Writing Horror for Young Adults Part 1

“I wrote a few children’s books… not on purpose.”

– Steven Wright

I’ve been thinking about that joke from Steven Wright a bit recently and it’s not as funny as it used to be…

So here’s the deal: I’m releasing a new collection of short stories – exact publication date to be confirmed but it’ll be before Halloween. It’s the fourth collection I’ve released – the first was Basement Tales – a collection of short horror stories for adults, the second was  You Could Make a Killing – crime and mystery stories,  and the third ‘Off Script‘ – was a weird little mongrel collection of unproduced film scripts, the source materials they were based on, and some thoughts about film adaptations: a collection so strange Amazon seem to actively hide it from being found (it doesn’t show up on my author page for some reason)

This new collection wasn’t something I was intending to write: I’m currently three-quarters of the way through a crime novel which is going pretty well and I’m enjoying writing – this new collection has temporarily way-laid me from finishing it which is both annoying, but at the same time feels right.

So how did I end up where I am now – intending to publish a collection of 13 short horror/ sci-fi tinged stories aimed at a younger market, with 8 written and the remaining 5 well underway?

Like all the best horror stories, it started last Halloween. My sister-in-law and her two sons, both pre-teens were staying with us for a few days and begged me to choose a horror film and write them a story for the big night. Both my wife and their mother looked a little nervous at this – my own son is 22 now and I was never the most conservative of parents in my consideration of what was okay for him to watch or read when he was younger (there’s proof of that elsewhere on this site) 

In the end,  after my nephews protestations and condemnation of various suggestions for viewing as ‘lame’ (I don’t know where a couple of kids from Newcastle got so Americanised) or ‘babyish’, and my outright refusal to let them watch their first choice of IT  we compromised on a double bill of ParaNorman and Tremors: both of which they enjoyed, but neither of which they claim to have found scary (the jump scares notwithstanding)

When it came to the stories I handed some of the responsibility over to them and asked them a couple of days beforehand to fill in a slip of paper with a few details filled in:

  • What sort of story they wanted: horror/ sci-fi/ fantasy
  • When should it be set: modern-day/ past/ future
  • A few things it should include: 
  • How scary on a rating from 1 (not scary) to 10 (you’ll never sleep again) did they want it? 

The result went something like this:

Isaac went for Horror/ Set Today/ Clown/ Teenager/ Winter/ Scary & Funny/ Twist/ Halloween. 10. (Isaac’s a bit of a rebel: nothing is too scary or daring and clearly he still had his heart set on what he knew about IT. We had a talk about what a 10 might mean and compared it to RL Stine’s Goosebumps and in the end, he settled for a 7)

A Visit To Uncle Jack’s: one of the images I projected while telling the story…

Jacob, always a little more sensitive, started off with a 7 and had no intention of dialling that needle up any higher. He wanted Horror/ Zombies/ Murder/ Creepy Hotel/ a family of four: 2 boys aged 12/ 15 a Dad 40 and a mother 39 (he apparently likes the details…)

The result was two stories – The Winter Circus and A Visit to Uncle Jack’s. 

The first had elements of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (they were both fascinated by my cinema poster of the less-than-great movie adaptation hanging downstairs in the cellar) and a toned-down Todd Browning’s Freaks and the second was a deliberate homage/ borrow from an old EC comic I remembered the most basic of storylines from my own childhood.

The stories went well in the writing: what started out as an Uncle duty to jot down a quick tale for the two of them to be able to say I’d done as asked, developed into quite lengthy stories (the first 7.5k words, the second 6.5k…couldn’t short change one too much after the other…)

The night of the stories we watched our movies, ate too much popcorn and then, with the fire crackling and a few candles strategically placed, I took on the role of storyteller. Mum and Auntie sat with them on the big old sofa – on hand just in case weirdo Uncle had misjudged this completely, and while there was a definite nudging closer to them from the boys at certain points, there was no sleepless night or bed wetting…from them or me (always a danger when you get to my age…)

The boys took their stories home with them and I was quietly touched to find that Isaac had written his own horror short for a class project a couple of weeks later: a story that got him an A and, apparently, a quiet word on the side with his parents… My work creating a new generation of weirdo writers had apparently begun.

So, ten months on, expectations are high for more Halloween tales. I got the list of ‘wants’ from them: Isaac wanting a zombie (apparently kids aren’t as sick of the zombie sub-genre as I am), violence, a teenager and a broken-down city in the future. Jacob going for a scary sci-fi future on earth tale about a group of boys starting high school (given that we know Jacob’s a bit apprehensive about his upcoming first day of a new school his mother did shoot me a not-completely-subtle glance that the story shouldn’t have too many scares…)

In the meantime, I’d had a few more ideas for stories and jotted them down – some of them homages to my own childhood of Eerie, Weird Tales, 2000 AD, reading my sister’s copies of Misty – an amazing weekly comic for girls which had some pretty terrifying tales, the discovering of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, while others are adaptations of ideas I’d originally been thinking of for ‘adult’ horror stories that were maybe a little too on-the-nose or youth orientated to fit the more mature style.

My wife – who did the artwork for You Could Make a Killing and Off Script was taken with the idea and has created some pretty amazing images: we’re going to end up with our very own version of the Crypt Keeper/ Uncle Eerie/ The Creep to introduce some or all the tales and, hopefully, it’s going to keep that old EC / Tales from the Crypt feel about them.

Over the next week or so I’ll be writing a couple more articles as I get the last stories written and start the editing process as I try to work a few things out myself…things I could probably find through writing guides on the internet around writing ‘YA Horror’ – like:

  • how long is too long?
  • how gory is too gory?
  • what themes are too mature?
  • what does it mean in terms of twists, wordplay, showing versus telling, and speculative endings?
  • and how much sex and swearing is too much (I think I know the answer to that last one…don’t worry)

I could find articles on these things. I know RL Stine has his Masterclass series and that YA is a big thing. I know traditional marketing would tell me to read as much stuff as possible that’s already out there to ‘learn the market’ and how to write for it. I do read some YA stuff – I tried some Goosebumps but lean much more towards Anthony Horrowitz in terms of themes and level (of reading and of scares). So I’m not going to do much research – I’m writing these as the sort of stories I think I would have enjoyed as a pre-teen/ early teen. I know some of them do vary in terms of age-appropriateness and that’s something I’ll be thinking about over the coming days…maybe they need a certification warning at the beginning of each one…things to be considered and decided. But mostly I’m writing them with my nephews in mind and what their reaction was to the first ones. What they talked about afterwards, the questions they had immediately and afterwards: not questions about comprehension – questions that popped up in their newly infected little minds about “What would happen if…”

It’s going to be an interesting one and it may be that only those two will buy a copy when it is available (Hey, I give them the birthday monies, I can tell them what they have to spend it on…) and it may be that I’m way off base and will tick off a few parents, but I’m pretty sure this one will be more suitable to have in a school library than the discovery that a couple of schools that I know of have copies of Basement Tales in theirs…

Come back for updates over the next few days…




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