Conversations on the Craft of Writing with C.M. Saunders
The sardonic dark fiction writer who creates tales of internet rituals and zombie apocalypses
I'm always looking to learn from other writers about their approach to the craft! I want to know what motivates them, what they find challenging, and — most of all — what they love about writing.
I recently got to the chance to hear from C.M. Saunders, who works in various subgenres of horror, including everything from splatterpunk to what they call “quiet horror" (I'll let him explain what those terms mean, but seriously, how could you not be intrigued?).
Here's what he had to say...
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? What studying or training have you undertaken that’s brought you to where you are now?
I always wanted to be a writer, but whenever I told people, they would laugh at me! It's understandable. I was never what you would call book smart. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and went to work in a factory.
In the evenings I taught myself how to type, and then spent endless hours learning about different aspects of writing and publishing. The internet was still in its infancy then, so I did a correspondence course and soon started having articles and short stories published. My first book, which took about eight years to write and research, came out in 2003 and was put out by a small local press. It did quite well and opened a lot of doors for me. I eventually went to university and got a degree, but I'm largely self-taught. I haven't looked back since.
Tell us about any work you’ve had published or anything you’re working on now. How do you decide which projects you want to pursue?
I'm a full-time freelance writer these days. That means I'm a hired gun who'll write for anyone who pays me. I can't afford to be fussy. Part of the trick is having the ability to adapt your style to suit different markets, not to mention subject areas. Over the years, I've had hundreds of articles published about everything from cockroach farming in China to how to write the perfect blurb for your novel.
In my so-called free time, I write fiction, mostly short stories and novella-length work. It's a balancing act, because although my true passion lies with fiction, it pays less, so I have to be sensible.
My most recent release is a novella about internet rituals called Tethered, which is available on Terror Tract publishing. I usually tend to focus on short stories. I've had around sixty published to date, and when the publication rights revert back to me, I compile them into a series of anthologies called the X Books, with X representing the unknown or unknowable factor. I'm on number four now.
Do you have a preferred genre to write in?
I write in several sub-genres of horror, mostly splatterpunk and what they call “quiet horror,” two genres at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Horror often comes with a stigma attached to it. A lot of people lose interest at the mere mention of the word. Because it's such a rich, diverse area, I prefer the term “dark fiction.”
“Horror” is a very loose term, anyway. For example, Stephen King is usually classified as horror, but most of his work strays into thriller and fantasy territory, and more recently even police procedural. “Horror” is just a lazy way to describe something, and as a genre, it's rarely given the respect or merit it deserves.
Who is your favorite character or what is your favorite part from any work you’ve written?
Good question. I think the character I am most fond of is Craig from my recent novella Tethered. He is a journalism graduate who stumbles across a blog about internet rituals. For those who don't know, internet rituals are challenges undertaken by people usually seeking to make contact with ghosts or other entities. He becomes obsessed with the blog, and the king of internet rituals, the elevator game, which some say is behind the strange death of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in 2013.
Craig is basically a decent guy and tries to do something admirable. But there are forces at play that he doesn't understand, and he ends up being used and manipulated.
A recent reviewer said, “This book blew me away. It was unique, the storytelling was good, the characters were interesting, and the twist ending was great.”
That was good to hear.
What’s your writing process? Do you have any routines or habits that help you do your best work?
I'd love to say yes, but the truth is I don't. I set myself a word limit of 1,000 words a day, across projects, at least six days a week. That might not sound a lot, but it works out to over 310,000 words a year. That's roughly a novel, a novella, a bunch of short stories or articles, along with some blog posts. I'm suspicious of the people who loudly brag about bashing out in excess of 10K words a day on social media. We all have the odd day like that, but it's impossible to sustain for any significant amount of time, and when all is said and done, I'd much rather have 1,000 words I can use than 10,000 words I'll have to spend the next three days editing. I've always favored quality over quantity.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
I'm still trying to find the best, but the worst writing advice I ever received was probably from my own dad, who inadvertently threatened to sabotage my fledgling career by telling me to submit all my stuff in BLOCK CAPS to make it “stand out.”
He meant well, but obviously using all caps goes against every grammar rule in existence, and at the very least, it means that even if someone wanted to publish something I sent them, they'd first have to retype everything.
Astonishingly, that's exactly what happened when a dear old gentleman called Arthur Smith at Welsh literature magazine Cambrensis did it to get me my first published credit. I think he just felt sorry for me.
Who’s an author you really admire?
My instinct would be to say Stephen King. As a dark fiction writer, he is the one we all aspire to be. But because I've already mentioned him, I'm going to talk about an English writer called Amy Cross. She doesn't do interviews and keeps a very low profile, but she somehow manages to release a novel every few weeks. There's a bit of mystique about her, and she seems to have turned the fact that she does very little marketing into a marketing ploy in itself. Genius.
There have been a few rumours circulating that “she” might actually be a pseudonym for a collection of writers, which would explain the high output. Whatever, she's brilliant.
When you have a bad case of writer’s block and are procrastinating, what would we probably find you doing?
People chastise me for being so blunt about this, but I don't think writer's block exists. If you approach writing in a methodical, professional manner and make the best of your time, it ceases be an issue.
More often than not, “writer's block” is a result of poor planning, lack of motivation, or sitting down to write when you aren't ready. That's not writer's block. It's being unprepared.
Sure, there are days when we don't feel like writing. Same as there are days when we don't feel like doing the washing up. If you're serious about writing, you power through those spells. You switch to a different project or do some marketing.
There's a lot more to being a writer than writing. When your livelihood depends on it, you can't afford to have writer's block. It's as simple as that. When was the last time you heard about a crippling case of dentist's block? Or estate agent's block?
What’s the best feedback you’ve ever received from a reader?
Early in my career, a reviewer said my fiction had a thread of sardonic humour running through it. I loved that, and it's something that didn't even occur to me until I read it.
There's a humorous element to a lot of splatterpunk, and personally I like to experiment with sarcasm and irony. My novella Human Waste, about a survivalist who wakes up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, is perhaps the most obviously funny thing I've written, though it's a long way from being a comedy, if that makes sense.
What does literary success look like to you?
Success is notoriously difficult to quantify. I think a lot of people try to measure it in terms of wealth or possessions. A consumer and status-based society has trained us to think that way. But I think it all comes down to quality of life.
Time is the most valuable commodity of all. A millionaire on his death bed would probably give all the money he has for just a little more time. A lot of wealthy people work very hard for their money. Some of them work very hard in jobs they don't like. I think I would rather get paid less to do something I enjoy. To summarize, I'm not rich and probably never will be, but I'm happy in what I do, and I call that a win.
Finally, where can readers follow you — website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook page, etc.?