A book review by Penny Royal
For many in the horror community, Tim Waggoner hardly needs an introduction. He has over thirty years of experience as a writer with upwards of fifty published novels and several collections of short stories. He writes horror and original fantasy as well as media tie-ins. He’s a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award and been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Splatterpunk Award, and the Scribe Award. His articles on writing have been published in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, and Writer’s Workshop of Horror. At the time of this review, Writing in the Dark is on the preliminary ballot for a 2020 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Non-fiction.
We cannot all be students in Tim Waggoner’s writing classes (though he should arguably have a Masterclass), but Writing in the Dark is a truly academic, yet incredibly approachable take on how to write horror and be successful at it. Waggoner’s ability to organize all of this knowledge and to really break it down into clear and concise sections makes it a great framework for an introduction into the mechanics of writing horror.
Horror writers are not the only readers who would find this book useful. Many fiction writers contend with scenes that are dark or horrifying in their work, and the advice and guidance that Tim and the authors at the end of the chapters bestow in this text will help any kind of fiction writer navigate those scenes and create a sense of realism on the page. This book isn’t just for novelists. Short story writers, screenwriters, as well as writers of flash, novellas, and even poetry can benefit from a deeper understanding of the genre, which this book provides.
The short two question interviews at the end of every chapter that Waggoner conducted with a wide range of accomplished authors in the horror genre, further lends their collective wisdom to the reader.
Waggoner also places writing exercises at the end of every chapter before these interviews. Some of these are useful for every project, while others are worth further exploration to gain insight into the craft. The book is formatted as a textbook and published by Guide Dog Books on September 16, 2020. It opens with an introduction from Tom Monteleone, who is an American science fiction and horror fiction author, most notably of the Borderlands anthologies. Tom received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association in 2017, among other accolades. He is a five-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award.
As I was reading this sacred scripture of horror knowledge, I kept stopping to take extensive notes, jot down ideas, add books he suggests to Goodreads, and do tangential research. Tim offers suggestions for films, short stories, and books which are scattered like easter eggs throughout the text. Appendix F offers up some of these titles, but could also include films, which it sadly doesn’t.
In Writing in the Dark, Tim also shows how to avoid cliches and ideas that have been done to death, in order to write more unique horror fiction that only you can write. He discusses: point of view, creating characters with purpose, how to identify the types of pain characters experience throughout your story, the physiology of fear, horror as a violation of reality, many of the main subgenres of horror, how to create a better monster, writing horror with an emotional core, stylistic techniques, creating and maintaining suspense, writing realistic action scenes, and how to deal with extreme and violent content.
I’ve been reading extensively on how to write fiction/horror since I began planning an outline for my first horror novel in October that I began writing during NaNoWriMo (previous to that I had years of experience and read many books on writing – just not horror, though I’ve been a fan of the genre). Things first began to unravel when I tried to plot the book using such methods as Save The Cat along with 26 other methods I experimented with when I finally realized that horror as a genre has its own unique set of narrative structures – this is something Tim actually goes over in his book, so I highly recommend it based on that alone, if you’re new to the genre and looking to understand different methods for plotting. I only wish I had found this book sooner to add to my plotting arsenal. An entire sequel textbook could be written based on the Horror Hero’s Journey (Chapter 9) and Tell Me A Scary Story (Chapter 14) that digs further into plotting horror, to be honest (I would buy it), but this is a great stepping off point because the landscape of horror is so varied that any attempt at making such a book would have to take all of those nuances into account, and even then, it could not encapsulate every method. Both chapters discuss the narrative patterns and structures that emerge in horror fiction. Chapter 14 delves more into plotting than the Horror Hero’s Journey (Chapter 9) with even more narrative structures to consider in crafting your story.
There is a section in the book on marketing (Chapter 20), which gives a quick overview of author branding and its basic elements. I think the best advice to come out of this section was: provide a consistent experience in your work and a consistent presentation across various platforms. Tim also discusses maintaining separate brands, such as through the use of one or more pen names if you’re writing across genres or even under different subgenres.
In the final pages, Tim does an autopsy of one of his earlier short stories (Appendix A), critiquing it as his more knowledgeable present-self. I absolutely loved this. One of the most instructive ways to learn is through taking part in critiques, not only of our own work, but the work of others.
In Appendix B, Tim gives a list of dire situations that you can use to develop plots for stories. Appendix C is a psychological make-up questionnaire which can be used to create more psychological depth for your characters. The pain reaction questionnaire in Appendix D can help you understand and keep track of how your character(s) react to different types of pain. Appendix E is a list of Experimental Fiction Ideas that are meant to help you get the ball rolling. Much of the information Tim conveys in Writing In The Dark is almost mantra-like. You should read and re-read it until it is tattooed on your mind, and you can do exactly that when you own the book. Even experienced writers can use sections of this book or the exercises to improve their work. It’s a book worth referring to again and again, and should find a home in every horror writer’s library. Tim really pays it forward to the writing community by condensing so much of his own wealth of experience and knowledge into such an educational trove for readers, bringing the light to so many of us, still writing in the dark.