JG Faherty will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. A life-long resident of New York’s haunted Hudson Valley, JG is the author of seven novels, ten novellas, and more than seventy-five short stories, and he’s been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award (The Cure, Ghosts of Coronado Bay) and ITW Thriller Award (The Burning Time). He writes adult and YA horror, science fiction, dark fantasy, and paranormal romance, and his works range from quiet, dark suspense to over-the-top comic gruesomeness.
Since 2011, JG has been a Board Trustee for the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and a Mentor. He launched their Young Adult program, and also their Library & Literacy program, which he still runs. Recently, he co-founded the HWA’s Summer Scares reading initiative in conjunction with Becky Spratford and several library organization, and he teaches local teen writing programs at libraries. In 2019, he was recognized with the Mentor of the Year Award by the HWA.
As a child, his favorite playground was a seventeenth-century cemetery, which many people feel explains a lot. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/jgfaherty, www.facebook.com/jgfaherty, and www.jgfaherty.com.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
The focus of my lecture will be how horror is the most basic and integral genre, and how it affects and entwines with all the other genres, such as science fiction, thrillers, romance, etc. But in terms of what I can personally offer outside of that, I always try to impart on my students the idea that no story is finished until it’s officially in print. That means there’s ample opportunity during the writing and editing processes to pursue alternate plot lines and endings, add and delete scenes, and even cut characters who don’t drive the plot forward. My advice is, always be willing to try different things with a story and remember that it’s okay to ‘kill your babies.’
Your work ranges from quiet, dark suspense to over-the-top comic gruesomeness. How do you create suspense in your work? How do you decide on the tone you want for your story?
Deciding on the tone of a story really depends on what kind of story it is. If it’s a thriller, you want the tone to be fast, lean, and tense. Minimal description, few breaks from the action. If it’s a romance or gothic horror, then you amp up the suspense, add in more description and characterization, and select a setting that is appropriate. Traditional horror works very well when set in the real world, and the scares hit hardest when least expected, so it’s important to again develop characters people feel for and break up the tension with some romance or humor. Horror really works well when the reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride, up and down, around and back, while thrillers are more like riding a high-speed bullet train careening down the track.
Suspense comes from all sorts of writerly techniques. You can use short, terse sentences and lots of action verbs to create an impression of fast action. Conversely, if you want something moody and atmospheric, you use somber adverbs and adjectives and describe scenes more slowly. Words such as deadly, desultory, grotesque, dark, creeping, etc. will create a very different feel than rough, sped, slammed, and slashed.
Some of your work is geared toward the YA audience. What are some of the challenges in writing horror for younger readers?
In my experience, teen readers expect more out of a story than do many adults. They are more discerning, more alert to writers just going through the motions or delivering retreads of best sellers. They want originality, in both plot and characters, and they need to really identify with the main characters at the emotional and reality levels. They’re also typically well-versed in whatever genre they’re reading. On top of all that, they are keenly aware that many authors ‘write down’ to teens, and that will be an instant turn-off to them if they sense it happening. The not-so-secret secret is to treat them like mature, intelligent readers and deliver a book that touches on the emotions, social issues, and physical changes universal to the teen experience.
You shared a story on Twitter about seeing the ghost of a milkman who died in a fire and how that became the basis of your first professional short story sale, “The Phantom Milkman.” How do you typically move from the initial idea for a story to the finished product? How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
The answers to those questions will be very different depending on if we’re talking about a short story or a novel/novella.
For a short story, I typically have most, if not all, of the idea in my head before I begin writing. It might take two to three rough drafts for me to work everything out, but it’s really just about finding the right words to capture what’s in my head. The only revisions I’ll do tend to be the proofreading/editing kind, either from my read-throughs or those of my beta readers.
For a novel or novella, the process is very different. I typically get an idea and immediately write down a one-paragraph summary so I don’t forget it. Then, in my spare time, over weeks or months or even years, I’ll flesh it out to about a page, so that I know the beginning and end, who the protagonists and antagonists are, and I have at least one or two plot twists.
When it’s finally time to turn that into a book, I sit down and write the first one or two chapters. That helps me get an idea of my characters and shows me the direction the book will go in. That’s where I stop and do a rough outline. Nothing formal. Just a paragraph for each anticipated chapter or scene. With that in mind, I begin writing the rest of the book. It might take three months, it might take three years. I usually go through six to ten versions of it before I finish. Each time I come up with a new plot direction or realize something I’ve written has been done in similar fashion before, I save that draft and start a new one. In this manner, I can always go back to an older version if the new one turns out to be a dead end or if I need a chapter from version three, a scene from version six, and so on.
Once the first draft is done, I put it away for a month or so. Then I read it again and fix any plot holes, character issues, descriptions, etc. I also proofread it. After that, it goes to my beta readers. I’ll get back anywhere from five to seven critiques from them, and I read all those and decide what to use. Then, after making all the changes to the manuscript, I proof it again. At that point, it goes to the publisher.
Luckily, I’m a fast editor, which makes up for me being a slow writer. When I write, I often get distracted by other projects. When I edit, I focus only on the one book.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I started writing fiction in 2004, but prior to that I had been writing non-fiction for a long time. Laboratory manuals and procedures, business documents, etc. Then I got a part-time gig writing elementary school test preparation guides for The Princeton Review. That required writing fictional reading passages. I found I liked it, and here’s where real serendipity enters the equation. Makes you wonder if Fate really exists. I wanted to write horror and sci-fi, so I attended a convention (LunaCon) in New York, where I met Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos. We talked, and she said I should submit something to an anthology she was working on. I had two days before the deadline. I went home and wrote like a fiend. Finished my first-ever short story and sent it to her, unedited, unproofed.
It got rejected, of course.
But she sent it back with a note saying I almost made it in, I had real talent, and I should keep writing. So I did. And a year later I made my first professional sale, a short story. The year after that, it was two pieces of flash fiction and some poems. Then another couple of short stories. I went on like that for five years, all while also working on my first novel, which was published in 2010.
In those days, I’d have to say I was doing EVERYTHING wrong! I didn’t know about using editors or beta readers. I thought you just proofed your work and the publishers edited it. I didn’t know about first or third drafts. I didn’t know how to write a cover letter. I didn’t know anyone in the business except Jeanne. Over time, I attended more conventions. Met people. Joined the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Took some classes. Learned how to edit properly.
And gradually, the quality of my work improved.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
We all have many, but my main three are: 1) not being able to focus on one project at a time, 2) fighting through the middle section of every book, and 3) self-doubt.
How have I solved them? Honestly, I haven’t. Every day I sit down at the computer and decide what I’m going to work on. Sometimes it might be the same book or story for weeks or months at a time. Or, if I get stuck on something, or get an idea for something else, I switch gears for a while. The middle of every book continues to plague me. I really have to revise, revise, and revise again to create the right bridge that brings me to the final third of the book.
And self-doubt is a big monkey on my back. When I’m writing, I always think it’s going to be the most terrible piece of junk I’ve ever produced and it will never get accepted by the publisher. It’s usually not until I’m going through my edits that I actually start to appreciate the book. And it’s not until I get the edits back from the publisher that I can suddenly see it for what it really is.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I am presently working on edits for my next book for Flame Tree Press, Sins of the Father. It’s going to be kind of a horror/SF cross between a Lovecraftian gothic and the Frankestein mythos. I’m also deep into writing my next book for them, an untitled horror novel about possession and poltergeists.