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.
What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over adecade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
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 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.
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.
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.
What makes for an effective monster in a horror story? Noel Carroll in his dissertation, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990), asserts that a proper monster must be both threatening and impure.
Broader scopes of fiction seek to induce fear in the reader. But Carroll states:
…[T]he character’s emotional reaction to the monstrous in horror stories is not merely a matter of fear…. Rather, threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust. …[T]he tendency in horror novels and stories [is] to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on. … The monster is not only lethal, but also disgusting. (p. 22)
Is Your Monster Threatening?
The monster in horror fiction must be threatening—physically, psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually—or all of the above. It must be able to hurt your body, your mind, your relationships, your conscience, or your soul.
If you’re working on a story of your own, consider the following exercises, helpful in the planning stage.
Build Your Threatening Monster
Describe how your monster is threatening to your characters in one of more of the following ways:
Is Your Monster Impure?
The horror monster must also be impure. What do we consider impure? Anything that “violates the generally accepted schemes of cultural categorization.” We consider impure that which is categorically contradictory, such as:
The categorically ambiguous: amphibians (they both swim and hop, can exist both in water and out of water)
Incomplete representatives of their class: rotting things, things not fully formed, things with parts missing (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
Formless things: dirt, blobs, fog
More Carroll categories of the categorically contradictory (what a horrific tongue twister!) include:
Fusion: Disparate entities fused into one stable being. Example: The spider-like erector-set creature with the bald, one-eyed doll’s head in Toy Story.
Fission: Disparate entities that change into and back from something horrible at different times (or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite). Example: Werewolves and other shape-shifters. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Massification: Hordes. Unnaturally large numbers of something dangerous or relatively harmless. Example: Jellyfish in the movie Sphere. Birds. Rats. Locusts. Snakes. Spiders in Arachnophobia. Zombies. Vampires in I Am Legend.
Metonymy: Something not revolting in itself associated with things that are. Example: The rats and wolves that attend Dracula.
Build Your Impure Monster
Describe how your monster is impure in one or more of the following ways:
An incomplete representation of its class
Fusion (disparate entities fused into one stable being)
Fission (disparate entities that change at different times, or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite)
Massification (hordes of something dangerous or relatively harmless)
Metonymy (something not revolting in itself associated with things that are)
Fire Up the Tesla Coils!
To give life to your horrific monster, you must build it from the right parts. Your monster must be regarded as BOTH: 1) threatening, and 2) impure.
If it is only threatening, then the emotion is fear. If it is only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror! (p. 28)
We’ll talk more about the philosophy horror in future posts. You’ve been warned…
I’m seeking beta readers for a 52,000-word psychological thriller/horror novel.
Pay is involved. Contact me if you’re interested in being a beta reader. Thanks.
THE BEDWETTER by Lee Allen Howard
Journal of a budding psychopath Armed with electric hair trimmers and a military fighting knife,
Russell accepts his dark commission.
Russell Pisarek is twenty-six years old and still wets the bed. He grew up different from other young men because his vicious mother punished him for wetting by shaving his head. When he confided this to his girlfriend Tina, she betrayed him, advertising his problem to all their high school classmates, who turned on him mercilessly. He took out his frustration by skinning neighborhood cats.
Now fixated on paying women back, Russell fantasizes about finding just the right girl—so he can shave her bald. He struggles to overcome his dark tendencies, but when his sister discovers he’s wetting again, she kicks him out of her house.
During this time of stress, the mythical Piss Fairy appears in his dreams, and Russell is driven to satisfy his twisted desires with his innocent coworker Uma, who also needs a new roommate.
When his plans go awry, the Piss Fairy commissions him for a much darker task that graduates him from shaving to scalping—and worse.
This novel depicts intense violence, hardcore horror, and disturbing psychological terror in the vein of such works as Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie, and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
Although THE BEDWETTER is a fascinating in-depth character study into the mind and actions of a misogynistic and homophobic psychopath, the story events are vicious and brutal, the language coarse, and the approach to their reporting is cold and unflinching.
This book is not for the faint of heart or those easily offended by language, sex, or violence. Read at your own risk.