Delilah S. Dawson: ‘Let it get gross, let it get weird, and figure out later how far to take it…’

By Maryann Yin Comment

Delilah S. DawsonHave you ever written a scary story? In honor of the Halloween season, we are interviewing horror writers to learn about the craft of scaring readers.

Recently, we spoke with Delilah S. Dawson, an author and associate editor at the Cool Mom Picks and Cool Mom Tech websites. We discussed her new novel, Servants of the Storm. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: The old-fashioned way: after a psychotic break.

I didn’t grow up knowing I wanted to write books. I thought writers, like nuns or surgeons, were drawn to their calling from an early age, and I had no idea what to do with myself. I got an art degree and focused on painting murals, teaching, and running galleries. When my second child was eight months old, he wouldn’t sleep, which meant I was running on three hours of sleep a night. And then I started hallucinating. When I told my psychologist husband about it, we made a plan to get me more sleep, and he suggested I write a book, both as an escape and as a way for me to focus on something outside of the baby. And the part of my brain that had always assumed I wasn’t a writer and couldn’t write a book… was gone.

My first book was a fatally flawed Women’s Fiction, which I wrote in two months, queried, and stuck in a drawer. My second book was a dark Middle Grade Adventure which found representation with my awesome agent, Kate McKean of Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. That one didn’t sell, but my third book, Wicked as They Come, sold at auction in a three-book series to the Pocket imprint of Simon & Schuster. They later bought three e-novellas, a fourth e-book, and a short story for the Carniepunk anthology.

But, technically, I followed all the rules. Wrote a book, polished it, wrote a query letter, and was plucked from the slush pile, all from my couch in Atlanta with no publishing connections. It’s possible!

Q: What’s your advice for aspiring horror writers?
A: The same as my advice for any writers: YOU CAN DO IT. You don’t need a degree, permission, certification, friends in New York, or a swanky new computer. You definitely shouldn’t quit your day job, as insurance and food make it easier to write. All the resources you need to publish your book are available online, most of them for free– I keep a list of all the links I used and some of my own articles on the Resources for Writers page of my blog. I also tweet writing advice and Storify it for my blog. So many writers and bloggers helped me level up as a writer that I always want to pay it forward.

For Horror, in particular, I think it’s important to write the story that obsesses you and give yourself complete freedom during the first draft. Let it get gross, let it get weird, and figure out later how far to take it depending on the final genre. My agent helped me ratchet up the horror aspects during edits, as it can be tempting to stop in the middle of a high-stakes action scene and make clever remarks or have the character recall a memory. You never want to steal your own tension with anything that slows the pace. Even though horrific moments can seem to last forever to the person experiencing them, the reader wants their pulse to keep pounding.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: My first drafts are usually manic and fast, straight through from start to finish without rereading or self editing. I immediately save the doc under a new name and get into the second draft while everything is fresh in my mind so that I can connect what I thought I knew at the beginning with what I really grok at the end. And then comes the biggest step in self-editing for me: Letting it rest.

Hard as it is, I really need to close the doc and not look at or think about the book for several weeks, if not a few months. That way, when I come back to it, it’s unfamiliar, and I can treat it as something to fix instead of my precious perfect darling. The third draft is slow and thoughtful, and I always have a notebook with me to make notes. If I get bored editing a section, I assume the reader will get bored, too. Looking at your story objectively is key to taking it to the next level. Pretend it’s your worst enemy’s masterpiece and rip it to shreds.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Next week, my story Clue(less), illustrated by Matthew Allen Smith, will be out in the BOO! Halloween Stories anthology from Monkeybrain Comics. Next April brings HIT, my YA about teen assassins in a bank-owned America and the first in a two-book series. I’ll also have a story in the Violent Ends anthology from Shaun Hutchinson and Simon Pulse about the events and people surrounding a school shooting. And my fourth Blud book, Wicked Ever After, will be out next fall.

Oh, and I need to finish The Dapperfox, the third novella in my Geekrotica series, self-published under the pseudonym Ava Lovelace. Which is distinctly non-horrific, except to my parents.

Q: What are your favorite scary books?
A: I was drawn to the macabre from a young age, rereading Ghost Cat and Bunnicula and sneaking downstairs to watch Piranha from behind the couch while my parents thought I was asleep. My first real scary book was Pet Sematary, which I borrowed from my mom’s nightstand at age 10. Right after that, IT really messed me up, and I plowed through the entire King catalog. Thomas Harris grabbed me, too, especially Red Dragon. Now that I have small children, I don’t hunger for horror as much as I used to, but I’ve recently gotten deeper into YA Horror, including Gretchen McNeil and April Tucholke. And Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft was deliciously creepy.

(Photo Credit: Dolorianne Morris)

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