Author Joe Chianakas fulfills his literary dreams with a trilogy of novels paying tribute to the horror genre.
In a 2013 essay entitled “The Writer’s Odds of Success,” novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist William Dietrich explains that some of the most iconic novels of our time didn’t come easy. Stephen King’s Carrie, for example, was rejected 30 times by publishers; Frank Herbert’s Dune, 20 times; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, 38 times. But perseverance pays off, and the humblest of beginnings is not always an indicator of long-term success. As Dietrich notes, “All you can do is write and try. And write and try.”
Joe Chianakas knows this feeling well. After years of searching for the right concept and developing the right plot, his literary dreams finally came to fruition in 2015. With the publication of Rabbit in Red, Chianakas has found new life as a serial novelist, telling tales for a growing cluster of horror fans worldwide.
A Peoria native, Chianakas graduated from Peoria Notre Dame and attended Illinois Central College (ICC) before earning his bachelor’s degree in English at Eureka College in 2001. He went on to teach at Metamora High School for 10 years while working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at Bradley University—and a second master’s in communication from North Dakota State. Today, he teaches at ICC while continuing to nurture his lifelong passion for the written word.
From an early age, Chianakas honed his craft via creative writing classes and routine practice, developing his skills while “waiting for talent to catch up with ideas.” He once wrote an entire novel—“terrible” and “unreadable,” he adds—just to accomplish the difficult task of completing a story. When he does come across an idea worth acting on, he makes it a priority to keep moving. “I write as fast as I can,” he explains. “I feel like if I go weeks without writing the story, then I lose momentum or motivation… I try to do my first draft as quickly as possible, so I don’t doubt myself.”
With years of practice behind him, Chianakas now has a process in place to move his ideas forward. He begins with an outline, which he shapes and molds while working out the plot details and developing the quirks and unique personality traits of the characters. “That outline will change drastically as I go,” he explains. “But I like to have it so… I know where I’m going, what I want to do, and how I want it to end.”
From Adrenaline to Publication
The fascination with horror, Chianakas says, comes from his youth—a child’s natural attraction to view “forbidden” materials. “It was Stephen King, and before that it was R.L. Stine—they would keep me up at night as a kid,” he explains. “I know not everyone likes to be scared, but to read a book and [say], ‘I can’t go to bed yet—I want to know what happens!’ It was just one of those things where I would love to [write those books] someday.”
With its clever references to King, movie classics ranging from Psycho to The Exorcist to Halloween, and the modern-day likes of American Horror Story and The Conjuring, Chianakas' first novel is a celebration of all things horror. Rabbit in Red tells the story of 19 teenagers taking part in a contest for serious horror fans, with the winner snagging a coveted position at the studio of an eccentric horror movie producer. The competition quickly takes an ominous turn as the dark past of its participants—and the sinister intentions of its creator—come to light.
“I had never been that excited about an idea [before],” Chianakas says, describing the moment he came up with the concept. “I fed off that adrenaline for three or four weeks until I got the first draft done.”
Having completed the novel in June 2014, he began submitting it to publishers that August. In less than six months, he was offered a three-book deal by Distinguished Press, now known as Four Phoenixes Publishing. Rabbit in Red, the first in what was now a trilogy, was published in the fall of 2015 and immediately garnered accolades from young adults and horror fans alike. BookoftheDay.org named it “Book of the Day” that Halloween, and it took first place in the horror genre at the 2016 Summer Indie Book Awards hosted by Metamorph Publishing. On Amazon, the book has a rating of 4.7 stars, and it’s on the Staff Recommendations list at the local Barnes & Noble.
All of this positive feedback provided strong momentum for Chianakas’ second book, Burn the Rabbit, released last September. The sequel brings back many of Rabbit in Red’s protagonists, with mysterious events breeding chaos as a new competition recruits a fresh class of horror “students” to the studio. “It’s darker, it’s deeper and it’s much more twisted,” he adds. “[Rabbit in Red] was my celebration of the horror genre… [Burn the Rabbit] is trying to hit people in the gut—I want ‘scary’ and I want ‘disturbing.’”
Keys to Success
Now the published author of two novels, with a third slated for release this fall, Chianakas has an efficient system in place for finalizing his work. Following the completion of a first draft, he sends the manuscript to several “beta readers”—close acquaintances he trusts to provide honest feedback. “Writers need to have a thick skin,” he declares. “I go to my team and say, ‘Please, don’t hold back.’… You have to let other ideas in, and be open to criticism.”
When the finished book hits the shelves, Chianakas adds, the journey has only just begun: a strong social media presence and engaging promotional material are integral to its success. He enlisted students from his ICC classes to create a trailer video for Rabbit in Red, for example, and collaborated with a local band to write a song based on the story. An audiobook version was recorded by Fitz of Horror, a Facebook fanpage, and in November, the novel was included in Horror Block, a monthly service that sends horror-genre memorabilia to more than 16,000 global subscribers. A song for his third book is in the works, and Chianakas is working with local artist Camron Johnson to create cover art for all three novels.
“It’s fun to find those other mediums,” he explains. “I think that’s what you need to try to find an audience… It’s [about] finding creative ways of keeping [the book] in the news or trying to talk about it in more unique ways.”
Amidst preparations for the final installment of the Rabbit in Red trilogy, Chianakas has kept his writer’s spirit fresh with the publication of a collection of short stories, Nightmares in the Moonlight, while leading a novel writing series for ICC’s Adult Community Programs. As he puts the finishing touches on his latest work, he continues to share his passion for writing—with words of advice for other would-be novelists.
“Read a lot and write a lot, and when you feel like you have a story idea, just write it,” he says. “If you build your network, you’re writing a lot, you’re getting honest feedback and you’re constantly revising—that’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to be willing to put in the work.” a&s