Book fairs are usually considered to be pleasant affairs. Usually held in open, brightly-lit places, they are usually an opportunity for book-lovers to congregate, or for families to spend quality time with each other. It’s hard to imagine anything more wholesome.

Yet earlier in the week, about 30 people gathered at BookFest@Malaysia with thoughts of gore and the gothic on their minds. And while fair visitors were looking for books and discounts, this group sought dark inspiration, hoping to weave stories of ghosts, murderers, and things that go bump in the night.

But there was no need for alarm: these were the participants of Popular’s 3rd Writing Workshop: Horror Stories.

Held in the Hospitality Lounge of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre as part of this year’s BookFest@Malaysia, the workshop saw aspiring writers being tutored by professional authors on the art of writing to scare.

The two-day workshop opened on Sunday with author Megat Ishak (appropriately wearing a Friday The 13th T-shirt!) leading a session on generating story ideas. The experienced horror author said that writers should begin by asking themselves questions such as “do I like what I’m writing?”, and “does it fill a deep craving?”. If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then you have a good start.

Megat (author of Hard Core, nominated in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards – results out July 1) also shared his sources of inspiration, such as dreams, while driving at night, and even at a neighbourhood cafe.

“To be a horror writer, you must love horror. You must like the feeling of being scared, and you must like the ability to scare people.

“Once you have that intention in mind, the ideas will come. You can look at anything and get your inspiration,” the author said.

Eeleen Lee delivering her session on creating Openings and Settings. Photo: BookfestMalaysia

Author Eeleen Lee (author of 13 Moons, third prize winner, Readers’ Choice Awards 2015) spoke on creating effective openings and settings, as well as developing memorable characters. Her sessions had participants naming which horror films a scene came from, and discussions of what made famous horror characters work. One exercise had participants imagining what kind of horrors lurked in the storage room of a local convenience store!

“Whether it’s zombies, sharks, ghosts or clowns, the main star of any horror story is the source of the horror itself. That’s why you buy the ticket, that’s why you pick up the book. You don’t want to read about Mr Smith or Mr Wong. You want to know what sort of sh*t he gets into,” Lee said.

“But your main characters also can’t be weak or one-dimensional. They need to match the horror. And to do that, they have to be strong too.”

Participants went home after that (presumably to recover from all the horror they were exposed to!) and the workshop continued on the second day with Julya Oui’s session on creating engaging climaxes and twist endings.

Oui advised participants to decide what kind of horror story they wanted to write (Was it terror? Suspense? A thriller?) and also contemplating how necessary a twist at the end was. Would it strengthen the conclusion? Would it justify the entire story? Would it satisfy the reader? One way of finding this out is to remember a twist in a movie, and recall how you felt as it ended.

It’s one thing to write a story, what you do with it afterwards can actually make or break it for you as an author, according to the final two sessions of the workshop, on editing and publishing.

“When you do your first draft, you say ‘I’m done. I wrote it, I cleaned it up, I printed out a copy, it’s clean, I’m finished.’ No, you’re not.

writing horror stories workshop

Robert Raymer explaining ways to rework a story during his session. Photo: The Star/S.S Kanesan

“A lot of writers think so. They submit their first draft and wonder why it doesn’t get published. Of course not, it’s no good,” author Robert Raymer said in his session about rewriting and editing (he is the author of Lovers And Strangers Revisited, winner of the 2009 Readers’ Choice Awards).

“You haven’t scratched the surface. The real part is the rewriting. It’s the hardest and most challenging part of writing.”

His session covered, among other things, common mistakes made when submitting stories, and ways authors sabotaged themselves by concluding their stories badly. These included trick or “overly clever” endings, drastically killing off main characters, or worst of all, the “it was all a dream” ending.

Wrapping up the workshop was author and publishing consultant Kris Williamson (author of Son Complex, 2013), who covered all the steps of publishing, from writing query letters to social media presence to dealing with reviews. His session also covered the benefits of self publishing versus traditional publishing, and ways to spot “predatory publishers” – those who pressure authors to pay them for doing what they are supposed to do as publishers.

Many of the workshop participants said they are now inspired to try their hand at penning their own spooky stories.

“I found it a good learning experience, with ideas and concepts I have never thought before. I am inspired by the workshop and its speakers, and aim to practise what they preach,” said writer Charles Chiam, 28.

“It was very good. Very informative, and it answers all your questions. And the Q&A sessions help you fill in whatever blank spaces that remained,” said homemaker Subathra Karunakaran, 48.

Here’s hoping that we’ll soon be seeing a torrent of terrifying titles hit our local bookshelves. Watch out, Stephen King, you may soon have competition!

BookFest@Malaysia 2017 is on daily, from 10am to 10pm, until Sunday, at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Admission is with purchase of the BookFest catalogue at RM2.50 per entry or RM10 for multiple entries. Catalogues are available at all Popular and Harris bookstore outlets nationwide and also at the event’s entrance. Entrance is free for students 18 years old and below and senior citizens aged 60 and above. For more information, visit BookFestMalaysia. Star Media Group is a media partner of BookFest@Malaysia 2017.