Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author who has published over 200 stories, appearing in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and Chilling Tales For Dark Nights; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Tenebrous Press, Scare Street, and many more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 35+ patents for various types of gaming technology.
I came of age in the mid-late 1990s, when there was an incredible run of clever, complex, well-written movies in the theaters. It was also far enough into Stephen King’s career that I had a seemingly endless selection of great horror novels to read. Those were probably the two biggest factors that led to me wanting to pursue a career in writing.
However, growing up in a small town in rural New Jersey, I had no idea how a “career in writing” might happen. I wrote for my high school newspaper. That didn’t work. I took a bunch of creative writing classes in college. That didn’t work. I got a Master’s degree in screenwriting. That didn’t work. I worked in a variety of writing-adjacent jobs in Hollywood. That didn’t work. I worked some writing-adjacent jobs at Internet companies. That didn’t work. Finally, I stopped writing for about 15 years while I worked a day job and raised a family. Guess what? That didn’t work either.
As my kids got older and my time freed up a little more, I decided to try a different approach: actually writing. I started writing short fiction in mid-2019. My theory was, worst case scenario, I could just self-publish them online or via Amazon. Luckily, I haven’t had to do that—in the last three years, I’ve sold over 200 stories. It’s hardly a writing career—nobody is paying the bills with short fiction—but at least I can say a few people other than my mom have read what I’ve written.
I mostly write horror and dark sci-fi. For as long as I can remember, I was always interested in things that were dark or creepy in some way, and I don’t really know why. I grew up in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey—which is the home of the Jersey Devil and is generally a dreary place—so I think that had an influence. In fact, the very first story I ever wrote was “Johnny and the Jersey Devil,” when I was seven years old.
I think another factor is that I grew up in a relatively conservative Catholic family in a very old-world Italian town. There were so many things that were considered dangerous, evil, or off-limits, and I think I liked the idea that I was exploring forbidden territory. It was like playing with fire. My attitude was, “I may become possessed by Satan for reading this book or listening to this music, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
Given this predisposition to explore dangerous, forbidden stuff, you can imagine my delight at finding a copy of Stephen King’s Thinner on the top shelf of my mom’s closet when I was twelve. It had a bloody handprint on the cover, and it was stashed away in a place that I wasn’t supposed to see it—how could I not read it? The rest is history. I pretty much only read Stephen King for the next ten years, and that solidified my interest in writing dark fiction.
At the moment, I mostly write short stories. Although screenwriting is my first love, the chasm between finishing a screenplay and seeing it on screen is vast. An unproduced screenplay just goes into a drawer, never to be seen again. Same goes for an unpublished novel.
With short fiction, getting it published is only a matter of a few people saying yes. Therefore, the distance from my laptop to readers’ eyes is far shorter. I’ve sold every story I’ve ever written, so I can be pretty confident when I write a story that someone somewhere is going to read it.
Also, I like finishing things. I can write a short story in a few hours or a few days, whereas a screenplay or a novel can take months to years, with no guarantee anyone will ever read it in the end. I’d rather write 100 short stories that are read by one person each than a single screenplay or novel that is read by no one.
Idea can come from anywhere. Sometimes I’ll see, read, or hear a phrase that makes me think “that’s a great title for a story.” Sometimes I’ll read an article that triggers an idea. Sometimes the idea will just come seemingly out of nowhere.
Regardless of where the idea comes from, I write it down in a file on my phone or my laptop (in a directory that is synced via Dropbox, one file per idea). It might be just a title or a few sentences to help me remember the key idea, or it might be more fleshed out, with story beats or a full narrative arc. It just depends.
When it’s time to start a new story, I’ll dig into my idea vault to see which one inspires me to start writing something. I currently have about 800 ideas in the vault, so I’ll often use open calls for publications or anthologies to help me narrow down the choices. For example, if there’s an anthology looking for stories about haunted houses and another open call looking for horror stories that take place in the woods, I’ll see if I have any ideas about a haunted house in the woods so I can submit the story to both. Once it’s written, I’ll submit it other places as well.
As for themes, I don’t consciously explore any specific themes. However, when I compiled my short fiction collection a few months ago, I realized that many of my stories deal with themes of revenge or comeuppance. I also tend to write a fair number of stories from the point-of-view of children or women. Again, it’s not a conscious choice—that’s just how the story comes out.
The best part is when I’m surprised by my own story as I’m writing. The characters will take on lives of their own, and suddenly I’ll write a scene and think, “Wow, I didn’t know that was going to happen.” How is that possible? It’s all coming from my brain, right? But there are moments where the unconscious story-writing part of my brain does something that my conscious story-analyzing part of my brain wasn’t expecting. That feels like magic.
Write a lot. Submit a lot. And ignore rejections. Far too many writers take rejections personally, as if a rejection is a commentary on the quality of the work. In fact, most editors are absolutely inundated with stories for a very limited number of slots. Even if every story was amazing, they’d have to let many of them go. The odds of getting accepted by a popular magazine or publisher are vanishingly small, often less than one percent. For perspective, Harvard accepts about 5% of applicants, which means it can be 10x, 100x, sometimes 1000x easier to get into Harvard than to have a story accepted by a big publisher.
It’s really just a numbers game. The more you submit, the more chances you have to be accepted. Sure, you’ll get more rejections too, but that takes the sting out of each individual one. I’ve published over 200 stories … but I’ve submitted almost 1,400 times. That’s a LOT of rejections. Only 15% to 20% of my stories are accepted in any given year. The story I sold to one of the most prestigious publications on the market was rejected 37 times before it was accepted. Another story was rejected 37 times in a row, then was accepted 5 of the next 6 times I submitted it … and it became my most profitable story ever. Just keep writing and submitting, and eventually your stories will find their homes.
There are a couple of things I try to do when a story is fizzling out and I’m stuck.
First, I ask whether I have enough conflict. Sometimes characters are just talking to each other or doing things without any real obstacles in their way. Adding conflict and obstacles creates drama, and that can often be enough to kickstart the writing again.
If conflict isn’t the problem, then I’ll look a causality. Every action and scene in the story should be caused by what happened before. If the story is “this happens and then this happens and then this happens,” it’s a problem. The story should be “this happens because that happened and therefore this next thing must happen.” If I’m not sure where to go next, I look back at what happened before and think about what must necessarily happen next because of what happened in the previous scenes. What are the ripple effects of what happened in the last scene that make the next scene inevitable?
One final thing I’ll do to break writer’s block is ask myself, “what if the opposite thing happened?” Sometimes, writer’s block kicks in because the writing is boring, trite, and cliché, and is therefore uninspired and uninspiring. By simply entertaining the idea of doing the opposite, you can unlock surprising new ideas that can jumpstart the writing again.
For example, imagine a character who is angry about something. The obvious thing to do is to write a scene with a lot of yelling and arguing. But what if the opposite thing happened? What if the angry character was overly nice instead? How might that change the scene? How might the other characters who are expecting the main character to be angry going to react to this surprising niceness? Will they be relieved? Suspicious? Nervous? Suddenly, the scene is a lot more interesting and nuanced that before, and that can be enough to start writing again.
Although I have been focused on short fiction lately, I’m still a screenwriter and movie-lover at heart — I ultimately aspire to see my stories presented visually. I also love great art and great animation, so I thought seeing the visual interpretation of my stories and characters by talented artists would be an amazing opportunity.
My latest story for Storiaverse is titled “I Hope You’re Happy.” It’s a dark sci-fi story about a city called Bliss, where the only crime punishable by death is crying. It’s a dystopian world where the appearance of happiness is much more important than actual happiness. Some of the citizens of Bliss would rather be truly happy than just pretending to be happy, and that’s where the story starts.
In general, I have a real problem with hypocrisy: with people saying one thing and doing another or professing to have a certain set of values and then completely contradicting those values in the words, deeds, and actions. More specifically, I’m increasingly troubled by the growing amount of hate and discrimination targeted at LGBTQ+ people in America today. Those two factors play heavily into the story.
I’m really interested in the ways technology unlocks new forms of storytelling or new ways to present more traditional forms of storytelling. I think Storiaverse’s combination of animation and text is a fascinating middle ground between the passive consumption of TV or movies and the active engagement of reading a story or a book. The animation provides a vivid depiction of the characters and scenes, which the reader can then use to better visualize the words on screen. The animation is like jet fuel for the reader’s imagination.
I think it’s incredibly important that people see themselves and their cultures reflected in the stories that are told, and it’s also important that those stories are told by people with the lived experience to tell them authentically.
Personally, I want to tell stories that reflect the true diversity of the world—there are more than enough stories populated entirely by people like me—but I also recognize that I won’t be able to depict minority viewpoints as accurately as I might hope. It’s a delicate balance, and I probably won’t get it right every time. I just try my best to do the right thing and to be open to learning and improving if I fall short of that goal.