Mark Chadbourn's writing tips

He’s the author of Jack of Ravens , a much acclaimed fantasy novel and the first instalment in the ‘Kingdom of the Serpent’ sequence. He also writes horror tales. Mark Chadbourn offers his writing tips to Pulp Idol contestants. Enjoy!

SFX: How do you ‘research’ horror? Is it, for example, important to read around psychology?
Mark Chadbourn: “I don’t think you can research horror. You either ‘feel’ it or you don’t. Horror is a gut reaction to circumstances that are often very complex and subtle, and you get that kind of detailed understanding from life, not books. I’ve always had an interest in psychology outside of my writing, but there’s a big difference between an expert telling you why someone responds with fear to a certain situation, and actually feeling that fear. Having said that, for writing in general, the more you read and the more information you amass, the more it will help you to construct the stories you want to tell. It’s just no good at defining emotional responses.”

SFX: Have you any tips on establishing mood and sense of place?
MC: “Less is more. Some aspiring writers describe everything in a scene, but the best stories are the result of teamwork between writer and reader. The writer has to be skilful enough to give just enough information for the reader to fill in the gaps – that makes the story a unique experience for the reader because it becomes ‘their’ story. A lot of horror is about symbolism that affects the deep unconscious so it’s worth choosing settings that tie into this, without beating the reader over the head with it. If you’re aware of the symbolism, it’s not doing its job. Also, focus on all the senses, not just sight and sound.”

SFX: Where do you search for story ideas?
MC: “I never search for story ideas. If an idea is good, it’ll present itself to you. You just have to be sharp enough to recognise it when it comes. Most writers, in my experience, have more ideas than they can use – they never need to look.”

SFX: Balancing gore and psychological horror - any tips?
MC: “Personally, gore isn’t scary unless you’re 13. The most effective horror is always psychological.”

SFX: If you had one piece of advice to give to budding horror short story writers, what would it be?
MC: “Throw out your heroes. Every new writer starts out echoing the authors they love. No publisher is interested in that – they want a unique voice. So the sooner you produce a piece of work that could only be written by you, the better.”

Mark Chadbourn was speaking with Jonathan Wright. You can read more tips for horror writers, especially those who want to enter their words in our current Pulp Idol competition , in issue 157 of SFX which as luck would have it is on sale now. And you can find more horror advice here , from John Meaney.