Writing Horror Fiction in Today’s World

Horror has a seductive hold on us. Horror is like a tentacle crawling from the crypts of our darkest dreams to suck us into horrific nightmares. Horror, if done properly, casts a dark magic, sending chills down readers’ spines.

Now is the time, now is the hour. In my opinion, horror movies such as Insidious 1-2, The Possession of Hannah Grace, and Sinister aren’t scary enough for me. I am an avid writer of horror fiction and I am well read. I know that in order to give readers or viewers the frights royale, readers should be too afraid to not leave the lights on all night and hide under the covers. And curse the writer because they can’t put the book down.

The writer must make extra effort to horrify jaded readers. There is a difference between horrifying and terrifying. One of the two you experience more deeply. Terror is more effective. I won’t watch The Exorcist which deals with similar themes as the movies mentioned above, but does a much better job. The Exorcist doesn’t turn away from something revolting, it stares it in the eye. It makes you look too, when you don’t want to. -and doesn’t let go. The same is true for Silence of the Lambs. But it doesn’t need to gross readers necessarily just to be scary.

Novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein reflected the time or era in which they were written. In Victorian times, darkly romantic fanged noblemen were scary because the society had different fears and beliefs about death than now. Those fears wouldn’t faze us today. Anne Rice wrote about vampires and made vampires intimidating and sexy again. That is why the novels were successful. Today, writers like Suzanne Collins draw from what they view in the world today. We are more sophisticated now yet desensitized at the same time.

If you are interested in penning a horror novel or short story, I suggest the following tips: Get out of your own comfort zone. Change the environment where you write. Bring your writing pad, coffee, and lurk in a cemetery, visit a haunted location or a morgue, and research the folklore of your hometown. You might create something original, which can be helpful. Getting out of your comfort zone and exploring new things breathes new life into your writing. Here are a few more tips.

Buy a tarot deck to inspire you, read dark poetry of a poet you never heard of until now. Go on a trip to a quiet seaside town that has a paranormal history. Be safe as you explore new eerie cemeteries or towns.

Trust in yourself. If you’re fearful while writing the story, there’s a good chance your reader will be too. Pay attention to your dreams. Often dreams reflect our daily lives and what is hidden in our subconscious. Heed your insights and flashes of inspiration. I penned a dark novel based on a flash of inspiration that I would never have dreamed up otherwise. Learn all you can and be openminded. Then when you have created your villainous monster, you can make him or her or it the main character. Be true to your creation, your own monster. Your readers will recognize the true effort you put in.

We have global communication today. We can see the world events on the Internet. The Internet opened a window into the savage truth that we could be in the grip of an almost impending apocalyptic doom. Now that is scary.

Audiences and readers today have seen everything. A novel can be successful still, but writers must be unabashedly original to truly terrify their readers. Look at what is happening in society. The monsters of yesterday are not the monsters of today. It worked for Stephen King and Thomas Harris and with luck, it can work for you too.

Serving Real Life, But Make it Fantasy

Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” I love this quote because it’s so true, and given its truth, this is why I’m a fantasy writer and not a comic.

There are a lot of people out there that think fantasy is for children, or it’s just a made up world with weird names and magic. But in reality, the fantasy genre has so much more potential than that. Fantasy can actually be real life mirrored back at us but from another realm.

A few years ago when I was 25, I somehow managed to get accepted into the Creative Writing Program at Trinity College Dublin where I completed a Master’s in creative writing. Besides getting one of my best friends out of the year-long program, I also got a wealth of knowledge from my professors, as each one of them was a creative expert in their chosen medium. One of them wrote extensively on the problems facing modern Irish society, yet many of his novels are set in the past.

Why was that?

He had a very straightforward answer when confronted. He told the workshop, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have to bore you with facts. I’m a writer so my goal should be to entertain you, while helping you draw the parallels yourself.”

It was this bit of wisdom that encouraged me to write strictly fantasy. What he said that day about giving readers the tools to make the connections themselves really stuck with me. As writers we all want to think that our words make a difference to people, or that we’re somehow making a fresh impact on social issues by incorporating them into our work.

And while this is probably true, I have found that setting things either in the past or, better still, in a whole other realm is one of the best ways to drive home a particular point that you may want to make about society.

Especially in this heated political climate we live in, there is so much we can write about and draw inspiration for, for stories. But there are also plenty of opportunities to offend people and draw out the more comments should you choose to set a politically-charged story in modern days on top of making a point to give your direct opinion.

But you know where you can get away with all that? The past. Or better still, a whole new world. Think about big controversial topics like the environment, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, religion, etc. All these can cause a stir if you write about them directly. However, rather than write about them directly, if you create another world where you allude to similar parallels, you can actually have a much more impacting effect.

So, yes, fantasy can be a wonderful outlet if you want to get people to think about the modern world we live in. Some very beloved stories do just that. For example, Tolkien was heavily influenced by WWI and it shows throughout his series of Lord of the Rings where war and conflict and change are at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is another writer who has strong ties to modern problems in our society. The plight of the house elves and other problems facing the magical world all stem from her experiences working for Amnesty International. Suzanne Collins and her work for The Hunger Games was heavily influenced by the Iraq War, as well as her own father’s experiences in the military. These are probably some of the more famous examples, but you can see my point. These stories each carry powerful messages within them, but they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if the writers didn’t provide their point a little distance.

So, that is why I am definitely a proponent of fantasy as a walk of reflecting life back to society. Just keep writing and when in doubt, make it fantasy.

How to Critique & Edit Your Own Work

First off, understand that the first draft of what you are going to write is most definitely going to cause you to cringe and want to burn it on sight. I would not recommend this since editing it is fairly easy, and there’s no reason to give your neighbors a heart attack with squealing smoke alarms. You will have times when your writing flows as easily as a beautiful river. You will face times when you have to force the writing out. There will be filler words such as “that,” grammar issues, lack of descriptive imagery, characters so shallow you want to cry.

The first step is to just breathe. Once your first draft is completely finished, set it aside. Lock it away if you have to. Don’t look at it for at least a couple of weeks. Give yourself time to catch up on reading, watching movies, and schedule that spa day. You can work on another project, even if it’s the sequel to the first draft you just finished. Whatever you do, do not look at the first draft until two weeks has passed. That’s fourteen days for those that are stubborn. You know who you are.

The second step is to read your draft as though you were someone else. It should be fairly easy now that you’ve set it aside for the past two weeks. Be brutal. Reading from another perspective gives you the opportunity to find the plot holes more easily, the shallow characters who were never mentioned again, and more. Take your time reading it over.

The third step is the grammar. Make sure there are no run-on sentences (average long sentence length should not exceed 25 words), your homonyms(to/too/two) are correctly used, etc. Grammar is essential to making your story readable and enjoyable to readers.

The fourth step is checking the tense throughout the story. This means the past tense, present tense, future tense. If your wording is off, it will be difficult to read and will give readers different ideas than what you’re portraying.

The fifth step is to read the entire story out loud. This can be tiresome, but if you can’t get through the entire draft in a breeze, neither can your readers. If the sentences feel awkward to say, this means they are awkward to read. Definitely go through this step repeatedly until all of those errors are fixed. Normally it’s something that can be resolved by switching a couple of words around or deleting a word.

The sixth step is to read the entire draft with all of the steps above in mind. Fix any lingering issues you see. Make sure to use the spell checker in whatever program you are using to write in.

Hopefully by this time, you have found and edited everything. A word of warning: just when you think everything is perfect and you hit publish, you’ll find errors you overlooked. Don’t panic, don’t pull the book off the shelves in horror. Calmly document all of the errors, update the document, and upload the updated version. There may be a limitless amount of times you have to do this, so just accept your fate.

In conclusion, that is at least five times you need to read your first draft in order to edit it. If you just exclaimed negatively over that fact, this line of work is not for you. If you don’t want to take the time to read over your own work several times, why would anyone else want to take the time to read it?

Interview with Author K.N. Nguyen

Dragon Soul Press had the pleasure of interviewing Author K.N. Nguyen!


Do you believe in writer’s block?

When I first started writing, I did. I first started writing my novel back in high school. I would work on it off and on throughout the years, always unsatisfied with where it was going, and shelving it for years at a time. I blamed writer’s block as the reason why I couldn’t complete the story. The plot and character development would always fizzle out, leaving me with a story that wouldn’t reveal itself to me. In May 2015, I picked up writing again and vowed to stick to it. It took two years, but I managed to finally complete my original idea that I started back in high school.

I think that I was able to complete my book for two reasons: 1) I was disciplined and actually made myself sit down and write every day, and 2) I started looking for mentors to help me stay on track. One of my mentors is my brother-in-law. We worked together to hold each other accountable and provide feedback. Another person who I would consider as a mentor, although I’m not sure if he would consider me a mentee, is another author. The second mentor is a published author who has always held himself open to me and provided advice to my questions. He’s helped me see that writer’s block is not what we think it is. In reality, it’s a mixture of different problems that have been dubbed “writer’s block”. Once I was able to see that it was all in my head, writing has become easier and less of a struggle.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I do read my reviews. How I deal with them depends on what stage my piece is in. When I get feedback from beta readers, I take it with a grain of salt and look to see if there is a common theme to the comments that I receive. If I notice that there’s several people asking questions or noting confusion or distaste about a particular section, I look to see if I can polish it further. This has led to me strengthening my characters or scene. As an author, sometimes you are cursed with inside perspective and don’t realize that a passage is unclear or a character is flawed because in your head they are perfect. I’ve had to strip down my babies a number of times until they reached their final form.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

I don’t try to hide secrets, but I do try and like to have a good surprise.

What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

If I could function without sleep, I would use that extra time to write. I’ve recently experienced a big change in my life and I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like. Between this and my daytime job, I find myself missing my quiet moments to myself where I could go on an adventure in one of my stories.

What is your favorite childhood book?

Oh, this is a difficult one. I would probably say that The Chronicles of Narnia as a whole would be my favorite. That series heavily influenced my earlier writing style.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Finding a way to tie in my various deities to my series without overwhelming the reader. My first series is influenced by Mediterranean mythology and has a number of gods. Unlike the Romans and Greeks, I don’t have the luxury of the world knowing about my gods and so I have to be very careful in the way I incorporate them into my story.

How many hours a day do you write?

I used to write up to two hours or three thousand words a day, but things have fallen on the back-burner a bit. I hope to resume my usual routine shortly.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

I don’t know if I would consider it a spiritual practice. I use it more as a therapeutic one. When I picked up writing back in 2015, I used it as a way to decompress from work. I had a horrible habit of taking my work home with me and letting the stress build up. Once I started writing, I found that I was less stressed because I was able to separate my working world and my personal one.

What does literary success look like to you?

This is a good question. To me, it’s finishing a project. It took me seventeen years to finish my debut novel, and I barely did that. As I worked on the book, I found that my universe began to expand and I could see other stories that were waiting to be told. I never thought I would get to that point, and so to have all of these other worlds open up to me is amazing.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have one book (the second in my Fallen series) which is scheduled for release next year. I also have a novella and a couple short stories that I need to finish up in the next year. I’m glad you didn’t ask about how many unfinished story ideas because that would be about ten.

Where can readers learn more about you?

I have two Facebook pages, one for my personal author page and one for my writer’s group page. I also have a page for DragonScript where I attempt to blog and provide updates about all of the writers that have been involved in our anthologies.

Cardinal Sins in Writing

Amateur writers make a lot of mistakes. After all, writing is a learning process. You should always practice, practice, practice, and get your work edited, but what about during the process itself? What is it you should avoid as much as possible before you send your work out to the beta-readers? There are a lot of cardinal sins in writing. I will go over several here. Chances are if you have one or more of these in your story, your lit agent, or publisher will give your work a pass. In no particular order of importance, they are:

1. Tell, do not show. You tell me someone is angry, happy, or sad. You do not describe the body language to allow myself to make that judgment for myself. You use adverbs out the wazoo. A good rule of thumb, avoid using emotive words altogether. Also, avoid using descriptive dialogue tags when said and ask should suffice.

2. You use Passive Voice. The plane was exploded by a bomb instead of: A bomb exploded the plane. Was, were, had, to be, being, has been, have been, etc. All are passive verbs. Now you don’t have to try to eliminate all your passive verbs, but your action verbs should considerably outnumber your passive verbs.

3. Your Main Character is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu. Your character can do everything. They are smart, beautiful, strong, fast, sexually attractive (I’m talking h-a-w-t), can fight with just any kind of weapon, cast spells, the child of a god, (sigh!) the list goes on. Or maybe, they are not all those things, but you’ve constructed the story so that every challenge your main character faced, they just breezed right through.

4. Your story has no tension. Are the victories and arguments your character faced too easy? No setbacks? No twists? Everyone just goes along with the MC just because they are awesome? Yeah, don’t do this.

5. You pacing is disjointed. You put the climax in the middle of the book and the denouement is the wrap up from there on out. When gearing up for that epic battle, it completely fizzles or worse yet, it’s extraordinarily brief or doesn’t happen at all. Remember, your readers are conditioned to enjoy a completed story of beginning, middle, climax, denouement.

6. You switch POVs. Either choose First or Third Person. There are others, but uncommon and not really used effectively. If you choose First Person, then your story is told through your Main Character(s)’ eyes and by what they know. We don’t have the luxury to get into someone else’s head unless your MC can read minds. Third Person is quite common (and there are different subtypes), but if you switch POV’s from one character to the next, give us a scene break or chapter break so we know we’re hopping around. Second Person or other styles are very rare – use with caution.

7. You info-dump. If you write about the elves’ special coming-of-age ritual, we don’t need to know every single little detail about it unless necessary and especially if you tell it as if I’m sitting in History class. If we don’t need to know it for the story, odds are you didn’t need to tell us. Cut it out.

8. You did not research your story at all (or enough). You have a battle in the early 1800’s and your MC mans a Gatling gun, mowing down enemies. Except that the gun wasn’t invented and put into use until the American Civil War. Make sure you have done all the necessary research related to your story. If you set your story in an era where there is a lot of contention or debate among prominent historians/scientists, your safer bet is to go with the more popular accepted theory.

9. You did not write for the market. You love Twilight. You decide to write a love triangle with a sparkle vampire, a buffed werewolf, and a human girl who needs a boyfriend. Except no publisher wants a Twilight clone. They are done with it. They are also done with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey,and Game of Thrones. They are sick of the Chosen One trope. All of this is clearly written in their submission guidelines, but you wrote your Twilight story anyways. Was your story good? We won’t know unless you self-publish because that’s your only course of action from here.

In short, finish your story, and get it done. But after that, go through and look for all these areas of perceived weakness. Clean it up. Then gather your beta-readers to let them look for any weaknesses you missed.