Tyler Jones on Balancing the Light and the Dark
Tyler Jones is the author of two self-published books. Criterium, which is the story of a young man's journey through life dealing with grief and addiction, and The Dark Side of the Room, an elderly woman's battle with an ever-growing darkness in her mind that seems to be seeping into reality. You can also find Jones's stories in several publications including Burnt Tongues, which is an anthology that was edited by Chuck Palahniuk.
You did an author interview for LitReactor this year with Paul Tremblay that I really, REALLY enjoyed. The questions focused on the writing process which, in my opinion, offers readers a lot of value. Is there any part of the writing process you know now that you wished you knew when first started writing?
I still think the best advice any writer can receive is: Write the book you’d want to read. That’s all I’ve ever done. Each book, and each story, is an attempt to capture in words these ghostly images that form a narrative in my head. I’ve come to the conclusion that the capture will always be imperfect, so I try harder with the next story, the next book. Back when I played guitar in a band, we’d often talk about “perfect imperfection” in the records we all loved. It was the slightly out-of-tune guitar, the ragged voice that couldn’t quite hit the high note—all these things that, together, created something raw and real. I think there’s purity in letting something exist within the context it was created. Not that something shouldn’t be edited, or made better, but not at the cost of draining all the blood out of the work in order to make it more “perfect.”
My primary concern when writing a story, whether long or short, is clarity. I used to be drawn to writing that was dense, hyper-cerebral, and overly complicated. Over time, I’ve come to value clarity over almost everything else. If the prose can be artistic and clear, all the better.
In my experience there is a lot of talk about how to write, but not much about how to edit. Which, to me, is as important, if not more so. Editing doesn’t just mean fixing some clumsy sentences and typos. Often, it means completely rewriting scenes and chapters. Or, in some cases, an entire book or story. I think of editing like a musician doing a take in a studio. You play through the whole song, mess up a bunch, then do another take and try to make your performance better. Sometimes I get close to what I wanted to do in a story, but I just don’t quite get there. So I’ll rewrite it from scratch, try to tap into the energy and joy of creating. If I’m agonizing over it, it’s probably not going to come out well. For me, it’s best to let things flow. Over time, especially if you write a lot, I think you find that you get a little better at capturing things the way you want to on the first take. I think the actual “rubber on the road” work of editing is something that beginning writers would benefit from understanding.
You briefly mentioned to me on Twitter that you were nervous about the new book mostly because the main character is an elderly woman. I was able to easily connect with Betsy Lupino, much like Zach Ayers in Criterium. I think this is a big reason why your books resonate so well with readers. Do you write books around the characters or do you do lots of plotting?
I always start with a concept and build from there. I actually don’t do any plotting at all. Occasionally, I’ll have an idea of where the story will end up, but it’s a hazy image in the distance. It’s rarely a solid thing, and it often changes as the story progresses. Whether it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel, I really try and get out of the way and let the story be what it wants to be.
Concept is priority one, though, as a writer and a reader. I’m not really interested in a book unless something unusual or strange is happening. It doesn’t need to be supernatural or creepy, just out of the ordinary. Next, I think about the characters, who I want to follow through this strange situation or scenario. And that character, whether it’s Zach Ayers or Betsy Lupino, they typically arrive fully-formed in conjunction with the concept. And by “concept” I don’t mean something lofty or ambitious, I just mean an interesting idea that can be condensed into a single sentence. For example: A young man struggling with the same addiction that killed his father stumbles across a strange bike that takes him on a terrifying ride into darkness.
With The Dark Side of the Room, I saw the end first, which is rare for me. Then I set it aside to focus on the story of how we get to that ending. And it had to happen naturally. I’d never want to bend or force a story in a certain direction simply to meet a target.
Contrast that with Criterium. I had no idea where that was going. I was just along for the ride, and as surprised as Zach at where it ended up. Hopefully, that sense of surprise and discovery comes through in the storytelling.
Even though most of what I write falls into the “horror” category, it’s never been my goal to scare people. I don’t really get scared easily, but I do love the feeling of being unsettled and creeped out. I don’t like stories that seem to exist only as a delivery system for “scares.” They usually leave me disappointed. But a story with characters I care about…I’ll follow them through anything, frightening or not. And for a story to be truly scary, I think it needs room to breathe. Moments and interactions that don’t revolve around whatever horror is in the story. When we genuinely care for the people we’re reading about, the bad things hit harder.
I found your writing very influential. Reading your stories just makes me want to grab a pen and start jotting down ideas. Are there any indie authors that influenced your writing?
Absolutely. Kealan Patrick Burke, Gemma Amor, Chad Lutzke, Jonathan Janz, Sarah Read, Laurel Hightower, Joshua Chaplinsky, Gabino Iglesias, Max Booth III, Brian Evenson, and John Langan have all influenced me. I love reading what all these talented writers are doing. And not just in their writing, but how they navigate the various roles of marketing their work, supporting others, being gracious and kind. Up until recently I would have said Stephen Graham Jones, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and Adam Cesare. But all of those guys have made the leap to the big time. They started in indie publishing, though, and I love that. It’s like your favorite indie band getting signed to a major label. Only without sacrificing any artistic integrity.
In February of this year I was sending query letters to literary agents regarding a novel I wrote called Midas. Then, in March the pandemic hit. I had a few agents express interest, but there was a lot of fear and uncertainty regarding the state of the world at that time. Watching writers like Kealan Patrick Burke, Gemma Amor, and Adam Cesare release their own work over the years inspired me to do it myself. I like the idea of not relying on an agent, an editor, a publisher etc. to put out a story. I was hesitant to self-publish because my focus has been novels. But I didn’t want to be that guy forever shopping his one novel, hoping an agent will take interest, as the years and rejection letters stack up. I had a few short stories published and I was anxious to put out more. But the submitting stories and novellas, waiting to hear back, submitting again, it can wear you down a little.
Something clicked for me when Gemma Amor’s Dear Laura was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. She wrote the book, made the cover art, put it out herself, and it was nominated for this major award on its own strength without any sort of machine behind it. I love that so much. That a book can exist, find an audience, and be nominated alongside all of these other books published by big presses. Year ago, every indie band was saving up money for studio time, recording songs, and burning CDs to sell at shows. The goal was always to end up signed to a record label, but no one let that future dream stop us from creating and putting out music in the present. That’s what self-publishing is to me. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll way to put art out there and hope it finds the right readers.
I recently heard Jonathan Janz talk about how Joe Lansdale has mentored and helped him with his writing. Is there anyone that you would consider instrumental in getting you where you are right now?
I met Patrick deWitt not long after his first novel, Ablutions, came out in 2009. Over the years he’s been generous enough to read some of my stuff, offer feedback and advice. He is one of my favorite writers of all time, and his novel, The Sisters Brothers, remains one of my favorite books. Early on, he encouraged me to simplify my prose, which is some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
I’ve had the privilege of being in Chuck Palahniuk’s workshop for several years, along with a group of incredibly gifted writers. If you haven’t read Chuck’s book Consider This, I highly recommended checking it out. It’s basically a condensed version of what he teaches in workshop. Personally, he’s taught me to push beyond my comfort zone and find that place where a story explodes into something memorable. He’s also helped me unlearn some of those bad habits many writers pick up by reading too many books that sound like a writer writing, and not like a person telling a story. Something that Chuck, and his mentor, Tom Spanbauer, call “burnt tongue.” Which is just saying something in a slightly wrong way that is exactly right for the character.
And lastly, Joshua Mohr (author of Sirens and the upcoming Model Citizen) gave me a lot of feedback and insight on Midas. He brought so much enthusiasm to helping crack the code of this really dark, complex novel that I got lost in for a while. With his help, I found the book it was supposed to be, and was able to rewrite it. Josh’s voice is still one I hear in my head whenever I write or edit. Encouraging, critiquing, and pushing me to make whatever I’m working on the best it can be.
On the self-publishing side of things, Kealan Patrick Burke, Max Booth III, Michael David Wilson, Adam Cesare, and Scott Cole have all been patient and generous with my endless questions.
I thought your books explored some very strong themes like addiction, grief and mental health, but they were also very imaginative as well. Shadow rats that feast off human flesh and supernatural bicycles that spontaneously combust are not what I expected when I started reading these books. Where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I work in healthcare, and a hospital is a strange microcosm of people from all walks of life who are inside this strange building for the same reasons—they are sick, injured, or dying, or they know and love someone who is. The range of emotions and experiences that unfold over the course of a day is sometimes staggering. People you’d pass by in a store, or on the street, are suddenly stripped away of all their disguises. You see pain and death and suffering. You also see strength, grace, and resilience.
I’ve seen a lot of casualties in this ongoing opiate crisis we have in our country, and a lot of those people never meant to become addicts. Many of them needed a surgery and were prescribed meds to deal with the pain. Some had never even taken opiates before, but suddenly they’re given these magic pills that take away not only the physical pain, but the pain of being alive. These people never would have gone out and tried to score heroin on the street, but they’re given basically the same stuff in a prescription, and sometimes it flips a switch inside them. They don’t want to lose that feeling, so they end up either seeking more prescriptions, or they go to the street to get their fix. Meeting perfectly normal people with jobs and families, battling this horrible disease, really inspired a lot of Criterium. I meet addicts who never knew they had it inside them to be an addict until they had surgery and were prescribed Oxycodone, or something like it.
I also see a lot of patients with dementia in various forms, and there is nothing so heartbreaking or unsettling as being in a room with a person who isn’t quite sure what’s real and what’s not. The confusion and anger and fear is unlike anything I’ve experienced outside that situation. Especially heartbreaking are what I call the “time-travelling memories,” these moments from the past that are taken out of context and transferred into the present. Some patients claim to see a little brother who is no longer alive, or they see, scattered on the floor, engine parts of a car they owned back in 1976. In order to do my work, I’ll often play along with whatever fantasy is unfolding, to keep the patient calm. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what it must be like to have all the memories in your head being slowly covered up, devoured. And where do they go when you can’t see them anymore? What is it like to forget the name of your own child? So many of those patients helped inform Betsy Lupino and her battle in The Dark Side of the Room.
One thing I've heard time-and-time again is that to write you need to read. Not that you should read a ton of books but you should read for passion. Is there any tool in your toolbox that you consider essential to write?
Diligence. I don’t know that there’s anything more essential than that. Diligence, and finishing work. Whether it’s a story or a novel, finish it. You can edit a finished thing, but you can’t do anything with something that doesn’t exist. For me, I have to write. I’m not me if I don’t. I’m terrified by the idea of Time and the fact that we only have a limited amount of it, but none of us know exactly what that number is. I love the act of creating, of telling myself a story, and that to me is a better use of time than watching TV or a movie. And yes, reading as much as you can. Especially books that make you want to try and reverse engineer the story, figure out how the author did something that hit you hard. Before I start writing, I’ll read a few pages of a Joe Lansdale novel, just to remind myself what the music, the rhythm, of good writing sounds like.
I could be wrong but I believe Criterium was released in August of this year and now The Dark Side of the Room, on Halloween day. With those coming out so close in dates, I assume you had them both written ahead of time. Do have any other books dropping anytime soon? Can you give us a hint of what readers might expect to see in your next story?
Criterium started as a short story, but I always knew that I wanted to expand it. I wrote that one earlier this year, after the pandemic started. And The Dark Side of the Room was written in September. That one came fast. I wasn’t planning to put out another book so close to Criterium, but the idea came and I just followed it. Then I thought it would be fun to put it out for Halloween, which I just barely managed to do.
I’ve got Midas, a horror novel that takes place in the old west. It’s about a former preacher who has lost his faith after the death of his young son. He ends up finding a cave that contains the power to transform anything, living or dead, into solid gold. But this gift comes at a terrible price. At the same time, a violent cult leader has been searching for this power for years, and it puts him and the preacher on a collision course. This one will see the light of day at some point. If no agents are interested, I’d love to put it out through an indie press. It’s a book that means a lot to me. There’s a lot of pain, heartache, and soul in that one.
I’m in the early stages of a novel called Depth Charge. It spans ten years in the lives of these two brothers who go on the run after finding out their dad is a murderer.
I also started what I think will be a new novella, tentatively titled Collider, but it’s still a little early to say what it’s about. It does involve CERN and the Large Hadron Particle Collider, though. And bad things.
I also have two stories coming out on The NoSleep Podcast that I’m really excited about. I love what the NoSleep team does, and I’m incredibly grateful to have a couple stories included on their show.
There is a lot to say about publishing right now. Small presses and large publishers offer some relief for writers who want focus on the craft. You might even say they give people a sense of accomplishment. That may be true but I think it is admirable to see authors self-publish their work. It's a business and there are some massively successful self-published authors out there right now. Do you see yourself staying the path you’re on or do you submit your work for consideration?
I’d love to continue self-publishing novellas while shopping novels to agents. If no agent is interested in the novel, I’ll probably try and see if a small/indie press would be interested. If not, I’ll self-release and move on to the next. Thankfully, there are a number of writers who have charted various paths in publishing. Adam Cesare, for example, published with some small presses, and then released stuff on his own. He built up an audience over time that was thrilled when Clown in a Cornfield was picked up by Harper. We were all anticipating his big publishing debut. Same with Stephen Graham Jones. He built an entire career publishing with small presses, then Mongrels came out through William Morrow and a wider audience was able to discover how incredible he is. And now it’s happening with Jeremy Robert Johnson and The Loop. All three of those guys just focused on putting out good books
I’m no expert, but it seems that so much of publishing is finding the exact right person to champion your book. I think the only reason I even felt comfortable to self-publish was because of the online horror community. All of these readers who love the genre and love to read, and they are actively seeking out new writers to support. From readers to reviewers to authors, everyone I’ve encountered in this community is kind, compassionate, and willing to lend a helping hand. That in and of itself is remarkable. I love our group of weirdos who read books about ghosts, slashers, demons, and cryptids. I don’t think it can be overstated how vital a supportive community is to the success of a self-published book. To just throw something out into the void and hope people notice is madness. And there are a lot of websites devoted to making the indie author believe they can somehow make themselves successful by purchasing video tutorials and marketing etc. Based on what I’ve seen and experienced, it’s passionate readers, gracious reviewers, and talented writers who support each other that get books noticed and read.
This is Horror reviewed Criterium and on the blog you said, "...Maybe it’s a story for anyone who struggles with addiction or anyone who knows their life is on a dangerous course and is afraid of where that path will lead." I thought that was incredibly compelling. Is there anything you want to tell readers about your newest book The Dark Side of the Room?
I’ve been reminded a lot recently just how complicated human beings are. Nobody is all one thing. We’re all flawed, and we all hurt people we love, we do things we regret. Each of us contain so much light, and so much darkness. I think we forget sometimes how much effort it takes to keep the dark from overtaking the light. Not to oversimplify things, but we have to be active in becoming the people we want to be. I’m less concerned with judging others than I am with judging myself, and my own actions. The Dark Side of the Room, for me, is about being aware of the dark just on the other side of this room that is my soul, and if I turn my back on it, it gets bigger. We have to fight to keep the best parts of ourselves in the light.
Thank you so much Tyler, I appreciate that you took the time to answer some of my questions. I had one last thing to ask before I let you go.
Can you offer up any words of encouragement for aspiring authors, particularly those who choose to self-publish?
Subject yourself to honest criticism. Allow trusted friends to read your work and rip it apart. Learn why certain aspects of your story didn’t work, and then consider if they’re right. Think of your writing as something disconnected from your ego.
Write a lot. As much as you can. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get.
Learn to allow unbroken tension to exist in your work. Keep things secret from us, and your characters. Let your characters speak past each other, avoid answering every question directly.
Learn which scenes and moments deserve emotional weight, and then reserve that gravity for those scenes. Don’t give everything equal emotional weight. Don’t over-describe things that don’t matter. You may think you’re “setting the scene” or “creating atmosphere,” but in reality you’re bringing the story to a screeching halt.
Learn to write a good short story, which will serve you well when you want to write something longer, like a novel. Because then you’ll be able to write chapters in which things happen, self-contained stories that string together into a bigger piece.
Don’t be in a rush to put something out just because you can. You only get one shot at your first book, so do everything in your power to make sure it’s the best it can be.
Last, find joy in the process. Storytelling is such a valuable and important method of communication, and horror in particular allows a reader to process traumatic events and emotions in a uniquely powerful way.
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