Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen

What's Your Shtick?
Finding Your Own Voice Amid the Cacophanous Din

Hello. Though I've already written one column for you, we haven't been properly introduced.

I'm Will Ludwigsen, and I write horror, science fiction, and fantasy. You may have seen some of my work in Horrorfind, Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

"Cemetery Dance?" you ask, incredulous. "Weird Tales? Why haven't I heard of you?"

The failing is not yours but mine. You see, I've done a poor job of identifying or asserting my shtick.

No, that is not an issue better discussed with my wife. A "shtick" in entertainment parlance is the easily-identifiable style or method or subject matter that enables an audience to remember a particular performer.

Stephen King seems to write about a lot of ordinary people from Maine. Ray Bradbury seems to write about a lot of wide-eyed boys named Douglas who discover that wonder and terror surround us. Robert Heinlein seems to write about a lot of determined Libertarian jacks-of-all-trades.

You know, a shtick. The tiny genre containing exactly one writer.

We're surrounded by stimuli, and the only way we avoid madness is to classify it. Sometimes the classifications are clumsy: Republicans versus Democrats, horror versus science fiction versus fantasy, genre versus literature, self versus other. Whether these classifications are actually opposed or even separate does not matter--they make for convenient cognitive handles.

The reason you don't remember me is that you have nothing classifiable to link to my nigh-unpronounceable name. I've written stories about Loch Ness, Victorian UFOs, quivering boxes of meat, elaborate interstellar blackmail schemes, and a courtroom drama involving dolls. Sometimes I use first person narration, other times third. Often I use humor; occasionally I do not.

I'm a mish-mash of conflicting themes, concerns, and interests. No one asks for a "Will Ludwigsen" story because there is not yet a "Will Ludwigsen" story. I haven't asserted an identifiable voice.

Jeff Strand, on the other hand, has.

We all know that Jeff Strand writes humorous horror. How do we know this? By checking his bibliography: Graverobbers Wanted: No Experience Necessary, Single White Psychopath Seeks Same, Casket for Sale (Only Used Once). These are the works of a demented mind, probably better kept floating in a jar in the locked basement of an abandoned children's asylum.

Jeff's shtick, then, is his terrifying wit--the disquieting transformation from chuckling to cringing to shrieking off into the distance like Daffy Duck.

Someday, Jeff Strand may write about an upwardly-mobile Manhattan couple who adopt a Vietnamese orphan, hoping that will save their failing marriage. The story will end in divorce and the horrible yet poignant cultural abandonment of the young boy. Unfortunately, some of Jeff's less understanding "fans" will wonder when he will write another sequel to Graverobbers Wanted, just as some of Poppy Z. Brite's "fans" demand that she give up on her whole crazy restaurant tangent.

This is the blessing and curse of a shtick. On the one hand, it makes it easy for fans to latch onto you. On the other, it makes it easy for fans to keep latching onto you--even after your interests have diverged from theirs.

So a shtick is partly your own creation and partly your audience's. Readers are going to classify you. The only question is whether you're going to have any say in that classification. The more you control your shtick, the better chance you have for creating a career that follows your own interests and not the demands of the people who read your books or stories.

How can you define a shtick that both makes you distinctive yet allows you the freedom to explore your evolving concerns?

I'm glad you asked. Here are some questions I've been asking myself while searching for my shtick.

1. What are the themes/techniques/subjects of the stories I've already written?

You may already have a shtick, one that is trying to quietly assert itself in your work. Read through what you've already written and look for patterns. Are many of your narrators from the South or the West or the Arabian peninsula? Do you write often in the second person? Do your characters all seem to be strangely eloquent and witty, like Aaron Sorkin's? What does it mean that you're writing so many stories about zombie rats?

Many of us write to explore who we are. What have you learned so far from your stories? What are you trying to tell yourself? Sometimes this is as simple as asking yourself, "Why do I write about midget lesbians so often?" Other times, it involves a deeper and more deliberate focusing of introspection and intent: "I wish I wrote more often about midget lesbians instead of all these dumb zombie stories. Midget lesbianism is a pressing issue to me, and I want to tell more meaningful stories."

Find out what you're trying to say and say it on purpose.

2. What are the themes/techniques/subjects of the stories I love?

Take a look at your bookshelves. I'm sure some names repeat themselves on the spines. Why? What do those authors say that attracts you? How do they say it? Who is your spiritual writing posse? Do you ride with T.E.D. Klein or with Dean Koontz? Or are you the peculiar aesthetic intersection between them?

An easy way to do this is to list the authors on one column of a sheet of paper and the qualities you admire on the other. What specifically appeals to you? What do they have in common? What can you amplify or modify or transform to your own needs?

Don't be another Gary Braunbeck or Brian Keene. Be the part of yourself you see within them, the part that attracts you to their work and reminds you that you're not alone.

3. What experiences or perspectives make me unusual or interesting?

Where are you from? Where have you been? What has happened to you?

This is the most powerful source of your uniqueness. Many of us write to make our weird lives worth the living, to offer some testimony that we all share weirdness and agony and joy. What is weird about your life? What are you most afraid to reveal?

That's your shtick. Or part of it, anyway.

We're not all "lucky" enough to have been raised in terrorist-besieged Tel Aviv, or to have survived a plane crash, or to have carried our belongings over the border into the United States for a new life. But even our more mundane adventures and experiences make us special and interesting.

If, after careful reflection, you can remember nothing in your life that is special or amazing, then you're suffering from an unseemly modesty, a Freudian defense mechanism, or an aversion to risk. Open yourself to the world, allowing yourself to be changed by what you see. Let yourself be hurt. Let yourself be joyful.

4. What values do I want to embody?

Stories are our experimental culture, the place where we ask what happens when we change the variables of existence. What happens when totalitarianism takes over England? What happens when we all become consumer zombies? What happens when our evolutionary successors appear?

Each story tests a theory of existence. What theories most fascinate you?

Try making a list of the people you most admire and of the people you most despise. List the qualities in each you love or loathe, and create two composite pictures: one of your values, the other of your anti-values.

What theory of the universe does each value imply? What assumptions and beliefs lie beneath each? What exceptions are there? What tensions make it difficult to live up to those values?

Writers ask big questions and create characters who try to answer them. What are your big questions? What answers will surprise you most, giving you something worth exploring in a short story or a novel?

5. What fascinates me? What do I love in addition to writing?

Look again at those shelves, but this time at the non-fiction titles. You do have those, right? You're not just in love with writing for writing's sake--with the sound of your own voice?

Are there a lot of history books? What era? A lot of science books? What subject? Computers? True crime? Literary criticism? Fishing? Diving?

Writing is the avocation of avocations, the interest in which you can entertain all of your other interests. What better reason to become a writer is there than to follow all your passions? Tell us about them. Why should we love the Shenandoah Valley? Why should we worry about marauding Republicans?

You love things. You hate things. Write about them.

I'm not inviting you to become a branded corporate shill or a human cliche. Cynically pursued, these techniques can probably make you either or both, and you'll deserve the consequences.

I'm also not advising that you become a self-parody, ossifying into a single set of themes or subjects that forever stereotype you. There's nothing to say your shtick cannot evolve over your writing career, and I'm hoping your definitive characteristics will be general enough to offer a lifetime of options.

What I am suggesting, however, is that you focus and accentuate the traits, interests, and beliefs that make you unique. One of your tasks as a writer is to demonstrate your uniqueness to the world, to offer something interesting to the ongoing conversation of fiction.

Your goal is to write the excellent stories that only you can write. Anybody can write horror, science fiction, fantasy, or mystery. Only you can write in your own idiosyncratic genre.

You don't owe your readers the same stories or characters. You do owe them your truest passions, feelings, and drives--the characteristics that keep them coming back to you.

(In case you're interested, here is my own collection of notes in pursuit my latent shtick.)

Will Ludwigsen's teachers placed even odds that he'd end up in a prison or mental hospital. He works for the federal government, thereby fulfilling both prophecies at once. When not writing horror non-fiction for them, he writes horror fiction for a variety of magazines. If this column has provoked a curiosity about his own shtick, you can find more about him at his website, His blog Acres of Perhaps includes many more rants similar to this one, and his writing site The Writing Gym offers more tips. You can even rant back at him via his message board.

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