How To Build A (Horror) Writer
Just as I discovered there was more than one way to put my infant daughter’s crib together (to hell with those decorations written in an alien language!), there is more than one way to build a writer. Assembly usually takes a mere two decades. Batteries are not included, nor are they necessary.
This particular horror writer was not pushed by a Great Santini to become a wordsmith. My parents were quite happy to let me find my own dreams and goals and ways to achieve them. Looking back, I’ve tried to put all the connected, some loosely, pieces of the puzzle that eventually made me whole. So, here is how I was ‘built’. I’m interested to hear how others who do what I do came to be.
First, there were books everywhere in my house. I had a nice little library as a kid. My father would read anything he could get his hands on, so books were in just about every room. In school, my parents always let me buy books from the Scholastic catalogue. Nothing was better than the day the books came in and I waited feverishly for my name to be called so I could grab my booty for the semester. I was taught indirectly that books were to be treasured and sought after. Surrounded by all those books, reading became a vocation of sorts.
Issues of Time magazine were always in the bathroom. I would read them even when I was too young to understand what the articles were saying. It gave me an appreciation for a whole new structure of writing, and I learned a hell of a lot about politics. The first politician I wanted to be president was a guy named John Anderson who ran as an independent in the 1980 campaign. So sparked a lifetime of voting for underdogs. Ralph Nader anyone?
My father loved movies, therefore I loved movies. And the movies we loved the most were horror movies. We caught all of the Universal monsters on PBS when they aired. He took me to the drive in and the movie theater (with a balcony!) by our house all of the time. We watched Chiller Theatre together and Kolchak and The Twilight Zone. Half of my room was decorated with pages torn from Fangoria and Famous Monsters. Those movies didn’t just give me chills. They laid the foundation for my knowledge of the genre. I knew the tropes before I knew what the word trope even meant. I watched the progression of horror from the 1920s to the 1980s and I knew what worked and what didn’t. It came as no surprise to anyone that when I started writing, I pulled my car into the horror lane.
Until I was about 15, I thought I was going to be a artist, not a writer. My great uncle was an artist, even doing a lot of commercial art. That red French’s mustard flag – that was him. When I visited my grandparents, grandma would roll out what looked like brown butcher paper and give me a box of well-worn crayons. I would lay on the floor drawing tremendous space battles with star ships from Star Wars going mano-y-mano with Vipers from Battlestar Galactica. These scenes would be two feet high by three or four feet long. I wanted to be a comic artist. At age 9, I even created a one panel comic called Socks and Locks. It was about two buddies, ala Abbot and Costello, though with one of them being a psychopath. I submitted it to the paper and they gave me encouragement to keep working. Nowadays, they might have sent me to a shrink. I drew every character in the funny pages and comics. In grammar school, a friend and I created Mini-Hulk comics, with a diminutive and angry Hulk battling pencils and fingers and the whims of the artist.
My heart was set on going to the Rhode Island School of Design, but I plateaued before it came time to apply. I got so frustrated drawing hands! Oh, and girls came into the picture. But creativity was firmly implanted in my DNA.
Borrowing my grandmother’s typewriter, I started writing a series of short, post-apocalyptic stories on onion skin paper. They were all inspired by Escape from New York. If I couldn’t be Snake Pliskin in real life, I could make myself a close knockoff in stories. I then tried my hand at poetry, banging out four Zombie Moon poems. Again, I was a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead and if I was gonna sit down and write poetry, it better damn well have zombies. I wrote a lot my junior and senior years, even penning a story called Night Prayers that scared the wits out of my girlfriend, who later became my wife. I wonder if I still have a copy…
From the moment I got my first tape recorder for Christmas, I became an international radio star. Well, at least in my mind. I recorded hundreds of interview shows, radio serials and movie sendups, often playing multiple characters. I would rewrite entire films on the fly, acting out a bevy of male and female players. It taught me to be a great mimic, and whether I knew it or not, I was writing stories, just on tape instead of paper. And as far as I know, all of those tapes are gone.
By the time college came around, I was only writing papers to be graded. But being on the college radio station gave me a great creative outlet. I studied to be in radio, but just a few years after I graduated, the world went digital and everything I learned was obsolete overnight. So, I went to work for the phone company as a customer service representative. That should have been the death of my creative life.
But it wasn’t. I was hired along with a dude named Norm (whose Severed Press book, HUNGRY THINGS, is a hoot) who would reignite my creative spirit. Watching and listening to him talk about writing got me off my sorry ass to give it a try.
Little did I know, it would become a lifelong addiction. Luckily, I had done a lot of the heavy lifting all my life – by READING! Reading anywhere from 50 – 100 books a year gave me a subliminal master class on structure, plot, dialogue and all of the little things that go into writing a book.
I may not have been puffing away at a bubble pipe at five and struggling to pen the great American novel all of my life, but there was always creativity and a love of books. Whether it was drawing, watching movie, enacting radio dramas on a tape recorder in my room or writing bad poetry on paper so thin, it disintegrated a couple of years later, they were all outlets for an overactive imagination. Writers are dreamers. There are many ways to make those dreams come to life. When you marry the dream with a passion for the written word, well, no matter how many detours you take, you just might find yourself banging away at a laptop or going through legal pads like bath tissue. In my opinion, trying your hand at a myriad of different things will ultimately make you a better writer.
So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.