’s goal is based on a desire to change the current state of his freedom.
In each scene your character pursues an immediate, short-term desire. This scene goal must be sub-goal of his or her greater story objective. In a scene, your character goes after this scene goal by enduring conflict or opposition to make a decision or take a specific action.
The scene portrays this push and pull. The process is built on beats, individual units of action and reaction. Your character says, “Stop doing that.” The opposition says, “I won’t.” Beat by beat, this dance of behaviors escalates progressively. The last beat must end with a turning point.
Deliver the Unexpected
In this process of mounting action/reaction between your characters, their conflict produces a big reaction that your character failed to anticipate. McKee explains that:
The effect is to crack open the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer fortunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive in terms of values the audience understands are at risk.
Your character asks, “Why won’t you stop doing that? It’s hurting me.” The scene antagonist replies, “Because your best friend likes what I’m doing. And I’m in love with him.” BAM!
In this way, a scene creates change in a minor yet significant way. So how do you set this up?
Polarity Must Change
Once you’ve highlighted the core issue, state the charge of that value at the start of the scene: positive or negative.
For example, with Tom Furst in THE SIXTH SEED, the value of freedom at the start of chapter 1 is negative. He’s between a rock and a hard place and needs to increase his freedom to gain some financial breathing room. His goal is to undergo a vasectomy (a procedure so intense you have to read it for yourself!), a small step in gaining that freedom back—or so he thinks.
Your characters begin the scene with two things: the current charge (+/-) of their core value at stake, and their immediate goal. Then, they:
Encounter the opposition (who also has a goal and value of their own)
Engage in conflict (exchange escalating behavior beats)
Finally experience an outcome
This outcome is the turning point of the scene—the moment where your character’s value changes polarity.
The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.
At the end of the scene, what is the state of your POV character’s value? Is it positive, negative, or both? Compare the charge at the beginning and the end. If the value doesn’t change polarity, then why is the scene is in your narrative? McKee points out:
If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful has happened; it is a nonevent. If a scene is not a true event, cut it. If the scene is only there for exposition, it needs more justification. Every scene must turn.
How to Make Your Scenes Turn
Craft your scenes using the following process:
Begin with a value at stake in your character’s life. Base a scene goal on that value. (You could also start with the goal and discover the value at stake.)
Determine the motivation and goal of your scene’s opposition. (Your antagonistic force cannot exist merely to give your character an ass-pain.)
Over the course of the scene, challenge and threaten the state of that value through conflict between your character and the opposition. Beats should escalate logically and progressively (not leap a chasm from rationality to absurdity or from laxity to high tension).
Determine the final beat that is the turning point, the reaction that bears the fruit of surprise, increased curiosity, insight, or new direction.
Evaluate whether the beat process and turning point have changed the polarity of your character’s value. If not, keep working.
What is the outcome of the turning point—the surprise, curiosity, insight, or new direction? This is the starting point for your next scene in this plot line.
Note: If you’re a pre-plotter or outliner, you might find it useful to map the value/goal/turning point/outcome for each scene to ensure that your scenes are linked logically in a greater chain of cause-and-effect over the course of the narrative. Just as beats escalate to a turning point in each scene, so do scenes escalate to major turning points or reversals in the broader narrative.
Test this process by analyzing scenes from well-written books. Apply the process to your own scenes. If you find it helpful, I’d love to hear from you. Please like this post and subscribe. And spread the word!
Michelle Renee Lane started writing stories at the age of twelve and won a short story contest in elementary school. She really started exploring different kinds of writing in her mid-teens—poetry, fan fiction, short stories, and even a bit of erotica, “which,” she says, “I’m sure I would be embarrassed to read at this point.”
Lane now writes under the speculative umbrella, so her stories usually mix genres—horror, fantasy, often with a romantic/erotic element as well. “But,” she admits, “most of my stories don’t end with a happily-ever-after, unless you really dig monsters.” We do.
Michelle, what have you published so far, and where?
My first publication was actually in an academic journal. I presented a paper comparing the AIDS epidemic to vampirism for a colloquium at Shippensburg University many moons ago.
But my first short story, “The Hag Stone,” appeared in the anthology Dark Holidays (Dark Skull Publications). Earlier this year, my short story, “Crossroads,” appeared in Terror Politico: A Screaming World in Chaos (Scary Dairy Press). And my debut novel, Invisible Chains is available July 22 from Haverhill Housing Publishing LLC. I have a few other short stories coming out later this year, and next year as well.
Tell us about your new novel, Invisible Chains. What’s the most important thing you’re trying to say with this book? How does it express your experience as a human being that is uniquely you?
What am I trying to say with this book? That’s a great question. And honestly, for long time I didn’t know what I was writing about. I didn’t have any lofty goals or an agenda in mind. I wanted to write a vampire novel set in antebellum New Orleans told in the voices of several characters.
However, Invisible Chains evolved into a first-person narrative told by Jacqueline, a young Creole slave. In her quest for freedom, she encounters real monsters while dealing with the everyday horrors of slavery.
Jacqueline’s voice became the strongest voice in the story and I soon realized it was her story to tell. As I wrote her story, I realized she was experiencing many things that women of color are still experiencing today: racism, sexism, and violence against women. While history tells us that much has changed since Jacqueline’s time, there are several things happening in the novel that connect with the current state of our society that I hope will resonate with readers.
I also tried to create a vampire who was truly a monster. Despite his good looks and charm, I didn’t want to maintain the current trend of casting vampires as romantic leads. Personally, I love a good vampire romance. The bloodier, the better. But I often wonder how dangerous it is to keep creating male characters that normalize stalking and the threat of violence (sexual or otherwise) against female characters. While I enjoy reading about sexy vampires “wooing” their potential mates, I’m also aware that vampires are undead creatures who prey on the living. And, if you want your happily ever after with a vampire, your love interest must literally murder you.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
My tuition to attend Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program. Not only did the program reignite my love of writing fiction, but the experiences and connections I made with mentors and fellow students gave me the confidence to really think of myself as a writer. I gained knowledge of the industry, an invaluable education in genre fiction, and friendships that have led to important introductions to the people who have decided to take me seriously as a writer and publish my work. SHU changed my life.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 80s as a racially mixed kid meant that I heard racist epithets and jokes on a regular basis. I didn’t enjoy hearing this disgusting use of language, but it was common and, unless someone was targeting me, I tried to ignore it. Which seems odd now that I think back to how I coped with racism as a kid. People said a lot of hurtful things around me when they thought I wasn’t listening. Sometimes, I felt invisible. And other times, people said things directly to me that were more painful than any injury I’d experienced.
When I was fourteen, I was dating a boy I had known since first grade. We weren’t a couple in public. He cared about me, but it was a secret. I didn’t think much about that until I called his house one evening and his dad said, “Mark, your nigger is on the phone.” I remember the physical effect those words had on me. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I couldn’t swallow. My skin felt hot and feverish. I was stunned into silence. When the boy I cared about grabbed the phone from his dad, he told me that he would be right over and hung up the phone. About an hour later, he showed up at my house with visible signs that he had had a fight with his dad. He apologized to me, and my tears made him want to cry. Seven words changed both of our lives that day. And even though our young romance didn’t last, we both learned that regardless of whom you choose to love, love is worth fighting for.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Ha! I’m almost afraid to answer this question. Carlos Velasquez is based on a real person. When I was fifteen and very impressionable, I had a pen pal that was ten years older than me and more obsessed with vampires than I was at the time. He dressed like Barnabas Collins, fantasized about becoming a vampire, wrote extremely inappropriate love letters to me with erotic fiction that featured our vampire alter egos, and he even sent me a vial of his blood. I met him in person three times. The second time, he tried to convince me to spend the weekend with him in New York when I was sixteen. Can you say sexual predator?
Perhaps unwisely, I maintained contact with him until I was about twenty-five. So, it was a long and strange friendship. He never hurt me though or tried to do anything inappropriate beyond the fantasies he shared with me in his letters. As you can imagine, he made a lasting impression.
What does literary success look like to you? Do you think you’ve attained it?
I suppose success is something my favorite writers have achieved—publishing multiple books and stories, establishing a writing career that pays the bills, gaining a following of readers who look forward to their next book. Writers I admire who immediately come to mind as successful are Toni Morrison, Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Joe R. Lansdale, Anne Rice, Octavia Butler, and Joe Hill. With these folks who inspire me in mind, no I haven’t attained it, but I’m going to keep writing in the hopes that I do.
Have you read anything that really made you think differently about fiction?
Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991) had a major impact on how I thought about my own writing and the kinds of stories I could tell as a woman of color. I wanted to write about vampires, but as far as I knew, women of color weren’t writing about them.
I had read a lot of vampire fiction, seen a lot of vampire movies and TV shows, but there weren’t many black characters in these stories. Aside from the Blaxploitation film Blacula (1972) and Akasha and Enkil, the original vampires in Anne Rice’s The Queen of the Damned (1988), I wasn’t seeing a lot of black vampires. To be honest, I didn’t really think of Akasha and Enkil as black even though they were Egyptian, because their skin had turned to the color and texture of marble. Gomez is not only a woman of color, but she wrote a vampire novel about a black bisexual female vampire that challenged many aspects of the traditional vampire myth. Gomez’s book gave me the green light to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. So, a few months ago when Jewelle Gomez agreed to read Invisible Chains and had some very positive things to say about the book, I was beside myself with joy. I think I actually squealed when I read her feedback.
What was your hardest scene to write?
There were a lot of scenes that were hard to write, because they deal with some very difficult subjects. But, oddly enough, one of the hardest scenes to write is when Jacqueline takes back her power and stands up to the vampire. I don’t want to give too much away, because I hate spoilers. While I was writing that scene, I felt like I was Jacqueline summoning the strength she needed to protect herself and establish herself as a formidable and powerful woman. I had to dig deep and exorcise some of my own demons to write that scene. It took me three months to finish it, and I had a lot of encouragement from my mentor, Lucy A. Snyder, and my critique partners, Patricia Lillie and Amber Bliss. They gave me the support I needed to make that scene happen.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Very much so. I am extremely fortunate to have such a supportive family who believes in me and encourages me to keep following my dreams.
How often do you write?
Not as often I should. I’ve been struggling to make writing a top priority for quite some time, but I know that must change if I’m going to take myself seriously enough to keep cranking out fiction. I work full-time and I’m a single parent, so there are plenty of days when I don’t write a single word. But I’ve come to realize that writing is one of the few things that makes me happy and, unless I’m doing it every day, I’m not happy.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
At the moment, finding the time and motivation to write every day. I get hung up on all the other things happening in my life and I neglect the thing that matters most to me.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
Finding story ideas. My brain is constantly coming up with plotlines and snippets of dialog for characters I’m writing about or who want to be written about. I live in a fantasy world inside my head much of the time, so coming up with stories is easy. Making the time to write them, not so much.
Do you read much and, if so, who are your favorite authors?
I mentioned some of the writers I admire earlier, like Charlaine Harris, Toni Morrison, and Jim Butcher. I try to read often, but lately I’ve been listening to audiobooks because I can do other things while I listen. In the past three years, I’ve listened to every novel in the Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost, and her Night Price series.
I dove into the Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. I enjoyed listening to Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box, Horns, The Fireman, NOS4A2 and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, so I’m well-acquainted with Inscapes.
Some of my guiltier pleasures include the 50 Shades series, which is great to listen to on long drives because the books are very entertaining and can make you feel much better about yourself as a writer. I have some biographies lined up to read later this summer to research some new characters while plotting the sequel to Invisible Chains.