Dragon Soul Press sat down to interview Author Warren Benedetto, author of Baby Food in the All Dark Places 3 anthology.
1. How long have you been writing?
I have been a writer for most of my life. I wrote (and illustrated!) my first book when I was 7 years old. It was entitled Johnny and the Jersey Devil—I’m from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, where the Jersey Devil haunts the woods—and I sold it to my dad’s friend at work for 25 cents. It’s horrifying to think about, but that was almost 40 years ago.
2. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Always. I wanted to go to college for writing, but my parents insisted that writers didn’t make any money and I’d never get a job after college. Instead, I went to Cornell and majored in Biology … and still didn’t have a job after college. After bouncing around Hollywood for a few years doing non-writing jobs, I decided to go back to school for screenwriting and got a Master’s degree from USC. After that … still no job. Lots of debt though, so that was cool.
3. How do you develop your plot and characters?
Like many writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for the one perfect technique or framework that is going to finally make writing easy. I have an incredible toolbox of plot and character development tips and tricks that I have compiled over the years … which I completely ignore as I stumble blindly in the dark, hoping I’ll bump into something resembling an idea.
With screenwriting, I typically follow a rigorous process of outlining and note cards before I start writing, since structure is so important for movies. With fiction, I’m much more freeform. I mostly write short stories, so I prefer to work off the seed of an idea—maybe a general sense of the major beats, or the ending I’m working toward—and kind of discover the story and characters along the way. Then, once I have a draft, I’ll go back and rewrite to reinforce those things that emerged organically during the first draft.
If it’s a longer fiction piece, I’ll usually go back after the first draft and create an outline. I do it in a Google Sheet, which allows me to create columns for each character and subplot. Then I color-code that sheet so I can very easily see at a glance where a character goes missing for too long, or where I lose the thread on a subplot. I can also filter the sheet so I can look at each character or subplot in isolation to see if each has their own complete and coherent story, with a beginning, middle, and end. I’ll make adjustments in the outline, adding and deleting scenes until the structure feels right and every character has a fulfilling arc. Then I’ll go back to the narrative to write any new scenes that need to be added and to patch any holes I created by cutting stuff.
4. How do you come up with the titles to your books?
It totally depends. Sometimes, the title comes first. I’ll often hear a phrase or see something and think, “That would make a great title for a story.” For example, this summer I got a title from my wife’s sunblock. The brand was “Wet Skin,” and it was the kid-strength formula. When I read the label, I read it as “Wet Skin Kids.” I thought The Wet Skin Kids would make an incredibly creepy title, so I wrote that down, and eventually it became an incredibly creepy story.
Other times, the title will emerge from a piece of dialogue or narration. I’ll write something and I’ll immediately realize, “Ah, that’s the title of this story.”
If I’m lucky, I’ll find a title that has a double meaning that only reveals itself at the end of the story. My story Baby Food—which appears in DSP’s All Dark Places 3 anthology—is about a couple considering having a baby, so that seems to be the reason for the title. It’s not until the end that you realize that the baby food is actually … well, you’ll have to read the story to find out.
5. What does success mean to you? What is the definition of success?
Derek Sivers wrote an essay (and a book) entitled Hell Yeah or No. The premise is that, whenever you’re trying to decide whether to do something, you should ask yourself whether your answer is “Hell yeah!” If it’s not, you should say no.
Success to me is being able to “Hell yeah!” to as many things as possible, while being able to say no to everything else. It means being able to follow your passion, instead of being mired in obligations.
Every story I write is like trying to solve a puzzle. I know there’s a solution, but I’m not quite sure how to get there. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of “what if I tried it this way?” When I finally crack a story, I get the same sort of rush one might get when solving a Rubik’s Cube for the first time or when beating their high score in Tetris. That’s my first measure of success: did I write a story that I love? If so, that’s a big win for me.
(Only about 20% of the stories that I finish actually hit that mark. Sometimes, writing THE END is more of an act of surrender than a declaration of victory.)
Beyond being personally happy with the story I wrote, obviously any positive feedback from readers is highly rewarding. That can come in the form of sales, positive reviews, a complimentary tweet, or whatever. Every time someone says, “Hey, I like that thing you wrote,” that’s success for me.
6. How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I only recently started writing short fiction again after a long hiatus. In the two years since I started back up, I have finished 70 stories totaling about 135,000 words. It’s hard to pick a favorite, because I feel like I’m still learning how to write a great short story, so the shine rubs off pretty quickly even on the ones I initially loved.
At the moment, Baby Food (in DSP’s All Dark Places 3) is at the top of my list, if anything because it’s one of the newer ones and therefore has had the benefit of me learning from all the mistakes I’ve made in the past.
I also quite like my free story The Door Is Open, which was written around the same time as Baby Food.
And, just to contradict myself completely, I’m still pretty fond of the free first story I wrote when came back to short fiction: They Say Crows Can Remember Faces.
7. What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your book(s)?
I’m always amazed when I surprise myself while writing. I’ll be happily typing away, and suddenly I’ll write a sentence that completely sends the story in a new direction. And I’ll think, “Wow, I did not see that coming.”
How could I not know? I’m the only one here. The words are flowing from my brain, through my fingers, and into the keyboard. And yet, somewhere along the way, something short-circuits, and my hands type something that my brain wasn’t expecting. It’s crazy. I’m also surprised by how much I know about the art and craft of writing … and how little I’m able to apply it in my own work. I have an academic understanding of story, character, and structure, and I can apply that to analyzing someone else’s work with no problem. But when it comes for me to write my own stories, it all goes out the window. Every time I sit down to write, it’s like I’m a newborn left to fend for itself in the woods, with zero understanding about how the world works. Forget knowing how to write—I’m just lucky I don’t get eaten by wolves.
8. Where do you get your inspiration?
Sometimes, a word or phrase will strike me as being a great title, or a great first line, or a great ending. Sometimes I’ll see a news article with a setting, a situation, or a character that inspires a story. Sometimes, a key image or scene will occur to me, and I’ll build the story around that.
For Baby Food, it started with the line, “Cut it out,” which is what my mother used to say to me when I was misbehaving. It occurred to me that it could also refer to needing to literally cut something out of someone’s body. That was the key moment I started with: a woman saying, “Cut it out,” to her husband. That led me to wonder: what did she want him to cut out, and from where? How did the thing get inside in the first place? Who or what put it there? How horrible of a thing must it be for her to want him to literally cut it out of her body?
For over a year, all I had was that line, the scene it suggested, and those questions. Months later, I read an article on CNN about a family that was hiking and found a water bottle with the words HELP ME scratched into it. I filed that away as a separate idea to use someday. Months after that, I was considering whether to write a story for an anthology about arthropods. Somehow, all those dots connected, and I realized that the woman saying “cut it out” had been hiking, had found a bottle that said HELP ME, and somehow a giant insect was involved.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
9. Who is your favorite author and why?
Stephen King, obviously. I don’t think there’s any horror writer on Earth who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s who wouldn’t put him at the top of the list.
The first Stephen King book I read was Thinner. When I was twelve years old, I found a copy of the paperback stashed on a top shelf in my mother’s closet. It had a white cover with a bloody red handprint on the front, which I thought was awesome. I asked my mom if I could read it. She said no—it wasn’t appropriate for a kid my age. Well, of course that meant that I had to read it. Every day, I snuck into the closet, swiped the book, read a few pages, then returned it exactly where I had found it. I was hooked.
For the next six years, I read nothing but Stephen King books. There were so many great books already in his catalog— and he was pumping out like six new, cocaine-fueled books a year at that point—so there was no reason to read anything else. I’d occasionally try to read books by other authors, but I was usually bored within a few chapters. Something about King’s writing not only kept my interest, but also fueled my own imagination. Whenever I was reading a King book, I’d find my mind brimming over with story ideas. There are a few other specific books that have made an impact, but I haven’t found the authors’ other works nearly as compelling. Fight Club and The Road are two examples. The House of Sand and Fog is still my favorite non-Stephen-King book.
10. Where can readers learn more about you?