I don’t know if I’ve “made it” as a writer, however you define that term. Though I have made strides getting accepted into anthologies in the past 1-2 years, and I want to share what I learned in the hopes it might be helpful.
I have been considered a good writer since I was young, around eleven years old or so. This was mostly due to an above average vocabulary and a sprinkling of imagination. I held onto this idea of good writing through my youth and early adulthood. Good writing meant I had a thesaurus in my lap, channeling Henry Miller into increasingly obscure stream of consciousness diatribes, the more syllables the better, as if my overall goal was to alienate the reader. The story was a platform to advertise my intelligence…and that is why I did not sell a story until my mid-thirties.
I had some success with The NoSleep Podcast and a few homegrown anthologies, using feedback to hone my craft, and reading reading reading. This is what changed for me, and this is what I hope to share with you. Voice matters so much more than I knew. I landed a story with Sinister Smile Press last year titled “From the Red Dirt.” It was an atypical zombie story told through the eyes of a young man during the Great Depression. I leaned into his imagined experience. A thirteen-year-old, uneducated boy in rural Texas would not have a thesaurus handy while describing the way his recently resurrected dead grandfather smelled, how the flies went into his nose dry and came out wet. Of the positive reviews I have read for this story, the voice is often highlighted.
My third story with Sinister Smile, titled “Hesitation Cuts,” is told through the eyes of an elderly man in mental decline. I wanted the story to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, the reader trapped in the head space of a person unaware of their imperfect perception of the world. I repeated certain ideas, never letting the reader stray from this worldview. Whether people love it or hate it, they won’t forget it.
I landed two dream submissions this year, and in both stories I really just went for it. No more thesaurus. No second-guessing. I let my humor shine in both, something I have been reluctant to do in most horror stories I have written. I conjured awful people and let them run wild on the page. I was so positive I went too far with my Cemetery Gates submission I wrote another story for them because I really, really, really wanted to land that call. To my surprise and delight, they loved my awful character.
To me, it is the difference between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re both home run swings, but one landed while the other was either a foul ball or a long single depending on your perspective. You won’t know home run or foul until you swing. Heath felt like the Joker. Jared felt like an actor attempting to convince the audience Heath Ledger’s Joker never existed.
Voice is why I fell in love with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s not just character dialogue, it’s how they move through the space the author creates, what she chooses to show us and how. In “Hesitation Cuts” I liken my elderly couple’s physical encounters to “enemy ships without munitions.” I forget the full metaphor, but I was likely inspired by Flynn’s description of her married couple sliding past each other like fish in the tight spaces of their home.
Your voice will not resonate with everyone. There are negative reviews of Ray Bradbury’s (Ray Bradbury!) Something Wicked…lamenting his prose. (Blasphemy!) It will resonate, though. The closer your writing voice is to your actual voice the more authentic the work will be. When you’re writing, periodically ask yourself if you are Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday or whoever played Doc Holliday in the Kevin Costner version.
As for me, well, I’m your huckleberry.