In this episode, I talk about my wild west horror story.
Welcome to Empty Pages, which chronicles my journey from first draft to published manuscript and beyond. I’m your host, Ian MacTire.
Thank you for joining me. As always, if you are a return listener, welcome back! If you’re a first time listener, welcome! I do hope that these episodes are helpful. If you are enjoying this podcast, please leave a review, as that will help get this podcast noticed. Also, feel free to share to your friends and followers on social media to get the word out. Anything will help, and I will greatly appreciate it.
Just a side note, I have neighbors who are mowing a lawn at the time of this recording, and one neighbor who just LOVES to drive his overpowered pickup truck down the street faster than he should. So if you hear any of those sounds on this episode, I do apologize. I try to make this sound as professional as possible, but this is a one man operation, and I don’t have the super duper professional tools and recording studio that would make all that bullshit moot. Moving on.
In this episode, I’m going to just talk a little about my latest WIP. Assuming you’re a return listener, you should by now be noticing a pattern. I like to do episodes that talk about the technical aspects of writing, non-technical things that hopefully will help you become a better, and more successful, writer. But I also like to pull the curtain back on the actual writing itself.
As writers, it seems we all want to keep things as close to our chest as possible, as though writing were some kind of mystic art that requires deep attention and dedication to learn this esoteric art. It’s as though we are gatekeeping, whether we realize it or not. I’m a member of a few different writing forums, and there’s not a week that goes by that someone isn’t asking a question that it less about the technical aspects, than it is about the more mundane aspects of writing. And while people are willing to give an answer, they tend to boil down to “this is how I do it, you just need to figure out what works for you”.
That doesn’t really work when you’re sitting down to write and wondering if you’re doing the non-technical stuff correctly. Should I be writing at a specific time? Should I write it with pen and paper first? This sort of thing. I’ve seen video after video and listened to podcast after podcast that talks about some of this stuff, but it mostly focuses on the technical aspects. There are a lot of good resources out there for this. However, I’ve yet to find one that draws the curtain back to actually give you an idea of what it’s like to, you know, actually write.
So that’s where these episodes come in. These episodes aren’t going to tell you what to specifically do when you sit down to actually write. However, I’m hoping that by pulling back the curtain so you can see how one writer actually writes, maybe that will give you some ideas and lead you to your own writing nirvana. Writing won’t always be easy, but if you have a good system that works for you and not against you, it’ll make a world of difference.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss this current project.
My current WIP is a wild west themed horror story, as I mentioned before. Cohesion Press, which publishes the awesome SNAFU short story anthologies, opened up a submission call for short stories set in the wild west. Now I’ll admit, I wasn’t initially going to write anything for this. Though I like some western movies, I’m not a big fan of the genre as a whole. I’m more likely to watch it if there’s an actor in it that I like, or if it has a horror theme, but more often than not, I’ll pass.
I’m not against the genre in general. It’s just never appealed to me. I do think part of it is due to a bad association. I had an abusive step father that loved watching westerns, and you would never find him without a Louis L’Amour book. I definitely do not like any western that portrays Indigenous people incorrectly, and that’s always been a thing as far back as I can remember. Somewhere along the line I learned that Hollywood likes to play fast and loose with history. I’m not sure where I picked that up, but given the time frame, I’m pretty much willing to bet some teacher had a hand in that.
Beyond that though, it just seemed to lack the kind of fun and spectacle that I found in horror and sci-fi shows. Riding a horse in the desert and shooting outlaws didn’t seem nearly as exciting as chasing down stolen battle station plans, discovering new worlds, and hunting down monsters. The wild west was at one point real in some form, and I wanted to get as far away from my reality as possible.
So here I am, just starting out on my journey as a serious and committed writer. I know I need to write, and I know that I want to get published. To do the latter required that I do the former. And now I found myself with an open submission call. Here was an open submission call, and a chance to submit. But it was wild west themed, or rather “weird west”, because SNAFU is a horror anthology series.
What made me ultimately choose to go through with writing this story is that at the end of the day, more than anything, I saw a challenge. I could stay within my comfort zone, which would be ok, no one would fault me for it. Or, I could embrace the challenge. I weighed the pros and cons.
The cons were obviously that I would not have a story to submit, and I could stay safely in my comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with staying in one’s comfort zone, but no one ever grows by staying there. Thus, I would be potentially stunting my growth as a writer.
As for the pros, I would be stepping out of my comfort zone and doing this would push me as a writer. Regardless of the final product, surely I would learn something useful that would help to continue to push be to become a better writer. Also, if I did something that was actually good, I would have something to submit. Even if it doesn’t get chosen, I wrote a story and put it out there for consideration. And even if it didn’t get chosen, maybe it would make enough of an impact that I’ll be remembered the next time I submitted something. And finally, if it absolutely sucked, no one would ever have to see it.
The two things that made me decide in favor of going for this was that I would be better served as a writer by stretching my wings, and that no one would ever have to see it if it sucked. Decision made, it was on to the next step, which was figuring out what this wild west horror story was going to be.
As you may or may not know, I’m a pantser. That means I don’t outline, I don’t sit down and work out my character’s entire history from birth to current-as-of-the-story. That is something that works for some people, it doesn’t for me. When I write, I have the general idea, and I let the story surprise me. Once the first draft is done, I will go back and edit as necessary.
So I found myself trying to figure out what the seed of the story was going to be. In short order, I initially figured it would be a story that featured skin walkers. I didn’t want to do a wild west werewolf story, as fun as that may be. So I figured skin walkers would be the next best thing. So off I go to research the topic.
I quickly realize that in order to do the story justice, and not just white wash it, it was going to take a bit of research effort before ever sitting down to write. I wasn’t very confident that I could get the story written and properly edited before the deadline. It isn’t enough to just google “skin walkers”. From what I can tell, it seems that a lot of these Indigenous myths and legends are intertwined with their spirituality. If I’m correct in this assumption, then I certainly don’t want to do a story that doesn’t take that into account.
Now I could be completely wrong on this, and if so, I apologize in advance. All I know is that for me, it felt like I was starting to tread into territory that I wasn’t completely familiar with, and thus I wasn’t going to risk writing a story that was offensive and continued to trample on Indigenous people just to have something to submit. I still want to write this story, and I will, but not without doing due diligence first.
And let me just state this for the record: if you’re one of those people who are going to hear what I just said and scream about how PC I’m being, how I’m a cuck, or I’m a libtard, fuck off. As a horror writer, I know I’m going to write some fucked up shit. I know this, because I’ve already written some. I don’t care about offending someone because of too much blood, too much violence, too many werewolves or whatever. I do care about being needlessly offensive. I don’t think my skin walker story will be improved by trampling all over the First Nation peoples. I believe doing so will only drag the story, and me as an author, down. If anything, being respectful of their beliefs will only make it more powerful. So yeah, if you’re the kind of person who whines over this kind of shit, just miss me with your bullshit and go find your safe space with all the other assholes who think like you. And don’t tell me you’ll never buy any of my books. If racist scumbags don’t buy any of my work, I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
Let it go, Ian!
Okay, so the skin walker story was out of the question for the time being. Now I needed another story idea. For the first time in a long time, my brain was totally silent. I decided I needed to jumpstart it, so I watched some western themed horror films. When that failed, I watched some non-related horror films and read horror themed short stories. Those failed as well.
Lacking any further ideas, I decided to go down the well worn path: vampires and werewolves. I was able to come up with three ideas, and one of those was for a book so that one was relegated to the idea file. As for the two short story ideas, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about either of them. It wasn’t that I hated these monsters. It’s just that it felt by using one of these, I was putting one foot back into the comfort zone.
So I pitched these to my friend and his wife to see which stood out as the better idea. Not that it matters, but in case you want to know, they liked the werewolf one better. So I decided to go with the werewolf idea, because I love werewolves way more than I do vampires. As it turns out, I did not do that one. Before I ever sat down to write a single word, my brain finally kicked in and gave me an idea that I absolutely loved.
Here’s a little secret for you: your writing will show the reader how passionate you are for the story. If you are super into it, you love the idea, your story will be better for it. But if you force yourself to write something you don’t particularly care for, you might write a competent story, but it will be clear that your heart wasn’t into it. If you find yourself with a story you aren’t particularly thrilled with, set it aside. You may find yourself coming up with an idea down the line that will alter it and make you excited to continue writing again.
So, with the idea in mind, I set about doing a little research. At first, it starts to look like my initial idea isn’t going to work. I’m disappointed, but a moment later, the proverbial lightbulb goes off and I think to myself, “wait a minute, I’m a writer, this is all made up anyway, so I can make this work”. And off I go.
Now even though it’s a bit fantastical in some of the horror elements, and thus I have leeway to create what I need to, it’s also set in the wild American west. This country has a history. I know right away that this story won’t work if it’s not grounded in some kind of reality as readers might know it. I say might, because it depends on where you got your ideas about the wild west. If it’s from Hollywood movies, I imagine there’s a bit more leeway. If you’re actually a history buff, you’ll likely spot any bullshit from a mile away. Personally, I love when a writer combines their stuff with real world stuff.
Though I didn’t specify a specific time frame in the story, it takes place in the mid to late 1800s. So everything that is “real world” in my story, has to be accurate to that time frame. So what did I need to research? The guns in use at that time, the horses that would be used, what kind of architecture you would find, etc. For dialogue, or things that are dialogue adjacent, I also needed to research the type of slang in use at the time. The goal was to give the reader an accurate enough wild west to ground them, because then the horror would be even more effective. At least, that’s my thought going in.
And then I wrote the first draft. I’m not going to be shy here. What I wrote was fucking amazing. It was messy, it certainly needed editing. But I was amazed at what I pulled off. And yes, I know, I’m coming from a place of bias. That said, if I write something horrible, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Now I’ll admit that the horror part of the story was really hard for me to write. I couldn’t seem to get it to flow smoothly. At one point, this section read like one is playing with action figures, by which I mean that everyone was standing around until they were moved. There was no flow to the action, it was stilted, it lacked oomph. Hell, I even had trouble describing a damn sunset, even though I’ve seen decades worth of them, and even googled images.
This was extremely frustrating to me, because up to this point, everything just seemed to flow in stories I had written previously. Sure, I had to edit them to tighten them up. But it was there. Writing was almost effortless. The first part of this story was fairly effortless. I was tempted to quit writing it. It sucked, I was not up to the task of writing this story.
This didn’t call into question my overall ability to write. I just assumed that because it was wild west, it just wasn’t my forte. It was literally the first story I have ever written that didn’t take place in the present. Or space, if you count the book I wrote in school. So I shut my laptop down and went off to go do something else. I don’t remember what, but it was definitely not related to writing.
Even though I walked away for the evening, I wasn’t fully committed to quitting, though I wasn’t fully committed to continuing either. I think it’s okay if you’re having difficulty to walk away. Sometimes we need the break. Being frustrated is not conducive to writing, so it makes no sense to continue sitting there with the source of your frustration right in front of you. So I did the sensible thing and walked away.
When I’m having trouble trying to figure something out, I usually think about it as I’m going to sleep, so that my subconscious can work it out. This usually helps. But that night, I didn’t do that. I literally did not know what I was going to do at that time. My brain came through like a champ anyway. I dreamed something I don’t even remember, but I do remember waking up the next morning realizing not only what I was doing wrong with the horror scene, but how to describe that damn sunset.
There was only one problem: I had to go to my day job, so the fix would have to wait until later that evening. I enjoy my day job for the most part, but man, that work shift seemed to take forever! Finally, the evening came and I was able to fix everything.
The problem? I was slowing my writing down by describing every little action. Because of that, it was slowing everything down to a crawl. Once I fixed it, it suddenly became very easy to write that part and soon I had a completed first draft. Yay!
Before making any changes, I sent that first draft off to a few beta readers for feedback and made sure they understood it was a first draft. I was only looking for feedback on how it worked overall as a story, and their opinion on the setting. The feedback was pretty interesting. All of them felt the horror part of it worked well, which is where I expected there to be an issue. They all felt that it was too slow getting to the action, because an earlier scene caused it to drag. This was surprising to me, as I was pretty proud of what I wrote. They agreed that it was good from a writing standpoint, but it didn’t serve the story well. One person familiar with the western setting told me that I got it pretty close.
I then made adjustments based on the feedback I was getting. Once that was completed, I sent it back to them with the same instructions. They all said it worked much better. So then I set about working on editing it and cleaning it up. That took a bit of time, because I don’t edit once. I edit and edit until it reaches it’s final version. Meanwhile, during this whole process, the clock is ticking down and getting closer to the deadline.
So that’s where I’m at. I’m at what I believe is the final version. I’m giving it one last pass and then submitting it. I don’t know if it will be accepted. I certainly hope it will be. Regardless of what Cohesion Press decides to do with it, I’m proud of what I accomplished, and I have a story I would be glad to show anyone. Did I learn anything from doing this? Absolutely! Do I feel my writing will benefit from having done this? Without a doubt.
I will say that I’m glad that I decided to embrace this challenge. A lot of the reason my stuff tends to be set in the modern day is because that is what I know, what I’m comfortable with. I’ve shied away from other settings because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Seeing that I was successful with this setting has opened up possibilities for other settings in my writing.
At the end of all this, my advice to you would be to embrace writing challenges. It goes without saying that the more you write, the better you get. Embracing challenges will also open up storytelling possibilities in your own stories, and that in turn will open up new possibilities to explore your subject.
So reach out to me, let me know what challenges you’ve faced, or what challenges you’re looking to face. And if you’re wanting to know if you should embrace that challenge, then the answer is YES! This is the universe giving you your answer.
Stay classy, and keep writing those stories!
This has been another episode of Empty Pages. If you enjoyed what you heard and want more of it, you can follow me at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Please leave me a review, as that really helps me out, and if you do, you might find your review featured in a future episode. You can find me at ianmactire.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram as @ianmactire. Until next time, I’m Ian and this is Empty Pages. Stay classy and write those stories!
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