Writing Horror for a Living

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Perhaps the most difficult aspect about writing is mastering the self-discipline required to do it every single day. It’s tough to sit down and attempt to come up with new material to explore or expound upon, to write something that hasn’t been written before. The craft itself is daunting, and it’s why so many people who thrust themselves into the writing profession find the time required to become great—or even good—intimidating at best.

Novelist Michaelbrent Collings isn’t just a good writer, he’s a prolific one. Aside from being a multiple Bram Stoker Awards nominee, he’s also written more bestsellers than can fit on one page. When he’s not penning new fiction, Collings works as a writing instructor and offers advice to young writers trying to find their voices and hone their craft.

BTRtoday had the chance to sit down with Collings and talk about some of that advice, how he came to writing, where he draws inspiration from, and why he loves the genre of horror.

BTRtoday (BTR): How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Michaelbrent Collings (MC): It’s funny when you ask writer’s stories, because they can make most stories interesting, but the heart of their stories is pretty banal because if we were interesting we wouldn’t be writers. I started when I was very young—my dad was the creative writing director of a major university, so I was around writing and around books. He had an office with tens of thousands of books that were arranged by height and age appropriateness, so he basically told me if you can reach it, you can read it. He taught us to read very early.

My first inkling of writing was when I was four years-old; I already knew how to read and write, and I grabbed a red crayon and wrote this amazing story. Pretty much in its entirety there was a parrot and he lived in a cage, the end. Really award winning stuff there. So my dad actually took me and graded it, not in a mean way, but he sat down and said “let’s talk about what a story is. Do you think the parrot should do something? Would anybody be that interested in the parrot sitting there?”

When I got older, like a lot of writers, I was kind of asocial… I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of stuff. I was small and I was smart, so I got to find out what the inside of a locker looked like a lot of the time. And there wasn’t anything I could do about it—if I told, I was a narc, as well as being a nerd, and it just gets worse and worse. So I started writing stories where I murdered the people that were being mean to me. It wasn’t anything outrageous, it was more me sitting there working out how helpless I felt.

The heart of a lot of writing is looking around and trying to assert power over a world that is uncontrollable at its core. We can’t do things to change the movement of the tides. That’s beyond us. We try to define things, we try to write words that make us understand them, and to define means to put boundaries around. If you’ve got boundaries around it, you can control it. So by writing these things about these people, I was asserting what small measure of control I could.

“I think a lot of people are great, but there are very few I’m going to dole out 10 bucks for a story from because I just don’t like their writing.”

BTR: What do you think it takes to become a successful writer these days? With an over-saturation of media and people reading fewer books than ever before, do you feel like you need to go over-the-top to grab readers’ attention?

MC: It’s not so much over-the-top as I think you need to really know what you’re doing very well. There’s sort of two ways that you can become successful, and one is that you just happen to write something through no fault of your own that is immensely popular and sort of grabs national interest, or lines up with what people are thinking right now. But you can’t really do that purposefully. You can write something you think is timely, but you can’t know if it’s going to grab the zeitgeist of the moment, so you can’t really count on that. Additionally, the people that do that, the number of them that write a second book that anybody cares about is astoundingly small.

The better way to do it is, first of all, be incredibly confident. One of the big problems with Kindle today is everyone goes “I vomited up my pound of words yesterday, and I’ll click publish, and everybody will scoop it up and turn it into gold.” It just doesn’t work that way. So the first thing you have to do is really learn your craft, and the better you can do that, the better situated you are to do the next thing, which is take advantage of opportunities. Opportunities come to all of us, but it’s a question of preparation intersecting with that opportunity. I think a lot of people are great, but there are very few I’m going to dole out 10 bucks for a story from because I just don’t like their writing. That’s not to be mean, it’s just they don’t write what interests me or they haven’t practiced, and I don’t want to wade through typos or sentences that make no sense.

So, learn your craft, and work really, really, really, really, really hard to get it out there. I write quite a few books every year, between four and eight, and people ask “how do you do that?” And I say honestly, I sit down every morning and I write and write and write and write and I get up in the evening. And I don’t get deflected by Facebook or think that since I’m a writer, that means my job is infinitely interruptible by anything. My wife can call and interrupt me anytime she wants, because she knows what is important to our family, but other than that, if it’s not scheduled, I’m busy.

BTR: Where do you draw your ideas and inspiration from?

MC: They come from everywhere. I think a lot of the difference between an author who writes a lot and normal people, for lack of a better word, is that an author recognizes the fact that there are millions of interesting things at all times. I’ve told people this before, my family hates driving with me, because I’ll be driving down the road and go “wow, that’s a cool looking building, I wonder what they do in there.”

A lot of it is just kind of being aware and listening. I read news reports, interviews, text articles, all sorts of stuff, even philosophy and cutting edge science stuff, and I’m fascinated by all of it. So when I’m sitting down to make up a story, either something I’ve heard pops out at me and says “hey, this is really fascinating to you, it might be fascinating to other people.” Or on the other hand, the very drudge, kind of mundane way of doing it is I sit down and go “okay, I’m writing a horror book—what’s scary? Ghosts are scary. That’s all been done before, so how can I make it different?” You go down this checklist until you have an original concept. Very rarely have I had the heavens open up around my head and say “this is your book!” It’s usually something very measured out.

“There’s the other kind of horror that cuts your heart out and tosses it into a ditch. The point is, it’s not that your heart gets tossed in the ditch, it’s that it finds its way out. It climbs back up to the light.”

BTR: Where do you draw the line between letting people use their imagination to instill fear and filling in those details for them?

MC: I think that goes back to the whole thing we were talking about earlier, that as soon as you define something you have power over it. So as soon as you show the monster, you’re running a really kind of dangerous line between scary and “oh, that’s all it is.” Which is why so many people, when they read a horror novel, they get to the end and they feel disappointed because the story is about being scared, and then once the monster’s revealed it either eats them or they kill it, and who cares?

As far as what I do, I keep secrets. And by that I don’t mean somebody’s going to jump out in the middle of a scene that we’ve never heard of and never cared for, but my crazy guy who’s been trying to kill them the whole book, you’re going to learn bits and pieces about him and about why he does that so he always remains a mystery or a monster. Or if there’s an actual monster trying to eat people, they’re going to be finding out not just how to kill it, but also its background and how it came to be. And if I do that right, each of those details should make it more terrifying. You divulge these layers of information as you go. I think that every horror novel on some level, especially ghost stories, is a mystery. Instead of finding out who did it, they already know who did it—they have to figure out how to stop that thing.

BTR: Why do you think people enjoy being scared so much?

MC: There’s been volumes and volumes on why we’re drawn to fear, and there’s a lot of good reasons. There’s the ritualistic nature that it’s actually kind of a coming of age for people, and there’s also sort of the scapegoat principle where we inflict our problems upon these poor people upon the screen and it’s cathartic. And I think there’s truth to all of it—there’s literally dozens of reasons that people have put forth and posited. But I think the biggest reason for me is that there are two different kinds of horror. One of them exists to throw you in the gutter and show you how awful everything is, and they while you’re down there it kicks you a couple times and runs away laughing. And then there’s the other kind of horror that cuts your heart out and tosses it into a ditch. The point is, it’s not that your heart gets tossed in the ditch, it’s that it finds its way out. It climbs back up to the light.

I think horror, when done right, is the most moral and redemptive and hopeful genre in existence. Because it shows that everything can be taken from you—your job, the people you love, your physical integrity, hurt you physically and mentally. And in really good horror, something reaches into that to help that person up and realize their sense of being. You can’t get that with any other genre. So horror, when it’s done that way, people go to it because life is difficult, and life isn’t fair when viewed in isolation, but when viewed with the right framework, it all starts to be fair.

People like the idea, and I like the idea, and I think there’s truth to the idea that there are things out there more than us, and that those things are good things—that once we see beyond our circumstances we’ll find hope and wonder. I really think that horror can instill that.