Okay, there’s no such thing as “critical horror theory.” But if there was, it might have something to do with how your greatest growth as a writer—and reader!—comes from learning how to critique others’ fiction.
“First Breath” is the first of several Colorado-based short stories written by local authors we’ll be publishing on the Denver Horror Collective website and in The Epitaph newsletter, as a lead-up to the fall release of Terror at 5280′, our local horror fiction anthology.
by Nicole J. LeBoeuf
[Author’s note: The setting of ‘First Breath’ is loosely based on the cafe and bar Loaded Joes in Avon, a favorite place to write (and sing karaoke) when I’m in the neighborhood.]
It was time I went in search of myself. Everyone has to do it once in their lives. Each of my parents had, years before, and now I felt the pull that said it was my turn. Time to make my own pilgrimage.
They saw me off, standing in front of the house and watching me drift down the road. “Remember what we taught you,” my mother said. “One foot in front of the other. You’ll do fine.”
“Hurry home as soon as you can,” said my father, a wry smile hiding the sadness of parting. “You’ll want to be here when the baby arrives.”
I could only nod, looking first from face to face then down at the place where my unborn sibling waited to be breathed into life. I wanted to take their hands. I wanted to hold them and never let go.
But I couldn’t touch them. I could not even speak. Not yet.
–by Jeamus Wilkes
I don’t always write bombastically, but when I do, I unashamedly employ verbiage from The Most Interesting Man in the World memes in my introductions. Well, that and I write with a ham fist like the blog post below.
You’ve decided you want to write horror, or maybe just experiment with writing it, so you do a little informal research. An immediate leap to googling “writing horror” ensues. Every. Time.
And that’s when the monsters show up.
You only have to read about 15-30 minutes worth of any combination of pretentious literary theory and the jaded, officious, and sarcastic swamp of a Reddit comment stream to become instantly uninspired before you even set pen to paper. Before one click on your keyboard, Do’s and Don’ts railings regarding the writing of horror will you have you tied up into a slimy, intestinal pretzel.
No, I do not have vast amounts of publishing experience as a front person. But I have some, and when it comes to ghost-writing and -editing, I certainly do have a lot of experience. And I’m here to tell you that by the time a know-it-all (as in, unhelpful) editor gets done with straining your work through the filter of their list of 99876983246528734 “horror tropes” to avoid, if you take that advice (or bow to those edicts) you will never get started on any writing, let alone horror. Okay, I’m exaggerating. That list isn’t 99876983246528734 (thank you, copy-and-paste) but in all of the articles you’ll find by googling “horror tropes” (don’t until you’re brave enough) that number is certainly somewhere around two dozen, and it’s guaranteed to drive a stake through the heart of anything you dare to create.
No, not all of the above entities are bad things–there’s good publishing peeps and writing resources aplenty–but most have the potential to be bad in terms of you beginning to write. It’s called intimidation, and it sucks. There will be a focus on minutia like never starting a sentence using “there will be”, placing a comma correctly before or after quotation marks, correct use of a semicolon; the sentences that go on forever–at least to them, and remember hyphens drive them apeshit as well–and also, overuse, or, even minimal use of commas or periods or even the word even, even when you need them to break up something like the end of this endless sentence that goes on forever too dangling. And some even prefer all-caps to italics!
That’s why early on in your writing career/venture/prison break you need to develop a thick skin to keep writing. I’m not saying don’t work on your writing, including all of the egregious offenders above (and probably more to come in this post). I’m saying be prepared early on for the condescension or the outright non-response dismissal of your submission. Most editors mean well, but many have this vibe from their traditional publishing industry compound that comes across as them being a lot better off if you never wrote anything. Tales of mountainous slush-piles are constantly talked about by jaded editors, picky or jackpot-hunting agents, and blustering anti-self-publishing-mafiosos. This is often used to try to convince you, dear writer, that there’s a chance of slim-to-donut hole that your work will ever be seen anywhere.
Except maybe on Slush Mountain.
It’s at this point when you make any noise back in their direction like the above, you’ll be accused of being a big baby via their employment of ascribing those big scary disenfranchisement tropes, self-entitlement tropes, and other tropes, jabs, and bile designed provoke a reaction rather than discussion. WARNING: When you serve the self-appointed doctors a taste of their own medicine, brace yourself for the vomit fest aimed in your direction. They don’t like to be called hypocrites, and some will even have to look up that word before they give you a wiki-inspired history lesson it.
Find good and experienced peeps who’ll help you along the way. Their critiques may smart, but if they are helping you rather than sending strong signals for you to give up, then keep going. And keep writing. Talk to your fellow writers and glean the Greatest Hits of Writing from them. Chew on the meat, spit out the bones. If you want me to cut the crap with metaphors or aphorisms, then stop reading this and start writing.
Self-publishing is a longer discussion than what I’m going to say about it here, but know this: you do not have to be afraid of it. But you do have to respect it by simply not being sloppy. I’ve had to learn my own lessons in that realm. It’s not any different than most other things out there: most of it’s crap you don’t want to engage in as a reader, but some of it’s good and worth the search. In that respect, it’s no different from traditional publishing. And if you do want to engage self-publishing, bone up on its ins and outs and do it. Again, find some resources that will help you along the way rather than shut you down with a barrage of demoralizing–wait for it–horror stories.
Yes, simply start writing. You’ve heard it thousands of times before in every writer’s resource out there for decades, but there’s a reason for that. Starting something significantly increases your chances of finishing it. It’s okay if that first draft is raw and smells like a rat turd. Work with it. Nudge it, scoot it, or kick it into that punctuated equilibrium of its evolutionary path. But you have to start.
In my realm of artistic expression, which is primarily horror based, I don’t just write. Under the sobriquet The Rïpröck, I work as a commercial artist and graphic designer. I wrote the post below about four years ago:
“Some one asked me via PM what the most important advice I could give to an aspiring artist is. My answer: nothing. Because ‘aspiring artists’ don’t exist. They aren’t born. They’re not “in process.” Artists just are. They don’t apologize or wait for permission from a fickle circle of family and friends to create anything. They just do it. They don’t mistake humility for hoping the bulk of their social sphere will love or even approve of their work. Here’s humility: recognizing the privilege of being able to use a drawing instrument, and honoring that privilege by DOING IT. Artists can be trained and honed, but in the end, it’s up to them, and them alone. If you want ‘advice,’ here it is: when you move a pencil, paintbrush, pastel, crayon, stylus, or whatever…just MEAN it. Don’t hold back, don’t do wimpy, feathery strokes when a bold line is needed. Don’t blunderbuss a line when patience and a lighter touch is needed. MEAN it. Stop apologizing, and get to work.”
Now let’s take the above and apply it to your writing. From me to you:
Aspiring horror writers don’t exist. You weren’t born a horror writer, either. You’re not “in process.” You just are. Don’t apologize or wait for permission from your fickle circle of family and friends to write anything. Just do it. Don’t mistake humility for hoping the bulk of your social sphere will love or even approve of your work. Here’s humility: recognizing the privilege of writing horror, and honoring that privilege by DOING IT. You can be trained and honed, but in the end, it’s up to you, and you alone. If you want ‘advice,’ here it is: when you write, MEAN it. Don’t hold back, don’t do wimpy, feathery prose when a boldness is needed. Don’t blunderbuss a sentence when patience and a simple touch is needed. MEAN it. Stop apologizing, and get to work.
Just start already.
Jeamus Wilkes writes horror fiction and nonfiction, and works as a ghost-writer while juggling cats as Owner and Managing Editor at Autumn Tiger Publishing Arts. Wilkes was also co-founder and event coordinator of Colorado Horror Con 2015, and has been a member of the Denver Horror Collective since early 2018. Some of his short fiction is available in Amazon’s Kindle Store. For a launch pad into his writing, the first step is jeamus.com