Today I got the chance to sit down with dark fiction writer B.L. Daniels and ask him some questions about his craft, his work, and the darker sides of our psyches. Safe to say that I learned a few things this time around. And enjoyed it to. Imagine that! Knowledge is power or so they say. Anyway. . . There’s something behind you. . .
So, welcome, thanks for stopping by the virtual hang space. Can you give us a bit of background on you, your work, and the genres you write in?
I’ve been described as a horror, bizarre, and weird fiction author. I like to think my work straddles the line between scary and ridiculous, because while I enjoy traditional horror, I love throwing elements of dark humor and absurdist nonsense into my stories. I’ve been published in a number of anthologies and literary magazines, and my first book DETROIT 2020 that I co-authored, was described in a review as “if Robocop and The Toxic Avenger had a weird baby.”
I don’t want to think about what kind of baby that would be. But I read DETROIT and can safely agree that it was awesome. Regarding your love for horror and bizarre fiction, what got you hooked on this genre?
I’ve always been intrigued by weird art. I used to work in a video store (yes, I’m old) and devoured everything I discovered in the “Cult Cinema” section. Movies like The Toxic Avenger, Dead End Drive-In, and Street Trash were a revelation after growing up on mainstream horror movies. It made me curious whether similar stuff existed in books. I uncovered writers like John Skipp, Kathe Koja, and Jack Ketchum, who were on the fringes of extreme horror and the “splatterpunk” sub-genres. Them, along with the more literary weirdos of the 1920’s like H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, laid the foundation for a lot of my writing. If I feel confused, uncomfortable, or grossed out when I read something, there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy it. In my mind, that meant the story was having a direct effect on me and doing its job.
That’s pretty good criteria to judge stories on. So if people wanted to jump into this sub-genre where would be a good place for them to start?
If you want to jump right into the deep end of the pool, I would go with Thomas Ligotti and D. Harlan Wilson. Ligotti’s Tales of A Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is an absolute masterwork of horror blended with dark humor and precise weirdness. He writes beautiful, complex prose that demands being re-read as you navigate his stories. D. Harlan Wilson’s They Had Goat Heads was my first foray into modern bizarro literature. It’s also still my favorite. The guy has a way with words and a clever, gruesome sense of humor. What I love about Wilson and Ligotti is both are completely uncompromising in their work.
If you’re looking to ease yourself into things more slowly I’d recommend any of the Bizarro Starter Kit book series by Eraserhead Press, and of course classic weird stories like At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft.
Transitioning the conversation into your own work, can you give us a brief overview of your writing process?
I tend to write slowly. Most of my work revolves around themes of modern suburban existence, and I try to conceive monstrous and grotesque ideas from the general banal routines many of us go through in our daily lives. I keep a notebook with me and I’m always writing down ideas. I’ll jot something down, and then re-visit it a few weeks later. If I think it isn’t totally terrible (most are) then I’ll try to expand on it and see where a story could go. From there I draft it, sit on that for a bit, and then do a second draft that I show to a limited audience to get their impressions. After that, it’s all spit-shine and polish. I’m very fortunate to have friends, family, and an excellent writer’s group that are supportive and honest with me. Not every writer has that.
It's a solitary yet group endeavor. Those who critique your work probably point out certain things, but are there any particular clichés in the horror genre that drive you mad? The safe ones. Stuff like the “fake-out happy ending” where the monster comes back to life and jumps through the window. It drives me nuts.
I want stories that commit.
Horror fans are generally pretty open minded. They will let you re-tread ideas and tropes as long as you either put a twist on them or execute them well. We live in a time where we’re drowning in almost unlimited entertainment choices. Unfortunately that means there’s a lot of mediocre stuff that is designed just to appeal to a mass audience and turn a profit. I’ll never fault anyone for creating art, because self-expression is important, but I feel like a creative work has to evoke emotion to be truly effective. Whether I love or hate something, I want it to have an impact on me. The worst art is the kind that is easily forgettable.
I agree with the safe ones. Things that don’t take a risk. So, in the topic of being unforgettable, what’s something that grosses you out in real life that you’d love to turn into a weird fiction tales?
Becoming mentally or physically debilitated scares the hell out of me. Body horror like Cronenburg’s The Fly or Burroughs’ Naked Lunch are the things that fuel my nightmares. I am always looking for ways to explore those fears in my writing, to wrestle with my own phobias about my body and brain turning on themselves.
When you get a story completed do you have a tradition? How do you celebrate the project being done?
I order a pizza, pick out a new beer to try, or both.
Jumping back to DETROIT, was it always planned to be a novella? How do you determine how long a piece should be?
DETROIT 2020 was a lot more free form than any of my other work, because I was creating it with another author. It was a great challenge and really exciting. Fun fact: originally it was a post-apocalyptic vampire novel similar to Blade or I Am Legend. It morphed over time into something more inspired by Escape from New York, Robocop, and crazy SyFy joints like Sharknado. Both Jeff (Conolly) and I are firm believers that “the story should be as long as it needs to be” and it became a novella after a lot of fat got trimmed off to keep the pacing quick.
Makes sense. Do you have any projects currently in the works?
I have a few irons in the fire. I’m currently working on a weird horror novel with historical fiction elements. It takes place in a medieval setting. I also have some short story ideas, and hopefully the sequel to DETROIT 2020 at some point, once Jeff and I find some free time between our other obligations.
Alright, at this point we’re going to wrap up, but before we do let’s jump into the rapid fire part of this shindig. Fire ‘em off. First thing that comes to mind.
Fantastic! Thanks for dropping by, and where can people get in touch with you or find out more about your work?
You can check out my website “Suburban Syntax” at https://bldaniels.wordpress.com for book reviews, writing tips, and weird literature discussion. I’m also on Instagram @bldauthor, and I do a quarterly newsletter with all sorts of random book & horror stuff that you can sign up for here.
Liz Delton stopped by the virtual meet space today and discussed writing, the intricacies of outlining fantasy, and whether coffee or tea is better. . . Read on if you want to know which one is (hint: there probably, kind of, might not be a correct answer).
Thanks for swinging in. For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you give us a little background on yourself and your writing?
I usually describe myself as an author with too many hobbies, because one of my hobbies seems to be collecting new hobbies. I like trying new things, especially things that I can do with my hands—besides writing—like woodburning, sewing, painting, and making vinyl decals. When those hobbies aren’t distracting me, I write young adult fantasy, sometimes with a splash of science fiction.
Since my upcoming novel is still in its early stages, I’ll tell you about my most recent book, A Rift Between Cities. It’s the third book in my YA fantasy adventure series, the Arcera Trilogy. The Four Cities of Arcera lived in peace until Governor Sorin Greyling discovered a mysterious fifth city, Seascape. Seascape has remained hidden all these years, but why? Why won’t they unite with the other four cities, or share their incredibly advanced technology? Governor Greyling decides the only way to unite Arcera is through war. Sylvia Thorne has the unfortunate luck to deliver that declaration of war. The only way to keep her home Meadowcity from being destroyed, is to get help from the other cities of Arcera—including the fifth city.
Sounds like a challenging take on Machiavelli’s thought process. And, speaking from experience, it was a great read. Your world building was phenomenal. As are your vinyl decals by the way! Eventually I’ll actually fix it to my car instead of having it magnetized to my fridge. But, I digress. Your projects tend to involve characters that exist in secondary worlds. What draws you as both a writer and a reader to portal fantasy?
I think that since I live in the modern world, I like to escape mentally to other worlds when I read or write. I mostly read fantasy and science fiction, but I also enjoy historical fiction on occasion. I think I’m averse to modern settings unless they have fantasy elements!
World building for new worlds is possibly my favorite part of writing. In the Arcera Trilogy, the story is set in the future, but people have reverted to a simpler time, where their biggest technological feat is solar powered lights (except for the more advanced city of Seascape). Figuring out things like what they wear, what their dialogue (and even slang) would sound like—do they know the word “pants”?—is like building the vehicle to drive the story. I can spend hours drawing maps or figuring out exactly how some piece of pseudo-technology works in order to give the story more meat on its bones.
While outlining a book, I’m also world building. Since my stories are so heavily reliant upon their setting, it’s an integral part of plotting. Then I do the rest of the world building as I write, following the direction the characters are headed in.
My current WIP is an entirely new fantasy realm, and I have had a lot of fun building it. It’s inspired by samurai-era Japan, but with two factions of magic. As I wrote the first book, I got to figure out things like a bit of the history of the realm, the politics of local spirits, and—a new element to me—how the magic worked.
I’m only a few thousand words into the sequel, but already having established most of the world building allows me to write much quicker. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have to figure out new details—it would be boring if nothing new was introduced—but the framework is there.
That’s impressive that you tackle world building and outlining concurrently. It must make the stories event that much more vivid in your own mind. How about your writing process itself? What’s that like?
My process has been evolving from the start. For the first book in the Arcera Trilogy, Meadowcity, I was a classic “pantser” writer. I had a general outline in my head (I don’t think I wrote it down until the end), and I just wrote. I had to stop a lot throughout the process, because I would hit a roadblock, not knowing exactly how to get where I wanted the story to go.
Since Meadowcity, I’ve turned into more of a “plantser”. I plan the outline, and then write by the seat of my pants. I like to go with the flow of the writing, because I never know exactly who or what is going to turn up in a scene, and usually it’s those unexpected details that help weave the story together more firmly.
I completely agree with that notion – surprises are the best part of life. So when you start a new project do you already know if it’s going to be a solitary novel or part of series? How do you go about planning a trilogy?
Yes, I always know what it will be. I knew with Meadowcity that I wanted it to be the first in a trilogy. As with my “pantser” way of writing back then, I had a general outline in my head only of how I wanted the series to go. Once I finished writing Meadowcity, I sat down and did a basic outline on paper, in order to make sure the first book had all of the elements I wanted and needed for it to lead into the other two books.
With my current WIP, I somehow knew I wanted the story to be a four or five book series. I think I decided to do a much longer series because I thought the world and the main character had so much to do and tell. Because of this new length, I wanted to be more organized in my planning, so I created a detailed outline of each book while I was in the early stages of writing the first one.
I do occasionally wonder if I have the power to write a stand-alone book, and I think someday I will—it’s just hard to pull myself away from the settings and stories I’m so enamored with.
That’s a good thing though! It means you’re giving it all to the story. One thing your novels tackle is the coming of age narrative. You capture them beautifully despite how tricky they can be to handle. What’s the most difficult part about writing a novel with a character that is going through this time of their life?
Luckily, this comes somewhat easy for me, and I think it’s because I read a lot of coming of age stories. It’s really the nature of YA, because the protagonist is always going to be a young character, and inevitably, something big is going to happen to them, why else would the book be written? This will force them to change, or grow as a person.
I have always been intrigued by the “hero’s journey” diagram—it starts with a call to adventure, meeting a mentor, tests and ordeals, etc. It’s fun to look back retroactively once I write a story, because even though you might not be trying to fit in to the mold, stories sometimes have a natural way of shaping themselves into it. Writing a young character is fun for me, because they are at pivotal stage in life—the beginning of deciding and figuring out who they will become, what they believe in. Their past is childhood. Their future is what they are ready to shape it to be. At least, that’s how I like to write my characters!
And it works! But, on top of managing your characters at this pivotal time, you also need to keep control over the magic system. How do you develop one and make sure continuity isn’t lost throughout the project?
I love how magic is different in any book you might read; it’s one of the reasons I love reading fantasy. When I first started writing my current WIP, I was excited and a little intimidated to create a magic system for the first time. I tried watching some of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on YouTube about building magic systems, and I took away a few good things, but really the magic developed with the story.
Of course, there need to be rules, and as a fan of planning and making charts, I developed a loose chart for the basic rules of my magic system. One thing I didn’t want to do is actually explain all the rules up front. This way, the magic can grow with the story, and I don’t back myself into any corners. And, of course, characters are going to want to break the rules.
Since magic is part of world building, and world building is part of my plotting, I’ve worked out what the magic needs to accomplish—or not accomplish—for the majority of the series, which is extremely helpful in the early stages of the books. This is where I don’t want to get backed into a corner—you don’t want to lay down a rule in book one, then find in book four that your plot really needs something to happen that can’t.
I can imagine that realization would be pretty aggravating. So, at this stage in your career, is there something that you’ve learned that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
One thing I have learned for my own writing success is to keep all notes in one place. Sounds simple, but it took me a while to get here. When I first started writing, I had lots of different notebooks, scraps of paper, lists, and other notes scattered all over my desk and home. Now, I keep everything in one accessible place on my Google Drive. It is infinitely easier to open up a computer and just start writing—and if I want to access a random note or thought or list I have, it’s all there. I don’t get distracted from the actual writing by trying to hunt down which notebook or scrap of paper I wrote something on. It took me a while to get here, and I wouldn’t say this is everybody’s style either. The key thing is to recognize what works (and what doesn’t work) for you, and do your best to get there.
Do you have a tradition for when you finish a project or have a piece accepted for publication? If so, how do you celebrate?
No, I don’t really have a tradition. Although, in my head I like to think, “Time to fire the cupcake cannons!”—something I read in a blog post about writing early on. Perhaps it’s time to invest in some cupcake cannons and make it a legitimate tradition! Do those even exist?
If they don’t, I think we seriously need to go in business together. Instant millionaires. As we wrap up, you’ve touched briefly on a WIP, any more clues you can give us?
I’m currently working on the new series inspired by samurai-era Japan, and am a few thousand words into the second book. The first book is in the hands of my beta readers, and I’ll soon be ready to shop it out for publication. This series is rather close to my heart because I am quite enamored by Japanese culture, having visited Japan twice in the past two years. I can’t wait to bring the series and the characters into the world.
Well, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait to read it. Okay, before we go, rapid fire time. First thought that comes to mind. Ready? Set. Go!