I published “Lights Out” back in the Spring of 2010, but I wrote the rough draft back in 2007. This story went through many incarnations. Most of them were completely ridiculous. Let me tell you why.
Beta readers can be a wonderful asset. Sometimes writers can get too close to their work, falling so deeply in love with their own writing that they miss major plot holes or wonky characterizations. Or the complete opposite occurs and the writer thinks their story is a total drag, an embarrassing mess that should be deleted to the void and forgotten about forever. The beta reader can help us writers in a few ways.
1) They can bring us to the realization that our literary darlings aren’t as dazzling as we think they are, bringing us back down to earth from our ethereal writing heaven.
2) They can emphasize what is working when we falsely think every word is dead on the page.
3) They can drive us crazy, sending us in a vicious cycle of endless revisions and editing.
Number three is what happened to me. At the time I was writing “Lights Out”, I was also taking my first creative writing class. The idea for the story had been on my mind for some time and I decided I could use it for the class and find ways to really improve the story from class instruction. Early on, the instructor for the class, a stocky bald man who went by Dr. Armstrong, emphasized the importance of dramatization, especially when writing a short story of eight pages. In the first draft I summarized too much. You know the old saying every writer gets pounded on the head with now and then: “show don’t tell.” I was telling too much. “Too much exegesis. Dramatize. Cinematic rendering.” I think these were some of the comments my instructor wrote on the first draft.
When it came to my fellow classmates’ comments, they had a far different issue with my story. Their issue had something to do with my use of enigma. “Lights Out” is a story about a detective investigating a scene where a young boy’s parents have mysteriously died. Blood seeps out their ears, darkness has engulfed their eyes. The boy feels certain he is the cause of their death, and Detective Palmer believes this troubled guilty reaction is just the trauma talking. He plans to take the boy to his grandma’s after further investigation at the police station. Matters turn very bad on the drive to town. A deer runs out in the road, causing the detective to wreck the car into a tree. Stranded and waiting for backup, the boy unveils to Detective Palmer that he has a strange light inside him, a power, an entity, that when awakened can cause devastating effects. This power is demonstrated, and when other detectives arrive on the crash scene, Detective Palmer is dead (exhibiting the same death signs as the boy’s parents), and the little boy is gone, until they get a clue of his whereabouts, a mad cackling in the woods.
Fellow classmates liked the story. They were fascinated by the concept and the eerie atmosphere of it, but the enigmatic ending bothered them. Many of my classmates deluged me with numerous ideas of how the story should end; they wanted it wrapped up in a pretty bow. Others suggested the eight pages written were the prologue to a novel (this I have considered, though I haven’t seen the rest of the story yet). I took every one of their comments seriously. I wanted to please every one of them. Let the maddening vicious cycle begin. I ended up rewriting the story nearly a dozen times, trying to correct what everyone saw wrong with the ending. My various incarnations of the story grew so out of hand that they no longer resembled the original draft.
One day Dr. Armstrong flat out told me just to ignore them. I was hesitant to do this. Wasn’t that rude? Didn’t they have something helpful to add to my story? My instructor insisted, “Ignore them.” I did.
A couple years later I returned to the original draft of this story, polished it up again, and submitted it to Dark Gothic Resurrected. The chief editor, Cinsearae S. appreciated it, replying in the acceptance letter that it was “creepy as hell.” I was glad it found a home. All these years later it has found a new home, a reprinting in Dark Dossier.
I learned a couple lessons from writing this story. Even though beta readers are invaluable for the purpose of helping you see your story in new ways, at the end of the day you’re not going to please them all. You’re the boss of your story when it comes down to the bottom line. Also, not every suggestion they make is correct. I think the enigmatic ending of my dark tale works better than a more unambiguous ending. The enigma sends that thrilling shiver up your spine and stimulates conversation amongst readers, allowing them the pleasure to puzzle over together what happened in the ending.
If you’d like the pleasure to puzzle over this dark mystery of my imagination, you can find my story in two locations below:
3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned While Writing A Short Horror Story”
I love this! I’ve had so much help from beta readers, but sometimes you just have to smile and nod, then do it the way you want to do it. Your stories do seem to end at a cliffhanger or end with the MC losing, so I can relate with what the students in your class wanted. However, it’s perfectly legitimate to end stories this way and I love how you pull it off.
Thanks for commenting, Dawn. You’re right, my main characters do end up losing. I guess for me that’s the horror of it, seeing these characters trapped in a dark place with no escape. It scares me knowing this happens to some people, and I get a thrill exploring it through the medium of a story. It has made it harder to get published, however. More and more editors want a happier and more unambiguous ending. Writers like myself have fewer places to exhibit our talents, even amongst horror markets. I’ll press onward nonetheless.
Sounds like one hell of a story. Very Stephen King-ish.