Interview Transcripts

Scott Johnson: Ghost Stories Real and Fictional 12/30/05

Event start time:

Thu Dec 30 18:08:40 2004

Event end time:

Thu Dec 30 21:13:41 2004



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all, and I hope you had a great Christmas!

 

Welcome to our final interview of the year, folks.

 

My guest today is Scott A. Johnson, horror writer, and an author who has just published his first book, An American Haunting, and has sold his second, Deadlands! An American Haunting is a classic-style haunted house story in the vein of Richard Matheson's Hell House and King's The Shining. Deadlands is set in post-apocalyptic times. He also writes 'Cold Spots', a monthly column for The Horror Channel about real haunted places. Take a look at his website at: http://www.americanhorrorwriter.com .

 

Scott, welcome, we're glad you're here!

Scott Johnson

Thanks very much! Glad to be here.

Mary Rosenblum

So let's begin at the beginning. How did you get started writing? And when?

Scott Johnson

I've always been a story teller, since I was a kid. I made up stories to entertain myself and my friends.

 

I didn't start really "writing" until I was in college.

Mary Rosenblum

Was that when you realized you wanted to do this as a career?

Scott Johnson

I was in a creative fiction class and wrote a great deal of "Twilight Zone" type stories. When my classmates started to look at me like I was a psycho, I knew I wanted to do this.

 

I started doing this just to see if I could do it. Now I'm hooked.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, I'm laughing! It was that or wait for the men in white coats? And what was your major in college? I'm curious.

Scott Johnson

Advertising, believe it or not.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow! That should help you in marketing!

speckledorf

Do you have a favorite subgenre in the horror field?

Scott Johnson

Not really a favorite subgenre, although I am particularly fond of ghost stories.

Mary Rosenblum

Which is cool. Too much of horror these days seems to center on blood and graphic gore. Good for you!

ellenj

Are there any special nuances to writing ghost stories?

Scott Johnson

Ghost stories are special because you're dealing with, essentially, another human being! Ghosts can be frightening, but tragic at the same time.

Mary Rosenblum

I agree. I grew up on ghost stories, and I think they were scary for me because they did involve

 

people and thus they were more believable. The shock of blood splattering

 

doesn't really scare me.

 

Do you work on characterization for your ghosts, or just your characters?

Scott Johnson

Mostly, building a good ghost story comes with building the proper atmosphere around the prime characters. It's tough to avoid cliché’s when doing something like that, but it's worth the trouble to see a reader's skin crawl!

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding! I find that I still can't read HP Lovecraft on a dark day in a spooky location.

Scott Johnson

It really depends on the story. The ghosts are just as much characters as are the living beings in the story. You have to build a character around them, or they're not believable.

 

You don't want one-dimensional characters, even dead ones, or your audience won't care about them.

Mary Rosenblum

Good! No cardboard monsters out ravening. I like that.

 

Are your ghosts ever positive characters?

Scott Johnson

Lovecraft is, by the way, one of my favorites!

Mary Rosenblum

Me, too. :-)

 

Antonio Salas just asked if you build the character first or the atmosphere.

 

He didn't get the question to the stage.

Scott Johnson

I build the characters first. The characters are always prime to the story. The atmosphere is created largely out of the characters themselves.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, you're a writer after my own heart! Bravo! :-)

speckledorf

Is there a big market for ghost stories?

Scott Johnson

Speckledorf, Depends on if they're true or not. There are big markets for both, but the true ghost stories market is bigger. Seems like everyone wants to know where the bodies are buried!

ellenj

Are there special publishers for ghost stories?

Scott Johnson

Ellen, Not really. When you're researching publishers, you can find a list of things they don't accept. Few of them say "No Ghost Stories." The bottom line is that if the story is good, most of the time they'll give it a go.

Mary Rosenblum

And some ghost stories can cross over into mainstream...you're not limited to genre markets.

 

Scott, did you publish short fiction before you sold your novels?

Scott Johnson

Mary, Yes I did. I started submitting short stories to literary journals and online magazines. After a while, a few got accepted. It wasn't something I was expecting, but it happened. That was when I decided to give this thing a real try.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you think it helped you sell your first novel?

Scott Johnson

I think it helped in that I had a few credits under my name. I only included the markets that were "professional" on my resume, and left the others off. I think that showed that I was serious about doing this.

chatty lady

Hi Scott, do you have another job or is writing it for you?

Scott Johnson

I do work for a university, as a computer jocky.

Mary Rosenblum

And THAT"S why you were so easy to train as a guest! :-)

Scott Johnson

Oddly, I don't teach or anything. I just keep the computer systems running for the English department.

 

I'm looking forward to the day when writing will be my only job.

Mary Rosenblum

You know, you probably have the best type of University job. I think teaching writing for many writers dips from the same well...not for me, but I'm odd in many ways, LOL

 

You also write a 'real ghosts' column, too, for the Horror Channel. Want to tell us about that?

Scott Johnson

Sure. Twice a month, a new article goes up. I research and write articles on places that are haunted, and I provide the back story into why it's haunted...

 

It's something I've been interested in since I was a kid. I've always enjoyed going into the creepy places...

 

What makes these stories more powerful is that, when you read one that's in your home state or town, it makes it all the more real to you. You realize you pass by that place on your way to work every day, or that you've seen it since you were a child.  It makes for some creepy reading! :-)

Mary Rosenblum

That is so cool. Have you thought about collecting the articles into book form: Real Ghosts or something like that? Seems as if the big NY publishers might well be interested. And I have to ask...have you met any ghosts?

Scott Johnson

The publisher that I'm working with now is interested in collecting the articles together. And yes, I've met my fair share of ghosts. "An American Haunting" is, in fact, based on a real house in which I used to live.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, now that IS creepy...although I do have my own resident ghost.

tory

How did you avoid being scared of these creepy places as a kid?

Scott Johnson

Actually, I enjoyed being scared! That's what attracted me to them!

speckledorf

Do you find the need to explain the ghost being there or do you just let the reader deal with it? I mean, most people don't normally deal with ghosts and probably wouldn't take them very casually.

Scott Johnson

It's quite the rush!

 

I don't really explain the ghost being there. What I do is present the history, tell the folklore around it, and present what has been seen, heard and experienced. There are those that will say that no place is haunted, and others who believe.

 

I say let them draw their own conclusions. Though there is no denying the creep-factor of some of these places.

lordjaw

Do you believe that ghosts really exist?

Scott Johnson

Yep. Sure do. Bear with me for a moment and I'll tell you why.

 

My grandmother bought one of the first houses finished in my home town. She lived in that house until she died late in life. While she was alive, she taught nursery school to much of my home town.

 

When she died, my family decided to sell the house, and it was decided that it should go to a family. That's what it was to us, a family home. Three months after we sold the house to a lady with a daughter, my Uncle gets a message from the new owner.

 

She asked if he wanted to see the improvements they'd made to the house. He accepted. They were sitting around, drinking coffee, when out of the blue the woman says "Did someone die in this house?"

 

Sammy says "Yes, my mother. Why?" The woman asked "Was she a little woman with white hair and a crippled right hand?" My grandmother fell in a fireplace when she was a child, burning her right hand. There is no way that woman could have known that.

 

Sammy said "yes, why?" The woman looked him right in the eye and said "Because my four-year-old sure does love playing with the sweet old woman who still lives here." Three families have lived in the house since.

 

All three familes have described the same old woman. Little. White Hair. Crippled right hand. Loves children. The house was for sale again when I last visited.

Mary Rosenblum

That is such a cool story! So have you ever felt threatened by a ghost? Did you ever feel you bit off more than you could chew, being there?

Scott Johnson

No. I don't provoke them. I pretty much leave them to do what they want to do. Plus, there're about a dozen different kinds of hauntings. Very few can really interact with the living. Most are more like echoes.

chatty lady

I truly believe and saw proof with my own eyes as a teenager. It still gives me chills today to relate the story.

Scott Johnson

Chatty, it must be a powerful image to still conjure those feelings in you. Have you ever tried to put it down on paper?

 

See, this is what attracts me to horror.

 

What is writing, but an attempt to elicit an emotional response from the reader? It doesn't matter what that response is. Love, hate, comedy, revulsion. It's all emotional.

 

HP Lovecraft said "The oldest and strongest of all human emotions is fear," and I believe he was right. If you can get your audience to feel something, anything, with your words on a page, then you've done your job as a writer!

Mary Rosenblum

I totally agree!

 

And I this is the type of horror that matters, to my mind

 

because the emotional response is not just one of revulsion. :-)

marly

Does your own writing ever scare you?

Scott Johnson

Marly, I've given my self a case of the heebie-jeebies once or twice. And I loved every moment of it. Those moments terrified my First Reader, so it made me feel good!

Mary Rosenblum

That's GREAT. :-)

chatty lady

No but I have a rough outline of the ghost story. I want to be accurate since it's a true story.

Mary Rosenblum

True ghost stories sell better than made up, don't they, Scott?

Scott Johnson

They do sell better, but that shouldn't stop you from fictionalizing things. I hope you can find all the information you need for that story, chatty!

writeaway

When you know a house is haunted, but recent history turns nothing up...where do you go for the information?

Scott Johnson

Writeaway, Hall of records, county clerk's office, even older people who've lived in the town. If you dig hard enough, you can find any piece of information.

 

Incidentally, any professional writer needs a First Reader. A First Reader is someone whose opinion you trust, and whom you trust to give you an honest opinion. It does no good to have fifty people tell you how wonderful your work is if they're just saying it to be nice. You need someone who has no qualms about telling you "this sucks" or "that's not working..."For me, it's my wife, who's never had a problem telling me when something I've done sucks!

forest elf

Ah! That would be my sister-in-law ... she is painfully honest.

Scott Johnson

Forest Elf, So much the better! Painfully honest, if she's the audience you want to reach, is what you want!

arfelin

Do all ghosts pretty much act the same way? Does ghost stories and horror go hand in hand or can ghost stories work without the horror element?

Scott Johnson

Ghost stories don't have to be horror. In fact, I can't think of another type of story that can cross to EVERY genre in the book. No two ghosts are alike, BTW. I've read supernatural romance (which is a ghost story), supernatural sci-fi (ghost story), and even historical ghost stories that avoided the "horror" aspect of it all together.

joker

Have you converted any non-believers?

Scott Johnson

My uncle and my dad. Neither of them believed. However, after experiences of their own, they both now do.

 

One of the most famous horror stories in the world is a ghost story and it's considered literature by every one. Care to take a guess at the name?

Mary Rosenblum

Tell us tell us. :-)

Scott Johnson

"A Christmas Carol" by Dickens.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, we should have all gotten that one this time of year. That's still my favorite work by Dickens.

 

 

Scott Johnson

red 1 got it right off, way to go, red.

 

WTG RED!

paja

This may have been asked, but "horror" is that which elicits fear in the reader. Correct?

Scott Johnson

Horror is anything that frightens or brings fear, yes.

coway

Haven't you found all ghost stories aren't bad? Aren't horror stories? Perhaps someone stuck and needing release to continue their journey?

Scott Johnson

My definition of horror goes a little deeper. It's what causes fear on the primal level.

Mary Rosenblum

And of course, Dickens is a great example of that.

 

And by that definition, then Scott, not all ghost stories are horror, yes?

sam2

I thought it was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow...lol

Mary Rosenblum

Aha, there's another one!

Scott Johnson

Not all ghost stories are bad. Neither are all horror stories. Some are quite comical. If you read "I Am Legend," by Richard Mattheson, you'll find a collection of short stories at the end of the novella that covers every aspect of the horror genre!

 

Mary, you're right. Not all ghost stories are horror. Of course, you could wrap your brian around this...The Bible is full of ghost stories. And Horror.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding...just start reading Revelations! LOL There's your horror.

tory

Which came first for you? Your book or your Cold Spots column?

Scott Johnson

My book. Well...Cold spots came OUT first, but the book was picked up long before Cold Spots was even thought about.

Mary Rosenblum

Did you pitch that to the Horror Channel or did they ask you?

Scott Johnson

Actually, they asked me! I found the Horror Channel site by accident!

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, what a NICE ego boost! :-) Do you find that your 'real ghost' column and your fiction cross-fertilize?

Scott Johnson

Definitely. I've gotten some really good settings from my research, and writing fiction gets me pumped to write about real scary things even more!

 

In fact, the book I'm currently working on is a combination of three real haunted places I've researched.

Mary Rosenblum

It seems like a great combination...research you get paid for ahead of time!

coway

But the book you are writing on the real haunted places, are you still doing it as fiction?

Scott Johnson

Coway, they're two separate projects. The real haunted places will stay, whether in article or collected form, under the "Cold Spots" banner. I draw inspiration for the fiction from those places.

arfelin

I've read horror stories that I've I really liked a lot because of the good writing and good story. My problem is I don't have the stomach for gore. Is that NOT a necessity in horror literature?

Mary Rosenblum

Very little if any gore in Lovecraft's work.

Scott Johnson

Gore is not a necessity for horror. In fact, gore can detract from it, if it's not handled properly.

Mary Rosenblum

Here here!

Scott Johnson

Gore for the sake of gore comes off as forced. You ever see a movie or read a book where the producers said "Let's throw a sex scene in here," and it doesn't make any sense? Same thing.

chatty lady

Is an entity and ghost the same?

Scott Johnson

Nope. Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but it's not the case. An entity shows some signs of intelligence. A "ghost" is a broad term that covers the whole spectrum.

marly

How long did it take you to write your first novel?

Scott Johnson

It took me five months to write and polish. Then it took me a year to find a publisher.

 

I didn't want to go Print on Demand or vanity publish or self publish. I wanted a real publisher and held out until I got one.

Mary Rosenblum

Tell us about your publisher. This is a small press house, yes?

Scott Johnson

Harbor House Books was named one of Publishers Weekly's top ten small presses in 2004. They're great to work with, and they give a great deal of attention to their writers.

Mary Rosenblum

That's great! There's a wide variation in small press publishers.

 

Are you happy with your distribution?

Scott Johnson

They're out of Augusta, Georgia, and they're growing rapidly. In fact, they've just informed me that they're launching a new imprint, "Batwing Press," around horror and want me to be their "flagship."

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, how cool! Is that for a new, third book?

 

Or the one coming out?

Scott Johnson

I couldn't be happier with the distribution. They're distributed by Ingrams and NBN, which means my book can be gotten just about anywhere.

 

It's for "Deadlands," the new one! It'll be the first on that imprint.

Mary Rosenblum

Great! That should get you more notice, review-wise. Good for you!

 

Have you worked through an agent or have you been able to avoid that with this publisher.

Scott Johnson

They're also talking about picking up a third one, called "Cane River: A Ghost Story."

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, that's a strong title. Set in the south, I take it?

Scott Johnson

I don't have an agent. Apparently, the market is flooded with horror writers, so agents simply aren't accepting new horror writers at this time. I had to find them myself.

 

And yes, it's set in south Texas.

Mary Rosenblum

From what I hear, small press contracts are much simpler than New York publishers, and they are open to un-agented submissions,

 

at least in the genres.

coway

Would you say small publishing house is best for a newbie writer?

Scott Johnson

Small presses are usually more open to unagented materials. The best way to find them is to pick up a copy of Writer's Market at you local bookstore and start perusing the guidelines.

 

Coway, I'd say you have a better chance at being noticed by a small publishing house.

Mary Rosenblum

But do be a savvy writer and do a search online on that publisher's name. There ARE scam 'publishers' out there.

Scott Johnson

A couple of things I would mention though...If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, avoid the POD, Vanity, and Self-Publish route.

 

You, as the writer, should never have to pay a cent to publish, nor should you be asked to provide a "set-up fee" or anything like that.

 

Professional writers get paid. Period. If you want to be a professional writer, find a publisher that offers an advance against royalties.

 

What I'm trying to say is, do the research when you're signing your babies (your manuscripts) over to these people. I've known too many people who got burned by bad deals.

Mary Rosenblum

Remember this mantra: Money flows FROM the publisher TO the writer!

 

And did Harbor offer you an advance? That's quite rare for small press. They MUST be doing well!

 

Most offer royalties only...a better rate than NY publishers.

Scott Johnson

Harbor House offered me a $500 advance. Plus a ten-percent royalty on all sales.

 

They also are working on selling movie rights, foreign distribution rights, and mass-market paperback rights.

 

All of which I get a hefty percentage of.

Mary Rosenblum

That's quite good. Most NY publishers offer less for royalties, even though they offer larger advances.

writeaway

What kind of royalties and advance is considered good for a new writer?

Mary Rosenblum

I would say what Scott got from Harbor is quite good for small press.

Scott Johnson

What I got was obscenely good.

Mary Rosenblum

Most of the small press publishers I know offer about ten percent royalties, but no advance.

Scott Johnson

I would say not to go lower for an advance than $250, and no lower than eight percent on the royalties.

Mary Rosenblum

The NYC publishers offer from 2000$ – 5000$ for most new writers, with a royalty up to 8.5% or so, depending on how good your agent is at bargaining. This is for a first book.

lordjaw

Do you have an agent now?

Scott Johnson

Nope. Still can't get one to touch me.

 

And frankly, I'm not worried about it. When the time is right, I'll get one.

lordjaw

Are you going to write the screen plays for your books?

Scott Johnson

I'd love to. Once the film companies have bought the rights, they usually do give the author first crack. However, they're not obligated to.

Mary Rosenblum

Go for it if they do! BIG money in that!

writeaway

Did you have a lawyer to deal with the publisher's contracts?

Scott Johnson

Nope. The contracts I've dealt with so far are not difficult to understand, and Harbor House has been really good about going over every line with me. As I continue doing this, I'll have to get one, but for now I don't need one.

coway

Do they only do horror, or would they consider science fiction....which does have some scary parts?

Scott Johnson

Harbor House doesn't take science fiction, but I know where you can find publishers who do.

 

http://www.ralan.com  It's an online free compendium of speculative fiction markets.

Mary Rosenblum

Is Harbor House horror only?

Scott Johnson

 Harbor House does historical fiction, horror, histories...they have a pretty broad plate.

Mary Rosenblum

Interesting cross section. I know a number of people here write in the history/historical genres.

Scott Johnson

There is a HUGE market for them.

Mary Rosenblum

Too much research for me. :-) I'd rather make up ecology and planetary physics.

 

Here's a comment from a member of the audience...I'd like to hear your comments on it.

jr souza jr

In today’s tough market place self-publishing can be a way to be noticed by publishers ie Christopher Paolini.

Mary Rosenblum

I think this is a common belief. What say you?

Scott Johnson

Like I was telling Marly earlier, I really enjoy building my own worlds and my own rules.

 

Jr souza jr, I don't believe that. Sorry, but I just don't find it true. I know more than a dozen self-published folks that can't get anyone to even read the COVER of their latest work, because it's self-published.

 

The reason is this: Anyone can self-publish, regardless of talent, education level, sanity, or any other thing. I've read some self-published novels with the most glaring editorial errors and sloppy story lines.

 

Publishers won't even look at a self-published book because the market is flooded with people like that. And it's a shame because there's some real talent out there.

Mary Rosenblum

I’m going to flatly interject some reality here because I have a LOT of editor friends. It is entirely untrue. Editors pay no attention to self published books UNLESS they sell. And that means, to a major publisher, over 30,000 copies in about a year. That is VERY hard to do without major distribution. This really is a myth. And it's a myth heavily promoted by the self publish companies. Need we ask why?

 

And there are exceptions that prove the rule...but will YOU be the exception?

forest elf

And I looked at Harbor House's website...they don't take previously self published work.

Mary Rosenblum

And then there's that. :-)

Scott Johnson

Christopher Paolini is the exception. I doubt I'd be.

 

Nope, they sure don't.

Mary Rosenblum

My feeling is that if you believe in your book, keep trying...you'll sell. You didn't sell to the first place you queried did you, Scott?

Scott Johnson

HAH! I've got a stack of rejections more than three inches thick! I plan on wallpapering a room with them someday!

Mary Rosenblum

This is wonderful. Thank you. Me, too.

 

Want to tell us a bit about how you went from written novel to sold novel?

 

It's SO easy to get discouraged.

 

How did you fight that?

Scott Johnson

I went on to the next project. It's that simple. I kept a list of everywhere I queried and when a rejection came in, I just marked it off the list. I worked on the next project until I got the acceptance. Also, my wife is one of the most wonderful people on the planet. She's very supportive of what I do.

Mary Rosenblum

That sure helps!  And that's an excellent way to do it. Was the next project the next book?

Scott Johnson

The next project was something that didn't come out very well, but the one after that was Deadlands. So far, I've got a pretty good average.

Mary Rosenblum

And you never know about that second project. I just found a failed story I wrote ten years ago..immediately saw what was wrong...and sold it to SciFiction.

Scott Johnson

Hah! I haven't cracked that market yet, and I even know the editor. Ellen is a good editor, and a good judge of stories. Congratulations on the sale.

Mary Rosenblum

Thanks. :-) I know her, too, and that's the first I’ve sold her. :-)

marly

How much time do you spend writing each day?

Scott Johnson

I write a thousand words a day, minimum. If I go over, great. If not, I keep banging away until something comes out. And I might be garbage, but out of it I can usually salvage even the tiniest nugget.

Mary Rosenblum

Good for you!

arfelin

Do you ever write short stories anymore? From studying WRITER'S MARKET 2005 I've noticed there seem to be lot of magazines looking for horror stories.

Scott Johnson

I don't write them as much anymore. I find them a little to constraining for my own style. I had one short story clock in at over 10,000 words that no one will touch because it's just too long.

 

I still think it's one of the best things I've written, but it's too long.

 

I'm sticking to novels right now. It's a better fit with me. The next short story I have coming out is in All Hallows some time this next year.

 

It's a ghost story too. Go figure.

Mary Rosenblum

We're about out of time, Scott. You have been a marvelous guest!

 

Want to tell us about your books and where people can find them?

Scott Johnson

An American Haunting is currently on the streets and available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, Walmart, and any other place you can think of. If they don't have it in stock, I do know they can get it.

Mary Rosenblum

And when is Dead Lands out?

Scott Johnson

Deadlands is a post-apocalyptic book about zombies. It'll be out in September 05. Lots of fun, those zombies.

Mary Rosenblum

Hey, my English teacher was an extra in Night of the Living Dead...I love zombies..

tory

What types of markets do you exclude from the "professional" category you mentioned earlier?

Scott Johnson

Only the ones that pay more than one cent per word are "professional."  I don't include the "for the love" markets because I don't believe in giving away work unless it's for a good cause.  (for the love means for no pay)

Mary Rosenblum

And here's the question we've all been asking ourselves all night... :-)

diar

Did you ever see a real ghost during your research?

Scott Johnson

I've seen several, but the ones I really want to see are further down the road.

Mary Rosenblum

That's cool. Never have seen one...

 

Scott will you come back and be a guest here again?

 

I'd love to have you back...you really have been great.

Scott Johnson

Any time!

Mary Rosenblum

If I can twist your arm, it would be a lot of fun to do a 'ghost story workshop' with you

 

and create a ghost story with the audience's help.

 

I've done several of these for the Forums, but I think you'd be GREAT at it.

Scott Johnson

Hah! I'd love to do a ghost story workshop!

Mary Rosenblum

Great! I'll talk dates with you after I look at my calendar!

writeaway

Please do, Scott.

arfelin

What an interesting forum. Thanks Mary and Scott!

forest elf

Is horror all you write? Or do you also write other genres?

Scott Johnson

I write other genres, but just for my own amusement. Horror is my big gun!

Mary Rosenblum

Scott, feel free to drop into the website any time.

Scott Johnson

I'd like to thank Mary, and all of the rest of you for having me here. It really means a great deal to me.

Mary Rosenblum

We've enjoyed having you visit and it's a fun place to hang out and talk to other writer-minded folk.

Scott Johnson

And you'll be seeing more of me around.

Mary Rosenblum

It's an open website and we'd love to have you!

 

That's great!

 

Thank you all for coming!

marly

Thanks for coming, Scott! You were helpful, indeed!

coway

Thank you very much, you had a wealth of information.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming! And good night!

 

I'm looking forward to our ghost story workshop!

Scott Johnson

You're welcome guys! And thanks for having me!

 

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