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Daniel I Russell - Writer of Horror Fiction

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

You Sick Bastard: On Writing Horror

Cover by Greg Chapman



In 2013, I was asked to provide my workshop on writing horror at a local writers’ festival. Now having been a teacher for a number of years I have no fear in getting up in front of people and talking about the thing I love, however, as I would be dealing with adults (who to be honest, expect more bang for their buck) and the workshop was scheduled for three hours…yeah, I decided I couldn’t just wing it and some official preparation and notes needed doing.

At the same time of putting this together, my publisher Joe Mynhardt at Crystal Lake Publishing, asked if I could provide an essay on writing horror for a book he was putting together. Two birds, right?

So as more and more time was going into this, I thought it might be prudent to gather my thoughts and flesh them out on paper. One, this would greatly assist me to host future horror workshops, and two, as an author, I hate spending time writing something that isn’t going to be published and read! I aim to make this available on my blog and together as a free ebook, Amazon pending.

So here goes. If you’re a horror writer yourself, or have read books in a similar vein to this one, I’m sure I’ll be re-treading familiar ground at times. You also might disagree with some of my thoughts. You might be a vastly more successful author who seriously disagrees with some of my thoughts, but hey, that’s cool. Nothing here is set in stone. My aim is to generate some thought and discussion, not to inform you what’s right and wrong.

Thanks for coming and bringing your laptops, or pen and paper if you’re going old school. Quill and parchment if that’s how you choose to live your life…


When I sat down to write this, I wondered if this would be a self-indulgent text. I really am going to talk about the subject and not myself, but I feel this next bit is a necessity, as it shows insight on a few of my approaches and beliefs within horror writing. I would never state that a certain approach is the only right one, or that writing is black and white with a set formula to follow to guarantee success.

I was in the pub on Friday night, and a couple sat down next to me at the bar. They ordered a drink each and the woman asked for some wedges (and literally a minute later the wedges weren’t there and the man complained, sigh).

“I’ll get these,” said the man, handing the money to the barmaid.

“Well now that I’ve signed up for that writing class,” said the woman, “I can afford to get them when I write and sell my novel. Our teacher says that if we do what she did, we’ll make some serious money. We could eat out every night if we wanted to.”

I started to chuckle until I realised she was deadly serious.

Writing is never about the money, and if you’re writing solely for the money I don’t believe you can reach your full potential as a writer. You need to experiment, find your own way and put onto paper what your soul craves and not what your wallet demands. I’ve written stories that I knew would be a very tough sell because of length and subject matter. So why did I write them? Because you have to try different things and write what you need to. I’ve tried to write more commercial stuff, but the heart – the love – just isn’t there. If you as the writer aren’t feeling it when you write the thing, readers won’t feel it when they read it. More power to you if the work that sits right with your heart is also commercially successful!

So yes, nothing here is gospel. Feel free to take parts of this book and run with it, put your own spin on it or completely ignore it! You’re the writer, and no one can tell you what  to write. What I offer here is simply some tips on how to open up what might be new avenues of horror, techniques that have been successfully done before, and again with the risk of being indulgent, hopefully have you know a little more about me and how a nice, quiet guy can tap into such darkness.

Hey. I’m Daniel I. Russell and I’ve been writing horror for ten years.

I always wanted to write. I started trying longer works in primary school…but became distracted by the increasing number of illustrations. High school gave me an outlet to write, and yes even be graded and have some quantitative feedback! Yet stringent guidelines for each assignment meant each story couldn’t be in the horror genre, but bugger me, I tried!

I put writing aside in my formative teenage years and into my twenties as I went down the band route, and could often be found with a bass in my hands rather than a pen or a text book. I went on through college and university, obtaining a mixed science degree. I returned to my joy of writing after entering the teaching profession. I’m not going to bullshit and waffle on about shaping young minds, etc. In that year I was a mere substitute teacher, or as some might see it, glorified babysitter. If you had a good class who were quietly getting on with their work, you had fifty minutes of thumb twiddling…or if you wanted to look busy…story brainstorming!

And might I add that this was in a very rough school back in Merseyside in the UK. There’s no job quite like teaching that can make you feel so…impotent. I have a lot of respect for teacher’s ability to keep cool. I think we’ve all seen some obnoxious student thinking he’s God’s gift and making life unbearable for others, and in today’s cottonwool wrapped society, he’s allowed to get away with it, and you, as the adult and apparent authority can do nothing really substantial, tied up by the tape of bureaucracy and professionalism.

Ahem. I’m not saying I became a horror writer because I wanted to hit kids though. Check my Working with Children file. Clean as a whistle.

I have a keen interest in psychology, and I guess that looking back, all this manifested and suppressed anger and frustration had to go somewhere. No one would have been any the wiser. No, I believe that my self therapy came in the form of my earliest tales. The first few stories were of normal, everyday people who, due to their weaknesses rather than wickedness, met some untimely and grisly end.

I certainly wasn’t writing about sticking an axe through Johnny’s head because Johnny got sent out of my class that afternoon. Not directly, anyway.

This was how I started out ten years ago, and the way I approach horror and even the way I approach writing, has changed and evolved over that time, but more on that later. I want to say a few more things on starting out.

As I said, I finished high school with good grades in English Literature and Language, have a degree, and have  hundreds of books in cardboard boxes stashed all over the world like hidden weapon caches. I have a good education and am well read. I wanted to be a writer and had all the qualifications to just get on with it. Surely?

Wrong! I started at twenty-three having not written fiction since I was sixteen. I had every confidence in myself, knowing the way around a comma and speech marks. Yet my first few stories were torn to shreds, sometimes by people I’m still friends with now.

I believe the late, great Richard Laymon penned this in his own guide to writing. At a dinner party, while mingling, he fell into conversation with a brain surgeon. When asked about his profession, Laymon informed the doctor that he wrote fiction.

“Oh I aim to do that,” said the brain surgeon. “Once I retire.”

“Really?” said Laymon. “When I retire from writing, I aim to be a brain surgeon.”

This is a common misconception that anyone can be a writer if they just had the time. You know the saying that everyone has a good book in them? I agree that everyone’s life, no matter how mundane on the surface, would make a good book, and I daresay that everyone has some great story ideas in them. That doesn’t go so far as being able to write a good book, and if the writing teacher of the aforementioned woman in the bar is selling this like snake oil, she might have some disgruntled customers in a few years’ time.

Still reading? Jolly good. For a moment there I heard cries of “The nasty horror writing man says I can’t write!”, which isn’t my point. What’s that? The cry came from me? At age twenty-three?


If I hopped into my time machine to 2003, took my younger self to the pub and told him how much work it took to get where I am today (and let’s get this straight, if my family were supported solely via my sales and royalties, the CSA would have taken them by now), I probably would have quit. No, I know that I would have definitely quit.

In the time it has taken me to write all these stories and novels, I could have developed a body to die for, learned a new instrument, become a painter, obtained the second degree I’ve had my eye on for a while, etc, etc, etc. Writing is a vampire of time and motivation.

I finished my first novel. That was some hard yakka, like running a marathon after training for the two hundred metre dash.

“I’ve been going for ages… How far have I gone? That all? How much have I got to go? Ah fuck…”

I believed (and hindsight makes me look back, shake my head and say dumbass) that if you finished a novel and It was halfway decent, it would be snapped up. Why? Because it was such an ordeal, such a mountain to climb, that surely there can’t be that many out there, and that degree of effort had to be rewarded.

That’s not quite how the publishing world works.

So imagine, and I bet some of you don’t need to as you’ve been through this, that after putting in so much hard work and time, you produce a book…that nobody wants. Not a sniff nor a nibble. Polite rejections. Not quite what we’re looking for at this time.

So what do you do?

Throw a wet and go the pub and drink and say that the publishing world is full of authors and agents and publishers all sucking each other off? That you can’t make it because you’re not a name? Not in the clique?


At least, I probably did.

But what do you do next?

Simple. Get better.

While we’re talking in general about writing here, as I guess my sorrowful tale of a young man trying to make it in the big city of publishing isn’t unique, I wanted to get this in. The rest of this book, and the workshop it accompanies, will be about horror. I’m not wanting to get into technical aspects of writing, how to submit, on writing a query letter, etc, but these stories of the early days I feel are worth mentioning as we all have our first steps. I’d be keen to hear yours. Why do you write? Why horror?

Times have changed and self-publishing is bigger than ever. I would be a hypocrite if I said I was against self-publishing, as I intend to self-publish this very guide, and have independently released reprints to make a little more scratch (get behind me, CSA!). But I passionately recommend against self-publishing early on. Odds are you’ll need your writing arse booted into shape, and this can only be done by editors and your peers with experience. Publish too early and you’re risking putting out shoddy product. Submit to publications. Join forums. Meet people in the writing community that aren’t family or friends and can offer genuine feedback. You’ll know pretty soon if your work is fit for public consumption.

Writing takes a hell of a lot of time and effort, the thick skin to accept rejection, and the drive to soldier on in the face of failure. For the sake of art, one does not simply walk into Mordor.

Still with me, Frodo? Then let’s head into darker territory.


Larry: [a vicious, bloody boxing match is on TV] Is this upsetting you?

Julia: I've seen worse.

Posted by Daniel I. Russell :: 8:30 am :: 0 comments

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