Review: On Writing Horror - Revised Edition

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On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association
Edited by Mort Castle
Copyright 2006 by HWA
ISBN: 1-5829-7420-9 (Writers Digest Books)
Price: $16.99US

My humble apologies if a review of this tome has already been done but on searching through HorrorScope, I couldn’t find it. I found notification of its pre-release but no review.

On Writing Horror was released in 2006 by the Horror Writers Association, the American based horror writers’ association, with international membership.

I was lucky enough to get my copy recently and have just finished my first, but definitely not my last, read through of it from cover to cover.

Although very squarely slanted toward the American based writer, and a little preoccupied with the word verisimilitude, it contains many writing gems that are relevant to all writers, where-ever they live.

What HWA says about it:
A volume of essays on the craft of horror writing, edited by Mort Castle, with contributions from dozens of well-known HWA members. An invaluable addition to any writer's library.The book is filled with lots of helpful tips and suggestions from some of the current leading lights in the genre. The suggested books to read, is alone worth compiling.

Part one covers the oldest question we all get asked, “Why do we write horror?” and supplies surprising answers from a number of different authors, as well as the essay attempting to completely explain why Michael McCarthy writes it. Part one also contains Stephen King’s acceptance speech at the 2003 National Book Awards where he received the gong for Distinguished Contribution. A good speech, where he thanks his wife, and suggests that “literary” awards should include genre writers as a norm, not just because they’ve sold heap’s of books. Here, here!

Part Two: An Education in Horror begins by expanding your “to read” list by giving us 21 books within the genre that every wannabe horror writer should read. As touched on earlier, with other books mentioned throughout this publication, you will quickly gain a reading list of over 50 books. Part two also includes hints on what’s been done to death already – the over used tropes and ways of possibly refreshing them.

The middle of this section is of use only to American based writers as it highlights the educational institutes in the USA that run courses that would be beneficial, as well as a list of conferences and seminars. If you’re planning a holiday in the States sometime soon, you could always plan around the available workshops, conferences and seminars listed here. Remember this book is nearly two years old at the writing of this review so check if the events are still going, and when, on the relevant websites.

Part three is all about developing horror concepts and part four continues the lessons, building the writers knowledge with horror crafting. This section is particularly useful to newer writers struggling to learn the craft.

Additional sections on building horror, tension, characters, plot, even dialogue are all written in an easy conversational tone with relevant thoughts and examples from people in the know – those that are regularly published in the genre.A good history of what’s come before touches on the masters and how to possibly tweak some of the older staples of the genre into modern times.

Part seven splits horror into some sub-genres of note, specifically: erotic horror; redneck horror and Gothic horror. It goes on to give suggestions on how to write horror for anthologies (including how to find markets), how to write comic book horror, horror for the stage, tie-in novels, video games, RPG’s and screenplays.

The last section looks at the business side that all writers would rather not have to worry about. We’re all creative people who just want to write, right? Wrong. Writers should get paid for their work and this section lists some of the common traps out there, that sometimes well meaning, but often unscrupulous editors, use to seize control of your masterpiece.

A short story by Harlan Ellison is included at the end which is a stirring tale about the storyteller. Finally there are bios on the contributors, including websites and a wonderful index to aid in searching for that particular gem you read before but can’t seem to find now.

In a nutshell, the majority of writers who have contributed to this publication have taken on board something Stephen King has been saying for a long time. Writers of fiction need to be truthful in what they write. Fiction, by its very definition is a lie, but writers need to tell the truth within the lie. We need to depict what “real” people would do if confronted with the situations we place on the page. (paraphrased)

We should also write what we know. This wasn’t a unanimous suggestion throughout the book, but the majority of contributors included the mantra in their essays. Don’t write about the streets of San Paulo if you’ve never been there. Today, the Internet can help with research, a lot, but there’s nothing like being there.

One essay struck me. The theme was about a writer’s voice. We’ve all heard the old saying that a writer needs to find their own voice. Bruce Holland Rogers has an issue with that sentiment and I think I agree. A writer needs to find his/her own voice, his/her own style, for each piece they write. If they write each piece in the same voice, then they’re going to struggle. The old masters of Poe and Lovecraft were distinctive and a stray paragraph from one of their works is easily recognisable but genius is an exception. For most writers, they need to find the right way to convey their tale – the tale they are currently telling, which won’t always be (at least we hope not) always the same as the last story they penned.

What I would dearly love to see is Australia’s Horror Writers’ Association do a similar publication for Australian based writers. How about it Marty?