“On Writing Horror” – Part Two

David | Oct 3, 2009 min read

Part 2 of On Writing Horror, titled “An Education in Horror”, briefly addresses a horror writer’s education in four articles.

What You Are Meant to Know: Twenty-One Horror Classics, Robert Weinberg

Weinberg’s message is pretty clear - know your genre. He suggests that, in order to be marketable, you must be original. And, in order to be original, you must know what’s already been done. Aside from the mechanics of writing, a horror writer must be familiar with what’s been done. I think that’s great advice regardless of genre, that in order to be creative - combine the usual in unusual ways - you must first know what is usual. He lists out 21 books that every horror writer should read. Sad to say, I’ve only read 6 and seen the movie version of 4. I guess I have some reading to do…

Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death, Ramsey Campbell

Campbell’s message is similar to Weinberg’s - know your genre. Rather than provide a list of representative works, though, he instead provides several guidelines to help the new horror writer.

  • Be true to yourself.
  • Read widely outside the genre.
  • Find your own voice.
  • Imagine how it would feel to be all your characters.
  • Feel involved with your writing, or else no one else will.

Good advice, but all things I’ve heard in other places. There is, however, one additional interesting bit to his article that deals with the cliche of evil. Campbell says:

Horror fiction frequently presents the idea of evil in such shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless.

I think his point is, that often horror presents evil as just that - an abstraction of words on the page, a mysterious force that moves people and warrants no explanation. Rather than that, he says we need to define horror by how it relates to us (that’s “us” as in the writers). I rather like his point. Evil is an abstraction, and in my opinion, meaningless without context. What’s horrific and evil to one may not be to another. It’s important that we address and demonstrate evil in the human context - give it a face, give it a name, let it walk around, maybe even give it a few likable qualities. Evil as something that just is, a mysterious driving force, feels like a cheat to me. I think that not doing this, doing the shorthand form of evil, might be a way of not tackling the issue of portraying a fresh and creative view on it. It’s a form of procrastination on the part of the writer to just say, “this happened because the devil made him do it”. I just hope I remember not to do this myself.

Workshops of Horror (and Seminars and Conferences), Tom Monteleone

Aside from a respectable list of conferences, seminars, and workshops, Monteleone provides an important message. In order to be good writers, we must close the feedback loop. I know for my part, I struggled a long time trying to work in isolation to develop my craft, and it just doesn’t work. Writing is such a subjective thing that it’s impossible to know if you’re getting any better without direct and immediate feedback from other, experienced writers (and readers). Conferences, Seminars, and Workshops provide that feedback loop.

I went back to school for this very reason. I participated for a year in a local workshop that provided good feedback, but I needed more.

Degrees of Dread: Horror in Higher Education, Michael A. Arnzen

Like Monteleone, Arnzen’s article also addresses the idea of closing the feedback loop. His suggested route, though, is through academe. He says that there’s been a significant change in the times, and that in today’s world, publishers and editors expect new writers to come to them relatively complete. There is no more concept of apprenticeship within the industry.

Arnzen suggests that major components a new writer can gain from an academic program are process (how to write) and experience (writing). He says it’s possible to compile your own educational agenda from the various workshops and published materials, but that the education system offers more. In addition to teaching process and discipline, the new writer gains access to contemporary published authors in an academic program.

The rest of his article provides good guidance on locating a program. I won’t reiterate it here, but I will say that this article is one of the many things that convinced me to go back to school.

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