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?

Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

See where I’m going with this? When you stop writing for the masses and write for yourself, you will be free to create the purest form of your story – and that version always manages to find its intended audience, whether large or small.

Interview with Author Debbie Manber Kupfer

Dragon Soul Press sat down to interview the author of P.A.W.S.


Where do you get your ideas?

Anywhere and everywhere. I’m an avid people watcher. I love to sit in cafes and watch folk and eavesdrop on conversations. And a lot of those observations end up in my stories.

What is your writing process like?

During the first draft I set myself a daily goal of somewhere between 500 and 2K words a day and don’t allow myself on the internet until I’ve made my goal. I write the first draft through to the end and try not to edit at all. If I need to research something I put a note in the document and plough through.

Once I’ve finished my first draft I put it down for a bit. I’ll work on something else – editing for a client or write puzzles. Then when I come back to my manuscript I have fresh eyes. I start from the beginning and read and edit. Now also I’ll research the bits that need to be researched and smooth everything out. It sometimes takes two or three passes at this stage for me to feel ready for the next.

Next my book goes to beta readers. I currently have four—all trusted friends who I know I can trust to be brutally honest with me. Once again while they have my manuscript I work on other stuff.

When I get their suggestions back I go through my book again incorporating their suggestions when they make sense to me. Then the book goes to my editor. Then I make her changes, read through the whole thing again and then format and send for a proof copy. I proofread on paper. It’s amazing the mistakes we miss and I find using a physical copy is the best way to catch them.

Finally I publish … and then I start all over again with the next book.

What advice do you have for writers?

Just write. I spent years starting novels and dropping them. You have to start something and keep going until you’re done. For me the thing that helped a lot with this was doing NaNoWriMo. NaNo taught me the importance of getting the first draft down.

Also don’t sabotage your efforts by getting critiques too early. Wait until you’ve got that story down and self-edited one time at least before you start showing it to others. Yes, beta readers are an extremely important part of the process, but I’ve definitely seen writers getting discouraged before they even really start because of harsh criticism.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Imminent Danger and How to Run Straight Into It by Michelle Proulx. A wonderful fun space opera. Highly recommended.

How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

I respect my readers and understand that they are investing their time and money into my work. To that end I guarantee that it will all make sense in the end. I have created a massive world in P.A.W.S. with a lot of characters and storylines and it can sometimes seem confusing, but I promise that all the puzzle pieces will fit together in the end.

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

The cat of course! There are cats in nearly everything I’ve ever written.

Do you base your characters off of real people close to you?

Often yes. Sometimes this happens intentionally. For example there is an animagus kangaroo in P.A.W.S. called Joey Marks who I wrote for my son, Joey. He shares a lot of his traits – bouncy, curious and very fond of games and puzzles.

Other times it’s not intentional, but when I look back at a character I realize they resemble a family member or close friend.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Not being distracted by the internet and in particular Facebook. For this reason I try to write in the morning before allowing myself on the internet.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

Usually it takes around a year, but my newest release, Cotula, which is coming out in August actually took me two years to write as it’s the longest and most complex book I’ve written so far (over 130K words.)

I know a lot of indies rapid release mounds of books, but I can’t do that. My books need to percolate slowly.

Where can readers learn more about you?

On my blog, Facebook, Twitter, Newsletter, Amazon.

I love hearing from my readers, so feel free to drop me a line!