The Long, Hard Odds: Hints on Getting that First Horror Novel Published
© 1998/1999 by Michael Marano
I have read in the publication Afraid, edited by the late
Mike Baker (we miss you, Mike), that one novel in twenty-thousand gets
published. I've made phone calls to New York; no one can confirm or deny
that statistic, but I accept it.
So here I am, with a novel out, Dawn Song, which has done
pretty well critically and commercially; the odds were 20,000 against.
Factor in that it's a first Horror novel, that it originally came out as a
hardback from a major publisher, and the odds must shoot up dramatically.
I mention this so that you will have reason to read what I have to write on
this topic. I found ways to change the odds. But first, a pep talk.
Those twelve year olds who read Goosebumps six or more years
ago are now part of that juicy 18-25 year-old marketing demographic. The
success of Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer supports this.
Before you dismiss Scream and Buffy as product that doesn't
relate to the book business, think a moment. The kids who bought
Goosebumps and other such books did so with savvy consumer
awareness--they knew that what they wanted was written by Stine, Pike, or
Coville. Now, Kevin Willamson (writer of Scream) and Joss Whedon
(creator of Buffy) are hot commodities--their names as
writers are used to sell movies and TV shows to that juicy 18-25 year
old age group. Kids know what they're looking for, and they find it in
association with the names of certain writers. The kids are looking for
new product. Now is the time to sell Horror.
I. Time Management and Work Habits.
Get the words "if only" out of your vocabulary. Writers sabotage
themselves out of writing time by hanging on to "if only" as if it were the
"If only I didn't have to work 40 hours a week, I could
finish my novel." Raymond Chandler never quit his day job, neither did
Gene Wolfe (they both retired from their office jobs before they wrote full
time). James Joyce was a full-time language instructor. Robin Cook is a
doctor, and I think F. Paul Wilson still has his practice going. Glen Cook
works in an auto factory. Yvonne Navarro until recently worked forty hours
a week, not counting commute time. I have held down as many as five
part-time jobs at a time to support my writing. There will never be
"enough" time to write. Right now, I'm between steady jobs and I write
full time; I still don't get everything done. In fact, I may be even less
productive now in terms of pages produced each day than I was while I
worked fifty hours a week.
Make the time to write, you'll never find the time to
write. Joseph Stefano wrote Outer Limits scripts with a typewriter
on his lap while a production assistant drove him to and from the studio.
"If only I had a better typewriter/ computer/ monitor/
printer/ word processing program (pick one), I could increase my
productivity." Jack Vance wrote the finest fantasy ever published on a
manual typewriter with carbon back-ups (while, I believe, he was also
cranking out several TV scripts a week). I know good writers who waste
time and energy by constantly upgrading their computers. The time and
energy wasted is not just used buying the equipment (and working the
overtime to afford it), but is also used learning the new software and
operating platforms (which adds up to tens, maybe hundreds of hours). A
buddy of mine had two novels come out last year--he wrote them in MS Word 2.1 on a PC running Windows 3.1. Make do with what you have.
A few other hints:
There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. Send out the best
manuscript you can, the one nearest to perfection, but don't obsess; if and
when you sell the manuscript, the editor, copy editor and proofreader are
going to go over it... and it still won't be perfect. Look at every book
that has won a major prize. Is any one of them truly perfect? I won't
name names, but a very well received, award-winning novel of 1998 mentions
the sun setting in the east (shades of the Green Berets, or
Krakatoa, East of Java).
Don't imitate the methods of writers you admire--find your own.
Earl Stanley Gardner dictated his books--that doesn't mean you should buy a
Dictaphone. Chandler wrote on index cards; that worked for him, but maybe
it won't for you. Toni Morrison does her first drafts long hand, and Clive
Barker writes long hand and has someone else type for him. Good for them.
Tina Jens and William F. Nolan write in coffee shops. Good for them. Me?
I sit at home, chug coffee and pound first and revised drafts on my trusty
Mac. Is my way the only way? No. But it works for me. The one approach
of a famous writer that seems to work for many people is the one Hemingway
used: write every day (even if it's just a paragraph), and never finish
your writing session by ending a chapter or scene, but leave off in the
middle, so you'll have a place from where you can pick up when next you sit
you sit down to write.
II. Professional Credibility
Established writers, and even not so established writers, are often
asked, "So what's the secret?" The secret is that there is no secret.
There is no vault in Area 51 housing the files that will tell you how to be
the next Tom Clancy.
There is one factor that does make a difference in the establishing
of a writer's career: professional credibility. Before you ask, "How do I
get professional credibility if I haven't sold anything?" I'll have to have
to say, "You sell things by getting professional credibility."
Professionalism is an outlook, an attitude. "Writer" is a
profession. "Writer" is also an affect appropriated by people who do not
write, but who fancy themselves writers (go to any trendy cafe in North
America and you'll know what I mean); hence, the credibility of
professional writers and those working to become professional writers is
constantly compromised. "Writer" as a personal identity is cheap as dirt,
but as a professional outlook is a marketable commodity.
Editors and agents can tell when they're dealing with a
professional--it comes through in even the most basic cover letters, in
polite phone calls, in tacit and courteous e-mails. Do not approach an
editor or agent as someone who can validate your personal identity as a
writer, approach him or her as someone to whom you are offering a
professionally crafted product: your fiction. You should pour your heart
and soul into the creation of that fiction, but don't offer your fiction
the way you would your heart and soul to an aloof lover. Decide to be a
professional, and you will be treated as one.
III. Business and marketing strategies.
Michelangelo got paid. Da Vinci got paid. Dante got paid.
Shakespeare got paid. T. S. Eliot got paid. Faulkner went to Hollywood to
get paid. Let go of the myth, the fairy tale, that true artists have no
concern for money. I'll paraphrase Dean Koontz and say that the only
writers who write with no regard for money, and who criticize writers who
do write for money, tend to have rich parents, and even richer
grandparents. Artists care about money--it's just not the only reason they
write. Since your fiction is your product, since it is that off which you
hope to make your living, you had better treat it the way a broker handles
any commodity that is to be traded or sold. You don't sell snow shovels in
Florida, so don't moan about how unfair the market is when your Miami Snow
Shovel Emporium goes belly up.
Research the book market. Read everything relating the field that
you can find. This can be expensive, if you buy everything from
Fangoria to The Atlantic Monthly each month. I go the
library to read most of these mags, and a lot of these publications are on
line (and if you don't have internet access, you can get on line at most
And don't just read, read between the lines. Find out which editor
has left what publisher, and what he or she is doing at his or her new job.
Read the personal announcements in professional and trade journals, listen
to gossip at conventions.
Let's say that you've read an author who writes the kind of stuff
you do and his work is selling well. You have a lead that will get your
work read by his agent, and this agent just landed some other new guy a big
fat deal for his first novel. Great, right? Maybe not. A killer first
novel deal can be fatal for a writer; the chances of it selling well enough
to pay for itself are minimal, and the publisher, feeling burned, does not
buy the next book. The new writer has been priced out of selling another
book, and fades away. Sound fantastic? Happens more often than you think.
IV. What to write.
You want your book read by an editor? Write a book an editor wants
to buy. Editors want to find The Next Big Thing as badly as writers want
to be The Next Big Thing. If you say this is crass commercialism, you'd be
right... but you'd be even more wrong.
Write the book that only you can write--if you do, that book
is going to stand out amid all the Anne Rice knock-offs, giant shark books,
and Thomas Harris pastiches. This may sound facile, but it is far more
easily said than done. A lot of people crank out serial killer stories--go
to your local bus station, look on the news stand, and remember that for
each one of those serial killer books, twenty-thousand were rejected. But
only Thomas Harris could write The Silence of the Lambs. How many
novels about racial tensions in the South are there? But only Harper Lee
could have written To Kill a Mockingbird. How many "Devil books"
were written in the 1960's and 1970's? Only two are still in print. Why?
Because only Blatty could have written The Exorcist and only Levin
could have written Rosemary's Baby.
Write the book that only you can write, and it will gain the notice
of an editor. Why write an Anne Rice knock off, when Anne Rice herself is
writing a book a year? Be courageous. Does the world need "just another"
vampire novel? No. Does the world need a vampire novel that only you can
write, based on your unique experiences and observations? Yes.
Be true to your art and yourself... doing so will help you to sell
Michael Marano is the recipient of both The International Horror
Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Award for his novel Dawn Song. His
short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including The Mammoth
Book of Best New Horror 11. Under his own name and his nom de
guerre "Mad Prof. Mike," Marano has reviewed and reported on horror and
science fiction movies for venues as diverse as the nationally syndicated
Public Radio Satellite program Movie Magazine International to the
Punk Rock magazine MaximumRockNRoll. He is now at work on his
second novel, and is drinking even more coffee.
© 1998/1999 by Michael Marano. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at
http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.