Columns > Published on March 16th, 2023

Storyville: Some of the Best and Worst Writing Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

So over the years I’ve gotten a lot of advice about writing, from the masters Tweeting it out on Twitter, to my MFA professors, to my fellow authors. Here is some of the best and worst advice I’ve gotten over the years, and I how I have folded that all into my writing.

BEST: “In order to be a writer, you must do two things—you must read, and you must write.”—Stephen King

MY TAKE: I agree, 1000%. Growing up I’d rather read book #30 by King than find a new voice. But over the years my palette expanded, into fantasy and science fiction, the Beats, literary fiction, as well as neo-noir, new-weird, and other horror authors. Nowadays I’m just as likely to read something by King as I am Catriona Ward, Ketchum as I am Brian Evenson, Lovecraft as I am Victor LaValle. I read The Best Horror of the Year anthology (edited by Ellen Datlow) every year, and have for 15 years now. I read almost every story that goes up on Tor.com. I keep up with the most contemporary magazines and journals, and then find new, upcoming horror and literary offerings. Add to that my writing: over 15 years penning four novels, and putting together four collections. That’s a new book about every other year. That’s a few new stories every year. I have to stay in front of people, and continue to publish stories in Cemetery Dance as well as the latest anthologies edited by Doug Murano, Michael Bailey, Joe Mynhardt, and others. Read, and write. And then write, and read.

WORST: “Leave the slow reveal to the strippers.”—my MFA thesis director, Dale Ray Phillips

MY TAKE: This was in response to my stories, in general, and my novel, specifically. I guess Dale never read neo-noir or new-weird, as that novel, Disintegration, got me an agent, and then a two-book deal at the Penguin Random House imprint, Alibi. There is nothing wrong with a slow reveal, a slow burn, a story doled out in pieces, bit by bit. It’s part of what I love about thrillers and neo-noir films (and books) such as Mulholland Drive, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Memento, Blade Runner, and Blood Meridian, as well as new-weird like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Annihilation, and Perdido Street Station. The key is to not bore your audience, to give them little victories, to reveal as you foreshadow, to hint as you misdirect. No tangents, no red herrings, no padding.

BEST: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”—Dr. Seuss

Writing advice is like a buffet—take what you want, what you like, what works for you, and leave the rest.

MY TAKE: This has been said to me many different times and in many different ways by many different people. It boils down to You do you. Find your voice, figure out what makes you different, tap into your culture, your orientation, your gender, your genres, you childhood, your work history, your romantic relationships, your family, and places you’ve lived. A werewolf story by Roxane Gay will be different than one by Stephen Graham Jones, different than one by Steve Toase, or Catriona Ward, or Adam Nevill. So, yes, study and read, as I said in the first entry for this column, find your people, and then use those inspirations as jumping off points to do your own thing. What makes my work my work? These days it’s maximalism, hopepunk, the new-weird, emotion, depth, setting, sensory details, love, and impact. I write hybrid fiction that takes notes from horror and fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction, the new-weird and neo-noir. It’s a fun mix that keeps me on my toes, and never leaves me feeling like I’m doing formulaic work that mimics other authors, even as they continue to inform and educate me.

WORST: “Write what you know.”—anonymous

MY TAKE: So, I get what this bit of advice means. And to that end, I do agree—to an extent. I had a student write about a day trader in a story, and it didn’t have the authority it needed to work. I asked them if they’d ever been a day trader, and they said no. I asked what jobs they'd worked, and when they said real estate agent, I said go with that. The authority, the details, the believability, the big brush strokes, and the secret knowledge all came together. It worked much better. That being said, I’ve never been to Mars, never killed anyone, haven’t travelled to Alaska or the arctic, and have spent little time with guns. That doesn’t mean you can’t write to those things, just do your research. And I’d encourage you to never speak FOR somebody, or something, you are not.

BEST: “It doesn’t have to be probable, it just has to be possible.”—various

MY TAKE: I’ve heard this a few times over the years and I like this a lot as it aligns with the work I’m doing in some weird, transgressive, uncanny spaces. I don’t want to write about the mundane (unless it offsets the weird) and I don’t like to write low-stakes stories, I like to write things that are grotesque, oddities, rarities. The inciting incident in any story should be that moment in time after which things will never be the same. I like moments that are unlikely, strange, hard to believe…but I want my audience to take that leap of faith with me, and if I do my job, then they should be able to suspend that disbelief enough to let me lure them down the path and into the woods where I will show them that it’s true. That’s fun to do, those stories are filled with tension and setting and horror and hope. Whether it’s the 100th monkey or a man giving birth to some alien creature or a father making a pact with the devil to save his son (resulting in his erasure) I want you to believe.

BEST: “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about.”—Kurt Vonnegut

MY TAKE: In my classes this often comes across as universal truths. What are things we all care about, or have been through, that might elicit sympathy and/or empathy? Whenever I sit down to write, the first person I have to captivate is myself. If I’m not interested in the idea, then I can’t sell it. My second novel, Disintegration, came about via a class with Jack Ketchum (RIP), who said to write about your worst fears. I did—a father watching his wife and children die in a car accident right in front of him. That was a descent into madness, sorrow, grief, and vengeance. And hopefully that came through in the book. My third novel, Breaker, was about a large, intimidating man who was born into a family that had suspect DNA and unsettling child-rearing habits. I was fascinated by the idea of a serial killer—being born, or shaped through their environment—and whether or not that fate could be avoided. My latest novel, Incarnate, is an arctic horror, sin-eater book that pairs the winter environment I know here in Chicago, with the idea of sin-eaters (fascinating), and my love of food/cooking. Add in maximalism, heavy setting, and sensory details and that book was such a joy to write. Themes that came out in all three books had to do with justice, hope, vengeance, feeling like an outsider, loneliness, isolation, fear, and love. I felt there were many ways to connect with my readers, and do so with my style of writing.

WORST: “Never use prologues.”—various

MY TAKE: Well, I’ve used them on every book I’ve written LOL, so I obviously disagree. And one was nominated for a Thriller Award, so, what’s going on here? I think what this really means is that you have to do it right. And what does that mean? I have a few takes on what a prologue might be.

One—a different POV or character that is not a part of the novel, who has crucial information or history to give us that can’t be given in any other way. I do this in my aforementioned novel, Breaker. It’s the POV of a “man in a plain white van” who is cruising the Logan Square neighborhood in search of victims. This isn’t a random moment, it does connect to the main character, in ways that won’t be understood for quite a long time, but I didn’t want to give this guy his own narrative. Just this one scene. It was the suggestion of my editor at Alibi, Dana Isaacson, who had been in the Penguin Random House family for 20 years. And I think it works well. You may have seen this in other novels, such as Stephen King’s The Stand, the man and his family fleeing the lab where the virus has been released, driving cross country, and then crashing into a gas station, before dying. I think of the opening to the novel, The Exorcist, and the archeological dig, and how that sets up the modern story in the house, with that family, and possession.

Two—something that is abstract or full of sensation, a moment that is all about feeling and vibe and emotion, in ways that aren’t really concrete. Often we’re seeing something that will be explained earlier. I think about the opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Under the Skin. In my novel, Disintegration, it’s flashes of sensation and thoughts that do tell you exactly what traumatic event is unfolding, but in a way this isn’t very concrete.

Three—some mixture of the above. In my novel, Incarnate, the character continues, but he speaks of his history, going back many years, and the fears he has about something that is coming, how he’s preparing for the worst. It’s mostly abstract, as it’s rooted in emotion and thought, but it also has some concrete details about the past, present, and future.

IN CONCLUSION

What I tell my students is that writing advice is like a buffet—take what you want, what you like, what works for you, and leave the rest. (And that includes my advice here, and elsewhere.) I don’t know if there are any hard and fast rules that work for everyone. Even “show don’t tell” doesn’t mean never tell, sometimes you need to tell, to save space, to move the story along, to explain things that aren’t crucial to the plot, character, or setting. And I don’t mean grammatical or formatting stuff either. I’m talking about your storytelling, the heart of your work, the vibe and tone of your fiction. For my professor, that slow burn felt like padding, purple prose, that wandered and started too far from the finish line. I get that. Done right though, a slow burn can be pretty intense. So, I hope some of the advice I’ve gotten here over the years (good and bad) can help you figure out how to craft your stories, how to hone your craft, how to tell your stories. Good luck!

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About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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