Writing Excuses Bonus-02: Horrifying the Children, with Darren Shan
Key points: What can’t you do when writing horror for young adults? Set your be-careful lines for yourself. Sex and violence are big questions. Why write horror? Because we enjoy safe scares! Draw a line between fictional horror and real horror. Horror gives us a training wheel version of emotions and experiences that we need to think about and prepare for real life problems. How do you write horror? Organic process, use your gut instincts. Learn by doing — i.e., write! Bad stories, mistakes, learn and improve. Advice for writing horror? Remember what it was like for you as a teenager, make it personal. Do stories that appeal to you. You can’t control your ideas, but you do control the development of them. Ask questions, and see where those answers lead you. Why, why, why? You may not know your characters until you write, but at least get a guideline for your plot to start with. Ticking off what you have done can help give you a sense of progress, to get you through the desert of the big long middle stretch. Landmarks in the Sahara. Juggling books in multiple phases can be fun!
[Howard] Season 11, Bonus Episode Two.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Horrifying the Children, with Darren Shan.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Steve] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Steve] I’m Steve.
[Howard] And we have Darren Shan here with us at the World Horror Convention. Darren, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Darren] Well, I write for adults, but primarily I write for young adults. I’ve published close to 50 books now, and the vast majority of those have been for a young adult audience.
[Howard] 50? Five zero?
[Darren] Five zero. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s close to 50.
[Darren] I’m very bad at keeping track of those things.
[Dan] I look forward to the day when I can’t remember how many books I’ve published.
[Howard] You reach the point where you just have to use the nearest round number.
[Dan] I am so excited to have you on the show today. When I first started writing young adult horror, way back in the kind of mid-2000s, Cirque du Freak is the book that my friend handed me and said, “This is what you gotta aim for. This is what’s out there.” And I loved it. It’s great. So…
[Darren] Well, thank you very much.
[Dan] It’s so wonderful to have you on the show. We would like to talk with you today about writing horror for children, for young adults. Specifically, what… How is that different than writing horror for adults? So I’m going to start with the obvious question that I know a lot of our listeners are thinking. Is there anything you can’t do when you’re writing horror for children?
[Darren] On the one hand, no. There are lines you have to be careful with. I think each writer needs to set those lines for themself. The big no-no I’ve found in my dealings with my editors and my publishers is sex. You can be as violent as you want. I’ve got a book called Lord Loss. In chapter 2, a boy walks into a bedroom. His father’s hanging upside down from the ceiling. His head’s chopped off. His mother’s been ripped to pieces. His sister’s been cut in two. The demon’s behind her back, moving her around like a hand puppet. That was all acceptable.
[Darren] In my vampire series, Cirque du Freak, there was… at one point, there’s this process that vampires go through which I had called vampuberty. My publishers said, “No! You cannot say vampuberty. We must not mention anything that has any slight sexual connotation whatsoever.”
[Howard] That was just because their voices changed, though, right?
[Darren] That was part of it. They said… They got very hairy very quickly. It was like a speeded up puberty. It all happened within the space of a few weeks.
[Howard] So your publisher said that that was actually across the line?
[Darren] In the publisher’s… Yes. Now the publishers I deal with mostly is in the UK. So things might be different here in the States. But yeah, in the UK… In the UK, they don’t talk about sex. My editor said to me one day when I was sort of challenged about this, she said, “Teenage boys don’t want to talk about sex or read about sex.”
[Darren] I just figured there’s some fights you just can’t get involved in.
[Dan] Yeah. Wow.
[Howard] I think it might be more accurate to say that the people buying books for their young adult children…
[Steve] Their teenage boys?
[Howard] Their teenage boys would prefer that the sex wasn’t in there. But that’s a completely different argument.
[Dan] Now, on the other hand, back when somebody handed me Cirque du Freak, that same person also handed me Tithe by Holly Black, which does deal very frankly with sex. As a YA, I guess it was dark fantasy instead of horror. If that line matters. So like you said in the beginning, it can be done, and every author’s line is going to be in a different place.
[Darren] Precisely. Yep. I’m sold… My books are sold as horror books for boys. I tell my publishers… I’ve been telling them now for 15 years, actually, at least half my audience are girls. When I go to events and I talk, often it’s more girls than boys turn up. But the sort of… The way I’m sold is that teenage boys are reluctant readers and Darren Shan books can reach teenage boys and so they aim them at the teenage boys. So there are areas where I may be constrained where other authors wouldn’t have the same constraints.
[Dan] That’s interesting. Okay. So let’s talk a little bit more then about this. What are some of the things that you see in horror that, I mean, you love? What brought you to horror and what made you want to tell scary… What made you want to horrify children?
[Darren] Well, as a child, I loved being horrified. I can remember I saw my first Dracula film when I was five or six. It was from the 90s, these Dracula films. I just remember him crawling across the wall of the spooky old castle and coming out of a coffin and I loved it. I just immediately fell in love with vampires. Then I went to other horror films, then books when I was a bit older. I just love being scared. I used to lie in bed at night, this was when I was five or six, thinking of scary things to try to give myself nightmares.
[Darren] I lived in a small little apartment in London and I’d think of vampires attacking the apartment. I’d play out different scenarios. Sometimes I’d fight them off and be a hero and save my family. Other times, my parents and older brother would be killed by them. But I’d survive, because I had a cross in the bedside cabinets. Sometimes I think of what it would be like if I became a vampire. Which, 20 years later, I think became the genesis for Cirque du Freak. I loved fictional scares. I didn’t like being scared in real life. I always think it’s important to draw a line between fictional horror and real horror. If you’re being chased down an alley late at night or being stalked down an alley, there’s nothing entertaining about that. If you’re watching it in a film or reading about it in a book, then it’s a very different experience. The best analogy I can make is that it’s like a roller coaster ride.
[Darren] You can strap yourself in, you are safe. You believe it’s real, you suspend your sense of belief, you enter the world of a book, you try to believe this can be happening, but you know it can’t. If it’s a book, if you get too freaked out, you just close the cover. If it’s a film, you hit pause. We go into these things because we love them. I’ve always loved horror. I’ve loved safe scares. I love roller coaster rides.
[Dan] I think that that’s one of the reasons that horror has always been so popular with children, is because it’s safe scares. It’s an opportunity in a safe environment to deal with the kinds of emotions and the kinds of catharsis and the kinds of danger and scary and all this stuff that they might very well come across in real life at some point.
[Darren] Definitely come…
[Dan] Not necessarily being chased through an alley, although that certainly happens, but issues of abandonment and isolation and loss and all of these things. Horror is a way, and it has been for thousands of years, that children kind of get the training wheel version of these emotions and these experiences.
[Darren] Absolutely. 100%. Going back to that scene in Lord Loss, chapter 2, that I was talking about, the boy walks into the bedroom to find his family ripped apart by demons. Now that’s not going to happen to any teenagers in real life. Well. Well. Never say that, right?
[Howard] Leave out the word demon…
[Dan] And it does.
[Darren] That’s what I was going to say. What I was doing with that book, it’s not about the ghoul. It’s about a boy whose life descends into chaos and how he finds the strength and courage within himself to piece his life back together and start over new. What it’s saying to youngsters, if your mum dies of cancer, if your dad gets killed in a road accident, it’s going to be terrible, it’s going to have this huge impact on your life, but you can get through this. I think it’s important for children to experience horror in fiction, so they can be thinking about it and preparing for it before it strikes us in real life. Because we are all being stalked by the Grim Reaper. We’re all going to die, we’re all going to experience death. There’s nothing overtly scary about that. If we are prepared for it. It’s sad, but we can deal with it. I think horror in fiction is a way of preparing us for that.
[Steve] Kind of reminds me of that quote from Stephen King where he says that horror is just a rehearsal for death. Right?
[Darren] Yeah. We use monsters, we use vampires, we use the supernatural to help think about these horrendous things without thinking about them directly. It’s a way of getting into that zone without being too morbid.
[Howard] I love the… Philosophical’s the wrong word, but I love this take that you have on it. It’s the first time I’ve heard it articulated in this way. I mean, I’ve heard Stephen King’s quote, but that always just sounded almost pithy and silly. But this…
[Steve] But in this context, doesn’t it sound so much better?
[Howard] Yes. Thank you for making Stephen King sound good.
[Thank you, Darren Shan]
[Darren] Always trying to help him out. He needs a bit of assistance.
[Howard] The question… Sorry, the question that I have is that moving from this existential sense of why the horror is important down to the nuts and bolts of what my going to do in order to make the young reader of this book feel this emotion, what am I going to do in order to release neurochemicals in this child’s brain and then force them to cope with it? How do you put those words on the page? How do you figure out which ones they are?
[Darren] I mean, it’s a very organic process, it’s real gut instincts. I find with writing, I’ve learned a lot over the 25 years I’ve been writing full-time. But a lot of it is subconscious. I’m a great believer in learning by doing. When I talk to young writers, I always say, “Write.” That’s the most important thing. All the advice in the world will do you no good unless you sit down and write. You have to write bad stories, you have to make mistakes. You learn from those, you improve, you get a bit better. So I’m… Yeah, for me it’s… I like fast-paced books. Most of my books tend to be written in the first person. It wasn’t something I set out deliberately to do, but I found when I started telling the stories that if I wrote in the first person, it allowed me as a writer to slip more easily into that world. I think it allows young readers as well… If you read…
[Howard] A little more immediacy?
[Darren] It makes it live. I think every reader tries to put himself into a book. Particularly, I think, children and teenagers. We’ve got to remember, most children who are reading my books… We’re talking about early teenagers. It’s not that long ago they believed in Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy and things like this. Whatever their supernatural beliefs might be as children. They believed firmly that… When I grew up, in a Christian household, Santa Claus came every year. That was it. I believed firmly. I can remember the day I found out Santa wasn’t real. I wept for an hour.
[Steve] Wait, wait, wait.
[Dan] We haven’t told Steve yet.
[Darren] Sorry, Steve. I’ll do the old Men in Black trick when you’re [in the basement?] So we’ll get that out.
[Steve] It’s the only thing keeping me together.
[Darren] I think children are able to suspend belief more because they live in this realm where anything is possible. It’s a very exciting time of our lives. It’s also the most terrible time of our lives. I remember my teenage years being incredible highs and incredible lows. If somebody makes fun of the T-shirt you’re wearing, you think the world has fallen down.
[Howard] Well, that’s just vampuberty.
[Dan] Let’s take a break very quickly for our book of the week. We would like you to tell us about… Which one did we want to hear about?
[Steve] Which one did you want to recommend?
[Darren] Thin Executioner.
[Dan] Yes. Tell us about that one.
[Darren] The Thin Executioner is a one-off book which I would pick as my favorite of all my books. It’s about a young boy whose dream in life is to chop off heads for a living when he grows up.
[Darren] He lives in a society where every crime is punishable with execution. So even if you steal or are caught lying, your head is chopped off. Executioners are the celebrity figures. He wants to be one of them. But he’s a very thin, scrawny boy. So he sets off on a big epic quest to try to gain magical powers which will allow him to become the thin executioner.
[Dan] Which everyone can relate to. Which is what I love about it. That’s great. People can find that book everywhere, I assume, right?
[Darren] It’s in print, so yeah, it should… It’s a hardback, paperback, online as a Kindle…
[Dan] E-book, audiobook?
[Darren] No audiobook.
[Dan] No audio?
[Darren] No audio.
[Dan] But every other format, people can find The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan. Awesome.
[Dan] All right. So I want to ask some kind of more detailed questions here. So what we’ve covered so far, I think, is if you want to write horror for children, first of all, it helps to really love horror. It loves to be… It helps to love being scared, to love scaring people. Beyond that, what’s the first bit of advice you would give to someone sitting down to write a young adult horror?
[Darren] Well, when I’m writing, I never think of an audience. The way… For when I’m writing for young readers, I try to remember what I was like as a teenager. The sort of movies I liked watching, the sort of books I liked reading. What was going on in my life at the time. I try to make it as personal as I can. Even though I’m writing about vampires, demons, zombies, I’m really writing about me and my experiences of the world, the questions I’m asking. So I put myself into the shoes of the character. I don’t worry about what’s hot in the market at the moment. I just think, “What would have stoked my imagination?”
[Dan] So when starting a new story or a new book, what typically comes first for you? Is it the character and what is he afraid of? Okay, then I’ll come up with a monster that matches. Or is it I’ve got this great idea for a monster or for a scene that’s terrifying? Where do you tend to start? Or is it all of the above?
[Darren] Well, I never try to fit characters to monsters or anything like that. I don’t sit there thinking, “All right. I’ve written vampires. What am I going to do next?” I just do stories that appeal to me. The ideas come from all over the place. The idea for Cirque du Freak, I was sitting in the car one day babysitting a young cousin who was asleep in the back seat, and I had this idea of a boy who meets a vampire at the circus and reluctantly becomes his assistant. The ideas, I cannot control. What I do control is the developing of the ideas. I do that by asking questions. An idea is like a clue. It’s something you stumble upon. It’s not something you can make yourself have. You might see something. I was walking across a bridge in London a few years ago, and this girl was coming towards me, pulling a series of strange faces. I have no idea why she was doing, but it set my brain to worrying. Why would she be doing that? It led me to write what will hopefully be our next series after Zom-B.
[Darren] So it’s about questioning. It’s like detective work. You ask questions. Cirque du Freak. Okay. I knew there was going to be a boy who meets a vampire at a circus and becomes his assistant. So I’d start asking questions like, “How does the boy know he’s a vampire? Why does the vampire want to blood the boy? Why does the boy agree to be blooded?” I mean, asking the questions, I begin to unravel answers. Which lead me to more questions and more answers. With Cirque du Freak, that happened very quickly. Literally in the space of three or four days. There are other books I worked on, and it’s been three or four years. That I’ve been playing around with ideas, trying to fathom out what the story is to go with them. I never know anything about the characters until I start writing. The characters are always a surprise to me. I discover those through the writing process. I have an idea that one of… Okay, I need a character to be a villain, so this character’s probably going to play that role. But I don’t know exactly how [vileness] he’s going to be, or the way he’s going to speak, until I actually start writing him. The characters just grow organically out of the storytelling.
[Dan] That’s fascinating to me, because I outline very extensively before I start. That includes often very detailed character sketches and even freewrites to get to know the character’s voice before I start the book. How much prep work do you put in, if you are essentially, it sounds like, freewriting the characters? How much of the plot do you know before hand?
[Darren] I usually know most of the plot. Sometimes I will know it intimately. With my Demonata books, most of those, when I was doing my plot notes, I broke them down to chapter headings. I knew pretty much what was going to happen in each chapter. There was always the room to change along the way. If I was halfway through a book and I had an idea that led me in a different direction, I had the freedom to do that. But I had very, very clear plots. Other times, like Cirque du Freak, it was half a sheet of A4 paper. I just scribbled down a very basic plot and I went from there. Usually it’s somewhere between those two extremes. I always like to have a guideline with the plot. I don’t write like Stephen King, where he says he begins a book, he doesn’t know where he’s going. I can’t write that way. I like to have a guideline and I might riff on it greatly as I go along. I might go off in different directions on stories that will hopefully surprise me as I’m going along, and I’ll find out new things that I didn’t know in the beginning. But I like to have that through line. I think the more work you can do in advance on your plot notes, the easier it is to write. When I go along in my notes, I like to tick off each chapter as I write it. It gives me a sense of making progress. A lot of writing is about mental confidence. It’s about believing you’re making progress and going to do it. If you’re working on a big two, three, 400 page book, you’re halfway through that, and it’s easy to get lost. The middle of a book is always the hard part. Like I’m sure most writers will start out with failed books. They’ll start writing a great book, they’ll get two or three chapters in, lose interest. They’ll know what the ending’s going to be, they’ll have a great ending in mind, but that big long middle stretch, it can be like finding your way through a desert. It can be a hard slog. I find having notes there so at least you can see as you go along, ticking off the notes, that you’re making progress. You don’t feel like you’re never going to get to the end.
[Howard] Put some landmarks in the Sahara so that you can…
[Darren] Absolutely, yeah.
[Howard] Meander across it. What is… I love asking this question. What is your favorite triumph in terms of having a writing problem, having… Maybe it was a story where you were puzzled, you were stuck, and then you did something new? What is your favorite moment where that’s happened?
[Darren] It’s with the Demonata series.
[Darren] The Demonata series is 10 books, which are linked together very intricately. The storyline jumps backwards and forwards in time, and… It always sounds very complicated when I talk about it. It’s a very, very simple series to read. But the structure is very, very complex. I didn’t figure out the structure until I was at book 6. I work in an unusual way. I will spend between two and three years working on any one book. But I will juggle lots of different books around over that two or three year period. So they’ll be at different phases. So I’ll do a first draft of the book. I leave it for maybe five, six months. I’ll go and edit another two, three, four books. I’ll return to that book, do a rewrite. Edit some more. Maybe do a first draft of another book. Come back to it. I jump around. It’s a juggling process.
[Darren] It’s just the way my brain works. If you were to ask me now where I am in the process with different books, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But when I sit down to my computer, and I’ve got the Word files on the screen, I just click into it. Something in my brain clicks in, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m at draft five of this book. I’m at draft seven of that book.” There have been occasions when I’ve forgotten I’ve done a draft.
[Darren] I’ve written to my editors saying, “When are you going to send me your feedback on the latest draft?” She’ll say, “I did that a few months ago and you sent me a whole new draft through.” I go, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.” My brain keeps track of these things. When I’m not writing, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about writing. I just sort of tune out. I go away… Again, it’s just the way my brain works. I let it go and it’s this big machine or computer working away in the background. But yeah, my greatest triumph was when I got to book 6 of that series. So I wrote the first book. The second book I wrote ended up being the fourth book in the series. The next two I wrote were books 5 and 6. Then I wrote what became book 3. It was on the sixth book that I wrote was when I figured out how I was going to make all these ideas tied together and make them work. That ended up being the second book. So it was…
[Darren] It’s a series I look back on.
[Dan] Don’t try this at home, kids.
[Darren] Absolutely not. Well, I didn’t know I was trying it. Because I was halfway through and I thought this isn’t going to work as a series. I’m just going to have to sort of cut out a couple of books. Make it all a different kind of story.
[Howard] See, that’s the worst kind of problem to have, and it’s the one that we most commonly have, which is when you don’t know that it’s a problem until you are too far in to ignore it. This wasn’t something you planned for. It was something that you…
[Steve] Well, we talked about… Darren, you and I talked about this the other day, when you said that in order to combat a lot of this stuff, you tend to write like the whole series as much in advance as possible. So that when you have issues later on, you can go and address them in earlier versions of the books.
[Darren] Well, that’s the advantage of the way I write. Because I start… Because all spend at least two or three years working on each book, by juggling lots of them around, that means by the time that first book of a series is due to be published, I’ll be very far advanced. With Cirque du Freak, I was up to book 9 when the first book came out. With Demonata, I had the first six written by the time book 1 came out. With Zom-B, I’d actually written all 12 before the first book was published.
[Steve] Oh, my goodness.
[Darren] The reason I did that was because Zom-B was released… Most of the series I write one every three months. I wrote it like the old serials, like Charles Dickens used to write. It was an experiment. I wanted to see, well, if I tell this story using short books, every book ending in a cliffhanger, can I create this real sense… A different sense of anticipation among my readership? So it was a big, big experimental series. I knew I had to have it, or at least the first draft written of the last one, before I could kick it off.
[Howard] That worked well, the serial worked well with the young readers, the young adults?
[Darren] It worked well for the readers. It didn’t work too well for the publishing industry. Booksellers are just not set up these days to release a new book every three months. The feedback we were getting was it was just… It was getting too confusing for them. The books come out too quickly. They were having… They couldn’t make a Book-of-the-Month every three months.
[Howard] Inventory issues?
[Darren] It was seen as giving favoritism to one author over others. So it’s probably not something I’d do again. But for those who were there with the story from the beginning, it did work in a really, really intriguing way. I’ve got probably the best feedback I’ve ever had of any of my series with Zom-B. The further along it got, the better the feedback became.
[Steve] Did they just feel they were more invested in the series with you?
[Darren] They did, because the books came out so quickly. It wasn’t like if you get a book every year, you forget a lot of things. If you get a book every three months, it stays fresh in your mind. The fact that every book ended in a cliffhanger, they were eager to get the next one. A bit like watching a TV show, where you’ve got your… It’s not quite every week, but when you’ve got your TV show and you’ve got your cliffhanger, you’re waiting for a week, you’re on tenterhooks. It was that sort of experience I was trying to re-create.
[Steve] That’s awesome.
[Howard] That is fascinating. We are little low on time at this point. Final questions for Darren?
[Dan] Can we be best friends forever?
[Darren] Until we die, Dan.
[Dan] Ah, perfect.
[Darren] Next week.
[Howard] Who’s got a writing prompt for us?
[Steve] I’ve got one from the crowd that says write a story about what scared you as a child.
[Dan] I like that.
[Howard] Okay. Reach back into your memories. Try and find the repressed ones. That’s tricky. But that’s where the big scare is going to be. Turn that into a story. Darren, thank you so much for joining us.
[Steve] Thank you, Darren.
[Howard] I really appreciated how much support you’ve given to a great many of the things that I’ve believed about writing.
[Howard] It’s very nice to find out…
[Steve] He makes us sound so much more intelligent, too.
[Howard] It just means I feel like I’m on the right path.
[Howard] Anyway, thank you so much for joining us. Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Now go write.