This review is a bit different. I’m approaching it as an author instead of a reader. I was in the midst of editing one novel and completing another—both were forever altered by this book. I’m also hitting it from the viewpoint of a creative writing teacher. Both color my opinion of this writing book by the prolific Tim Waggoner. For those unfamiliar with the author who seems to churn out a new novel every few months, either in his own worlds or dipping his toes in that of Supernatural, Alien, or Grimm, he’s also well known as a professor.
Waggoner tackles this book in a hybrid manner: first, he rolls through all the requisite topics, from a history of the tropes and story elements to how they are utilized in classic and popular fiction. Second, he poses the same two questions to a bevy of writers—some new, some iconic. Their responses, sprinkled in every chapter, punctuate what he covered. The exercises at the end are pragmatic and work to specifically improve the reader/writer’s own work.
Yes, he’s a teacher and that’s evident here; but after just a few pages, it’s clear that most writers would love Waggoner’s approach. Instead of the stuffy academic with the cheesy suede patches on his elbows, I felt more as if I were sitting in a dive bar, discussing secrets of the universe with my feet up. He can take the toughest topic—from them to voice to motivation and conflict—and talk someone through it as if reviewing his favorite new movie.
Each chapter is broken down into specifics. Favorites for me include: “Why Horror Matters,” “The Physiology of Fear” (the connection between psychology and biology through the rush of reading horror is fascinating), and “The Horror Hero’s Journey,” a take-off of Joseph Campbell’s famous works.
After each topic, he hands the writer a specific exercise that stretches the imagination, followed by the pair of questions tackled by writers from all levels and areas of the genre:
1. What makes good horror/dark fantasy/suspense?
2. What’s the best advice you can give to a beginning writer of horror/dark fantasy/suspense?
It continues the conversation and keeps the book from being a lecture.
The most useful thing for me in this novel was the various appendices. The psychological makeup and “pain” makeup questionnaires for your characters can help you dive deeper as well as allow readers to analyze favorite novels. It’s a brutal exercise but yields great results. Trust me on this.
I was in the final edits of a novel that I believed to be solid. Waggoner’s advice suggested I dig deeper. I did and now the story feels so much more alive and relevant. I was completing the final chapters of a younger age novel that felt the same way. Waggoner sent me back to the woodshed with ideas I never would’ve considered. I just hope he doesn’t ask for royalties!
Enroll in this fine course with Professor Waggoner. You won’t mind the homework—even if the monster does eat it.