“Party Tricks” by Travis Madden is the grand-prize winning story in the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. It bested more than 1,000 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 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.
Madden is a 27-year-old resident of Baltimore, Maryland and a full-time student of Towson University’s Professional Writing graduate program. He was a winner of the Baltimore County Public Library’s Toast Among Ghosts scary story contest last year, which he read aloud at the festival. Madden’s work has also appeared on the library website.
“Party Tricks” is about a young man who plays Russian roulette at parties. He inadvertently discovers some disturbing things about himself through the game.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing a thriller?
In my experience, reading a thriller isn’t even remotely like writing a thriller. Writing one is more like performing a magic trick. The biggest challenges are definitely the meticulousness of it all; everything has to be plotted out perfectly and you have to trickle in just enough clues to let the reader know where you’re going, but not enough to give anything away. The benefits are certainly the end result; it creates a very specific intensity you can’t find in other stories.
Describe your writing process for this story. (How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea? Etc.)
It took about six months for me to complete this story from inception to the point where I thought it was ready for submission, both in and out of a writing workshop I was enrolled in at Towson University. I initially struggled a lot with how exactly to handle the flashbacks—should they be scene breaks? Revealed in dialogue? Dips into subconscious? Unspoken?—before deciding to get a little unconventional and mess with the text, leading to the idea of the empty chamber clicks becoming the triggers. The idea came to me randomly, the thought of someone playing Russian roulette at a party, but it was so extreme and out there I had no idea how I was going to actually make it work. I wondered why would someone do that? It couldn’t just be for fun. There had to be a deeper, darker reason, which led to me exploring what was going on inside his mind, and wondering if it was really a cry for help, not just a fun stunt.
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
I’ve been writing ever since I was in the second grade. I can’t remember what exactly made me want to start doing it, but it’s practically all I do now. I do remember what got me into horror though; my mother’s first edition Stephen King hardbacks way up on the top shelf when I was a child. She told me I wasn’t allowed to read them because they were too scary and that was all the motivation I needed. I remember trying to climb the bookshelf when she wasn’t in the room in order to reach them. Not once was I able to make it far enough before she caught me.
Now I write every single day. I have a self-imposed quota of (bare minimum) one page a day. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as I’m writing something every single day. I’ve written a few dozen short stories and have fifteen first drafts of different novels and outlines of many more, all of which I hope to have published one day.
Who has inspired you as a writer?
Jonathan Maberry and Scott Sigler are my two absolute favorite authors. The way their genre-bending stories include lightning-fast pacing with three-dimensional, empathetic characters is a balance I hope to achieve in my own writing. No matter what events are happening (or how quickly they’re happening), they never feel forced. The characters always react to circumstances, no matter how extreme, in realistic ways, and there are always little beats that give you clearer insights into the people themselves. They’re very reminiscent of Stephen King. I’ve been given a lot of inspiration from writing outside of prose as well. I’m a lifelong comic book reader and Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are two of the best, most imaginative writers in that medium. I will also watch any movie if it has the names Guillermo Del Toro or Christopher Nolan attached to it in any way.
Outside of actual writers, it’s simply things I want to talk about that inspire me. I love fiction that has an escapist feel as much as the next person, but I think that every piece of writing, even if it is primarily just for fun, should have a point, make you think. You should walk away from it with something that you didn’t have before.
Which genres do you write in? Are thrillers (short or long) your primary genre?
My writing typically has a mix of fantasy and horror elements, but I like to think there’s a little bit of thriller in everything I write, no matter the genre. As a reader I like to be kept on my toes, not know what’s around the next corner. As a writer I want to achieve the same thing. Because of certain subgenres, people tend to get the wrong idea about what a fantasy story could be or what a horror story could be. Many people tend to think all science fiction is space opera, that all fantasy is high fantasy, or that all horror is like a slasher movie. I like to get people involved in a genre they wouldn’t normally be interested in, and I think blurring the lines between them is a great way to achieve that.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I always start my writing with a cup of coffee and early in the morning. That way there’s nothing else from the day on my mind. To avoid distractions, I always turn the Wi-Fi on my laptop off and shut my door. Music is also hugely important to me when I’m writing. I have individual playlists set up for each novel or story I’m writing and I’ll have those going in the background while I’m working.
How would you describe your writing style?
If I had to describe my writing style, I’d call it fast but insightful. I don’t like to go too long without something physically happening in the story. While I try to get deep into the characters, I’d rather have as many external things as possible trigger those psychological realizations as opposed to page after page and huge paragraph after huge paragraph of thought without anything actually happening. That turns me off both as a reader and a writer.
What are the keys to successful horror? How does the short story format affect these keys?
It may sound a bit obvious, but I think the most important thing about writing prose horror is to actually remember that you’re writing prose. The scare tactics that work in other media don’t work in prose and you have to constantly be aware of that; you don’t have access to musical cues or jump-scares. For a short story in particular, you don’t have any ground to waste. You can’t build up tension in a short story the same way you can in a novel. You have to make every single sentence count and pay extra attention to the tools you have. The things that scare me personally aren’t grotesque images of monsters (those are a dime a dozen), but the things you can’t see and can only try to understand. What’s scary isn’t seeing the rotted pig head in The Lord of the Flies, or even believing there’s an actual beast. What’s scary is knowing what the beast really is.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Seclusion. I have a lot of respect for people who can do their writing in public. I am not one of those people. I need near-silence (except for my music) throughout my whole house, otherwise I feel like I can’t even think, let alone write anything down.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
My ideas come from a lot of different places; inspiration when experiencing someone else’s work, an image I see out in public, something that happened to me personally. I carry a small pocket-sized notebook with me where I can write down any ideas I have while I’m out. A lot of times if I’m stuck or am just looking for interesting ideas I’ll play word games or free-write and something will come out of that. What’s at the core, the lessons that I’d like to impart with my writing, is just an idea that I want to talk about, something personal to me. Then I find characters and events that will help me reflect that idea.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
I think I’ve managed to find a good balance between the tempting spectacle of genre fiction and the more contemplative ideas in literary fiction. The best way for me to build that was to always think about the characters first. If I want to have some sort of spectacle happen, it can’t just be for fun. It has to say something about the characters it’s happening to. A game of Russian roulette can’t just be a game a drunk kid plays at a party. There has to be a living, breathing reason behind it.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence has been a big thing I struggled with. It’s difficult not to be influenced by all the other amazing fiction that’s out there, and can be discouraging if one day you discover the phenomenal, uniquely original story you came up with is actually very similar to this one book you read last month that everyone else has already heard of and is starting to fly off the shelves at your local library. You just have to tell yourself that it’s alright, that while certain stories may be on a similar path, all you really need to do is step back and find your own personal uniqueness to it. Every single story is influenced in some small way by another story. That doesn’t necessarily make it derivative.
However, self-censoring has got to be the biggest issue I’ve come across. I know that can be a hot button for lots of other writers as well. In my experience, if you reach a point in a story and think that maybe it’s a bit too much or you feel uncomfortable, write it anyway. There’s nothing that says you absolutely have to use it, but at the very least see where it goes. You might be surprised what you find.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Without a doubt it would be to not edit while you write. Especially if you’re writing something longer like a novel, because you’ll be stuck doing it forever. Just get that first draft completed, knowing it’s not going to be anywhere remotely near the quality of your finished work. And be okay with that! You have to have a completely different mindset when you edit as opposed to when you write, so trying to do both at the same time is extremely counterintuitive.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
My proudest moment as a writer was reading my first published story “The Conqueror Wyrm” in front of my friends and family late last year. A few people I didn’t even know were going to be there showed up just to see me and I even had complete strangers listen to me read. It was a surreal experience.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
Career-wise, my ultimate goal is to be able to support myself as a full-time novelist. In terms of my work, I’d like to be able to consistently tread that line of literary genre fiction and to draw readers in who wouldn’t normally tread into these kinds of stories. They might discover they actually like it.
Any final thoughts or advice?
The best advice I can give is what I’m sure everyone has heard dozens of times; write and read as often as possible. It might be hard (in fact it probably will be) but you have to make time. Set a quota for yourself and reach it every single day. Even if it’s just a sentence you like or an idea that comes into your mind when walking down the street. Carry a notebook with you. Save it in your phone. Most of what you write you likely won’t use, but every single word you write will help make you better at it.