Book Review: Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner

“Through a combination of many years teaching and many more writing in the genre he loves, Tim Waggoner has created a unique writing manual that stands head and shoulders above other creative reference books.”


Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner - coverIn the near-twenty years that his writing has been in print, Tim Waggoner has published close to fifty novels and seven short story collections. As well as his own brand of dark fantasy and horror, he has written tie-in fiction for existing media properties such as Supernatural, The X-Files, Alien and A Nightmare on Elm Street, among others, and has written the novelisations for films such as Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. When not working on his own fiction, he is helping to shape writers of the future as a full-time professor in creative writing and composition at Sinclair College, Ohio, and his articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Writer’s Workshop of Horror (Edited by Michael Knost, Knost Enterprises, 2009), Horror 101 (Edited by Joe Mynhardt, Crystal Lake Publishing, 2014), and Where Nightmares Come From (Edited by Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson, Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017). With such a lengthy list of accomplishments, are there many more writers more qualified to release a book on the craft of horror writing?

Possibly the most famous book on the craft of writing, at least in our horror circle, is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2000). If you are a writer and you haven’t read it, you likely know three other writers who have. What makes King’s book so memorable and different from most of the other so-called “How-to” books (other than that he is Stephen King), is hinted at in the title; it is part memoir. While Waggoner’s book doesn’t veer too far from the path of instruction into the shadowy woods of reminiscence, his advice is delivered with a very personable tone, and a few concise anecdotes to hammer home a point. The product of many years spent teaching and many more writing, it makes the lessons presented that much easier to take.

Aside from the practical advice offered, Waggoner also explores the meaning of the horror genre, the emotions behind it and some of the history. It is never distracting; he always manages to use the exploration to make the reader consider their own approach to the genre, and how this knowledge may help them improve their own fiction. He examines the very nature of horror and the emotion that goes into it. He also considers the seemingly overdone tropes of the genre, whether in books or movies, and effectively explains where creators go wrong when utilising these tropes, and how authors can approach them in their own work.

Among the chapters devoted to the practical side of writing, Waggoner explores and explains many essential topics from structure to characterisation, emotion to style, creating suspense to writing action. Each is given its own chapter, clearly addressing the usual – and sometimes, unusual – questions often posed by creative writing students everywhere. “How do I plot my short story?” “How do I ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ my character’s emotion?” “How do I write an entertaining story that also evokes an emotional response?” “How do I create a feeling of suspense in my story, and maintain it until the end?” Waggoner doesn’t spoon-feed us the answers to these questions and more like them; through his effective and helpful teaching style he gives us the tools to tackle these things ourselves.

A part of that teaching style are the exercises included at the end of each chapter, providing us with the opportunity to put his lessons to the test. The only thing missing from this experience is the feedback to what we write but, really, that isn’t something we can reasonably expect from a book on the craft of writing. As Waggoner points out throughout the book, the best way to expand our knowledge is to open up to our fellow writers and creators; join writer groups, attend conventions and workshops, form relationships with like-minded authors who can provide feedback for your work, as you can theirs. Time permitting, we could have completed these exercises and provided our work to show the effectiveness of the work set out by Waggoner. But that maybe would have given away too much of the content. There is certainly enough shown within the exercises to give us reason to say that they will prove invaluable to future readers of this book. And they can always share their output with their fellow writers for feedback, and vice versa.

Another insightful resource offered at the end of each chapter are the “Voices From the Shadows”, where some of the biggest names in the horror genre offer their own words of wisdom in response to Waggoner’s two questions relating to what they think makes for good writing and what advice they would offer to new authors. With interesting answers of varying lengths from such recognisable genre names as Ellen Datlow, Joe Lansdale, Stephen Graham Jones, S.P. Miskowski and Joe Hill among many, many others, we are given a great deal to consider. Add to all of this the appendices included at the rear, covering many things from an “autopsy” of one of Waggoner’s own very early short story attempts to story ideas both experimental and straightforward, a comprehensive list of further resources to complex questionnaires designed to better understand the characters in your own stories, we are given a “How-to” book with a difference. Through a combination of many years teaching and many more writing in the genre he loves, Tim Waggoner has created a unique writing manual that stands head and shoulders above other creative reference books. Horror authors at all stages of their development will find something of use within these pages.


Publisher: Dog Star Books
eBook: 329 (pps.)
Release Date: 16 September 2020

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1 comment

  1. I have this book, and I’m working my way through it, doing the exercises and stuff. It’s great!

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