So, Who Wants to be a Horror Writer?

© 2000 by Edo van Belkom
(From the book WRITING HORROR)

Whenever I give a talk on the craft of writing (whether the talk is on horror writing, fantasy writing, short story writing, or just plain creative writing) I always begin with a question. And even though this is a book on the subject of writing, it has the feel -- to me anyway -- of a long talk. So, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't begin the book any differently than I would a talk, although I will make one concession and modify the question slightly to better suit the subject matter.

Who wants to be a horror writer?

Put up your hand.

Great.

Who wants to write horror fiction?

Go on, if that's you, then put up your hand.

"What?" you say, as you put up your hand again. "Isn't it the same thing?"

No, it is not.

It's one thing to want to be a writer. It looks like a great life... you work when you want, take it easy when you feel like it, you don't have to answer to anybody but yourself, and people will sometimes tell you how brilliant you are, and how they loved your stories. And, if you're lucky, sometimes they might even ask you for your autograph.

Yeah, being a writer's a real plum of a job, let me tell you.

Except that's the only part that appeals to most people -- seeing your name in print, seeing a book with your name on it on the shelf, winning an award, being featured in the newspaper.

It's all great stuff. Who wouldn't want it?

Trouble is, none of that stuff comes until you've done the work.

For example, when my first short story collection Death Drives a Semi was published in October of 1998, it was a milestone in my writing career. Because I was inspired to try and write stories after reading (and loving) Ray Bradbury's collection The October Country, having my own collection published (20 stories, just like Bradbury) was the point where I figured I had reached some level of success. I had already published two novels, a book of non-fiction and some 100 short stories, but a collection was what I had always hoped for, and now here it was. So, I wanted to throw a big party to celebrate, and with the help of my wonderfully supportive wife (something a writer desperately needs) I launched the book in the theater of a local library branch in the city where I live. We invited hundreds of people (about 100 showed up), gave them wine and finger food, I gave a reading of three stories from the book, and then we sold copies in the lobby and I signed them all. It was a wonderful night. A special night. Seeing me operate on that night, signing autographs, getting applause for my work, who wouldn't want to be a writer too?

Well, that night was the culmination of some eight years of hard work, rejection, emotional and financial struggle, and a lot of sweat and tears.

One night after eight years of work.

Not much of a pay-off when you think of it.

So why do it? Why be a writer when you could do almost anything else and make A) more money and B) suffer far less aggravation?

The answer is simple.

Because I have no choice in the matter.

I am driven to write. I must write.

Which brings me to my first point, which I will allow someone else to make for me.

Gary Brandner said it best in his obscure novel about a dead Rock and Roller called, Billy Lives! In it a character says, "Aspiring my ass. You write or you don't. The curse of this profession is that it's so much more fun being a writer than it is writing."

I've never found another quote on the subject that was more true. Being a writer is fun. Writing is hard work.

It also doesn't help that anybody with some level of notoriety or fame can put their name on a novel written by some well-paid (and sometimes not even well-paid) and talented ghost writer. The public perception thus becomes, "Hey, if that guy can write a book, then just about anybody can do it."

I'm often contacted by people who see an article about me in the newspaper and call me up to say, "I'm almost finished writing a book and I want to know where to get it published?"

I answer them by saying, "Finish writing it first."

They usually never do finish the book. After all, starting a book is easy, finishing it is hard.

And getting it published is damn near impossible.

When I first began writing short stories, I was still working as a daily newspaper reporter. I figured I'd try writing fiction for 10 or 20 years and if nothing happened in that time, then I'd spend my spare hours happily doing something, anything, else. It took about four years to sell my first story (which was reprinted in Year's Best Horror Stories XX, edited by Karl Edward Wagner) and a few more years of rejection to start selling on a somewhat regular basis. And now, even though people contact me for things (short stories and articles, mostly) I still get rejected far more often than I like.

If it sounds as if I'm trying to discourage you, perhaps I am. Whenever Harlan Ellison (a master of the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres) teaches a class he tells his students flat out that if he can convince you that you're never going to make it as a writer, then you were never meant to be one in the first place.

In short, you've got to want it.

And want it bad.

Why? Because all along the way, editors and publishers are going to tell you "No," and they won't even tell you why. Taking rejection is a big part of becoming a writer and if you can't handle it, you'll never make it through the gauntlet that leads toward publication.

I often give a talk called "Thriving on Rejection" and in it I explain that in my early years I would sell one story in a year while getting rejected 54 times -- more than once a week. That sort of thing is pretty tough to take for anyone. I was also a member of a writers group that met weekly to critique each other's manuscripts. That was tough too, because as much as you wanted to hear how wonderful your story was, nobody was going to give you the satisfaction, mainly because your story wasn't wonderful, it needed work, or it was just plain dumb. Those two years toughened my skin (another handy thing for a writer to develop) and gave me a great analogy of writers group's critique sessions. I like to think of workshop groups as vampires, and having your manuscript workshopped like, opening up a vein, and handing out straws.

But what if you don't have aspirations of becoming a professional writer? What if you just want to write stories for your own pleasure? If they get published great, if not, oh well.

I say, that's terrific. Having a full-time job and writing horror fiction on the side is probably the best way to go. That way, you'll be able to experience the ups and downs of the writing life without taking the quality of your life and that of your family along for the ride. That's because horror is a tough market to crack these days. There are few high-paying markets for short fiction, and the novel market has dissolved into the mainstream. Horror novels still get published regularly, but the boom of the 1980s in which every publisher had to find three horror novels a month to publish, or else, are over.

So, if you want to write horror, here are a few bits of advice.

  • Read. Read a lot. Read inside the genre and out. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read the paper. Read anything and everything you can.

  • Write. Write stories. Try writing a novel. Write poems. Write articles. Write some more stories. Write and Write and Write.

  • Don't get discouraged. Remember that although John Saul's first novel, Suffer the Children was a bestseller, he wrote ten full novels before a publisher said, "Yes" to one of them.

  • Read and Write some more.

  • Research the horror market and then send your stories and novels out to the editors and publishers you think might like what you're writing. You'll never know if you're any good, or if you have any talent, if you don't test your work in the marketplace. And, you'll never sell anything that's sitting at the bottom of your desk drawer.

  • Keep reading. Keep Writing and don't get discouraged.
  • If I've repeated myself here a few times, it's intentional. And, as you read through this book you'll find that I've repeated the point again basically because it can't be stressed enough.

    Writing is hard work.

    And perseverance is rewarded.

    Now, if I haven't totally discouraged you, or scared you away, and you're still determined to come along for the ride, then let's take a tour through the horror genre, find out how it works, find out what's worked for me (and others), and hopefully at some point you might learn what works for you.

    And remember, if I scare you any more along the way...

    Great!




    Edo van Belkom (www.vanbelkom.com) is a Bram Stoker and Aurora Award winning author over over nearly 20 books and over 175 short stories. His novels include TEETH and MARTYRS, while his non-fiction books include WRITING EROTICA (a companion volume to WRITING HORROR) and NORTHERN DREAMERS, a book of interviews with Canadian writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

    WRITING HORROR
    Self-Counsel Press (www.self-counsel.com)
    ISBN: 1-55180-281-3 $19.95 Cdn. $14.95 US.

    © 2000 by by Edo van Belkom. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission.

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