Writing and Publishing Horror: Q&A with Todd Keisling

In this interview, horror author Todd Keisling shares what scares him, the authors who taught him the most about writing within the genre (and, simultaneously, beyond it), his experiences with crowdsourcing on Kickstarter and Patreon, how he feels about trigger warnings for fiction, and more.

Todd Keisling (@todd_keisling) is a writer and designer of the horrific and strange. He is the author of several books, including Devil’s Creek, Scanlines, and The Final Reconciliation, among other shorter works. He lives with his family somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania, where he is at work on his next novel. Share his dread on Twitter, Instagram, Patreon, or his website.

On Writing

KRISTEN TSETSI: In a since-deleted interview on Medium, in answer to a question about your attraction to horror, you say, “I’m one of those weirdos who enjoys the exploration and what I might find waiting for me in the dark, even if it terrifies me.”

That’s all well and fine in fiction, but in real life, standing at the edge of very dark woods, would you step into the trees? And, when standing at the edge of very dark woods (literally, not metaphorically), if there is fear, what is your fear? What do you imagine is in there?

TODD KEISLING: Do I have a flashlight? If so, then yeah, I’ll probably step into the woods.

I used to go on long hikes and bike rides with my dad in the state parks of Kentucky and Tennessee, so the woods themselves don’t scare me. I’m more afraid of tripping over something, falling into a hole or from a cliff, or disturbing a nest of snakes. Yes, I’m terrified of snakes. And ticks. Lyme disease is no joke.

What does scare you in the tradition of horror?

Anything disembodied. Like hands reaching out of some dark place, and you can’t see what they’re attached to.

I tend to incorporate that imagery in a lot of my fiction. For me, the fear aspect isn’t based so much on the hands reaching out, but what’s waiting for me in the dark. It’s the knowledge that something is there and I can’t see what it is.

Who did you read before you started writing, and who do you read now? Which of those authors taught you an early, key lesson you still hold onto today, and what is that lesson?

I read a lot of R.L. Stine and John Bellairs when I was younger. Their stories about children caught in these fantastic, often dangerous situations engaged my young interests and got me addicted to reading. That led me to King and Koontz, whose work was a natural graduation from what I was already reading—higher stakes, more grotesque scenarios, more “grown up”—and later when I began writing in high school, the work of Chuck Palahniuk and Albert Camus.

Camus’s The Stranger showed me a complex philosophical idea can be communicated simply and effectively through narrative and character interaction. Palahniuk’s work, specifically, taught me experimentation in narrative was plausible, and I tried to emulate his style for several years into college.

I didn’t really find my own voice and style until after I read a trio of longer books: Gaiman’s American Gods, Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. All three books mesh multiple genres and taught me I could write a horror story about philosophical concepts. The Monochrome Trilogy was born from that epiphany.

Who to you is the most effective suspense writer, and what do you think is necessary to create genuine, deep feeling, nail-biting suspense? Beyond the bullet-point lists you can find online that tell you to create high stakes, a looming deadline, etc.

Thomas Ligotti. He’s not a suspense writer so much as a weird fiction (and philosophical horror) writer, but the guy’s work oozes dread. A Ligotti story is a nightmare in literary form. He’s capable of capturing the general wrongness of an upsetting dream in his work and uses that to instill a sense of dread for the reader.

To me, that’s the most effective form of suspense—creating that crawling dread for the reader. It’s the feeling that something isn’t quite right, something is slightly off, but even you, the reader, aren’t sure what it is. I’ve compared it to the scenario of arriving home and knowing something is wrong, but not because something is missing—it’s because something is there that should not be, and you aren’t sure what it is.

I’ve also heard it compared to the uncanny valley, which might be a better comparison. The concept of the Uncanny Valley is derived from an object’s resemblance to a human being and a viewer’s reaction to said object. A more human-like appearance correlates to a heightened sense of revulsion in the viewer. Consider a mannequin and the sense of unease one feels to be in its presence, especially if the mannequin is clothed with painted facial features.

I use the Uncanny Valley as a comparison because of this correlation. You arrive home and it looks normal at a glance, but the longer you study the scene, the more you realize something isn’t right—and you can’t figure out what it is.

Is there anything you do too much or too little of in a first draft, and do you recognize it as you’re doing it, or does it take the first full read-through to see, and be nauseated by, it?

I tend to reuse certain phrases and actions, but working with my longtime editor, Amelia Bennett, has taught me to recognize them as I go along. Of course, some of them still slip through and mock me in subsequent drafts. One of Amelia’s greatest victories is teaching me to avoid usage of “it” and be clear with my language.

You’ve been open on Twitter about the anxiety you’re experiencing and that seems to be caused, in part, by the recent loss of your job. But you’ve also expressed gratitude that you have much more writing time, now. Which is stronger: job fear or writing bliss?

I would like to say the writing bliss is stronger, but the job fear really drags it down.

There’s a constant worry about savings running out, the arrival of unemployment compensation (which has been extremely delayed due to COVID), and the growing pile of bills coming due. It’s hard to focus on a story when a nagging voice in the back of your head is telling you to stop wasting time and find a job.

There’s also a constant anxiety surrounding job prospects, trying to branch out and find jobs outside of a corporate environment, and the fear of jumping back into a role that hasn’t treated me very well over the last few years. It’s a big knot of emotion and stress that isn’t easy to unwind when you’re tied in the center.

All that said, I’m trying to break through it one day at a time in small bites. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

On Publishing

In a publisher’s blog post about your limited-edition chapbook Scanlines, Dim Shores (your book’s publisher) provides a trigger warning about the story. What is your opinion of having trigger warnings for fiction?

I tend to agree with this article Max Booth III wrote for LitReactor a few months back: “Horror is supposed to be dangerous […] It should be dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be damaging.”

He’s right. I wrestled with the idea of a trigger warning for Scanlines for the very reasons he outlines in the article. At the end of the day, however, the last thing I wanted was for my story to trigger a suicidal episode in a reader. So, a trigger warning made sense in this case, and I think that’s how they should be handled—on a case by case basis.

I’d love to know what was behind the decision to make Scanlines a limited edition release. How did that conversation happen, whose idea was it, why do it, and what was the result?

There wasn’t really a conversation about it. The limited release is part of Dim Shores’s business model. They only publish limited runs, and I knew that going in. The rights term wasn’t long (six months), so I had no problem with the book being limited to 150 copies.

However, what I didn’t expect was the interest from readers and the critical reception the book received. It’s an immensely dark story about suicide, not what I would call a commercial hit by any stretch, and yet it’s become a sought-after title. As of now, the book is officially sold out, but I’m hoping a publisher will pick up the reprint rights next year.

You’re managing a Patreon account right now that offers members access to things like deleted scenes from your previously published novels, movie parties, and blog posts. 

Around a decade ago, your Kickstarter funded the publication of your novel A Life Transparent.

So, you’ve had some experience with this.

It can be hard, if you’re new to the crowdfunding arena, to know what people want, and even harder to keep up with the rightful expectations donors have of a certain consistency of output. How did you decide what to offer donors and at what frequency, and what have you learned about using crowdsourcing sites that would have been helpful to know in the beginning?

Crowdfunding has changed a lot since that first campaign a decade ago. That said, research is a necessity, and so are the economics of what you’re offering.

I’ve seen a lot of crowdfunding campaigns not take costs into account, like shipping, production, etc. When I organized the campaign for Anthony Rapino’s Greetings for Moon Hill, we spent months going over the costs of everything to make sure we didn’t run short. You basically have to become an expert in cost analysis.

So, if I had to give advice to anyone thinking of crowdfunding, it would be not to jump into it until you’ve absolutely mapped out every expense.

With Patreon, I’m far from an expert. I tried offering a number of different tiers and rewards last year and found it to be a source of anxiety.

Most people, I found, just wanted to support me rather than get something in return, and there was very little engagement from patrons in response to my posts. A lot of times I felt like I was talking to a wall. So, when I lost my job in August, I decided to keep things simple. All tiers, regardless of price, receive access to everything—which is anything I post. Works in progress, deleted scenes, movie nights, live Q&A—anything that might involve the community I’m trying to build.

Some things, like the movie nights, are a hit. Others, not so much. It’s very much a trial and error process.

How does an author amass the kind of audience that makes Kickstarter and Patreon a success? More specifically, how did you develop your audience? Was it strictly word of mouth, or was there a particular marketing strategy (or even a single campaign or platform) that seemed especially effective?

Honestly, it was word of mouth. I’d made a concerted effort to try every trick in the book when I was self-publishing—freebies, ad space, blog tours, et al.—and the experience wasn’t fun. I hated it. You can put so much work into a marketing strategy only for it to fall flat.

Which of your efforts fell flat?

Here’s an example. When I published my second novel, I organized a huge Amazon freebie for the first novel. Thousands of copies of that book were downloaded for free. The intent was to convert those freebies into sales of the new book, which was a sequel. I set aside some money to serve as an advertising budget and promoted the hell out of it.

After all was said and done, about 1% of those downloads converted to sales. It was a huge misstep, and I haven’t done a free Amazon giveaway since. That situation forced me to take a step back and review how I was valuing my work.

So, after many failures and a lot of frustration, I stepped back from self-publishing and focused on the writing. I started submitting to markets again, and as I sold stories, I picked up a following that way. I let the work speak for itself. So far, it’s worked far better than any conscious attempt to target an audience via ad space or other marketing gimmicks.

In an interview at A Line A Day, you say, “Indie publishing—and really, indie authors—are at an advantage in the respect that they can stand out by offering something different. I chose the indie route because I knew that traditional publishers wouldn’t like my work for its unconventional merits. I write horror stories, but they’re also thrillers, mysteries, suspense, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and philosophical stories as well. You can’t package that and put it on a bookshelf. There isn’t a category for it. If your book can’t fit into a single category, it’s harder to promote and sell. The Big Six would say, ‘There’s no market for you,’ and in some respects, they’re right.”

With that in mind, how do you market your work? How do you classify your novels when exploring publicity opportunities?

Hah, that quote shows its age. The Big Six are now the Big Five, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve been targeting the horror and weird fiction markets for several years, now, as those seem to be the best fit for my work. Pretty much all of those markets are small or niche to some degree as the larger markets are afraid of the H word.

Will you please expand on this? Because it seems like the larger marketswith Koontz, King, etc.—have made a lot of money marketing horror explicitly.

It’s a common misconception, because those names referenced were around during the horror boom in the ’70s and ’80s. The commercial viability of horror fiction died in the ’90s, which led to most of the horror-focused imprints of the larger publishing houses closing their doors, and the horror sections in big box bookstores to dwindle.

For King and Koontz, their names are their brand, now; larger publishers don’t have to say “Horror” in relation to those guys because their work sells by name alone. Most of the mid-list horror writers from those days either focused on other genres (which were still selling) or switched focus to the smaller niche markets, which is where horror has continued to thrive.

Nowadays, you’ll see phrases like “supernatural thriller” used to describe what would’ve been considered horror if published twenty years ago. You won’t see novels like Bird Box or A Head Full of Ghosts marketed as horror, even though they most certainly are.

Knowing my work is usually horrific or weird to some degree makes the marketing easier, as it’s just a matter of getting the word out to reviewers and readers who enjoy those genres. In most cases, the publishers who specialize in those genres also have their own following, and they tend to overlap my own efforts.

Having self-published and been published by someone else, how would you say the experiences compared from a writing/creative standpoint, and what did being published by someone else do for you sales- and publicity-wise that you wouldn’t have been able to do for yourself?

I find that being published by someone else is far less stressful. I don’t have to worry about the particulars of getting a book listed in the retail space, making sure the Bowker info is accurate, and so on. It allows me to keeping moving forward as opposed to slowing down and focusing on the business side of things.

Aside from the time and money saved, it’s opened a lot of doors for me. Many of the smaller indie presses have their own fanbase, so anything published by them automatically has a large audience. There’s an immediate publicity and sales benefit there that would take substantially longer to accrue on my own.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had to do most of the publicity and marketing-related projects. However, being with a publisher has given me access to their followings through which to promote. I haven’t had to worry about finding an audience because the publisher’s fan base is that audience. There’s the benefit of having their attention right out of the gate. From there, it’s a matter of figuring out how to engage them, which is usually the fun part.

All that said, I’ve been fortunate in working with publishers (especially Silver Shamrock) who have gone to great lengths to get my work into the hands of reviewers, podcasters, booktubers, and more. There were at least 100 print ARCs of Devil’s Creek sent out to reviewers, and the publisher managed all of that. The publisher got also got the eBook listed on NetGalley. I didn’t have to worry about whether reviewers had the book. Instead, I could focus on different ideas for how to promote—from live readings and Q&A events to something as simple as tweeting a tiny bit of trivia about the book.

There’s also the added benefit of getting the book into stores, which never would’ve happened without the support of a publisher.

What about the writing? Have you ever felt like you needed to write in a way that would appeal to your agent/editor/publisher for marketing purposes, as can happen with the bigger presses?

Not entirely. When I first signed with my agent, I pitched two ideas to her and asked which one she’d have an easier time selling. The one she picked became Devil’s Creek. In that scenario, I already had the concepts, and they would’ve been written regardless.

However, with the short fiction markets, you’ll often find open calls for stories that fit a certain theme or concept. In situations like that, I often have an idea in mind, but will tailor the concept to fit the theme in some way.

Beyond that, however, I write for me. How something will be marketed, how it will appease a certain editor or publisher or even my agent, is something I don’t take into consideration.

Thank you, Todd.

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