S2/E25: R.L. Stine Teaches [Horror] Writing for Young Audiences
Updated: Aug 1
This week, we’re reviewing R.L. Stine’s MasterClass. If you’ve been listening to this show, you know I’ve been a real fan of the MasterClasses. I don’t necessarily want to write for younger audiences, but I do want to write spookier stories, so I’m going to focus on that today.
But first, I’d like to introduce you to R.L. (“Bob”) Stine a bit, in case you haven’t come across him already. While Bob (as he is referred to in the MasterClass) has been writing since he was very young (like six!) and has worked in publishing in one way or another his entire adult life, he didn’t begin writing in the genre he’s known for (Horror) until he was 43 years old. And he didn’t begin publishing the two series he’s best known for until after that — Fear Street (46 years old) and Goosebumps (49 years old). His website reports that “so far, he has sold over 400-million books and his books have been translated into 35 languages, making him one of the best-selling authors in history.”
He’s also been working on a comic book series for Marvel, and in honor of his grandson, wrote his first picture book, Little Shop of Monsters. When asked why he likes to write creepy books, he answers, “I just like to scare people!” In the promo to the class, Stine says that he “hope to teach you that writing doesn’t have to be scary.”
As usual, there’s a lot to this class, and I will barely be able to scratch the surface, but here are my…
1 The Key to Scary Writing: POV. Stine argues that the closer you are to the main character’s point of view often the scarier the story. Readers are experience the horror more than observe it. For example, “my hands” versus “her hands.” He does point out that it can be difficult to include relevant info and maintain first person. For this he likes to alternate with another character from the third person POV. (He does acknowledge that this can be tricky for some younger readers to get their heads around and urges caution and care.)
2 Use the Ordinary. Stine suggests that when we converting ordinary and/or familiar locations into something scary, you’re able to tap into a deep taproot of fear. Instead of having your readers working to imagine spooky castles and the like, work with the familiar. Turn what is comfortable into something that is menacing. It’s that contrast, that reorienting that will be the most unnerving. Take the mundane and familiar sights, sounds, scents, touches, and tastes we’re accustomed to and flip them into something off, wrong, sinister.
3 Understand Your Ambition and Your Audience. Stine didn’t come around to writing horror until after he’d been writing comedy for more than two decades. He knew, however, that he wanted to write for a living, write for a commercial audience and he’d been entertaining people through his writing for years. When he was presented with the unexpected offer to write a YA Horror novel after another writer failed to deliver, Stine felt it fit within his interests, strengths, and ambitions and decided to give it a whirl. When you’re deciding what to write, he also warns, “Don’t try to do something that won’t fit in somewhere. Don’t try to write something that’ll be its own category, because that almost never works.”
*Hack: Make Sure You Get the Right Day Job. Look for a day job that will reserve time and energy for you to write for yourself when you are “off the clock” (or that allows for downtime on the job). I heard this same advice from screenwriter Paul Shoulberg a few years ago.
One last thing. Stine is a true-blue plotter. Pantsers may get their dander up at some of the things he says on the subject. If it helps, Stine says, “I don’t like outlining either. But now I can’t work without one. I have to have it. I have my whole plan. And I sit down and enjoy the writing.” Whether or not that convinces you (and whether or not you do an outline at the beginning or as part of your revision process), let me leave you with additional thought on the subject to consider: “If you have an outline, you like it, you think it’s ready to go, you’re gonna find out when you’re writing the book if it’s a good outline or not.” Remember: you can always adjust! It’s a trip plan of sorts, and it’s your trip plan! Change it or abandon it as you wish!
Taking the opposite position from Neil Gaiman, who believes you must put a lot of yourself into the story, R.L. Stine suggests:
“You don’t have to be afraid of writing! It’s not scary! Don’t listen to all these people who talk about how hard writing is. It’s not hard! It’s not hard! You don’t want to make it seem like it’s something that’s complicated, something that you have to work at, something that has to come from deep inside you. It doesn’t! You can just write for fun! Why do you have to write from your heart? You know the truth is, I’ve written maybe 330 books, and I haven’t written a single one from my heart. Not one.” R.L. Stine
Bonus Quote! Stine is a big advocate for saying YES! to opportunities.
“Just about everything that’s happened to me has been an accident, something that I hadn’t planned. The whole thing of writing for kids was something that I didn’t plan.” R.L. Stine
I hope this was helpful! Next week, I’ll be back with a review of Dave Chassen’s FREE Course on Amazon Ads. Come back and hear three things I learned from the creator of Publisher Rocket and the host of The Book Marketing Show podcast!
Beginning with next week’s episode, The Rookie Writer Show will become a biweekly show instead of a weekly show. As you all know, I try very hard to “get meta” when I’m making decisions about how I spend my time and resources. I look at what is and isn’t working for me. There’s so much I love about doing this show, so I don’t want to shut it down completely. That being said, I need to scale it back to make room for the growing amount of publishing work I’m doing. I’m hoping this will be a happy middle ground for me.
It’s hard for me to step away from my original goal (52 books or classes in 52 weeks), but if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that you may have to adjust your original plans! I like to think (like R.L. Stine), I’m open to new opportunities. I always meant to publish books outside of my fiction through my imprint, 79 Franklin Press. Happy Busy Kids is just the first of those, and an unexpected situation where I thought I could give back a little!
You’ve probably heard me quote this before, but I’ll do it again. I love the advice David Mamet offers in his MasterClass: Do one thing for your business every day and one thing for your art. So in that spirit, the new monthly show format will be as follows:
1st Episode of the Month: Writing Business and/or Productivity
2nd Episode of the Month: Writing Craft and/or Mentors
When the calendar sends us the opportunity for a third episode in a given month, the topic will be: Mindset and/or Self-Care
Until then. . .
Happy writing, people!
In other Dair-related news:
Fellow author Robin Knabel and I recently posted a new episode of our podcast, Unsettling Reads. Come check out our spoiler-free review of Amazon’s Forward Collection, curated by Blake Crouch. Visit www.UnsettlingReads.com to browse our other reviews of books from the crime, fantasy, horror, literary, mystery, sci-fi, suspense, and thriller genres.
To find out what I’ve been working on, fiction-wise, visit www.HDairBrown.com. Sign up for the email list, and I’ll send you a free story every month. Just one email a month. I promise not to inundate you. I hate a pesky emailer!
Finally, to help you keep track of both your writing goals and your time, visit TheRookieWriter.net and sign up for the email list to get a free undated quarterly version of The Rookie Writer Playbook (a planner/organizer just for writers) to try out. And, of course, The Rookie Writer Etsy shop has full annual, dated Writing Planners available, along with a few other tools and fun swag for writers. Now on sale for 50% off!