When you love something like horror, romance, or sci-fi it’s only natural that you want to immerse yourself within that genre. Just like when you love reading you want to binge every book by a favorite author or within a specific genre and that is enough.
But then you have to wonder what makes something so captivating. What makes your favorite writer stand out among dozens of others? I have found in the past when I have stumbled across something truly unique, the creator tends to say the same thing, and it’s something I practice and believe so I know it’s true - look for inspiration outside of (insert whatever here genre, music taste, etc) and you’ll create something that is weird, different, and truly yours. Maybe people will get it, or maybe they won’t, but if you’re creating for yourself then who cares?
This idea came up recently when I watched an interview with the singer of the Swedish black metal band (I hesitate to even call them ‘black metal’ because the music seems like so much more than a label) Shining. Niklas Kvarforth gave an interview to Chaoszine in which he talked about his history within the music scene and the band’s recent album. At the end, the interviewer asks if he has any advice to give to singers who are just starting out, it was basically ‘If you want to be a metal vocalist don’t listen to metal’
There was that age-old piece of advice again. When you hear something different you can almost always expect this piece of advice or something similar to follow.
I just like to write. It’s by accident that a horror novel, humor, or lit fic comes about. I don’t set the genre before I start. The impulse to write a story normally comes from fragments of stray inspiration that I like to turn around in my head beforehand. Inspiration comes in many forms.
A record/music. Not just the lyrics but the tone of the music, the artwork, the message behind everything.
Observing people on the street. Wondering why that woman is crying on the phone. Or if that flamboyantly dressed man stole that baby or if it’s really his.
A vague-looking package with foreign writing that you can’t read
A book on editing or a memoir
Neighbors moving in next door
A specific phrase, word combo, or title that may mean something completely harmless but has an eerie tone or unsettling feel about it like rabbit skin glue for example. This is simply boiled connective tissue that has tightening properties making it ideal for preparing a canvas before painting. Nothing strange about it. It can be found in almost any art supply store.
Listening to what other people have to say
When someone says they want to write a book but they have no ‘inspiration’ and need help I have to roll my eyes. Yeah, everyone has a dry spell. Maybe you’re busy dealing with real-life issues, you’re sick, or stressed, but when something jumps out at you, remember it and write it down for later use. If you’re the ‘artist’ you say you are, inspiration will be everywhere all the time. You don’t even have to look for it, it’ll show up. Write it down in one-line sentences. Those one-liners will merge to create something weird eventually.
My current writing project was inspired by an English cult, plus editing books, plus a bio about a humorist from the 1930s, and now this new self-titled Shining record that interjects classic piano with lulling guitars and cutting vocals. All of these items were collected mentally and without meaning to, and are going into a new piece of fiction that at the moment has no genre only a theme of confusion. This story will probably just get classified as ‘literary fiction’ because that’s where most unknowns or cross-genre books go, but that’s fine.
I used to love reading horror and true crime when I was a teen but at the time I wasn’t writing horror. I was writing a sort of pseudo-historical fiction. So it was fun to inject elements like horrific scenes of torture or descriptive gore, the feeling of unease. I don’t usually read horror anymore because all the really good authors have kinda of moved on to greener pastures and all that’s left is the same repeated themes, ideas, and story structures. Then when you look into these authors you see they are self-proclaimed ‘horror fanatics’ who all love the same few writers, usually Stephen King and Clive Barker are at the top of the list. While I think Stephen King could use a good editor to cut his tomes in half, he’s written some okay stories like The Long Walk but not everything he does is gold. Just look at the cocaine-fueled dumpster fires of Maximum Overdrive, or The Tommyknockers, (both hot messes that even King himself hates) and you’ll get it. Clive Barker is great at writing in general, and while I really liked his horror stuff when I was younger, in particular Mister B. Gone. He’s written great fantasy and YA as well, showing that you don’t have to live in one genre. It’s okay (and even inspiring) to expand outside of your bubble and follow a creative path that isn’t the same as everyone else's.
Authors like to be a big fish in a small pond, which is probably why I see all of these microgenres popping up within genres. I miss the days of just simple ‘crime’ ‘mystery’ ‘horror’ ‘classic’ etc…Honestly, I don’t even bother shopping at bookstores anymore because they are all overpriced and offer only the most lackluster selection of books like Spare. Recently I wandered into a communist bookstore by accident. But besides its damp basement location and low prices, its selection still was underwhelming.
But back on point, finding inspiration outside of what you like to write is a great way to reinvigorate a stale genre and add fresh elements or new perspectives. Then your readers can enjoy and wonder how the writer came up with such a new look at such an old trope. If you’re writing horror, stop writing about serial killers that are complex geniuses or sexy vampires. If you’re writing YA do not write about the Chosen One. If you’re writing fantasy don’t try to write like you’re in 1940. It doesn’t work. It’s been done. Turn things upside down and then give it a go.
When it comes to things like writing classes, that can be tricky. Writing classes/books are good for learning how to construct sentences and structure. It’s good for the basics. But, you have to have your own imagination and at least a little talent and drive to go behind that and create outside of the box. Don’t let your teacher or peers influence you too much. Make sure you know what you’re trying to say. When a writer has a personal perspective but is also a bit illogical, good things can happen.
What if you have never taken a writing class? You should at least read a few books to help you on your way. That, or spend the next ten years writing story after story and not publishing them. There are plenty of cases where an author has studied traditionally in school and other times where they simply liked writing and learned as they went along, sometimes for decades, before publishing anything. Read a few good editing books to help you learn how to channel your inspiration about ideas into a readable book that is still completely your own.
Don’t focus on becoming a ‘full-time author’ that can make your writing go stale quickly. Make sure you get out into the world, observe and interact with people, and hear different points of view. Don’t get trapped in Facebook groups where everyone is ‘supporting’ each other. If you need support, get a dog. Writers and artists don’t need support, they need tension, struggle, experience, and the ability to translate real life into words on a page. If you sit at your desk complaining online all day, well, no wonder you have no inspiration. Get away from your computer. Get off social media, it’s a vampire. Just go for a long walk by yourself. Looking and listening is an easy way to unwind and think about what you really want your writing to say. Go into an Asian grocery store where you can’t read anything. Walk around town and note the colors of anemic grass and cracked concrete. How can anything grow in an industrial wasteland? It’s pretty amazing the life that can spring from decay. Sit in a park and wonder what is going on with that 20-year-old couple. They are sharing a drink, the girl is sitting on the guy's lap. Then the guy puts on a facemask. Is he afraid of fresh air? Does the girl have bad breath? They were just sharing a drink! There is no way that girl is going to call him for another date if he keeps that facemask on the whole time. She looks disappointed.
I don’t like writers' groups. Most groups are just made up of other people who don’t really have a clue, plus everyone is too nice. The point of a writer group is to get clear, constructive feedback. This can help you refine your story. But if everyone says it's good, it's perfect, they like this part and this part, how does that help you as the writer? If you’re lucky enough to be part of a useful writers group, it's good that it works for you. But I find, after taking classes when I was younger and then spending free time since I was a child writing, it’s easier to learn to edit yourself and maybe have one or two honest people in your life to give you feedback on a draft.
Now, I say this, but honestly, I write to please myself, and when I give a story to someone to read I just want to know if they were bored or not. I don’t want to hear about structure or character development, it’s just how was the overall story????? This is probably because when I write a story I know what I want to put in it. I took my pieces of inspiration and compiled them to create specific characters, specific settings, and references all in order to channel certain feelings, images, emotions, etc. into one small book. It was written for me. If someone else likes it, great, if not, then it's not for you. So was it boring? That is all I want to know. I gave a book to a partner once, they read the first 30 pages or so and lost interest, they never went back to it and said that part was repetitive and dragged. I was annoyed at first didn’t they get it?!? But the imagery was an obscure reference and upon inspection it was used several times over the course of a few pages. I realized yeah, I got bored reading that part too. I cut most of it out. That piece of imagery was used briefly elsewhere in the book and that's all I needed. That part wasn’t clear and needed to be removed.
Reading outside of your favorite genre, grabbing inspiration from all over, no matter how small can add subtle elements to your story, mood, and character to create a more realistic setting that readers can easily get lost in without even trying. And they’ll get lost in it, not because it’s the same old same old but because it's sleek, unique, and attention-grabbing.
One last thing, you don’t have to hide your inspiration to be considered different or unique. If someone reads your book and says it has hints or this or that in it, that’s fine. Usually, it’s meant as praise. People like to describe something different by saying it reminds them of this-meets-that. The only issue I have is when a writer relies on their inspiration to a point where it becomes a crutch to sell books. We’ve all seen blurbs like ‘The Shining meets Mars Attacks meets Star Wars’ wtf? No. That is not using inspiration in a creative way and making it your own, it's just a rip-off, and it's cheap. If I wanted Stephen King or wanted to watch an alien movie, I would. I don’t need a mash-up of junk you threw together because your creativity is lacking. Maybe that sounds negative, but whatever. I’ve been told I am a negative person.
Let’s recap: Take elements you love or are disturbed or intrigued by, new concepts, and observations, and channel them into the complete opposite. Love writing horror? Great, so read memoirs, seek out inspiration that your favorite horror authors cite, become paranoid, and wonder what the hell is that guy doing on his balcony every night at 9 p.m.? He’s not smoking, he’s just sitting there. Something is up. Love 1960s Indian dance music, channel that into the upbeat retro feel of your YA story to invoke nostalgia and create a carefree tone. Next time you see a guy high as a kite dancing in the street and coloring all over his face with markers, remember that guy, he might be the perfect red herring for a mystery you’ve been thinking about.
Find inspiration outside of yourself and create something that is maybe a little distorted, weird, and unsettling but is truly your own monster.