self editing

One of the struggles of writing horror and dark fantasy is the dilemma of self editing. I’m not talking about the editorial work of grammar or even the more difficult task of trimming the fat from your stories, eliminating those elements, characters and plot points that don’t contribute to the whole. I’m talking about content. About the demented twists and turns your fiction takes. About the raw, sometimes perverse, acts, thoughts and desires of your characters.

I’m talking about the fucked up shit you write that causes those who know you well to look at you askance and wonder what, exactly, is wrong with you.

The struggle for those of us who write those kinds of stories is in knowing what to filter and what to allow through to the page, to the story, to our audience, whomever they might be. It’s a delicate balancing act. If you want to write things that are worthwhile, you have to take some chances. You have to let some of the madness in. You have to indulge that sick and twisted part of your brain, giving it a long leash during your writing sessions. If you tame the beast, you’ll tame your stories, too, and a tame story has all the bite of soggy shredded wheat. It doesn’t work for any genre, particularly horror and dark fantasy.

Stephen King once said of Pet Sematary, “If I had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary. I don’t like it. It’s a terrible book–not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that,” (“Love and Death in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary“). Both King and his wife felt that Pet Sematary simply went too far. It was too dark. There was nothing redeeming in it.

Indeed, Pet Sematary is one of the darkest, most hopeless Stephen King novels I’ve read, and I’ve read a fair few. But it is also one of his most well crafted novels. The character development is amazing. The pacing of the plot is a thing of beauty, beginning slow and gradually escalating toward the inevitable, horrible conclusion, the tension ratcheting tighter and tighter with each turn of the page. It is both artful and abhorrent.

And that’s the rub.

How do you draw the line? How do you decide that this element is okay, but that element too dark, too horrible even for fiction? It is a difficult task, but it’s part of why writing is work. Real, honest-to-God work. It is the writer’s job to make such decisions, to know when her story has spiraled out of control or when he has worked too hard to reign it in. If you go too dark, your work becomes a vile thing. Not art. If you keep too much of the darkness out, your work becomes a toothless predator. A meaningless thing.

I don’t bring all of this up because I can tell you where to draw the line. I can’t. Hell, often I don’t know where to draw it, myself. I only bring it up to say that this is a reality, a genuine struggle of the craft, and one we (authors) need to embrace. We must wade into these waters. We must not be afraid to be daring, but we must also guard our own minds from too much darkness. Basically, we have to open Pandora’s box but then contain the contents to our studies, our writing nooks, carefully selecting only some of those secret wonders and horrors to venture further and stuffing the rest of the damnable mess back inside, where it belongs.

Yeah, it’s a tall order. Most of the time it’s fun, and occasionally, for brief periods, it’s agonizing. That’s just part of being a writer.

About Ash Martin
Ash Martin writes dark fantasy and horror, has a thing for classic monster legends, Nordic mythology, coffee, and sarcasm, and is currently working on multiple books.

9 Responses to self editing

  1. S. C. Green says:

    That’s a tightrope, indeed. One I’m familiar with.

    I remember letting someone close to me read one of my earlier works and having her return it pinched between two finger and held at arms length. She never looked at me quite the same again.

    I can deal with the darkness of the story a long as there’s a message or theme worth taking away. Nothing worse than gore, death, and misery for gore, death, and misery’s sake.


    • dex says:

      I’m the same as you. I need there to be a message. If there’s something redemptive about it, even if it’s really dark, I’m okay…and that’s true for things I read as well as write. But if there’s no hope, no redemption…well, that’s too much for me.


  2. This is something I find myself facing as I write, too. I don’t have any answers, but I do appreciate this post (especially the part about Stephen King — didn’t know that about Pet Cemetery). The new project I just started takes a very dark turn for the worst. I haven’t decided yet how much to write of the actual events, and how much to leave “off screen”. I’m hoping I can leave a good portion to the reader’s imagination, and still achieve the effect I need for the story to work. Ugh. Difficult balance, indeed.


    • dex says:

      I try to do that as well, sometimes. I have a project (hopefully a book some day) that includes some fairly horrible things happening to a little girl. It’s essential to the story line. I can’t sidestep it or leave it out. I can’t sugar coat it, either, because I need the reader to hate the perpetrator. So, I’m planning to allude to as much as I can without getting into all the graphic detail I (as the writer) know.

      I think that’s a good approach at times. In fact, sometimes the things our imaginations fill in are worse than anything anyone could have written!


  3. Ms. Nine says:

    Great post. It’s difficult to let out the dark and know it came from your own imagination. Makes you wonder about yourself.


  4. Julie says:

    I walk this tightrope all the time. My imagination is dark sewer some days, I swear. Yet at the same time, I feel like I need to let the story be what it is. I can decide not to share later, but I can’t make it be anything but itself. I suspect my next project is going to challenge me on that one, and I’m almost looking forward to seeing how that turns out. You never know until you try it, after all. Even then, sometimes you never know. I did a short story where the main character is trying to decide whether to commit suicide and I was sure it was too dark, too… something. My test readers insisted on getting hold of it and named it amazing. *shrugs* Who knows? Just go with what the story needs.


    • dex says:

      You can rarely go wrong by just letting the story be what it wants to be. (That sounds crazy to non-writers, I’m sure, but you understand what I mean. The story has it’s own mind…)


      • Julie says:

        yeah. Sometimes it just demands to be something. I usually need to figure out why it wants to be that, so it can all make sense when I write it, but it seems to lead me to good, if often dark, places 🙂


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