Writing In The Dark. Horror Writing Tips With Tim Waggoner

How do you write your darkness without drowning in it? How do you write an original horror story while still respecting the tropes of the genre? Why are horror writers the nicest people around?!

Tim Waggoner gives some craft tips for writing horror, as well as thoughts on the current publishing and TV/film environment.

In the intro, Bookwire’s report on audience behavior in the age of ebooks, audiobooks, and podcasts [Publishing Perspectives]; positive report on the ebook market during COVID19 [Written Word Media]; and library digital subscription and borrowing is up [The Guardian]; Google Play introduces promo codes; Reflections on the end of the general trade concept from Mike Shatzkin and what a possible big publishing merger might bring; The end of the summer blockbuster and a changing model for the film industry, which is reflected in the indie author business model [Kristine Kathryn Rusch].

Plus, my solo episode on Walk Your Own Race: Lessons Learned from Walking a 50km Ultra-Marathon, and photos from my 6-day pilgrimage at Instagram @jfpennauthor.


Do you need help finding an editor, book cover designer, or someone to do your book marketing? Find a curated list of vetted professionals at the Reedsy marketplace, along with free training on writing, self-publishing, and book marketing. Check it out at www.TheCreativePenn.com/reedsy

Tim Waggoner is the best selling and Bram Stoker award-winning author of over 50 novels and 7 short story collections across dark fantasy and horror, as well as writing tie-ins. He’s also a professor of creative writing at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. His latest book for authors is Writing in the Dark, on the craft of writing horror fiction.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • How exploring our darkness means we don’t have to be afraid of it
  • Why it’s important not to re-traumatize yourself when writing
  • The variety that exists within the horror genre
  • Ideas for elevating horror writing
  • Finding empathy for your villains
  • How to be original while using horror tropes
  • The future of horror in the publishing marketplace
  • Writing movie and television tie-in books

You can find Tim Waggoner at TimWaggoner.com and on Twitter @timwaggoner

Transcript of Interview with Tim Waggoner

Joanna: Tim Waggoner is the best selling and Bram Stoker award-winning author of over 50 novels and 7 short story collections across dark fantasy and horror, as well as writing tie-ins. He’s also a professor of creative writing at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. And his latest book for authors is Writing in the Dark on the craft of writing horror fiction.

Welcome, Tim.

Tim: Well, thanks for having me.

Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show.

To start off, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing as well as why you decided to focus on horror.

Tim: I’m not so sure I got into either, it’s just they were kind of a natural outgrowth of myself. I had been interested in all kinds of scary things since I was little. One of the first movies I remember watching was ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman’ and I was probably 3 or 4. My mom and dad were watching it with me back when just these things would show up on TV occasionally.

You couldn’t choose them like you can now. And why they let a 4-year-old watch this thing I don’t know. But I was absolutely fascinated with this movie. And I’ve been fascinated with monsters ever since.

In terms of writing, it’s the same thing. I used to make up stories all the time, mostly they would be tiny little impromptu plays with people I’d be playing with, friends and such, or maybe with the toys and action figures I’d have around. Sometimes for hours, I’d make up these little stories and act them out.

So as time went by, it was natural that these two things I think would blend together and have me end up writing horror. I find horror to be a wonderful blank canvas because, in the shadows, you can imagine anything could be there. And I think it lends itself to fiction for that reason.

Joanna: It is interesting that your parents let you watch scary movies like that. I think ‘E.T.’ was my first scary movie. And I remember hiding behind the couch. I must have been 7 or 8, I think when ‘E.T.’ came out. So it started really early for you.

Tim: Yes, it did. And my parents allowed me to read all kinds of horror comic books, and never censored anything that I read, didn’t worry about it too much. And I’m not really sure why. I know my dad was big into science fiction and fantasy, not so much horror. But I think that because of that he was a lot more tolerant of just letting us read whatever we wanted as opposed to monitoring what we read and watched.

Joanna: I think that’s interesting. I’m happily child-free, but I do feel like there’s a bit of a taboo of letting children read horror. Because you’re a professor of creative writing, you teach young people, obviously not little kids.

Do you encourage people to read whatever they’re interested in at any age, or do you think that the way horror is now portrayed that it should be for older people?

Tim: I guess it depends on the level of horror because horror is like a buffet. There are so many different choices available. I think that because, especially with the internet, people can access some pretty extreme horror if they want to.

Children who are 18 or whatever, or at least below their teens, preteens, I think that parents should probably be a little more careful about what they read or what material that they’re consuming. But otherwise no, I think it’s pretty healthy for people to just graze and sample all kinds of things and then see what speaks to them. And different things will speak to you at different times in your life.

Joanna: I think you’re right. In my experience, horror writers are some of the nicest people out there and I love your title Writing in the Dark.

Why is writing our darkness on the page so important?

Tim: My wife is not a horror fan at all. But she loves to go to horror conventions for that reason. She says horror people are the nicest people that she’s ever met. And I had a student ask me once she said, ‘You seem so pleasant, how can you write the kind of things that you do?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘What do you think keeps me so pleasant?’

There’s something to be said for getting out all kinds of things that are in us.

In a lot of ways, writing our darkness allows us to map it and explore it.

And when you do that, it doesn’t have as much power over you. You’re not afraid to think things that might be considered dark or you’re not afraid to kind of confront whatever kind of negativity might be inside you. It loses its power in a lot of ways.

I think it’s a catharsis, that kind of exorcism, through entertainment, which I think really makes a huge difference. I can’t imagine what I’d been like if I didn’t write those kinds of stuff.

Joanna: You’ve written a lot of books and I haven’t written as many as you, but I’ve forgotten what I’ve put into books. But it’s almost like once you’ve written it, it’s gone. It’s out of your head. Do you have that same experience?

Tim: Yes, I do. And it’s weird sometimes when you find yourself accidentally repeating, and you don’t realize that you used kind of a story structure, situation, or character type in a book before just because you don’t remember. It’s also weird answering questions about books.

I remember when I first started going to conventions, and listening to writers on panels, and they say something like, ‘I don’t really remember writing that book.’ And I’d think, ‘How in the world could anybody not remember writing a book?’ And I don’t remember a lot of the stuff that was in my book, so people will ask me a question about it, I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure. Yeah, I meant to do that.’ I have no memory of doing that.

Joanna: That actually makes me feel better. I’m glad to hear you say that.

Tim: I think it’s really normal.

Joanna: The question on writing darkness is how do we stop ourselves from self-censoring? Sometimes we might be thinking something and we’re like, ‘I want to put that in a story. But what if my mom reads it? Or what if my wife reads it? Or what if my kid reads it at some point and they think that I’m some terrible person?’

How do we write the darkness but equally, be really truthful?

Tim: One advantage we have is that the people who love us won’t change their reading habits just because they love us. So your family, unless they already love it they probably won’t read the stuff that you write, they will support you in it. But it’s just like any other profession, your family doesn’t follow you to work and watch you the entire time you’re at work.

They’ll listen to you tell stories about it, and maybe proud of you because of what you do. But they don’t experience it the same way that either your customers or your clients or in our case our readers do. I feel perfectly free to put anything at all about my family and friends in my work, disguise it a little bit, but I don’t worry about them reading it.

My oldest daughter tried to read one of my books and she got to a scene I’d written when she was very little. But she’s probably 20 or so when she decided to read it. And she got to a scene that was set in a park that she used to go to when she was a child, and it happens to be one of the most extreme scenes I’ve ever written. And she just stopped reading at that point. She’s like, “I’m done.”

I asked her if it changed the way that she looked at me and she said, “Not really, because I know it’s just imagining and you’re my dad, but I don’t want to read that stuff.” So, I don’t really worry about it too much.

I do think about disguising it to a certain degree just in case. And also because I want to have the freedom to treat it fictionally. I don’t want to just like write an essay. I want to be able to take an event, or an idea, or a character and make it my own.

Joanna: I agree. And another question that people have asked me is what if you fictionalized something that did happen to you, and or a situation where you were terrified, it might not be the serial killer or whatever, but something happened like the park you mentioned, maybe the terror of your child being out there in the world, it can make you scared, right? But what if you write things and you feel like perhaps you’re trapped in that darkness?

I think the question was from someone who really felt like, ‘I don’t want to dwell on my dark past.’

Tim: That could be a real concern. Years ago, I was teaching a workshop at a literary center and it was about writing personal horror, horror drawn from our own lives. And I was much younger, and I had not been teaching workshops like this. There were a number of adults there, but there were also a couple of young teenage girls that were there.

One of them, when it came time to do an exercise, she wrote about terrible abuse that she had suffered. And we did our best to talk to her and try to get her some help afterward and such. But what I learned from this is that you can’t just pour things that happened to us onto the page necessarily, and have it be cathartic in a way that creates a positive reading experience, entertainment experience for somebody.

You really need to be able to find ways to channel that. And if you have dark things in your life that are too hard to deal with for whatever reasons, you don’t have to traumatize yourself to create art. There’s no need to hurt yourself to do this.

It’s okay to use your imagining, it’s okay to go ahead and very obliquely kind of glance at something that happened to you. So maybe there was a time when a parent was very verbally abusive to you, you don’t have to write that scene word for word. You can write a scene where your character is getting dressed down by a supervisor at work, and maybe draw a little bit on some of those emotions.

But you don’t have to wallow in your own darkness. Because for a lot of people, that would be re-traumatizing yourself and not only does that not make good art, it’s not healthy for you as an individual.

Joanna: I think that’s right. And I consider myself very lucky as a person, I’ve had a really great life, but I like some dark stuff.

Is there a personality you think that would be drawn to horror, and the darker side, even when life has been rosy?

Tim: My life has been pretty much the same. Although when I talk to my wife and say that, ‘My life has been without any kind of problem.’ She’s, like, ‘Seriously?’ Sometimes I think our lives seem normal to us where they don’t necessarily seem normal to people looking in from the outside.

But I think that there’s a tendency to see whatever is not normal. The first thing I’ll notice about anything is any kind of deviation of it. I’ll notice the piece of lint on a shirt before I’ll notice the shirt or the color really, I’d see the lint first. It kind of drives my wife crazy sometimes because she’ll talk about, ‘Let’s do this.’ And I’ll immediately think of all the things that could go wrong if we don’t plan for them, or it just pops into my head.

I think a lot of people who are attracted to horror, it’s on some level because it’s not that we see the world in dark ways. It’s just that we see the things that just strike us as out of place or not normal. And even if it doesn’t provoke any kind of anxiety, it starts to stimulate your imagination. You wonder why is it like this and what could have caused it? What might be done to fix it?

I also think there’s a wonderful delight and surprise that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen in a horror story. Not the same way that you might in the stories that follow, if not a predictable pattern, but kind of a safer pattern like in a mystery where you know that even though all the bad things might occur to your protagonist, order’s going to be restored in the end and the mystery is going to be solved.

In horror, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. I think that people who also like maybe I can’t stand going on amusement park rides, especially rollercoasters and stuff. If they put like a steering wheel in the first car and let me drive it I might be okay. I cannot stand being at the mercy of that. But some people love those kind of adrenaline rushes and I think those kind of people are attracted to horror too.

Joanna: I think the important thing to mention to people listening in if they don’t read horror is how vast the genre is. I read mostly aspects of the supernatural in horror. My favorite Stephen King book is The Stand and to me, the aspect that draws me the most is the supernatural angle. The fact that it has a plague that wipes out most of humanity, to me is a small point beyond the kind of more supernatural battle of good and evil, which is the horror I like.

What are some of the sub-genres of horror that people might think of?

Tim: There’s supernatural horror, like you spoke of, which I think a lot of people imagine when they think of horror. There’s the psychological horror of somebody just as a human being who is trying to harm other people.

Certainly, in horror film people love slasher movies and for them, that’s what horror is all about. There’s psychological horror where the horror can come from misperceptions people have or things that are happening inside them that they can’t quite control.

There’s dark fantasy, which is where the horror element is there, but reality is a lot more bendable in the way that it isn’t a fantasy. A lot of Clive Barker’s novels are like that. There’s cosmic horror, which is the idea that the entire universe itself might be malign on some level, and that if we were to glimpse what was going on behind the scenes, it would be too much for us.

There’s a lot of horror that just is existential and like, what is the meaning? What do we mean? There’s science fiction blends with horror as well, super popular. I mean, if The Stand didn’t have the supernatural aspect, it would definitely be a science fiction kind of horror.

So really, horror is one of the elements that can fit with any other type of story, even a category romance as long as it turns out happily in the end, it could be a certain amount of horrific along the way. And certainly, a number of adventure and horror stories or dark stories have a romantic element in them at any rate. I think horror is not just broad, but it’s super versatile too.

Joanna: I think it’s interesting because I feel like because so many horror novels can be standalone, that it also lends itself to literary writing, in that the prize-winning, you are a prize-winning author, award-winning author. When I read some of these Bram Stoker award-winning books, to me, it moves into literature and much more than some of the other genre fiction categories to me. And obviously, you’re a professor of writing.

Where do you think horror is lifted into literature?

Tim: I think that since horror stories have been around for so long in literature, I think that they were already baked into what people consider literature, as opposed to newer things like mysteries and science fiction. It was a long tradition of folklore, and legends, and myths that have horrific elements.

Even a writer like Poe was considered literary. When you go back and read his stuff and if a lot of it was just written in today’s language, I don’t know if people would think of it as literary just to kind of plots that he has and things like that. So I think a lot of it, like I said, it’s just baked into sort of the canon of what people consider good literature.

Science fiction, I think has caught up pretty well in some ways. And I think that crime writing, mystery writing, maybe not category mysteries, but more like crime writing and suspense writing is gaining literary acceptance too.

And I think the fact that horror can deal with the darkness in people’s lives or the darkness of life, that sets itself up for literary themes in a lot of ways. Because you don’t really think of literary fiction as being happy and fun, and chocolates that we might just eat for fun one after the other. When you think of it as dealing with more heavy and weighty subjects, and I think horror is already primed to do that.

Joanna: That’s a good point. So I did want to ask you, because I find this fascinating, so what does make an award-winning horror story beyond something that might be not award-winning? And you obviously read a lot and you write a lot, and I know this is such a hard question.

How do we lift our writing up to an award-winning level?

Tim: I think a big way is to be concerned with the way it’s presented. The style of it, the way the story is told, not so much to try to write in a way that’s not normal for you, but in a way that is attempting something different or new for you, stretching yourself to a certain degree.

Probably the same with the concepts that you use too, if you’re just writing a story about a vampire, and the vampire is the same as a million vampires that we’ve seen before in movies and read about in books. There’s probably no kind of real, the least obvious, artistic approach to that because you’re not doing anything new with it, you’re not trying to say anything new about it.

I think that it helps to think about the way you’re telling the story. And then what are you trying to say that’s new or different in this particular story? It doesn’t mean that stories that are entertainment-based and might just have a normal vampire in it that everybody’s familiar with it, not that there’s anything wrong with those. But I think the stories that tend to get recognized for awards, it’s a matter of elevated craft and then also elevated ideas or things.

Joanna: Absolutely. I love getting the Bram Stoker nomination email and I will often go and buy a ton of them and read them. I’ve found so many good books that way. And really interesting stories and original stories.

On the other side of that, what are some of the biggest mistakes that writers make when they write horror?

Tim: This happens for beginning writers of all kinds really, is that we take in so many more stories through visual media, in most of those movies and TV shows, maybe thousands upon thousands of hours more than we actually read. And I think because of that, a lot of people when they write, try to recreate the experience of watching visual media.

It’s very different, visual media. The audience is passive receivers of all this information that is just given to us. And when we read, what we’re doing is we’re decoding information from marks on a page and creating a reality inside our heads. It’s much more participatory.

Those two ways of approaching communicating stories are very different. And so, when somebody sits down to write and they’re just emulating visual media, it’s all just movement and sound. And it’s all very detached as if we’re not in anybody’s head, we don’t know what anybody’s thinking or feeling. And because of this, it’s just flat and lifeless.

And especially for horror, because horror happens inside a person. I’ll tell people if you imagine a monster hanging out in the middle of a field and it’s alone, there’s no worry. It’s just a monster hanging out. It’s only a monster when somebody is there to perceive it and be threatened by it and consider it monstrous.

We really need to be, to at least some degree, in our characters and showing what these characters are experiencing, putting readers into their heads. And I think that when you try to write it from the detached point of view of a passive observer, like in visual media, I think that’s a huge mistake.

Joanna: So going deeper into the character who’s experiencing whatever the horror is, but also going into the antagonist. I’m thinking of The Stand again because I’m listening to it on audiobook. It’s so long. But the voices of the characters are so different and the bad characters versus the good characters as such. It’s being in these characters that make it come to life.

Tim: It’s difficult to write from the perspective of somebody who’s ‘bad’ because it’s tempting to just make them a stereotypical villain that are just evil because they’re evil. And even if they are, it’s a supernatural thing. And you are in the head, or at least we get to hear the supernatural entity speak. There’s that same kind of temptation to make them just cartoonish kind of versions of evil.

The more that you can personify evil to a certain degree, if you’re not going to have it just be like in the Lord of the Rings, where it’s a force off-stage. Sauron’s never really on stage at all. But if you are going to personify it, I think it helps to give it a little bit of personality somehow.

If you’re going to be writing maybe more human-based characters that are bad, I think that you have to find some level of sympathy with them and empathy with them. It’s one of the hardest things for me to do as a writer. In one of the books I had out not long ago called The Forever House, I decided I would take a character who was a pedophile. And he never has and he never does in the entire book ever harm a child, his whole character is fighting against this impulse that he has.

But in order to write about it, I had to get into this person’s head so doing some research and just trying to be empathetic. And instead of focusing on what his obsession was, I just tried to focus on somebody who was wanting to do the right thing, and having to fight something that he recognized, was battered himself, was evil on himself.

Trying to find a level of some kind of connection or empathy. I think that if you’re writing a human villain, even if they’re doing terrible, terrible things, if you can find the part of them that is still human in them, I think that allows you to be able to write from inside their heads.

Joanna: I’ve got to say, in my thrillers, I really enjoy writing the villains who want to destroy the world, and always trying to come up with new ways to destroy the world, which is fun. And I mean, clearly, that’s quite different to my ‘good characters,’ but I actually think I have much more fun with the bad guys who just generally blow a lot of things up. So that’s thriller, I guess. But it is a fascinating challenge.

You mentioned visual media and the fact that we consume so much visual media. And, for example, I really do want to write a zombie book at some point. But when I think zombie, in my head I might think of the White Walkers in ‘The Game of Thrones’ TV show, or I might think of ‘The Walking Dead.’ And that’s what comes off in my head.

Now also, I’ve read Jonathan Maberry’s books, Rot & Ruin and some of World War Z and all those, and then I think, ‘How on earth could I write anything original that would have a zombie in?’

How do we take the tropes of horror and come up with something that actually might be original?

Tim: There’s all kinds of ways to do it. One way is to reverse it. My zombie novel The Way of All Flesh, the way I came up with a different premise was to have the zombies actually think that they’re human or seem like they’re human, and not realize that they’re dead.

My main character is trying to figure out what’s going on where to everybody else, they seem like zombies. So I just kind of spun it around, what if zombies didn’t think they were zombies?

Other things you can do is you can mix and match different kinds of images. Zombies for a long time were slow and so then they got made fast, which changed things. Maybe you change the way that they’ve presented. I think it was in the movie of ‘World War Z,’ they made them bird-like in the way they moved and clack their teeth and such.

Or you can make yours a cat-like, they’re dead but they still have cat-like reflexes and behaviors. There’s all kinds of things that you can do to just make things different. You just change the paradigm of it.

Another way is to try to figure out what lies at the heart of a trope, and then create something that embodies that that might not be obvious.

And the examples whenever I talk about this in workshops are characters like Jason from ‘Friday the 13th.’ If you look at Jason, and if you think about it, he’s nothing more than the Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper has a skull, which is a white face that does not move, for all intents and purposes it’s kind of featureless. Jason has his hockey mask. The Grim Reaper is in a monochromatic robe and Jason’s in a monochromatic sort of outfit. And the Grim Reaper wields a scythe and Jason has a great, big machete that he wields. So he’s just the bringer of death. That’s the silent bringer of death that comes. And we can’t stop. It just comes when it comes.

Freddy Krueger is Satan. He’s a demonic character, he’s associated with fire, he torments people. His life glove is like a trident in his face, even if you look at it, the way he’s done is almost like sort of a cartoonish depiction of a devil. And so he would be like the tormentor from another world.

If you can figure out a trope and what lies at its core, you can basically put a new set of clothes on it. And what’s nice about that is then it has all the impact of the core nature of that trope without any of the baggage of it. So we don’t have the cartoon devils in our heads when we watch Freddy Krueger, we don’t have cartoon Grim Reapers in our heads when we watch Jason.

So getting to the core of a trope and then kind of building your own sort of shell around that or a way to express it. You can also take something like the way a vampire feeds on people, you can turn that around to whatever vampire feeds other people as opposed to draining from them. What if it gives people something? What if there’s an exchange instead of just it being one way?

You don’t even have to call your character the monster vampire at that point, and give it a different name, it doesn’t matter. By doing that, it was, again, you don’t have all the baggage of the vampire trope, but you have the power that lies at the heart of that trope.

So those are the kind of things I usually tell people in terms of trying to find something that is, like, really powerful and kind of new for your own horror.

Joanna: Those are some great ideas there. And then I guess the other thing would be lots of visual media is that people associate horror with the action as you say, so his high body count, thus, it must be horror.

How do we take action and plot beyond blood and death?

Tim: If you have a character…and you could have more than one, but we’ll just talk about one. If you have a character and you think about what are the impacts of these events on this character, how is the character reacting? What is the emotional psychic damage are they taking? Where is the these events pushing them? Is it pushing them to their limit? What is their limit? What happens if they go beyond their limit?

Those are the guideposts you can use on a story. As opposed to this person dies, that person dies, the monster does this, the monster does that. All of those things are fun, but then what happens to the character.

So it’s really about, in a lot of ways, describing not a character’s growth, but almost a character’s whatever the opposite would be, the breaking down of a character, to see what then the character may or may not do at the end.

‘Midsommer’ is a good example of this, because that’s what really happens to those characters. And by the end, we don’t know which way the story’s going to go really, until that very, very last image that we finally see after this character has been broken down all the way by these events, what the events overall… It’s almost like a math problem where you have a sum total at the end, although maybe I guess it’s a problem of subtraction, just seeing what’s left of the character afterwards. But doing stuff like that, focusing on the character, the effect on the character as opposed to the body count.

Joanna: Absolutely. And then I want to ask what you think of the current publishing environment for horror writers. I feel like within genre that I read, these particularly supernatural ones, I do read a lot from particular small press publishers, but it almost feels like many of the big publishers might not go anywhere near horror. But then, on the other hand, there’s loads of what I would call horror on Netflix.

What do you think of the current publishing environment for horror?

Tim: I do think that larger publishers are maybe tentatively, but they are stepping back into horror to a certain degree. Tor Books has created their ‘Nightfire’ imprint, which is dedicated toward horror. And even though with COVID the publishing industry has kind of ground to a halt, right before that publishers were starting to say, ‘We’d like to see some horror.’

One of my books, Night Tears, that came out from ‘Angry Robot’ a few years ago, is being re-released with a more horror type cover. So I think publishers are starting to realize that there’s a market out there for this. And I do think a lot of it is from streaming media such as things like the ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ on Netflix, in more kind of elevated horror movies like ‘Midsommer,’ get out the deals of social issues and things where I think there’s just a greater awareness not only the popularity of horror, but the potential for what it could cover.

One of the big benefits too for the streaming media is that the series can be, if you have enough time, they release the entire series at once. So you can experience it like a novel, which is a very different viewing experience from anything we’ve had before.

I was speaking with Mike Flanagan who created and wrote ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ mini-series, right before we started to do it. We were talking about how this media now allows you basically to create the equivalent of a novel in visual form, and you get much more of a focus on character that way than you would maybe in an hour and a half movie.

So I think that overall, it’s really hard to say what publishing is going to do. Hopefully, once COVID blows over and things get back to some semblance of normality, or whatever the new normal is, it’s hard to say horror is going to keep growing in popularity the way it was for a while, but the small press will always be there.

It’s what’s wonderful about the way people consume media these days is that we can get whatever we want. We don’t need the big companies to be able to distribute it to us. The small press has always been the dark beating heart of horror, and it’s going to continue to be the dark beating heart of horror regardless of what the big publishers do.

Joanna: What about independent authors because many of my audience are indies, I’m an indie, I know a lot of indie horror writers, many of whom I think did have contracts a while back and then moved into indie when things really changed in the publishing industry, but are now doing really well because there’s such a voracious order for their genre. When you talk to people is that something you’re seeing in the community as well?

Tim: Nobody cares where your story comes from, they only care that it’s good. And I do this, I’m sure most people do this, at least horror fans, is that I pick up books because of word of mouth. Somebody will talk about how great it is and it’s somebody whose opinion I respect, so I check it out.

Or I see somebody through social media, I read their post or maybe I’ll see them in a video that they produced. And if they sound like an interesting person, I want to go and check out their books. The technology has also allowed the individual to do for themselves so much of what we needed larger companies to do for us once upon a time.

The ability of an artist to go directly to his or her audience, I think it’s immense. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in probably all genres, but it seems like in horror especially I think that just there’s so many rabid fans looking for good stuff that they’ll go anywhere the good stuff is.

Joanna: I agree. And then I wanted to ask you, because when I was looking at all your books, you’ve got lots of these media tie-in. So, franchises like ‘Alien,’ and ‘Resident Evil,’ and ‘Supernatural’.

How did you get into doing media tie-in books? And what part do they play in your author business?

Tim: Oh, when I was very young, because I’m 56, so when I was very young, there was no way to watch anything on demand. The only time you ever got to see stuff was when it was broadcast and it may not be rerun. And so the only way to kind of get more experience of your favorite characters would be through comic book versions or book versions.

So I would read those and I would always be interested in reading novelizations because that allowed the writer to put us into the heads of the characters we saw on screen and to develop the story in more detail. And I was always interested in that part.

As time went on, I was interested in seeing what would it be like to work with a given set of parameters to tell a story. And also because just one of the things I try to do in my writing career is try as many different things as I can think of, I think one way to kind of at least maximize your chances for success is to try a lot of different things and to see what might work well for you or what might just kind of ring true for an audience.

So, I started approaching editors after I’d published a little bit because you need to have it published ahead of time before you can get a tie-in gig. And once I got into them, it was interesting because I started out in college as an acting major before I switched over to English and education, which were my true loves.

But one of the things about media tie-ins is it’s like being an actor. It’s like you’re given a script and you’ve got to interpret the role or being maybe a scriptwriter on a TV show where you’re giving characters in a basic setting, but you have to come up with a new episode. And it just stretches a lot of different kinds of creative muscles for me.

Sometimes it stretches different stylistic muscles if I have to write something that’s more action adventure oriented or something that might be more fantasy or science fiction oriented. And it also makes a nice change of pace from the darkest horror too because I don’t have to go into the same kind of internal places inside myself in order to write it.

Joanna: If people want to do that kind of writing, I feel like there’s maybe a bit of fan-fiction in there as well, like if people know the series really, really well, and they love them, and they’re also writing, is that something that, as you said, people need evidence of publication. Is that the type of thing that’s still open to writers?

Tim: I’ve never had an editor that ever cared that I knew anything about a property that I was going to write for.

Joanna: Oh, really? How interesting.

Tim: They’re happy if you do, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can write a book. They want to know that you can write a novel successfully from beginning, middle, and end, that you’ve already done, that it’s already been published.

They also like it if you’ve worked with traditional publishing because you can’t just do whatever you want. There’s a much higher degree of collaboration between you and the editor, and then whoever at the studio or whatever it is, who’s in charge of licensed products. They have to tell you that you can do this, you can’t do that. So you have to be really responsive and work well with several different people when it comes to the content.

A lot of times the deadlines are short for these things because the publishers already have, like, with a Supernatural book, they usually like Titan books get a deal to do like maybe four or five. And they’ve already got them all on their publishing schedule. And so, once they assign authors to them, you only have so much time because it’s got to be done by a certain time.

And so the deadlines tend to be short. So they need to know that you can hit a deadline. A lot of these things, it’s like not an entry-level position, I guess, would be a kind of a way to say it. It’s like if you’re going for a job and you’ve already got 5 or 10 years’ experience on your resume, that would allow you to apply for certain jobs beyond the entry-level.

It helps to have already shown that you can write a novel, publish a novel, and done it a few times, and I think right now it helps to have done that in a traditional publishing field because that’s where tie-ins come from. I’ve had somebody email me not long ago said they’d written an Alien novel and wanted to know what to do with it. And I had to explain it doesn’t work that way.

Joanna: You can’t do anything with that.

Tim: Right. And the person was like, ‘Oh, that’s fine. I had fun doing it. So thanks for letting me know.’ And that’s the big difference to fan-fiction because fan-fiction is not official and because of that, you can do whatever you want. You can create all kinds of fun stories. You can create all kinds of fun relationships, you can have people from different properties meet.

I had somebody take one of my characters from a book series called Necropolis and had him meet the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes in a bit of fan-fiction. So there’s a lot of constraints when you’re doing it officially licensed when you’re hired to do it that I don’t know if a lot of people who come up through fan-fiction would enjoy really in a lot of ways.

Joanna: Interesting. Just to be clear, though, for people listening, you can’t publish fan-fiction with other people’s properties and so you couldn’t self-publish a book that features ‘Alien Meets Resident Evil.’

Tim: Nope. The lawyers will come after you.

Joanna: You can publish it for free on some of these fan-fiction sites but you cannot publish it properly and sell it. So just to be clear for people listening, in case anyone thought we were encouraging that. But no, absolutely fascinating.

Tell us a bit more about what is in the book Writing in the Dark. It’s fantastic. What else is in there?

Tim: One of the things I want to do was to write a book that would not only celebrate my love of horror and the genre, but also give back to it. I wanted to help people make horror that is not just marketable, it’s not just sellable, and not just good, but it expands the genre, expands what they’re able to do.

So I cover a lot of the basics about different aspects of horror, ways to make horror better, techniques and tricks to write horror. I’ll cover things from like plotting to coming up with different ideas and different types of scenarios, to writing scenes and generating suspense. Delving into the psychological aspect of horror and also the physiological, I mean, people get hurt a lot in horror. And a lot of the writers aren’t aware of what happens to a human body when it gets hurt.

All kinds of practical things that you need to know and some other things as well in terms of eventually marketing it and trying to sell it. Hopefully, it’s a nice overview of all the stuff that I’ve learned from 30 years of writing and teaching, and just everything I could possibly give people to help them become better writers.

Joanna: It is excellent. And I got the eBook in preparation for this, but I have pre-ordered the print book because I’m like, ‘Okay, this is one for the shelf,’ because it’s got so much in it. I highly recommend Writing in the Dark, and I know people are going to love it. So tell people where they can find you and everything you do online.

Tim: The easiest places, just to go to my website, it’s just TimWaggoner.com. And there is portals to everything, my social media, my blog, I have a YouTube channel where I kind of do just video blogs. All that stuff is right there. So just timwaggoner.com.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Tim. That was great.

Tim: Well, thanks so much for having me.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 25, 2020