Conversation with Warren Benedetto
Warren talks about instrumental horror music playlists, convergence of video game tech and writing, PS5 patents, anti-procrastination browser extensions, the New Jersey to horror pipeline, and film/TV writing.
Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author and a full member of the SFWA. His stories have appeared in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and The Creepy Podcast; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Tenebrous Press, Eerie River Publishing, and more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 35+ patents for video game technology. For more information, visit warrenbenedetto.com and @warrenbenedetto on Twitter & Instagram.
Warren is also the author of the short story “Set for Life” from Radon Issue 5.
You have a staggering twenty-one stories coming soon in 2023, with fifty-two already published. This is up from your already impressive eighteen published stories during 2020. To what do you owe such consistent success?
I think there are a few factors. Obviously, being relatively prolific helps. Since 2020, I’ve written thirty-seven short stories, thirty flash fiction stories, and forty-four drabbles . . . and those stats stop in April of this year, when I mostly paused writing short fiction. I also submit a lot, with around 1,275 submissions since 2020. It’s really a numbers game—the more you submit, the more chances you have to be accepted. My acceptance rate is only around 17–20% per year, but with that many submissions, it adds up.
I also keep track of when rights free up and make sure to submit my stories as reprints. Many of my stories have been reprinted at least once, and almost all have been turned into podcasts as well.
Another factor is that I’m not particularly picky about prestige or rates. I always start submitting at pro-rate publications, then work my way down from there. If I don’t have any luck with pro, semi-pro, or token pay publications, I move on to unpaid. Usually, for unpaid, I prefer ones that have something to offer: either a contributor copy, really nice design aesthetics, or a sizable social media following.
A lot of my reprints are unpaid, and that’s fine with me. Reprints are basically free advertising for my writing. I’m happy to give stories away so as many people as possible read them. Same goes for drabbles. They’re easy to write, so I don’t really care about getting paid for them. I write stories because I want people to read them. It’s nice to make a little money, but I’m not going to hoard stories on my hard drive just so I can make a few pennies per word. The more of my stories that are out there, the higher the likelihood that they get read by someone important: a publisher, an agent, a movie producer, etc.
You publish many drabbles (100-word microfictions) alongside your short story work. Do you enjoy the challenge of brevity?
I actually don’t find the brevity a challenge. I usually can knock out a drabble in a few minutes, and most have been accepted on the first try. What’s great about drabbles for me is that it basically breaks the ice on a story. Just by writing 100 words, I immediately start visualizing the characters and settings. Oftentimes, the character voices also start to materialize. Then, when I’m looking for my next short story to write, I can go back to my drabbles and see if any of them can be turned into something longer. One of my drabbles turned into a 7,500-word short story. Another turned into an 18,500-word novella.
How has your background in evolutionary biology and film/TV writing informed your short fiction writing?
I’m not sure that the evolutionary biology background helps that much. But the film/TV writing background definitely affects my fiction writing, for better or worse. Screenwriting is a very different medium than fiction, with a focus on economy of words and communicating through action and dialogue—there’s no internal monologues in screenwriting, unless you’re using a voiceover. Fiction, on the other hand, is much more descriptive and has many more opportunities to spend time in characters’ heads. There are also no real length restrictions in fiction, whereas screenwriting has strict page counts.
When I write fiction, I tend to still write in a very filmic way: very visual, with minimal description or internal state for the characters. It’s something I struggle with. Many pro-publications tend to have a more literary bent, and that’s not really my style. I used to try adapting my style more for the market, but I eventually decided to just do what I do best and assume someone somewhere will like it. On the upside, my style tends to lend itself well to podcasts, which is probably why I’ve had pretty good success with audio adaptations of my stories.
What compels you to write primarily dark horror and dystopian stories?
That’s a great question. It’s something I think about a lot. 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 pretty 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.”
Oddly, I had access to some stuff that was—in retrospect—wildly inappropriate for kids, and that fed my fascination. For example, I distinctly remember that my elementary school classroom had multiple books about monsters, gangsters, murderers, disasters, and outlaws. I was probably in third grade, looking at photos of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or the bullet-riddled bodies of Bonnie and Clyde, or the flaming aftermath of the Hindenburg disaster. I read about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and other classic monsters. I specifically remember reading The Third Arm and Other Strange Tales of the Supernatural by Steven Otfinoski when I was in elementary school, and I never forgot it.
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.
How would you recommend that emerging authors approach the speculative scene?
Write a lot. Submit a lot. And most importantly, ignore rejections. The odds of getting accepted to the top publications are a fraction of one percent. To put that into perspective, it’s orders of magnitude easier to get into Harvard than it is to get into something like Clarkesworld or The Dark. A rejection says absolutely nothing about the quality of your writing. Even semi-pro and token markets get hundreds of submissions for a handful of slots.
I have two great examples of this. My most rejected story (37 Rs) ultimately got accepted at Fantasy Magazine, which is one of the most competitive markets in the world. My other most-rejected story (also 37 Rs) was ultimately published in an unpaid anthology that nobody read. But when I submitted it as a reprint, it was accepted 4 out of 6 times and is now my most profitable story. It was also produced as a podcast for a channel with 475k subscribers. It just took a while for those stories to find a home.
When did you begin creating professional graphics to share online for your stories?
I’ve been a graphic designer for over 20 years, and I have always loved designing book covers and movie posters. I didn’t start designing graphics for my stories until about a year ago, when Midjourney came out. I know many people are violently opposed to AI art and consider tools like Midjourney absolute heresy, and I respect that. Personally, I like that Midjourney allows me to create an image or scene that is directly from my story or is at least inspired by the story. From there, I use my design skills to composite the images and to practice different layout and typography techniques. It’s a way to exercise the visual part of my brain and to keep my design skills from atrophying.
You recently began writing your first screenplay in 16 years. What prompted this resurgence and the hiatus after obtaining your master’s in film/TV Writing?
Screenwriting has always been my first love, but there are so many gatekeepers between putting words on the page and seeing the movie on a screen. With short fiction, I’m able to write something and see it in print relatively quickly, which I like.
However, now that I’ve been writing short fiction with some amount of success for the last three years, the thrill of getting published is starting to wear off a little. It feels like I’ve plateaued. Also, I have observed that the spec fiction community is a bit of a closed circle: it’s a lot of writers writing stories that are only read by other writers. In other words, it doesn’t feel like the general public reads much short speculative fiction. That may not be 100% true, but that is my experience.
The problem is, I never really had much interest in writing a novel, so I have been struggling with what to write next. If not short fiction and not a novel, then what? I published a novella called Override in Dark Matter Magazine last year, so I decided to see what it would take to convert that into a screenplay. I don’t know that I’ll do anything with it when I’m done, but at least I’ll have it in my back pocket when Steven Spielberg calls.
Do you often listen to horror instrumental music on Spotify to get in the horror-writing mood? Or does eerie drone help you better?
I created an Eerie Drone playlist on Spotify that has 480+ hours of dark, atmospheric soundscapes. I listen to that most of the time when I’m writing. It sets the right mood and drowns out distractions, but it doesn’t have any lyrics or beats or instrumentation that can be distracting unto itself. I also created a Horror Instrumental playlist (100 hours) and a Film Music playlist (260 hours) with instrumental music from soundtracks and scores. Those are a little more varied and sometimes the vibe of a song will clash with the vibe of what I’m writing, which can be annoying. I generally use those when I’m designing, programming, or doing some other non-writing activity.
Does horror, more than any other speculative subgenre, lend itself best to audio versions?
As far as I know, there are more horror fiction podcasts than sci-fi or fantasy podcasts, so I guess that’s a sign that horror is a good fit for audio, or that more people enjoy listening to horror. Personally, I don’t know that it makes a difference. There are plenty of great sci-fi audio productions as well.
You picked back up writing short fiction in 2020 after a long hiatus. What caused the pause?
Life happened. I had kids, I was working a lot of hours, and I found that other creative pursuits such as graphic design and software engineering were more immediately fulfilling than screenwriting. I started making enough money in my day job that I would have had to take a pretty significant pay cut even if I was lucky enough to write for film or TV full time, so there wasn’t a huge incentive to keep writing.
Once my kids got a little older and I ramped down on working so many hours, I started to have time to write again. I hadn’t written short fiction since college, but I decided to give it a try. I liked the idea that I could write as much or as little as I wanted and could get the stories into the hands of readers with relatively little effort—worst case, I could self-publish or publish online with no gatekeepers at all.
After a little research, I realized that there were quite a few spec fiction markets where I could sell stories, so I started submitting to see if maybe I could sell a story or two. I sold a drabble, quickly followed by four or five short stories, and I just kept going from there.
Do you find yourself wanting to take ideas from your short stories into your game industry work and vice versa?
I’m really interested in the convergence of video game technology and linear TV/film narrative, and how that can unlock new forms of storytelling that have never been possible before. We’re entering an era where it’s possible for a storyteller to make a studio-quality movie or game by themselves on their laptop, with relatively little technical know-how. We’ve got video game technology like Unreal Engine powering TV shows and movies, we’ve got video game IPs like The Last Of Us becoming incredible TV shows, we’ve got companies like Netflix experimenting with interactive narratives . . . it’s just a really exciting time to be at the intersection of storytelling and technology.
I think it’s inevitable that I’ll eventually experiment with turning one of my stories into some kind of interactive experience or short film using game technology. I haven’t quite mustered up the courage and initiative to do it yet, but the easier it gets to do, the more likely I am to try.
Of your 35+ gaming technology patents, which do you hold the dearest?
I’m especially proud of the patents that became foundational technology for the PlayStation 5. I have been incredibly lucky to work in an awesome company with a lot of brilliant people, and it’s awesome to see ideas that I had back in 2015 or 2016 show up in a product that is so loved by millions of people. Several differentiating features on PS5, including help tips, spoiler block, activities, and challenges are based on patents that I (usually with some co-inventors) originated.
What successful use cases have you heard from others since releasing your wildly successful browser extension, StayFocusd?
StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that stops people from procrastinating on time-wasting websites. It allows you to set a limit on how much time you spend on certain websites, after which it blocks you from accessing those sites for the rest of the day.
I wrote StayFocusd in 2010 to prevent myself from procrastinating. I submitted the extension to the Chrome Web Store on a whim, and it went viral virtually overnight. Within a few months it had over 100k users, and ultimately peaked at over 800k. Over 13 years after launch, it still has around 600k users.
Most users are students who need to stop themselves from wasting time when they should be studying or doing homework. I have gotten multiple emails from people saying they wouldn’t have finished their dissertation or gotten their PhD if it wasn’t for StayFocusd. It’s also wild that it has been around long enough that some parents who used it when they were in college are now introducing it to their kids.
I personally use StayFocusd to keep me from getting distracted when I should be writing. There’s a feature called the Nuclear Option which lets you block all websites for a period of time. I set it for 3-4 hours and that ensures that I don’t fall down Internet rabbit holes doing “research” instead of writing.
What is your go-to activity when procrastinating?
Nowadays, I find myself scrolling Instagram or Reddit far too much, usually wasting time looking at ridiculous memes. I have intentionally tried to stay away from TikTok because it’s so addictive, but occasionally I’ll lose a few hours there too.
I’m also a massive fan of the freestyle rapper Harry Mack, and Facebook knows it. I get served endless Reels of Harry’s freestyles and I just can’t look away. He’s so damn talented— every single video is so unique, and delightful, and surprising. I swear, it’s like crack cocaine.
StayFocusd is only available on computers, but—like many people—most of my procrastination now happens on my smartphone. Luckily, both Apple and Android have added StayFocusd-like features to their operating systems, so I’m able to set time limits on those apps through there. Doing that has restored at least an hour or two to my day, every day.
What have you been able to "Hell yeah!" at lately?
One of the most impactful things I’ve ever read is a tiny little article titled “No yes. Either HELL YEAH! or no,” by Derek Sivers. The general premise is that if you can’t say “HELL YEAH!” to something, then you should say no. Far too often, people say yes to things they don’t really want to do, and that means they’re too busy to say yes when something amazing comes along.
Following this advice is what allows me to find time to write. I say no to a lot of stuff. I don’t obligate myself to do things I’m not really excited about. I let go of the fear or missing out, and I don’t worry about what other people might think about what I do with my time.
I stay home. I write. I make stuff. And I’m happy.
That’s what makes me say “HELL YEAH!”