Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors. Today, I’m joined by, Ray Garton, the author of over 60 books and the recipient of the 2006 World Horror Convention Grand Master Award.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
I think I started plotting in the womb. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had this drive to make up stories. Before I was able to read or write, I would draw stories in comic book-like panels. Then when I started school and began to learn to read and write, I just switched from pictures to words, and I read like a fiend. By the time I got to the seventh grade, I was writing novel-length manuscripts. They were terrible, of course, but I was learning.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
I wanted to be a writer from the time I was about eight years old. Writing wasn’t something I consciously chose to do, it was something I seemed to have to do and I just did it. All the time. In college, my girlfriend’s family had a friend who was a literary agent. He specialized in science fiction and fantasy, and I wrote horror, but I thought I’d send him a few stories and see what he thought of them. Up to that point, the only people who’d read my work were my friends, but I didn’t think they were very good judges. I’d gone to Seventh-day Adventist schools from first grade on, and Sadventists (as I call them) believe that all fiction is evil, and horror fiction is unspeakable, so they had no reference. They didn’t read fiction, and they certainly didn’t read horror fiction. So I thought it would be a good idea to get the opinion of someone who actually worked in the publishing business.
The agent told me he liked the stories, but he couldn’t do anything with short stories. Did I have a novel? I told him I was halfway through one and would send it to him as soon as it was done. That was a lie. I had some novel-length manuscripts written, but I knew none of them were good enough. So I decided to write a novel to send to the agent. I quickly wrote Seductions, sent it to him, and a couple of weeks later, he told me he’d sold it. That was when I knew I had what it takes to be a writer. And no one was more surprised than I. I was 20 at the time and had figured I’d have a long wait before I was published. But the early sale made me over-confident, which is a huge mistake.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Anywhere I can. And they really do come from all directions. I think the best ideas aren’t sought out, they just sort of fall into your lap. You discover them unexpectedly. For me, writing is always discovery, from beginning to end. Each writing project is different, new, unknown, and each one is like starting all over again, so it’s difficult for me to talk about writing as a process that I repeat over and over, or even a process that can be accurately and clearly described. I find it’s a process that’s difficult to repeat because it’s different every time for me. And to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how it works, and I’m afraid if I examine it too closely, it’ll all fall apart.
I have always been bombarded by ideas, probably because I’ve always been on the lookout for stories. I get more than I could ever use. They’re floating around all over the place, and they all seem very appealing at first glance. But not all of them are workable, and after a closer look, some of them aren’t even very good. The ones that stick, though, are the ones I write. The ones I can’t get rid of, that get lodged in my head and stay there. When it becomes obvious the idea isn’t going away, then I start working it to see what comes out of it.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
It depends on the idea. If it involves something I know little or nothing about, I start by doing some research. The research might make the idea look even better, or it might reveal that the idea won’t work in its current state. Some ideas hit me in one whole piece, and I start writing immediately. That happened with Live Girls, for example. But an idea alone does not a novel make, so you have to start attaching things to the idea — a location, characters, backstories for those characters, what their relationships are to each other and to the central idea. Sometimes the first thing that comes to you is simply a particular character, or a location, or a single scene. An entire novel can come from any one of those things, as long as you’re willing to massage it for a while.
Now, as I write this answer to your question, I begin to see how complicated, how intricate this process is, and quite frankly, that scares the hell out of me. I begin saying to myself, This sounds terribly difficult. This isn’t what I do. It can’t be. I’m not smart enough, I don’t have a long enough attention span, and here I am telling people that this is what I do when it can’t be! But that’s only because I never give this stuff any thought — except when I’m interviewed or asked these questions by aspiring writers. Then I start thinking about it too much and I feel like a fraud and want to run and hide.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
I look for two things. First, anything with the potential to reach inside a reader, grab a handful of emotions and/or viscera, and squeeze a reaction out of it. Only one thing makes me happier than being told by a reader that he or she had to set a book aside and take a little break because it was so disturbing, and that’s being told by a reader that something I wrote made him or her laugh out loud, because I think that laugh is harder to get. That’s the kind of thing I think horror fiction should do. It should disturb you or frighten you or make you think upsetting thoughts, or even make you laugh at something that makes you feel guilty, or even shocked by yourself, an instant later. And that kind of segues into the other thing I look for.
I like to mess with a reader’s mind. I also write suspense and crime fiction, and you can slap your readers around in all kinds of ways in those genres. I enjoy supernatural horror, but as a writer, I’ve always had this secret feeling that, in a technical way, using the supernatural in a story is kind of cheating. None of it is real and you can do anything you want with it because you just make it up as you go along. When I say it’s not real, I mean it’s not something with which your readers will have had any personal experience. It’s not likely I have readers who’ve dealt with vampires or werewolves or succubi. I don’t mean anything negative by that, I’m just saying that as a writer and a storyteller, the supernatural makes it a lot easier to get from point A to point Z when you need to. You make up your own rules. Maybe you borrow some mythology, pluck a few things from an urban legend, but nobody’s going to gasp while reading it and cry, “Oh, my god, that’s exactly like the time I had to exorcize demons from my house!”
Over the years, I’ve found that, every now and then, I have to write something without any supernatural elements in it. A thriller, some kind of noir-ish crime novel, a dark, suspenseful comedy. It’s like getting some cold water in the face. That kind of story presents a lot of challenges that hardly ever arise in traditional horror fiction. I find that it’s more work, it usually requires more research, and when your story is grounded in reality with no help from the supernatural, you can’t cheat that reality, or you’ll be cheating your reader. But they’re always fun challenges, and suspense and crime fiction provide many more ways to mess with your reader, because the buffer of the supernatural is gone and there is no safety zone. The reader doesn’t have the escape of pointing to the ghost or the zombie and saying, “That couldn’t really happen.”
I enjoy making readers sympathize with and maybe even like a character they otherwise might dismiss in a negative way. Even the people we see as monsters are human beings and usually have many of the same life experiences and hopes and disappointments and traumas that we’ve all had — they’ve just handled it differently and made different choices and haven’t adhered to the same laws and moral structure that we live by. That does not excuse what they do, of course, but it reminds us that we’re all the same animal. That’s a lot scarier than simply seeing them as monsters, and I think in that way, the genres of horror, suspense and crime often overlap in significant ways.
There was a time when my answer to this question would have included sex. In the beginning of my professional career, I gravitated toward stories in which sex played a big role. I figured sex sold, and I’ve always thought that sex is one thing we all have in common and it’s a vulnerable area, so it’s a great way to horrify and disturb in the horror genre. Those things are still true, but I look at it differently now. I think all fiction should reflect life, the human experience, no matter what the genre. Sex is a big part of that. I think it should always be included in some way as part of what makes a character whole. And sex can be a great way to reveal character. And I like to write sex. And people like to read it. Even the ones who won’t admit it. In fact, probably especially the ones who won’t admit it.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
I would like to write more humorous stuff. I’ve been working on a novel for more years than I want to remember about my two years at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy. There were only two ways I could write about that experience, either as horror or as comedy, and I thought it would be more fun to play it for laughs. It’s not quite finished, it needs work, but every now and then, I go back to it and do a little work on it.
A lot of writers resist being labeled, but the great majority of what I’ve written has been in the horror genre, and I don’t have a problem with being called a horror writer, because that’s what I am. It’s just that hardly anybody in mainstream publishing will publish horror anymore, and if they do, they don’t call it “horror.” They don’t even use the word. I’m surprised the New York publishers haven’t lobbied to make it illegal to say the word “horror” out loud within the city limits. That’s fine, I really have no attachment to the label, but if what you write can’t be called “horror” anymore, it has to be called something else, and if it doesn’t slide easily into one of the pre-existing categories, a lot of publishers lose interest fast. That was a big problem with Sex and Violence in Hollywood — editors praised the book, but they didn’t know what to do with it, how to market it, so they rejected it.
Most of what I write probably will continue to fit into the horror genre, but I’m less interested in the traditional stuff these days. I don’t think the horror genre is very relevant anymore. It’s not saying much to people living right now, in this mess we’re in. It’s great escapism, but it’s not connecting with its time, something the genre has done beautifully in the past. I think the most relevant subgenre in horror right now is the zombie apocalypse story because it taps into the fear that civilization is collapsing, that it’s all falling apart. But zombies reached the point of parody some time ago. If they were alive today, Abbott and Costello would have done a trilogy of zombie movies by now. It has a fan base, but it doesn’t really reach beyond that. I think horror is going to have to start finding a way to seriously address the anxieties people are feeling right now in order to catch on again in any kind of important way. That’s something I’m interested in doing, or at least attempting, because there’s a whole lot of fear in the air right now that’s not being talked about much, and it’s the kind of fear that rolls its eyes at zombies and werewolves.
Do you work from an outline?
For years, other writers used to tell me, “Are you crazy? You can’t write a novel without outlining it first! What are you thinking? You’re doing it wrong!” I heard it so often that I came to believe it and started trying to outline novels. I nearly went insane. But it was a learning experience. I learned what works for me, and what doesn’t work. And outlining in the traditional sense just doesn’t work for me.
I can’t find the story unless I’m writing it. It has to unfold in front of me. I can’t make up the story in outline form and then write it as a book. Again, I have to discover it. It’s a messy, chaotic process, but it’s the only way I know how to do it, the only way that works for me. I do some outlining at times, but only chunks of the novel — maybe three or four chapters — and only while I’m writing the book, not before. If I outline a whole book, I go crazy trying to stick to the outline, because as I write, I tend to discover things that are a lot more interesting than the stuff in the outline. And I always follow that — whenever something unexpected pops up in a story that opens new possibilities, I always take a trip down that road to see where it leads. Sometimes it goes off a cliff or into a swamp, and sometimes it leads into a completely different book that has nothing to do with the one I’m writing, so I turn around and go back. But sometimes it enriches the book. Sometimes it can make the book better in a host of ways.
My method of doing this, of course, would make some writers murder their spouses and eat a gun. It would drive them insane. That’s because it simply wouldn’t work for them. More on that later.
How do you build your story?
I rely a lot on my characters and try to let as much of the story as possible come from them. I follow them around a lot to see what they’ll do next, see where they lead. This often results in the need to backtrack and rewrite, often more than once, but like I said, I don’t know how else to do this. Building the story is what I find most distracting about writing.
By distracting, I mean it usually gets in the way of the rest of my life. The story almost never stops unfolding in my head. The characters are always in there, doing things, and sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to them. This sometimes makes me look, for all the world, like a crazy person. I lose track of a conversation, or I forget why I went into the kitchen, or I’ll sort of zone out during a movie and get confused and have to rewind it. One of the hardest things for non-writers to understand about writers is that most of the work does not involve typing. Most of it is just thinking. But try to convince them you’re working while you’re doing that. Go ahead, I dare you.
For you, what makes a great hero?
I’m fond of the everyman or everywoman. I have a few characters who are kind of exotic. I seem to write about professional killers frequently — Serpent Girl, Loveless, and most recently, Meds, and maybe in a couple of short stories. But I think most of my protagonists have pretty regular, recognizable lives. They tend to have mundane problems, which really aren’t mundane at all when in context. Things like being broke or having cancer are pretty common, but that in no way makes them less devastating.
A lot of my protagonists — most, probably — are damaged in some way. Some suffer from addiction. Every protagonist needs obstacles to overcome, and I think most of mine face obstacles that are within themselves, that are a part of them, as well as whatever external menace they’re facing in the story. Sometimes those internal obstacles, those lumps of scar tissue that have developed over time, can be a lot harder to overcome and a lot scarier than a vampire or a werewolf.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
Holy crap, that’s a great question! No one’s ever asked that before. I think most of my protagonists would get along with me if we were to meet as strangers and get to know each other in the normal way, although there are some I probably would rub the wrong way. But if they were asked to describe me, knowing who I am and what I do and what role I play in their lives, they probably would say that I’m a sadistic monster.
Protagonists don’t fare well in most of my fiction. I do terrible things to them. If you want to write a good horror novel, you can’t have just a bunch of happy people who do happy things and go on being happy throughout the book. I make them happy, and then I fuck it all up for them. I kill their kids, or I ruin their marriages with infidelity or something worse, or I get them addicted to drugs, or I might even wipe out their whole family. And then I usually throw some kind of supernatural menace into that mix. My characters probably would say the same things about me that atheists say about the Old Testament god. They’d say I was a horrible monster. Yep, that’s me — Yahweh, the horror novelist.
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
I’m always afraid to write about places I don’t know. As a result, most of my fiction is set in locations with which I’m familiar, places where I’ve lived or spent time. A lot of my fiction takes place in the Napa Valley, some of it takes place on the California coast in the area of Eureka, some of it takes place in far northern California in Shasta County, where I live — all places I know well. Some may think that’s laziness, but honestly, it makes me nervous to write about places I don’t know because inevitably, I will screw up and get something wrong. It might be a small something that very few will notice, or it might be something big enough to be so embarrassing that I want the ground to open up and swallow me. That’s happened.
Live Girls was set in New York City. It was the result of my first visit to the Big Apple, particularly my first visit to Times Square, which was very different in 1986 than it is now. My visit was pretty short, but I started writing Live Girls while I was there. I continued after returning home on the other side of the country. I’d never written about a place that unfamiliar to me before, but I thought I could get away with it. I wrote the book, turned it in, and later, my editor pointed out a problem to me. It was during a telephone conversation.
“You’ve got Walter Benedek in Times Square,” he said, “and suddenly he has to get back to his office at the New York Times as soon as possible. So he gets into a cab and the drive goes on for a little while, then he gets out and goes up to his office.” I waited for him to get to the problem, but he paused then and waited for me to say something. Finally, he said, “The newspaper is right in front of him before he gets into the cab. Why do you think they call it Times Square?” I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.
That was a mistake big enough to be caught before the book was published, but you’d be surprised by what can slip through. So I’m more comfortable to write about locations I know whenever possible.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
I don’t usually think about places I’d like to write about — the location is something that the story itself dictates or that I choose after I have the story. But there is one place I’d like to write about. I would like to write something set in Las Vegas. Dawn and I went there for the first time last year to attend KillerCon and it’s the kind of place that really got my creative juices flowing. It’s surreal. Going to Vegas is like vacationing off-world, like being on another planet. One of these days I’m going to set something there. It’ll give me a good reason to go back and soak up more of the local color. And there’s a lot of that. You just have to make sure none of it gets on your clothes.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
With a novel, no. I never know what’s really going on in a novel until I’m done, or at least until I’m well into a book. Then there’s sometimes a point when I sit back in my chair and think, So that’s what this book is about. If it’s saying something or commenting on something, I usually don’t know until it’s done. There are exceptions. I knew exactly what Sex and Violence in Hollywood was about, I knew exactly what Meds was up to.
Then there are the times when others see things in my books that I didn’t intend to put there. Some critics admired the fact that Live Girls used vampires as a metaphor for AIDS. Hell, I didn’t know I’d done that. I’d written a horny vampire novel inspired by my first and last visit to a Times Square peep show. Of course, I didn’t admit that at the time. If somebody thought I was using vampires as a metaphor for AIDS, hey, who the hell was I to pop their bubble? With a short story, I usually know a lot more going in simply because a story is much shorter, more compact.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
I wish I could remember a few, or even know where to look for them in the books. When I write something, I am always completely, totally involved in it. But when I’m done, I tend to move on to the next project pretty quickly, and in my head, I jettison the previous project to make room for the new one. I don’t retain the stuff I write. This is often unfortunate, because sometimes at conventions or signings, readers will make a reference to something in a novel I wrote, or they’ll quote a line — and I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. It’s embarrassing.
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I’ve had various routines over the years, and at times, no routine at all. There was a time when I could write anywhere, at any time. Writing was an escape for me. I was escaping my life, myself, and I could immerse myself in whatever I was writing instantly, no matter what was going on around me. These days, I have no desire to escape my life or myself and I find it takes longer to get into the work and I’m much more easily distracted. I don’t like working in a closed room, but I often close the door of my office now.
My mood determines a good deal of my day. Sometimes I have music playing while I’m writing, and sometimes the TV is on, or I have a movie running. It’s always a movie I’m very familiar with and fond of, so I don’t have to pay much attention to it. I can glance at it anytime and know exactly what’s going on. Those things are merely background. And sometimes, there’s no background at all and the office is silent. It depends on my mood, how I feel.
Sometimes when I get up in the morning, I go straight to the office and get things started. Other days, I’ll spend an hour reading and do a couple of other things before I go into the office. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I write every day, but I don’t follow a rigid schedule because I don’t need to. It comes naturally enough so that I don’t need that kind of schedule to keep myself in line. But if I continue to grow more easily distracted as I get older, I may have to give that a try!
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Whenever a writer says he or she is “suffering from writer’s block,” I have to bite my lips together to keep from speaking my mind about it. There is no such thing as “writer’s block.” It’s a catch-all term for times when a writer is, for whatever reason, unable to write or simply doesn’t feel like writing. It means nothing and always makes me wince because it’s such an emo thing to say. But a lot of writers refer to it like it’s a bout with the flu, like it’s an actual ailment that comes and goes, like arthritis pain. Makes me want to pull my hair out.
If you can’t write whatever you’re working on, there’s a reason for it, and it’s got nothing to do with “writer’s block.” You may not know what the reason is, but it’s there. You have some choices. You can find out what that reason is, which might take a little time, but it might be worthwhile. Or you can work on something else for a while and then go back to it. Or you can give up that particular project altogether because it is keeping you from working. Or maybe writing just isn’t for you. Writers write. People who say they’re writers but whine about battling “writer’s block” are poseurs.
How do you go about fixing a story?
I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. Every story needs fixing, but the how of fixing it varies from story to story depending on what’s wrong with it.
How do you know when to stop?
This is one of the many ways that writing overlaps with masturbating — you have to know when to stop! It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. It’s one of those things that you either know instinctively or you have get a feel for over time. I think most of us have to get a feel for it. And that will come with time. You’ll develop a sense for that sort of thing. To accomplish that, you’ve got to keep doing it. Just keep at it, no matter what. If you do, this is one of the many things you’ll learn to do so well that it’ll become second nature. Writing isn’t one of those things that you learn before you do it. You learn it while you do it. That’s the only way to learn it and the only way to get better at it. Ray Bradbury once said that if you write a thousand words a day for three years, you’ll be a writer. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that if you write a thousand words a day for three years, you’ll be a lot better at it than you were when you started. I can guarantee that.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
Earlier, I said that my method of writing would drive other writers insane — just as trying to outline a novel and follow that outline from beginning to end nearly drove me crazy. That’s because there is no right way or wrong way to write. There is no single secret to it — there are as many secrets to writing successfully as there are successful writers.
There are a lot of people out there who will tell you, with a straight face, that you have to do it their way or you will fail. They’re wrong. Every new writer will listen to those people, read their books, attend their classes, and a lot of them will believe that crap, and when that way doesn’t work for them, they’ll think they have failed, that they don’t have what it takes to be a writer, and maybe they’ll give it up. Don’t believe it. Read the books, attend the classes, gather as much information as you can, but only keep what works for you. The rest can be forgotten. Ignore the huckster bullshit. Nobody has the secret to writing or to getting published because that secret doesn’t exist. Find out how working writers do it, try to see what their techniques are. If you do, you’ll begin to see that everyone does it a little differently. Always keep in mind that none of it is absolutely right, and all you’re doing is figuring out what works for you — everything else is irrelevant. There is no secret to success.
Every writer needs a good editor. If you ever come to think that this does not apply to you, it’s time to stop and reflect. A lot of writers become wildly successful and reach a point where they have the power to refuse to let anyone touch their work before it’s published. The point at which that happens is almost always glaringly obvious in their work — and not in a good way. Don’t make that mistake.
Develop a thick skin. It’s impossible for anyone to predict who will succeed as a writer, but there are strong signs as to who will not succeed. Among that group is the writer who falls to pieces at the slightest criticism. I taught a creative writing course for a while at the local college and one of the things I discovered is that the great majority of the students weren’t interested in learning anything — they just wanted to be told how brilliant they were. Their brilliance was a foregone conclusion and all that was left was for me to confirm it. When that didn’t happen, they lost their shit. I’m serious, there were tantrums in that class. They were thrown by people who did not need any criticism and were simply awaiting publication. Looking back on it now, I see there were moments during that class that strongly resembled outbursts during the auditioning process of American Idol. It’s one of the reasons I stopped teaching.
Don’t be one of those writers, because if you are, chances are great that you won’t get anywhere. No one is brilliant out of the gate. Some people show great promise, but there’s work to be done before that promise is realized. Do not look at criticism as an attack on your work! Look at criticism as a chance to improve your work. Pay attention to the criticism. Some of it will be bullshit because an appalling percentage of everything is bullshit. There are plenty of criticisms that can be dismissed. “Women are always getting killed in your books so you must hate women!” Bullshit. You can quickly learn to spot the useless stuff. Just as you learn to pick and choose the information you need as you’re discovering your own writing process, you have to learn to do the same with criticism. You have to be able to embrace the criticism that is genuine, that honestly applies to your work and could improve it. This means you must be honest with yourself about your work. If you think you don’t need any criticism, or if you see all criticism as an attack, you are not being honest with yourself about your work. I guess what I’m saying here can be boiled down to a couple of words: Eschew delusion.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
I think it’s a toss-up between Sex and Violence in Hollywood and my most recent novel Meds.
What are you working on now?
A number of things. I’m working on another thriller novel, I have a couple of short stories in different states of development, and I’m doing some work for hire.
I’d like to thank today’s author, Ray Garton for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
Ray Garton is the author of over 60 novels, novellas, short story collections and movie and TV tie-ins. His 1987 erotic horror novel Live Girls, called “artful” by the New York Times, brought the vampire into a modern urban setting and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. His novel Sex and Violence in Hollywood is being developed as a motion picture. In the 1990s, he wrote several young adult horror novels under the pseudonym Joseph Locke. He has written a number of movie and TV tie-ins, including novelizations such as Invaders from Mars, Warlock and Can’t Hardly Wait, and books in the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Secret World of Alex Mack. In 2006, he received the Grand Master of Horror Award at the World Horror Convention. He lives in northern California with his wife and their cats and is currently at work on multiple projects.
Visit Ray Garton online: