How to be a Horror Writer by Robert E. Dunn

516ofz61mlThe blog has been a little quiet lately. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for others and having some health issues with family members that have taken up and continue to take up huge portions of my time. That said, author Robert E. Dunn has offered me a series of articles that a lot of you will find of interest. They may appear regularly or sporadically as time allows for both of us but be assured, when they do appear they’ll be something worth reading. We’re going to start off with a series of Robert’s musings on horror and writing, and then, somewhere in the max Robert has at least one post related to Women in Horror Month that gives you some useful information on how to get involved. Everything Robert’s pen touches turns to gold, whether it’s fiction–like his new book, THE HARROWING–or nonfiction like we have here. In this first piece he talks about what it truly takes to be a horror writer, or any type of writer really, so sit back, enjoy and learn something about this crazy business that Robert and so many others have taken as their trade.


I write in public—a lot. To a degree it is just to get out of the house. It’s funny, in a quiet house every creak and each dog’s footstep is a distraction. In a busy coffee shop or Mc’s all noise is wrapped into a mass that is easier to ignore. Also I don’t have internet at home. I know I’m odd all the way around. But when I am not absolutely certain of things I can buy a soda for a dollar and keep filling it all day while sponging off WiFi to look up gun calibers, parasites, the numbers of suckers on various tentacles—that sort of thing.

Writing in public though draws attention. Not long ago one notice led to one of those inevitable questions writers seem to get. “I have a great story. Can you turn it into a book for me?” That one comes from the assumption of people that story is everything. Actual writing is a detail. There are many myths about writing and that one seems to be the one most people, those who don’t write, buy into.

I can forgive them because their assumptions are simply those of anyone not involved in a task. Perhaps it is a particularly American attitude. Here we tend to believe that anyone can do anything they set their mind to. We have an innate optimism that things will work out. Culturally we are geared to the task. It is a pioneer heritage. Of course the flip side of that, or the dark side, is the assumption that education is not only unnecessary but in many cases suspect. That leads to the darkest fallacy of all, that everyone’s opinion is equally valid on every topic. “That’s your opinion,” is a dismissive statement I hear far too often.

Like I said, I can forgive it. Until—

The other question I hear, and I suspect you, my other author friends, are hit with often is, “I want to be a writer. How do you get a book published?” In my experience the asker has written nothing. Of if he or she has, it is a collection of notes and barely formed ideas hand scribbled in a Big Chief notebook. Again it usually comes down to the idea of IDEAS. They think they have great stories inside them and the writing is detail.

I, and probably you, give the same answer to them that the NY cab driver gives when asked how to get to Carnegie Hall. It’s always about practice, practice, practice. But no one wants to hear about the hard work and struggle. No one except the few who will finish a book that someone will buy. That is the single quality that all working writers possess—the knowledge that words, plot, characterization, voice, and innumerable other points are as important as the individual pieces are to an engine. The thought that ideas are all that matters is the same to a writer as telling a mechanic your opinion about engine work is as important as his because you have been driving for years. If you don’t plan on being a mechanic he shrugs you off.

So if you are not one of my writer friends, but want to be a writer, listen up. I’m gonna give you the straight skinny, and this is it—Read first then write. Take it another step, read a lot then write a lot. The next step is to read a lot more and do it critically, then write and get criticism. Ask for that criticism only once you don’t hate it yourself. Then don’t whine, call names, or ball up in despair when you are told about the depth of suckdom in your writing. It will be true. There have been and will be people who are both talented and skilled at an early age. Most of us work and work. Measure your work against your past work. You will see progress. Don’t write a ghost story and compare yours to one by Poppy Z. Brite. You won’t feel good. Read and write to get better.

I’ve heard many times, people humphing at this advice. “I can do it,” they say. “I just need to know how.” The thinking in that, is there must be either a trick, or a process, like getting a job at the plant by having an uncle that already works there. If only. There are few genuine tricks in life that replace work.

After all that I still hear from some, that they have the skill, they have great ideas, they have everything but they can’t get the book out. Well to them I have to admit that there is a secret. After all the work and progress, after slaving on making things not suck, the secret to writing the book—is again, WORK.

What most people dream about when they imagine being a writer, me included, is having written. It is not writing. That’s a great feeling. Sending away a MS, seeing your book in print or on the e-book sales lists. Amazing. Ask yourself—is that the only thing that draws you? Do you want to have written a book more than you need to actually write it? If so, you will never succeed. Everyone wants to play in the NBA, or win a Grammy for Best Rap Album. We all find it easy to imagine kissing Angelina Jolie on screen. Every kid in America thinks they can be President. Again, I wonder if it is a particularly American delusion that we believe NFL quarterback is a viable career goal.

There is no magic. And yet every day, I see young people who dismiss the idea of becoming an engineer because it is, “Too hard.” Those same kids still manage to believe they will be a music millionaire.

So, bringing this long loop back around to the question of how to become a horror writer.

First, don’t try to be Stephen King. That job is already filled. That doesn’t mean don’t try to be the top of the heap. Just swing for your own fences.

Forget the myth of idea. A simple idea with great execution is the real key.

Forget the myth of inspiration. Sit your butt down in the chair and work.

Stop thinking of success and concentrate on doing your work well.

If you want to make writing your work, make it a job. Your first job or your second job, late at night, but a job. Imagine yourself as a framing carpenter for a housing contractor. Show up. Build the walls.

Someone out there has read this far and is griping at me because the post was titled, How To Be A Horror Writer, and I said almost nothing about horror. Well—here’s the secret to that—and this is the real deal, it don’t get no truer than this—take everything I said, and write scary stories.

Maybe next time I’ll tell you how to get those stories published.



  1. So damn true, it’s scary. There is a difference, now thanks to the ease of self publishing, between a published author and a working writer. But that’s for another day. Read. Read. Write. Write. It’s a nice 2 step process. I can’t tell you how many aspiring writers I’ve spoken to over the years who don’t read. I tell them to find a new hobby. 🙂 Keep em coming, Robert.

    Shane, I hope all gets better soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, brother. I read a post by Tim Waggoner once on the book of faces in which he talked about a class he was teaching on writing where several of the students argued vehemently against reading. Reading is what taught me everything I know about words and story. I quit school at the end of eighth grade and didn’t go to college until I was in my late twenties. I’d have been a dumbass if it weren’t for the fact I’ve been an avid reader all my life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I tell my kids all the time, there’s no such thing as a successful person who doesn’t read. There are loads of successful people who dropped out of school, though. Goes to show you where the real learnin’ happens. 🙂


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