5 Lessons I Learned from Drafting a Horror Novel

Hello all,

I appreciate your patience the past couple of weeks while I worked toward my goal of finishing the first draft of the horror/thriller/mystery novel I started last year. I have been less active as a result, and I appreciate you sticking around! Since this experience is fresh in my mind and is also relevant to this blog, I thought I would share my experience with drafting a horror novel and getting into the headspaces I needed to develop a variety of characters in the scenarios I cruelly put them in.

I have so many writing projects that I have started over the years and never finished, but I felt in my gut that this time would be different. If nothing else, I would actually finish something. This was a fulfilling, frustrating, humbling, and fun process. I began to lose hope more than once, but I did it. I am very excited to move on to the next step. For now, allow me to share some of the things I have learned so far in this writing process:

  1. There is a lot of vulnerability in writing horror. I had to ask myself: What scares me? What truly scares me in a way that I can transfer the feeling onto a page for someone else to experience, too? Once I realized I had to address that question to achieve what I wanted as a writer, this story really started coming to life. I am naturally a “guard-up” kind of person. It is something personal I am working on, and committing to being vulnerable for the authenticity of this book helped me start to break through.
  2. Finding the balance between what is scary and what is boring or funny took more work than I thought. I am pretty desensitized at this point, to be honest. Like, I fell asleep the first time I watched the Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones and laughing throughout slasher movies desensitized. Knowing that about my sensibilities going in, I had to practice encountering the text as a fresh reader with an average tolerance for horror. I graciously have wonderful friends who volunteered to read some chapters for me, and they gave me great feedback that I have applied in my edits. The one thing I avoided asking them, however, is if what I gave them was scary. Granted, the most intense chapters have to be saved from readers’ eyes until the book is actually finished, but I did share a sampling of the brand of horror I applied to this story. Some people are insecure when it comes to public speaking, their appearance, things like that: my insecurity is if my writing is scary enough. This pecked at my brain while I put together my first draft. Eventually, I assured myself that whatever I wanted this book to be would happen. It is all part of the writing process, and all good things take time.
  3. It is okay to not know where you are going. This applies to any and all writing, but I had to repeat this for myself while I laid out the scenes I needed to complete the first draft. With my particular writing process, I tend to write the climax first. I then write any chapters that pop into my head and, once I have plenty of those, I begin moving things around and forging the connections between them to build a story. Sometimes you will write the perfect scene or connection on the first try, sometimes you will decide on a completely different direction a few weeks later. This story is not what it was a year ago, and it most likely will change even more over the next few months. I felt a lot of pressure to get it right for this first draft, but luckily I talked myself down to focusing on ideas and creativity and worrying about edits or cuts later. That’s the beauty of a first draft: it can be absolute trash, but it is the foundation with which to build something greater.
  4. Word count should be the last thing you worry about. Y’all. When I looked up the average word count for a novel, I got so stressed out. I was nowhere near that, I am still not. But, you know what? That is completely okay. As I mentioned in my last post, I was an English composition instructor for a couple years at Ohio University. When I handed out the assignment sheets for a new paper, everyone’s focus went immediately to the required word count. I explained each time, citing my own studies in composition pedagogy and experience as a college student, word count is the least important component of your final draft. Content and effectiveness are what matter most. As frustrated as I got as a TA with word-count-obsessed students, I found myself focusing on the same things as an author putting together a novel. That became yet another spark of self-awareness that made this writing process one of the most fruitful I have pursued. To appease my Type-A, semi-perfectionist self, I gave myself a separate deadline to meet that word count so I would focus on my characters and scenes for the first draft.
  5. Role-playing is essential. I cannot tell you how many looks I have gotten for talking to myself in my lifetime, but I still do it because it serves me well in my creativity and even just figuring things out. When I started developing my characters, I did my best to deliver lines the way they would, to choose words they would choose based on their unique personalities and experiences. I practiced dialogue, making each character distinctive by their diction and sentence structure. I applied this approach to more authentically write action as well. One time over the summer, when I was crying for some reason, I went to the mirror in my bedroom and watched myself cry so I could take notes on what it looked like. I often pretended to be in some of the circumstances my characters encounter to take note of my physical reactions and emotions. I live alone, so I was able to get away with this maybe a little easier than I would have otherwise. Even if it’s just in your head, on the drive to work, in the shower, etc., I recommend giving this exercise a try. You gain a whole new perspective on distinguishing characters and creating an engaging scene. Yes, you will feel super weird sometimes, but any creative person will tell you that discomfort is valuable, even essential.

My experience with writing this novel is far from over, but that is exciting to me. Writing and publishing a novel is a goal I have had my entire life. Setting deadlines for myself and sticking to them have made this dream a little more of a reality each day. I do not know what is next for this draft, but I am looking forward to finding out.

Until next time,

Jordan

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