I just spent the past five days at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to get “F”ed. Or to start getting “F”ed. Let me explain…
Back in 2006, I completed SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate program to earn a Master of Arts in genre fiction writing. Death Perception (my fourth novel) was my thesis. SHU since upgraded the program to an Master of Fine Arts (a terminal degree), so I applied again last fall and was accepted. So I’m going back for the F.
The extra 27 credits will center on the teaching of creative writing and writing about popular fiction—something I want to do more of in the coming years. I’d also like to teach at the university level when I retire from technical writing.
The program consists of three week-long residencies, one in January and the other in June, graduating the following January. I’ll be working on another novel, tentatively titled Elder-Feral. My faculty mentor is Scott A. Johnson, author of Shy Grove: A Ghost Story and Cane River: A Ghost Story.
If you subscribe to my private email newsletter, I’ve kept you posted on my novel-writing progress. (If you’re not subscribed, you can subscribe here.) But here’s the past, present, and future of my writing projects. I’ve also got some short stories in the works not listed here.
Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
Developing an idea
Structuring the external plot
Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
Writing effective scenes
Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
Revising your work
Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.
After thirty years of querying agents, I finally landed one! Here’s the story…
I’ve been working on novel #6, LGBTQ horror/romance, for almost ten years. I submitted it to several dozen agents, none of whom asked for the full manuscript. Last year I submitted it to a dream publisher that took five months to get back to me with a rejection. Sigh. I queried another publisher who quickly declined. (Rejection sucks, but if my work’s going to be rejected, I’d rather know sooner than later.)
A couple of months ago, I sent the book to one final LGBTQ publisher and forgot about it, expecting an eventual rejection.
Earlier this month, I sent the manuscript to my editor, who made comments and sent it back to me. After making revisions, I submitted it to an agent. I decided that if he turned me down, I would self-publish.
A week later, the publisher replied and said they wanted to send me a contract. I was so excited! I told them so, and they sent the contract.
Of course, what agent wouldn’t want to represent a new client who already has a contract offer in hand? I emailed the agent I had queried and, believe it or not, he declined to represent me. Sigh, sigh. So I would have to negotiate the contract myself.
When I read the contract, two clauses made me very uneasy. The publisher wanted me to give away worldwide rights in all translations in every form of media as well as forfeit my intellectual property rights. I asked around, and scads of HWA members told me to not walk but run away from this “offer.”
Needless to say, I was disappointed. I replied to the publisher and declined to enter into an agreement with them. I’d lost an agent and a publisher in one day. Sigh, sigh, sigh.
I resigned to self-publish the book, but a final Facebook comment came in from an agent who offered to look at the contract. I emailed her and chanced asking if she’d consider representing me. Good news is, she said yes!
Yesterday, I signed on as a client with Tabatha Pope of SBR Media. A dream I’ve had for thirty years has finally come true!
Tabatha’s putting together a pitch package to potential publishers for novel #6, The Covenant Sacrifice. I also uploaded my backlist (Death Perception, The Bedwetter, etc.) so that she can try selling foreign publication and other media rights.
Stay tuned for more about #6, #7 (horror/mystery), and #8 (LGBTQ supernatural horror). And if you’re hoping for agency representation, keep submitting and don’t give up. It may take a lot longer than you thought it would, but there’s always hope.
You can enter different projects, such as short stories or novels. I’m in the early stages of working on novel number seven: plotting and outlining. My project page is below. WordKeeper displays my daily target word count based on the completion date I set. It shows daily progress as well as total progress toward my projected word count. It also provides stats about time, sessions, words, writing phases, and locations (which I don’t use). (Scroll down past the image for the rest of this post.)
When I sit down at my laptop to write, the first thing I do is open WordKeeper and start the timer. Then I write for an hour or two, stopping the timer when I’m done. Last evening, I got home late from dinner and only got 50 minutes in.
WordKeeper then displays the Session page, showing my stats for that session: start and end times, any pauses I made, and the duration of the session. If I were writing, I would enter a word count. But right now, I’m still outlining.
WordKeeper is helping me track my fiction writing progress so that I can be more productive.
When I get to the writing phase, hopefully in a week or two, I will start racking up the word count. WordKeeper will keep me on track to meet my deadline.
I like WordKeeper. It’s easy to use and has more features than I have time to explore. It’s $2.99 a month—the cost of a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking to track your fiction writing progress and productivity, you can learn more at https://wordkeeper.app/.
Ideation: This is generating a story idea. I do this purposely several times a week on Twitter. For example:
You open the front door to get the mail. In the mailbox is a severed hand. Who put it there and why. How do you find out?
Brainstorming: Great idea. (I’ll write it someday.) But it needs a little—okay, a lot—of work. Here’s where I go through a process of answering questions about my character and his or her goals. I do a lot of work before I tackle structure. After all, I need events and motivation to plot.
Plotting: I develop character arcs for all my major characters and conform the brainstormed material into classic story structure. More at How to Write Stories that Sell.
Outlining: Here, I sort the information into a sequential scene-by-scene list from which I’ll write. I like my ducks in a row so that when I plant my butt in the chair, I can write without interruption.
Drafting: Using my outline, I write from beginning to end, incorporating all the information from my brainstorming, plotting, and outlining. I use Scrivener to build my manuscripts.
Editing: After one or more days, I’ll print the draft and edit it, making sure all the necessary information is in place and that I’m using the best language to tell a story. I go through at least five drafts before I consider the story ready for the reading public.
Marketing: I now have everything beta read. (If you’re a published writer and are willing to beta-read my fiction, contact me.) After final changes, I submit it to markets. If I don’t place a work after a while, I publish it myself.
This is my process, and I hope to perfect it this year so that I’m regularly churning out story after story, novel after novel. Expect to see more published this year. If learning about my process has been helpful to you, please leave a comment. I’d like to know your process, too.
I’ve been a lover of horror since, let’s see… Well, I don’t ever remember not being a lover of horror.
One of my earliest memories is of my family watching the original Salem’s Lot miniseries when it first aired in 1979. I was five. In the intervening years (no, I won’t tell you how many, and how rude of you to ask!), I’ve delved into every conceivable type of horror there is, and I love it all.
But when it comes to subgenres within the wider genre, I must admit I have a favorite.
Tales of spooks, apparitions, and hauntings really hit my sweet spot. I enjoy other subgenres—vampires and serial killers and werewolves and, yes, even zombies—but ghosts thrill me most.
I’ve written many ghost stories. Hell, I published a haunted house novel, 324 Abercorn, last year, and my latest release, 2B, is about a haunted apartment. I can’t get enough of exploring this subject.
Why, you ask? Good question.
It boils down to my penchant for atmospheric horror over the more graphic. Don’t get me wrong, blood and guts don’t bother me, but when it comes to what really scares me, I favor more subtle things and the ambiguous. Uncertainty and the unknown haunt me, pardon the pun, longer than something more concrete and in my face.
Ghost stories aren’t the only types that employ the atmospheric approach, but they do it most effectively. At least for me.
Ghost stories often start out subtly, with things slightly off kilter, the characters questioning if it’s all in their minds. This early part, when things are uncertain, is what I find the most suspenseful and unnerving, because we’ve all been there. Did I move my wallet from the table to the counter and simply don’t remember? Did the glass fall because it was sitting too close to the table’s edge? Is that noise like footsteps only the house settling? (After years of watching haunted house movies, “the house settling” has become to me a euphemism for “This house is haunted as shit, and we should get out before blood starts pouring out of the walls!”)
In my favorite ghost stories, such as The Dwelling by Susie Malonie and Stephen King’s The Shining, suspense gradually builds and tension tightens as events escalate. Even then there can be ambiguity. Some ghost stories intentionally leave you unsure if the haunting was real, suggesting the main character had a breakdown and was imagining it all. This in itself can be horrifying. I’d rather have an undead spirit in my house than realize I’m losing my mind and my grip on reality.
One terrifying implication of ghost stories is that we can never truly escape toxic or dangerous people. If death cannot stop some folks from tormenting us, then what hope is there?
The flipside is that those we love and cherish may never really leave us and, in this respect, some ghost stories can end on an uplifting note. This doesn’t make them any less horror, as I don’t believe all horror stories must end with the death of hope.
These thoughts are why ghost stories are my favorite horror subgenre and why I keep going back to it.
To see what I mean, check out my new novel, 2B, available in ebook and paperback on Amazon. “When your ex wants you dead, they will take you to the grave with them!”
I’ve read a ton of how-to-write-fiction books including a number of texts on writing horror, but Tim Waggoner’s Writing in the Dark is the best of them all.
It opens with an intro by Tom Monteleone of Borderlands fame demonstrating why Waggoner is qualified to write the book. He’s a prolific writer of both horror/dark fantasy and media tie-ins. In the preface, Waggoner reveals why he writes horror. We’re of roughly the same age, and his journey in many ways mirrors mine. (It’s great to meet a new member of the Horror Family. Weirdos unite!)
He progresses through chapters such as “Why Horror Matters” and “Things Unknown” and turns a corner with “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” He covers various subgenres of horror, generating unique ideas for stories, and building one-of-a-kind monsters. I especially enjoyed the chapters “The Horror Hero’s Journey” (Poor Bastard’s Descent into Hell) and the importance of including an emotional core relayed through immersive POV.
Every chapter is insightful, helpful, and entertaining. Each ends with exercises to enable eager writers to implement what they’ve just learned as well as three or four “voices from the shadows”—accomplished horror writers—who discuss what makes good horror and best advice for beginning writers.
Waggoner teaches college-level writing, so you’re getting a college course in a book. I love to study, so I consider it a textbook that’s also a tasty morsel of how-to darkness.
My rating is 4.6 stars. The book lost a few tenths because the type is so small. As I read through, I was hoping for a workbook that expanded the exercises. Well, Guide Dog Books/Raw Dog Screaming Press recently announced a companion workbook is coming, so I’m excited about that. I’ll be buying it, too, when it comes out. But I hope the type is a little bigger for those like me over fifty.
I can’t recommend this text highly enough. Whether you’re a beginning, intermediate, or advanced horror writer, you’ll get something useful to take your writing to the next horrific level.
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.