Stephen Herczeg is an IT Geek, writer, actor and filmmaker based in Canberra, Australia. He has been writing for over twenty years and has completed a couple of dodgy novels, sixteen feature length screenplays, and dozens of short stories and scripts. His script, TITAN, won the sci-fi category in the 2017 International Horror Hotel screenplay competition, with Dark are the Woods placing second in the horror category. Stephen’s horror stories have featured in Sproutlings, Hells Bells, Below the Stairs, Trickster’s Treats #1 and #2, Shades of Santa, Beyond the Infinite, Beside the Seaside, The Body Horror Book, and many more. He has had numerous stories published featuring the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, as well as over twenty drabbles accepted into various anthologies. You can follow him on his Facebook and Amazon pages at https://www.facebook.com/stephenherczegauthor and
Tabatha Wood invites him into the Well to talk in depth about going for a coffee with Sherlock Holmes, coping with rejection, and why the most important piece of writing advice he can offer is to FINISH IT!
G’day, Stephen, it’s good to see you here in the Well. It appears we have the place to ourselves at the moment as the Creatures are nowhere to be seen. Let’s start out with some quick-fire questions.
Describe your writing style in five words.
Screenplays with more flowery bits
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Was” – yeah, I’m still working on that whole passive voice thing
“Fuck” – after a read through of one of my screenplays, someone said they counted 78 occurrences of the word. I’ve toned it down since then.
What three themes/tropes make your writing instantly recognisable as yours, and yours only?
1. “After the fall.” I have written around four or five stories centered around the dystopian future Earth after a massive asteroid strike near Greenland. I hope to link them and extend the story into a full-blown novel soon.
2. “The Mermen.” I always loved H. P. Lovecraft, especially the story of “Dagon” and “Shadow over Innsmouth.” I’ve given life to his mermen creatures and have them seeded through several of my own stories.
3. Zombies with a twist. I love zombies and zombie movies, but they’ve become a bit stale. I’ve written two feature film scripts with a different take on the zombies themselves. In “Death Spores”, the transmission protocol is an intergalactic fungus. Zombies’ heads explode when the fungus uses up their insides as fuel. In “TITAN,” it’s an interstellar intelligence that body-hops and divides to take over a space station.
Who are your heroes of fiction?
James Herbert – my favourite all time author. I’ve always loved the layout of his novels, with short vignettes that are stories in their own right, before the main action of the novel begins.
Stephen King – I have over 40 hard cover firsts in my collection. I try to emulate his “take normal people and put them into extraordinary situations and see how they react” style of writing.
Clive Barker – one of the pre-eminent wordsmiths of our generation. I am constantly in awe at the way he can weave a tale of dread and horror, but at the same time using the most beautifully crafted prose.
H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, who couldn’t hold these two up as heroes? They basically started the modern horror genre. And a big nod to Mary Shelley, who really started it all.
What three books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Lord of the Rings (counts as one book, doesn’t it?)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (same as LOTR?)
On Writing – Stephen King; The greatest treatise on the art of writing that I’ve ever read.
If you could go back in time to do so, what wisdom would you impart to your teenage self?
Find a way to finance your life, but don’t ever give up on what you enjoy, no matter what people say.
Name three traits you find deplorable in others.
I don’t like in others (and me for that matter):
Jealousy – mostly material jealousy. Don’t tear someone down just because they possess something you want. Go out, work hard and gain that thing for yourself.
Entitlement – those who parade around believing the world owes them. Nobody owes you anything that you haven’t paid your dues to achieve.
Entrenched feelings of victimhood – there’s a difference between being oppressed at the point of a gun and feeling oppressed especially in an environment that offers the freedoms that many in the world can only dream of.
And three you most admire?
Hard work and diligence.
The honesty and forthrightness of children.
Supportiveness – the thing I most admire in the writing community is the fact that the majority of people are fully supportive of everyone else. When I see someone announce they’ve been accepted and published I’m over the moon for them. They sat down and wrote something, they had the guts to put it out there with all the mental pain that induces, and they found someone that liked it enough to put it in a book. Well done to that person. Do it again and keep doing it.
If you could go for a coffee with any fictional character (including one of your own) who would you choose and why?
Sherlock Holmes. The more I write Holmes style stories, the more I’m gaining a knowledge of how the character thinks, but even then, I’m only scratching the surface. I’d love to sit down and pick his brains about the way he goes about dissecting a scene and delving into the minutiae, whilst removing the detritus to concentrate only on the important. It would not only help with my writing, but my profession as well. I could also say Batman, but I think he’d be a bit more depressing than Holmes.
Your house is burning, what three things do you save?
My family (there’s three of them, hoping they count as one); My cat; and my USB thumb drive (everything I’ve ever written is on that drive. It’s backed up, but still…) Everything else is replaceable.
How do you want to be remembered?
As a guy that laughed at the world (there’s far too many people taking it seriously); who stuck to his guns; who stuck by his family and friends; and who told a good yarn, even if nobody understood what he was on about.
Thank you, Stephen, they are all brilliant answers. Now, you’ve been writing for over twenty years, can you tell me what prompted you to start?
I like to think that I’ve forever been possessed by Calliope and Melpomene (two of the nine Muses). I just seem to have had a creative urge embedded in my psyche from as far back as I can remember. That urge has brought itself into reality in various artforms over the years and has only really gelled into a need to write in the last few.
What’s the first thing you can remember writing?
A short picture book for a primary school project. I think most of the kids were doing “C is for Cat, D is for Dog” type books. I stole one of the plots from “Lost in Space ” and wrote that up. I’m not sure how well it was received, but I didn’t care. I drew the Jupiter II and some aliens. The next major thing I wrote in school was called “The Cat.” It was basically my take on an episode of “The Night Stalker” – yes, I’m that old – based in the Australian outback and telling the tale of a feral cat being possessed by an aboriginal spirit.
The oldest works I still possess are from my teen years. I wrote two comic books, “Life of Alien” and “Alien Wars.” I had this whole Alien thing going on. It’s still my favourite movie, I even saw it twice at the cinema when it came out. Did I mention I’m old? That’s a truly impressive start. So when did you start introducing yourself as a writer?
I still don’t call myself a writer. I think, like a lot of other writers, I suffer a lot from imposter syndrome. I’m waiting for the day that someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “You know you’re not really that good at this writing thing and you should stop.” I’m also not that into “big-noting” myself without prompting. Possibly an Australian trait? Although when someone finds out I’m a published writer, then I’ll talk until I turn blue. After all, I am my own favourite subject, like most humans!
Tell me about the first story you remember writing.
The very first short story that I can remember writing, post my teenage years, was called “The Prey.” It was set in the red-light district of Sydney, near Kings Cross, and had a vampire stalking the streets and finding a prostitute for his next victim. He is taken back to her rooms where he kills her, only to hear a noise from her body and find she’s turned into a werewolf. I read it a little while ago, the prose is a little stilted and smacks of someone just learning the craft, but I managed to turn it into a hundred word drabble. Unfortunately, I still need to find a home for it.
Do you think it was indicative of the kind of stories you write now?
Yeah, I think it is pretty close. I like to mix things up a bit and try to bring in elements from left field. As Terry Pratchett once said, “Don’t be the writer that read the guy that read the guy that read the guy that read Tolkien.” Find your own voice. Find your own stories. Mix it up a bit. It brings to mind a similar style of story I had published a few months back, called “The Wyrms of Barcelos.” The submission called for stories with dragons and vampires. The majority of stories in the anthology are fantasy, but I didn’t want to go down that route. Mine is horror. It is set deep in the Amazon jungle, and the wyrms are massive flying anacondas that have undergone mutation caused by a meteorite crashing into their nest, resulting in their venom giving their victims an inhuman bloodlust. Very quickly, we get both dragons and vampires. Throw in a Clint Eastwood type military guy, a cautious doctor of herpetology and a bunch of UN soldiers, and you’ve got lots of horror, blood and bullets in the jungle.
What inspired your story for “Beside the Seaside: Tales From the Daytripper”?
The submission call came out a little after the acceptance of another of my stories “Angels of the Deep”, which has a group of Russian submariners attacked by humanoid deep-sea creatures. Coupled with the few years I spent living in England, the whole idea of a trip to the seaside morphed into a tale where a family on a day trip find out that the local villagers are slowly changing into creatures from the deep. The catalyst is the new strain of whelks that they grow out in the bay and offer to visitors. The early version was a very Lovecraftian story in the vein of “Shadow over Innsmouth.” The closeness to that story was pared back slightly to avoid direct comparisons, with the whelks becoming the main focal point in the tale combined with the claustrophobic feel of the entire village turning against the main character.
It’s a chilling tale, and a good addition to the anthology. As a writer, what sort of things interest and inspire you?
Almost anything interests me. I love science. I love inventions. I love history. I even love politics, but not politicians though, I’ll admit that. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing is the research. I’ve learnt so much simply from just delving into the backstory of characters or settings that I’m writing about. My recent story “Cleopatra” is a reworking of the legend surrounding Cleopatra’s suicide, and I found out so many fascinating facts that contradict the popular view. (Trust me, she wasn’t bitten on the asp.) My pet subject though is Zombies. I have a collection of over a hundred and fifty zombie movies, and have watched, scored, and written a review about almost every one of them. I’ve written three full length zombie inspired feature films, two of which have either won awards or been in the top ten placings in international screenwriting competitions. Both of those inspired short stories that have been published as well, and they are high on my list to turn them into novels down the track. What inspires me? Stories of people that overcome adversity or bust their butt to drag themselves out of the mire and have a never give up attitude. Someone like John Maclean who I saw speak last year. He was run over by a truck and told he’d never walk again. Instead of wallowing in his misery, he built himself back up to become the first paraplegic to complete a World Ironman championship and swim the English Channel. He has competed at both the Paralympics and Olympics, winning silver in rowing. After a new type of therapy was tried out on him, he came back to complete the Nepean triathlon as an able-bodied athlete. I also draw inspiration from editors and publishers. Folks that go out on a limb, put their confidence and support behind authors and writers and create anthologies and collections then put them out into the marketplace. Writing is simple; it’s not easy, but the process is simple. Getting dozens of egos to coordinate their time and input, bringing it all together into a cohesive package then putting it out there, that’s hard. Those people deserve all the credit they can get.
To add to all that, what sort of things scare you?
Forced assimilation – being coerced into group think, either by friends and acquaintances, the media or the Government. I follow the lessons of, “Think for yourself, do your own fact finding and research.” Censorship of thought and the written word – we should be free to say or think what we like. I’ll admit that there is a level of responsibility, accountability and ownership of that stance, but we should still be free to engage. The blindness of modern man to the lessons of history – so many in the modern world only look back to the recent past. They wish to embrace ideals and ideas that have been proven false by those that have tried them in the past. One of the definitions of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Can you tell me what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
Taking failure on the chin. As a martial artist (I’m a Third degree Black Belt in Taekwondo), I’ve learnt to take a hit, to fall down and to come back stronger.
As a writer I’ve learnt the same thing. Rejection is a gut punch at times, but if you let one rejection dent your confidence and send you to the floor for good, then it’s not the rejection that has done this its your reaction to it. It always hurts, but I look at it from the publisher’s point of view. They want to put together the best anthology they can, that fits closest to their overall vision. If your story doesn’t suit, then suck it up. Write another one or modify yours to fit. If you develop a thick skin and a good attitude, then you’ll keep at it until you break through.
What do you think is your biggest obstacle when it comes to writing and how do you overcome this?
I think the biggest killer for any creative person is Self-doubt. That nagging sensation in the back of your mind that you’re no good at this thing. The second guessing. A constant feeling that what you are producing is crap and that waiting for the tap on the shoulder by your inner critic. All of us suffer from it at some stage. So many writers and artists become addicted to drugs and alcohol to quieten their inner demons of doubt.
Sadly, it has destroyed many talented people over the years. It manifests itself in bouts of depression and anxiety, and it is a humongous monster to tame and defeat. Many keep it locked away, hidden behind masks and veils of self-belief, but only a small nick in the fabric is all that’s needed to unleash the beast within. The only way I know how to tame the beast is to keep producing. One project leads to another project. From my own experience, the beast also manifests itself as inertia. It stops you acting. It stops you from creating. It plays on your mind. The ideas are there, so it’s not writers’ block, it’s inaction. So, I create. I write. I draw. I even play Minecraft and build stupidly huge buildings and castles. Or I read and immerse myself in the world of someone else’s imagination. I generally have my next project mapped out and ready to go while the current one is simmering and waiting to be reviewed.
I fully agree with you that being creative can keep the Black Dog from biting too close at our heels. So, what do you think is the best bit about writing?
The best bit about writing is the creation. The doing. The putting word after word and building up the story. There are something like over two hundred thousand words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nobody in the history of the world has ever put them into the same order that you will. Somebody may have had a similar idea, but they have never expressed it exactly the same way as you. We all have that in us, and it is up to us to articulate it on the page. George R. R. Martin once interviewed Stephen King. Martin was talking about self-doubt and asked, “You don’t ever have a day where you sit down there and it’s like constipation, and you write a sentence, and you hate the sentence? And you check your email and you wonder if you had any talent after all, and maybe you should have been a plumber? Don’t you ever have days like that?”
And Stephen King replied, “No.” That’s why he’s one of my heroes. I also love the planning and research side of things. I’m an anal retentive, OCD, IT Geek. (Note: Geek not Nerd) I use mind maps to plan out my stories. I especially love the research I need to put into my Sherlock Holmes stories. You have to plot out a detective story, then figure out the intricacies of how it would work in 1890’s England. How do you communicate with someone across London? How do you travel from London to Cornwall? How long will it take? You become very knowledgeable in a range of topics that you’ll probably never need again, except maybe at Trivia Nights. I agree. You also worry a lot about what people might think about your Google search history! That said, are there any topics which you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about? Why? I mentioned above that I don’t like the idea of censorship but admit that doesn’t mean I’m personally comfortable with all topics. I have kids, a young boy and a teenage daughter, and the one thing I wouldn’t feel comfortable with and would never even enter my own mind would be sexual or sadistic violence aimed at children. If the story calls for something graphic and extreme of a violent nature, then sure, no problems applying that to adults, but not kids. That’s off limits in my world.
What piece of advice would you give to any new and upcoming writer right now?
That’s easy: FINISH IT! I once met a guy, not young, but he’d spent two years writing the first forty pages of a screenplay (average script is around 80-120 pages). He kept polishing those forty pages until they shone. He wanted advice on what to do next. I said, FINISH IT! The more you write the better you get. It’s like training for a marathon. You can’t just put on running shoes and expect to complete 42 miles. You need to train. You need to practice. You need to know what it’s like to finish something and move on to the next project. I personally try to keep up a 1,000 word a day habit when I’m working on a project. I’ll have a few off days in between when I’m reviewing or planning, but during the creative times I try to get the words out at that rate. I’m working towards the day when I have the luxury of doing it full time. At the moment my kids have got to eat.
What writing advice do you wish you’d been given as a teenager?
Write everyday if possible. Finish it. Put it out there. If I’d knuckled down and wrote as much in my teenage years as I do now, there’s no telling where I’d be. But teenagers have a lack of focus. There’s girls, video games, cars and alcohol. All of those things get in the way. I have the advantage of vicariously living through my daughter. She’s just turned thirteen and is already a published author. I helped her with a young adult Sherlock Holmes story that was accepted. She’s also a remarkable artist and has aspirations for turning that into a career. If I can help her live her dream, then I’ll be a happy man.
What do you say to those people who say “writing is easy”?
Yeah, it is easy. You take one word then put another after it, the rinse and repeat until you’ve got a story. “Good writing” is another thing altogether. It is a craft that needs learning and refining. I work in IT and always smile when someone says, “It’s not rocket science” to describe something simple. The reason I smile is because rocket science is actually quite simple, put fuel in a container with one exit, light it, whoosh container goes forward. Rocket engineering on the other hand is extremely complex. That’s the difference between “writing” and “good writing.” The other statement I love is the “I’d love to be creative, but I don’t know where to start.” There’s a cartoon on social media that has the protagonist stating that, then a huge hand comes in, plonks a piece of paper and a pen on a desk, points to it, then gives a thumbs up. It really is that simple. Nike’s entire company is based on the premise “Just do it,” and they’ve got it right.
What kind of responses do you get from friends and family to your work?
My wife has never read any of my work. She doesn’t like horror, so she shies away from my stories. She did brighten when I had a science fiction story published, but she still hasn’t picked up the book and read it. My kids are generally nonplussed. They see the contributor copies arrive, they help me take photos with them, then they shrug and wander off. My friends are pretty supportive. I see some who are the first to “like” posts on my author’s page and ask when books will be available. It’s quite soul lifting to see such support from them. My work colleagues are very supportive as well. I was really surprised when one lady said she had her husband read one of my stories to her on a long drive. It just happened to be a Holmes story that featured a character based on a client we all disliked. I had him do something stupid and blow himself up. There was much rejoicing at work. My biggest supporter is my Mum. She haunts my author’s page. She buys all my books and reads them. She recently visited (she’s in Adelaide, I’m in Canberra) and spent most of the time reading my Sherlock Holmes stories. I suppose she’s been there from the beginning, putting up with a gawky teenager who disappeared into his room, which became peppered with strange drawings and reams of pages of long-hand cursive writing. I can see parallels between that boy and my daughter. I also sent Mum a copy of my daughter’s book, she was over the moon with appreciation.
Has writing made you more friends or expanded your community in any way?
For all its darkness and detractors, I think the Internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time. No longer do writers tap away in their darkened rooms then send hard copy manuscripts to publishers in the faint hope of one day piquing their interest. Now the world is a writer’s oyster. There are almost more submission opportunities online than words in the English language. And with that comes the opportunities to join online communities. From the day my first stories were accepted I was invited to join the Australasian Horror Writers Association. I managed to have a story included in the Christmas anthology, Hells Bells. From there I found other anthology calls and submission opportunities. That led to more acceptances, acquaintances and then friendships. The community is an incredible source of support and information for anyone from beginners through to established writers. Recently, I managed to achieve a small life goal and was accepted as a member of the Horror Writers Association. I’m also now a member of the Australian Speculative Fiction Group and have been accepted into seven of their anthologies, and I joined the local Canberra Speculative Fiction Group.
Do you have any interesting tales linked to your writing experiences?
I do have had some dumb submission stories. I try to keep tabs on everything I’ve submitted, but there are times when I see a whole swag of submissions and just go nuts with old stories that haven’t found a place to live. Then I forget about them, only to have a story be accepted twice, once with a newer anthology call and the other with the one from months before. Then I have to make the choice of which submission to accept and write a big apology letter to the other publisher, so they don’t pin my name up on their blacklisted authors list. Writer advice: Never burn bridges!
I think most writers have had at least one of those “oops!” moments. What are your goals for 2020 and beyond?
The last two years have been incredible from a writing perspective. I’ve had a couple of dozen stories accepted and published in that time. I’m letting things rest for a while, but I’m hoping to put together a collection of my own stories. I have been putting the bones of a novel together and I have about twenty thousand words written up in two stories that will form the spine of the overall story. I keep loading myself up with more and more short stories for editors I like to work with, and the prospects of having stories published versus working on a novel that may go nowhere is hard to juggle. I’m creeping up on my mid-50’s so I’ve got retirement in my sights over the next ten years. I reckon in that time I’ll crack a hundred published stories if I can keep up my current work rate. There’s always hope I can crank out a novel or three as well. I reckon the dream of every writer is being able to go full time, supported financially by the writing. I’m no different. I’d love it. I’ve had times where I’ve been between jobs and when not applying, I would spend time writing. I would go to cafés and quiet places and live a creative life. It was fun and pretty productive, but that nagging feeling of needing a paycheck always diminished the experience a bit, so hitting a point where the output is generating an income would be awesome.
Do you have any upcoming books or work which you’d like to mention? Tell me about any previous works which you’d like to draw attention to.
I’m in a very enviable position at the moment. A whole swag of new anthologies have accepted my stories and have, or are being, published. As well as the incredible support I’ve received from Steve Dillon and Things In The Well, I have also found favour with Black Hare Press and will be included in their Eerie Christmas; What If?; Apocalypse; Bad Romance; Jibbernocky and Pride anthologies. I’ve also been working with the Australian Speculative Fiction Group since they produced their first anthology Beginnings, late last year. In December I’ll be featuring in their second anthology Journeys; plus, they’ve managed to find space for me in their Zodiac series of anthologies. So far, I’ve been accepted into Capricorn; Aquarius; Gemini; and Taurus. Then there’s the ever-wonderful world of Sherlock Holmes. Early next year I’ll be included in Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – The Early Adventures; and the Necronomicon of Solar Pons, which is a pastiche of Holmes based on the works of August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft.
Thank you, Stephen, that all sounds absolutely brilliant.
However, I think I heard a roar in the distance and the Creatures may be returning. Any last words before you have to run?
To be completely honest if, five years ago, someone had said to me that by 2020 I’d be an author with over forty published stories (plus over forty drabbles), I would have told them they were total idiots and sent them packing. I’m thoroughly enjoying my craft and loving the support and confidence I receive from the various editors I work with. I take nothing for granted, and yeah, I feel the pain when a rejection floats through, but I feel pride when I gain an acceptance or get to feel the solid proof in my hands that my work is paying off. I also love the support I get from the writing community and enjoy the successes that others achieve almost as much as my own. At the moment I’m having the time of my life.