If It Makes You Squirm… [Brutal Light]

Brutal Light

Recently, I went over the links in my old promotional page for my debut (and so far only) novel Brutal Light from 2011, and discovered that a bunch of the links were dead. Which shouldn’t be surprising, since blogs come and go, and these essays and interviews came out twelve years ago now. So over the next few months, I’m going to be reposting these here, starting with “If It Doesn’t Make You Squirm…”, which I originally wrote for Lincoln Crisler’s blog on 12/6/11.

One of the most valuable bits of writing advice I ever read (from a source, sadly, I can no longer recall) went something like this: “If it doesn’t make you squirm, it won’t make the reader squirm.” It was a passing bit of advice with no context–at least, none that I recall–but it’s stuck with me like nothing else, and is always at the back of my mind whenever I write.

The first question as a reader you might ask is ‘Why would you want to make me squirm? What did I ever do to you?’ (That is, unless your first question is ‘Are you wearing pants?’ If so, you’re likely already squirming.) To me, as a fiction writer, it means I’ve connected with you on a fundamental level–it means I’ve successfully put you ‘behind the eyes’ of my main characters and gotten you to feel what they feel. I’ve somehow connected you with their terrors, trials, exhilarations, despairs, and joys. Ultimately, it means I’ve given you an experience that will stay with you a while.

So why do I, as a writer, have to squirm to make that happen? I got myself a nice cushioned chair to sit in while writing and possibly being pants-less, so why would I make myself uncomfortable in it?

To me, it means sincerity shouldn’t be faked. A writer who unflinchingly faces her or his fears will be able to write those fears with an authenticity that a writer who doesn’t want to step outside of his or her comfort zone will find hard to duplicate. I’m not just talking about the things that are stock-in-trade for a dark fantasy or horror genre writer–vampires, zombies, serial killers, giant snakes, and the like. There are day-to-day fears that are even harder to face with honesty.

Take the fear of opening yourself up to another person–to not only admitting your vulnerabilities to yourself but letting your guard down so that someone you love can see them and possibly mock you for having them. Take the fear that you will someday be forced to look at what’s beneath the carefully woven tapestry of words you call your identity, and you’ll discover that there’s nothing there. Take the fear that you’ll end up alone, that the one you’re with will wise up and leave you, and she or he will be right in their judgment. Even if these are not your fears, specifically, chances are you have others that cut this deep.

Horror and dark fantasy provide canvases like none other to explore these fears. Zombies, vampires, cannibals, werewolves, and even stranger beasts can give voice to our fears of what the world holds, and the desires we publically disdain while privately fantasizing about. There’s nothing like a demon for uttering something cruel and monstrous, which may be a lie but is even more terrifying if it is true.

I have fears. They make me squirm, when I give them too close an examination. So I write them–grossly magnified and distorted, mixed in with things from the dead places and lots of bloody mayhem. I have no idea if they’ll make you, the reader, squirm–my squirming is just a prerequisite, not a guarantee of success, and my fears may not be yours–but you’ll know I’ve taken my best shot.

By the way, I am wearing pants. There’s enough fear in the world without people wondering about that.


Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and a contributor to the dark fiction anthologies Fairly Wicked Tales and The C.A.M. Charity Anthology: Horror and Science Fiction #1. His blog originates here.

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