“Don’t Be Scarred” by Kristen Roupenian is the grand-prize winning story in the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. It bested nearly 1,300 entries across six categories to take home a prize package that includes $2,500 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.
Roupenian is a 34-year-old student in the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the The Hairpin, The Awl, Thought Catalog, Weird Fiction Review, Body Parts Magazine, and a forthcoming anthology about killer clowns.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing horror? What I love most about writing horror is that there is a single metric of success: is the reader scared? All the various components of good writing—structure, characterization, description, theme—are tools the author using to try and evoke an effect. No matter how strong the writing might be, if the reader isn’t scared, then the story isn’t working. It’s like telling a joke: either they laugh (or scream) or they don’t. There’s a bracing kind of purity in that.
The biggest challenge when it comes to writing horror, especially short fiction, is that the structure has to be exactly right. A good horror story—again, like a good joke— is all in the timing: the tension that leads up to the scare, the build-up and the release. If you falter and let the reader get bored, even for a second, it all falls apart. And there’s nothing easier than boring a reader, and nothing harder than keeping a reader’s attention all the way to the end. I’m obsessed with plot—how it works, why it so often doesn’t—and horror is a (beautifully) unforgiving space in which to figure that out.
Describe your writing process for this story. I wrote this story in June of 2013. I don’t remember a lot about the writing process, but I think I finished it relatively quickly and then started submitting it to various magazines, tinkering with it every time I got a rejection. It took a long time to get the structure of the ending exactly right—I kept adjusting the wording and the placement of the final spell.
The story had been rejected eight times when I submitted it to Writer’s Digest. Until then, its claim to fame was that it garnered the best rejection letter I’ve ever received: an editor at Tor.com wrote, “I felt like I was reading a tale with a moral, but the moral was something only sociopaths could need to learn.” Maybe Morals for Sociopaths would be a good title for my eventual short story collection?
Can you write a one-sentence summary of your story, describing it for someone who hasn’t read it yet? It’s a story with a moral that only sociopaths need to learn?
My mom, upon reading it, said, “It’s about a kind of horrible human Giving Tree,” which also works.
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time? I’ve been writing since I was a kid; I’m an obsessive reader and so in some ways it was a natural transition, although there were lots of years where I struggled with miserable writer’s block and self-doubt. It’s only in the past few years that writing has started bringing me the kind of pleasure that reading always has, which feels like an important milestone. As a student in an MFA program, in theory, I’m currently free to write full-time—although it’s astonishing how little it takes to feel ‘too busy’ to sit down write. I think I’ve done a pretty good job making time for writing this year, but of course you can always do better.
Who has inspired you as a writer? I started stealing my mom’s Stephen King books of the shelf when I was a little kid; she’s as big a horror fan as I am, so she definitely gets some credit (as does he!). I’ve also been incredibly lucky in the writing teachers I’ve had over the years—there are honestly too many to list here, although Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who were my instructors at Clarion, have been amazingly generous with their advice and encouragement.
In terms of influences and inspiration, I draw shamelessly from a long line of female authors of dark fiction: Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Octavia Butler, Laura Kasischke, Tana French, Lauren Beukes, Ottessa Moshfegh,
Which genres do you write in? Is horror (short or long) your primary genre? I write story-driven fiction that is usually fairly dark; some of it contains speculative elements (magic, monsters) but lots of it doesn’t. That’s as far as I can go when putting myself into a genre box.
Describe your typical writing routine. I wake up in the morning, make coffee, then sit in my chair and read a book that inspires me while I let myself wake up. As soon as I feel ready, I start writing—usually for an hour or so, sometimes much longer. I do this every morning and it has worked brilliantly for me. I think the key is that I start working before my editorial brain has full woken up, and I stop once I feel frustrated: I don’t keep banging my head against a story that isn’t working. I just take a break and move on.
How would you describe your writing style? I think I have a relatively clear and accessible writing style, which allows me to tackle some weird and even off-putting subject matter.
What are the keys to successful horror? I talked a lot about this already. I think that it’s much harder to sustain the intense narrative tension that horror requires over the course of a whole novel—in that sense, the short story is much more of a natural match for the genre.
That said, I think the key to great horror is to write a story that draws its energy from all the minor anxieties of day-to-day life, so that when it reaches its climax, the reader experiences genuine catharsis and feels temporarily purged of all those fears. When you finish reading a really good horror story, you should feel the way you do when you step off a roller coaster: genuinely grateful just to have survived. I’ve experienced this most intensely when reading novels: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Paul Tremblay’s recent novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, and Laura Kasischke’s The Raising, just to name a few.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life? Routine. I’m a deeply disorganized person, and for a long time, I struggled really hard just to get words down on the page. In an unfamiliar situation, I can easily lose hours trying to find my computer plug or figuring out what I’m going to have for breakfast; by taking care of all of those external worries in advance, I can carve out a mental space where I can work in peace.
Also, mornings. I spent years thinking I had insurmountable writer’s block; it turns out that my brain basically shuts down after 5 pm, so trying to write at night after a long day of work just wasn’t going to happen for me.
Where do you get ideas for your writing? Mostly from other stories. When I was getting ready to go to Clarion, I’d read a story from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s horror anthology The Weird every morning, and by the time I was halfway through, I’d usually have the idea for a story of own. That was an incredibly generative book for me.
But the ideas can come from anywhere, and sometimes they’re less actual ideas and more like vague desires to create something that resembles a work I love. For example, the moment I saw the trailer for Crimson Peak, I thought: I can’t wait for that movie to come out. I have got to write a haunted house story. Now, I’m halfway through a novel about a haunted run-down student apartment in Somerville—plotwise, it bears no resemblance at all to Crimson Peak, but the inspiration is there all the same.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities? I think my biggest strength as a writer is my passion for reading. Lots of people are more talented than I am, and lots of people probably work harder than I do, but nobody—nobody—loves to read more than I do. (I admit that other people might love it just as much.) That means that know what I want from a story: I want to be grabbed by the neck and forced to pay attention; I want to feel as though nothing else matters until the story is done. A big part of my development as a writer has been learning to trust that instinct. I’ve become my own ideal reader, and that’s given me a kind of confidence I never had before.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas? If I leave a story alone for too long, it congeals on the page, and I find it impossible to keep writing—my laptop is a graveyard of unfinished stuff. When a story ‘dies’ on me like that, it can be sad and scary, and it’s very tempting to try and bully myself into being a different kind of writer, one who is less vulnerable to external circumstance. I used to fall into the habit of treating myself like a misbehaving child, forcing myself to sit down at the computer and not get up again until the story was done.
The problem is, that doesn’t work. The harder I am on myself, the less successful the stories turn out to be. The only solution to the unfinished-story problem is to adhere carefully to the schedule I described above: to work every morning, without fail, on things that inspire and excite me; I have to work hard to preserve that sense of freedom and joy.
In practice, that means that instead of being strict with myself, I have to be strict with other people. I have to protect my writing time from all of the millions of little threats that daily life can bring. It means I have to be more selfish, and less flexible, than I’d ideally like to be. Knowing how to balance writing with the rest of my life is hard, and I’m still in the process of figuring out how to make it work.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? It wasn’t advice, exactly, but Claire Vaye Watkin’s recent article in Tin House, ‘On Pandering,’ really spoke to me. It’s so easy to write what you think other people want you to write instead of what’s meaningful to you. I think that women, especially, can find it incredibly difficult to tune out other voices—we’re trained from so early on to please other people that it becomes instinctive and very hard to stop. We talk a lot about how writers should learn to develop a thick skin when it comes to rejection, but I think it’s equally important to cultivate a resistance to praise.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer? When I wrote the last line of my novel.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work? Writing-wise, I want to write books that keep people up at night, and that they wake up in the morning excited to start reading again. Career-wise, I just want to find some way to eat while also protect my hours of daily writing time. Of course, I’d love to make a living just from writing—who doesn’t dream of that?—but I’ll count myself very lucky if I manage to scrape together an existence from a mix of teaching, writing, and editing after I graduate.
Any final thoughts or advice? Around the time I turned thirty, it finally sank in that I could die without writing a novel, and nobody but me would care. Ever since then, I’ve been a lot braver with my writing than I was before. I think I came to the realization that the natural state of the universe in regards to my work is complete and utter indifference, with maybe a little bit of hostility thrown in. I might get ten rejections (or a hundred) for every acceptance, but both the acceptances and rejections are insignificant in comparison to the opinions of the six billion or so people on the planet who don’t give a damn about me either way. No one else in the world will ever care about my writing even a fraction as much as I do, so if I’m going to commit myself to this, I have to do it because I love it, and for no other reason.
For some reason, I find that a hugely liberating feeling.