An Interview With

STEPHEN HERCZEG

Stephen is an IT Geek, writer, actor, film maker and Taekwondo Black Belt 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.

Stephen’s scripts, TITAN, Dark are the Woods, Control and Death Spores have found success in international screenwriting competitions with a win, two runner-up and two top ten finishes.

His horror stories have featured in various anthologies including: Sproutlings; Hells Bells; Trickster’s Treats #1 and #2; Shades of Santa; Below the Stairs; Behind the Mask; Beyond the Infinite; Beside the Seaside; The Body Horror Book; Anemone Enemy; Petrified Punks; Beginnings; Sea of Secrets and Demonic Carnival.

Over thirty of his drabbles have been accepted for Curses and Cauldrons by Blood Song Books; and Worlds; Angels; Monsters; Beyond, Unravel and Apocalypse by Black Hare Press.

His Sherlock Holmes stories have been published in Sherlock Holmes in the realms of H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes: Adventures beyond the Canon, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes stories: Parts XI, XIII and XIV; Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the realms of Steampunk and The New Adventures of Solar Pons.

Later this year, Stephen will appear in the anthologies A Tribute to H.G. Wells; Journeys; Capricorn; Aquarius; Gemini; Deep Space; What If? and Through Death’s Door.

Check out his work before you get to know the man?

Often it is in our childhood days that we realize what we’d like to do when we grow up. Stories are now an essential part of your life. When was the first time you fell in awe with a story, and consequently, the art of storytelling?

I think the very first story I fell in love with was Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It probably wasn’t the story itself, as there are only about three hundred words, but it was the mix of the story and the illustrations that made it so powerful. Plus I was an eight year old boy, who was just starting to love horror movies and stories, and this fitted in perfectly.

There’s something about the horror genre. It just draws you in, doesn’t it?

Can you recall the very first story you wrote? When was this? What was it about?

The earliest story that sticks in my mind is one called The Cat. I wrote it when I was about nine years old in primary school. I loved a TV show, at the time, called The Night Stalker, which was about a newspaper reporter who tracks down and defeats the monster of the week. My story is about a feral cat that attacks people in outback Australia.

I can’t remember the full details of the story, but I’ll be using the gist of the tale in my next short story. The plot will involve an aboriginal spirit, seeking justice against a mining company, that possesses animals forcing them to track down and kill those who have sinned against the local tribe.

I for one will never cross the Feline Guardian’s path. Cats are fuzzy balls of fury. Good choice!

What inspires you to write?

Apart from a seemingly endless set of deadlines I keep setting myself, I just love the creative process. Even as a kid I wrote, drew and built stuff (out of Lego mostly). Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid all the negativity that becoming an adult lumps on you and keep my child-like sense of wonder and imagination. Now I find that I can channel that into my story telling.

As the number of stories on the go rises, I break out into a feverish need to write and create more. It’s become like an addiction, a strange undying need to create people and worlds, and put them through situations that test, build or destroy them.

You’re a creator of many different beautiful stories. For an author, stories are like kids, and it’s impossible to pick a favorite. But will you still try?

I think my favourite horror/speculative fiction story is Eyes of Glass. It was included in the anthology Below the Stairs: Tales from the Cellar by Things in the Well. I like it because the idea came from a feature film script I wrote and was trying to develop into a film. It was the scene I kept even as the underlying plot kept evolving through multiple rewrites. The story revolves around a possessed doll that can trap the souls of humans in other dolls and toys. It’s creepy and has garnered a lot of praise over the years.

The stories I most like to reread are my Sherlock Holmes pastiches. There’s something about losing myself in Victorian London that brings out my most eloquent style in my writing.

Funny you bring up creepy dolls. I just found a head poking out of a closet in my parents’ room. Turns out she was cleaning and came across some of her childhood toys. It’s now in the store room, but I want it out. I don’t get why people adore dolls. I’m going to make her read your story. Lol

Which authors do you look up to? Whose works do you enjoy the most? Your favourite quote?

My heroes are Stephen King for his level of output and simple attitude to writing; James Herbert for his style of mixing several short vignettes into the early part of a novel before launching into the body of the story; Terry Pratchett for his unadulterated love of writing and the fun he had doing it; and Clive Barker simply for his beautiful word crafting ability.

I can happily pick up any work by one of these four and enjoy it, but it’s very rare that I find a writer I don’t like. It has happened, and I’m not shy in tossing a book aside if I’m not enjoying it. There are too many books to waste time on bad ones.

My favourite quote is from when George R. R. Martin was interviewing Stephen King. Martin asked: “You don’t ever have a day when you sit down there and it’s like constipation — 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 have days like that?”
Stephen King answered: “Nope.”

I just love that confidence and try to apply it every time I write.

Ha ha. That’s epic!

What are the steps in your creative process? How many drafts do you go through until you’re satisfied with the end result?

I’m a massive plotter. I’m an IT architect by trade. My job involves investigating, discovering the causes of problems and coming up with solutions going forward. I spent most of my career as a computer programmer as well, so not something you go into if you haven’t worked out what you want the program to do in the first place.
Ideas come to me out of the blue. I love the access that the internet has given to writing groups and publishers. The requests for submission process is one of the biggest drivers of ideas. When a publisher says I want stories about such and such, my brain goes into overdrive.

I use a method called mind-mapping to dump ideas onto a page. From there I can add more and more information, build characters, locations, ideas, plots, etc. Most of the time I’ll have the latest mind-map open just in case something comes to mind. When I’m satisfied that I know the basic outline, I’ll launch into the writing process. Reworking the mind-map as new ideas spring into my mind as I write.

Mind-mapping is an awesome method to organize ideas. I never applied it outside of studies. Going to give it a try for my upcoming space opera. Thanks!

Do you have any writing rituals?

Not really. I work full time, though during the apocalypse that has mostly been at home, plus I’ve got two kids and a puppy, so time is tight. I generally steal time. If I’m looking at submitting a drabble (100-word story) to an anthology, I strain my brain in the shower and before I start work and can generally have the first version written before my morning coffee.

I’ll also grab some lunch time and belt out a few hundred words, or at the moment I can get an hour between knock-off and when I need to help out with dinner. Not having to drive for an hour a day is a real bonus.

In a week, how many hours do you usually write? What’s your secret to keep writing regularly? Do you prefer writing in the wee hours of morning, or after midnight?

It depends on what’s on the To-Do list, and how committed/excited I am by a project. A good week can see over ten hours of writing time, a bad week can be as little as a couple. Plus, if there are edits from publishers, or rewrites for a story that’s simmering before submission.

I find myself most productive in the mid to late mornings, but that’s a rare time by any standards. For some reason I can also close off my mind when sitting on the couch and write at night in front of the television.

That is so amazing! I seriously need that ability.

Is your family supportive about your creative endeavors? Who is your go to buddy when something goes wrong and you need a shoulder? Do you belong to any awesome writer circles?

My wife is non-plussed. I don’t think she’s ever read anything I’ve written. She’s not much into horror, so that’s no surprise. My kids are the same, I don’t think they get it. They see the odd contributor copy arrive, I even make them take photos of me with my latest book, but that’s about all they see. They are both teenagers, so I’m not surprised. Even some of the biggest stars suffer from blanking by their kids, no matter how successful they’ve been.

My Mum is my biggest supporter. She buys the books, and I’ll use them as gifts for birthdays and Mothers’ day. My work mates are also very supportive. I gave a presentation to my colleagues last year about storytelling in the workplace. I had the opportunity to read one of my stories and show off my books, so it was well worthwhile.

I think I’m lucky, I’ve never suffered from a lack of confidence in my writing. I think I’ve always approached it logically. Not everything goes smoothly. Not everyone will like what you write. So, write something else. There’s always another idea. Another story. Use old ones that didn’t work, reframe them, rewrite them. Keep going.

That being said, there are some awesome writing circles out there. I belong to heaps. Some of those include the Australasian Horror Writers Association, the Australian Speculative Fiction Group, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Group, the Black Hare Press contributors group and I had the honour last year of being accepted into the Horror Writers Association. For the most part fellow writers are supportive, accepting and generous. It’s not a competition, it’s a collaboration.

How do you spend your free time? What are your hobbies? Do you watch TV shows or listen to music?

I spend way too much time playing video games and watching TV shows. I prefer open world action games, like Assassin’s Creed, and love horror, action and crime shows (latest favourites have been The Boys, Barry, Pennyworth and What we do in the Shadows). I used to put a lot of time into a zombie movies Facebook page, where I’d post reviews of zombie movies. I’ve seen and rated over a hundred and fifty (probably seen more than that though), but found it took too much time and devote more of that to writing instead.

Is there anything about you—strange likings or personality quirks—that no one knows yet? Would you like to share them?

I have a weird sense of humour. I find the fun in almost any situation and will generally ask strange what if questions. I think it’s mainly a defence mechanism that I use when nervous or in unfamiliar territory. It does get me into trouble. Recently, I found myself hauled up in front of my boss after a phone meeting went against the client’s wishes. I was being me, cracking jokes and making funny remarks, in front of the business users (my client’s clients). She found none of it funny, and I was summarily removed from the project. My take away: phone meetings are stupid. You can’t see anybody’s faces so can’t judge their reactions.

Good advice! Sucks that not all share the weird sense of humour.

What are your proudest and most embarrassing moments? Be honest : )

I’m most proud of my kids, but they are just plain embarrassed by me.

My proudest moment was having my first two stories published. Death Spores and We came in peace were published in Sproutlings: a compendium of little fictions by Hunter Anthologies back in 2016. That opened a whole new world up to me.

The next proudest was winning the 2017 International Horror Hotel feature film screenplay competition (Sci-Fi category) with my script Titan. I’d been slogging my guts out on scripts for about twenty years and managed to both win the Sci-Fi category with Titan and come second in the horror category with Dark are the Woods, which became the inspiration for my story featured in Black Veins. The opening of Titan was reworked and appeared in another anthology. As I said always reuse/rewrite stuff, you just never know.

Most embarrassing moments come from my amateur theatre days. Never forget your lines. Let me repeat that. Never forget your lines. Especially if you are singing. Even trying to sing a song in Martian doesn’t work (I was in a production of War of the Worlds and missed my entrance and forgot my lines.)

Whoa! Sorry for that. Yeah, never did theater but forgetting lines in a project presentation is seriously terrifying. Btw, I’m sure your kids will adore you someday. Teenagers act like that but they don’t really mean it.

What are your big writing goals?

A novel. It’s in there, I just need to get it out and onto the page.

Way back, many years ago, in the nineties, I wrote two dreadful novels. Each was about 75,000 words. I’ve reread some of them and just cringe.

I did manage to turn one of them into a screenplay, then a 12,000 words short story, which was accepted and should appear in print soon. The other is still simmering in the back of my mind as a concept.

I have some ideas. The closest I’ve been to a novel of late is redrafting a couple of short stories and adding extra content to create a 40,000 word novella, which I aim to use as the basis for a full blown novel. The story finishes at an open juncture that leaves it ripe for completing.

Plus, I have sixteen feature length scripts that are aching to be converted into novels. The ideas are there, it’s just the time and effort, or it could be the fifteen submission opportunities listed in my spreadsheet just waiting to have stories written for them.

Do you have any dreams that go beyond the field of writing?

To quote Steven Wright, “I want the world, I just don’t know where to put it.”

To be honest, I still dream of getting a movie made from one of my scripts. I spent about seven years and ten thousand dollars trying to get a project off the ground, but in the end, it died a horrible death. That’s why I concentrate on writing now. There are so many avenues open to seek publication, and even if self-publishing is the only route left, the costs are not that high.

The Internet and even Amazon have opened up a whole new world for creatives to express themselves in.

I also dream of getting my Fourth-degree black belt, but my body is getting older and injuries take a hell of a lot longer to recover from. I still have hope though.

I haven’t really looked into this, but small media houses are popping up everywhere. So perhaps having the story converted into a movie is also more likely today. Don’t give hope, just keep writing.

Now the most important question: are you a foodie? What sort of food do you love?

I love food. Not a big veggie, but I love meat with sauce style dishes, though they don’t like me sometimes. I’ll admit I have simple tastes, my favourite meal is actually a medium-rare inch thick fillet steak, with chips and a fried egg.

You’re a terrific writer. What writing tips would you like to give to upcoming writers? What is the most important rule of fiction? What makes a story brilliant?

The tip I would give and actually give any aspiring writer: FINISH IT. So often you meet someone who says they’d love to be a writer, but, but, but …. Don’t give me excuses, I’ve used enough excuses myself over the years, but I’ve learnt that the only way to get a story published is to first finish it. If you’ve got nothing to sell or submit, then you’re not going to be able to sell it.

The other piece of advice is, ignore the negatives. Yeah, you’ll have rejections. Hell, I’m up to fifteen this year already. I’ve had a few acceptances too, which is brilliant, but if you’re not getting rejections then you’re not putting yourself out there. Eventually, someone will like your stuff and consider it worthy of publishing. It just takes time and a bit of guts.

The most important piece of advice though is enjoy yourself. If you’re not enjoying it why do it? Writing shouldn’t be a chore, it shouldn’t feel like a job, it should be fun, something you want to come back to time after time.

The most important thing in fiction? Make the story enjoyable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you write about as long as the people reading it enjoy it. As they say, there are no boring subjects just boring writers. I don’t think you need to be able to flood your narrative with dozens of ten letter words. Keep it simple and readable. Build relatable characters. But above all make the story interesting and enjoyable. As you go along and write more, your style will settle itself. At first, you’ll just copy other writers that you like, but after a while your own style will shine through.

I think what makes a story brilliant is writing it in such a way as the reader can imagine themselves in the middle of it. That’s the key to writing, if you can get the reader to become so involved in the story and empathic with the characters that they can’t stop reading then you’ve cracked it.

This is some great advice. I absolutely agree. Our brains work faster than our hands, so we keep jumping onto the next project. Finishing WIPs is so important! (yes, I’m screaming at myself)

Every writer is a thinker. What are your ideas about the current picture of the world?

I’m old, I’ve been smacked down time and time again, I’m pretty cynical and I’m definitely very conservative, but I still have the optimism of youth in my heart. Regardless of all the fear mongering from politicians and the media alike, I truly believe we are living in the most exciting time to be alive in history.

We have the entire written knowledge of the world sitting in our pockets. Most of us use that device to watch funny cat videos and argue with strangers, but that’s a personal choice.

There are marketing and publication options and avenues available like nothing ever dreamed of before.

Any person who has a dream and is prepared to put together a thoughtful plan of action and put in the hard work can achieve anything their heart desires.

For writers, we have access to some of the greatest achievers in history, right at our fingertips. There are opportunities everywhere, just begging to be accessed.
I’m living proof of this.

For twenty years I wrote feature film scripts with the hope of gaining a producer’s eye. It’s hard work, with few opportunities, over that time I won a competition and gained a couple of other placings.

Then I changed to prose writing. Managed to have a couple of stories accepted, gained access to people and other avenues and five years later, I have over sixty short stories and almost a hundred drabbles published.

In Stephen King’s day, that would have been almost impossible in that time frame. That’s what the modern world has available for those who take the chance.

Internet has really revolutionized things. I’ve taken some online courses on cosmology and quantum physics, so I don’t fuck up my space opera. Few decades ago I’d have had to rely on textbooks. Would have taken me years! Tech is always good. It’s up to us how we use it. But I don’t agree with one point. Cat videos are important!

Let’s now talk about your TGVB story. Tell us what it’s about. How did the idea come to you?

The story for Dark are the Woods has it’s genesis in an idea I had years ago for a screenplay. I liked the concept of the slenderman story, i.e. a dark mystical presence in the middle of the woods that kills people. The initial script I wrote was set in a 1940’s Australian Boarding School out in the bush. This short story takes the first scene of that script and resets it into a contemporary American high school, exploring the nastiness that some folk express on newcomers into their community.

As I mentioned above, the script came second in the 2017 International Horror Hotel screenplay competition (horror category), which gave me confidence that the concept worked, so it now has a short story equivalent.

A future project may be to convert the script to a novel. There is plenty in the 20,000 word script to extend it into a full-blown novel.

I really like when stories have such rich history. All the best for the novel!

Tell us about your upcoming projects!

For me this year has been brilliant so far, in a writing sense, not so much the whole set of apocalypse scenarios playing out. I have quite a few stories coming out in anthologies over the next few months.

One set is the Zodiac series of anthologies from the Australian Speculative Fiction Group. I’ve managed to be accepted in their first eight anthologies, which are: Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and Leo. I’ve submitted to Virgo, and my next few stories will be for Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius. I don’t want to get too cocky at this stage.

Added to that my speculative fiction stories have been picked up in a number of collections from Black Hare Press, and I’ll also be featured in several Sherlock Holmes anthologies from Belanger Books and MX Publishing, which are coming out later in the year.

This was such a delightful interview! Thank you so much for your time, Stephen. It was great having you. All the best for your upcoming projects! I’ll definitely check them out.

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