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 promised Rapture.

"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 libraries).

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. Desperately.

Be true to your art and yourself... doing so will help you to sell your book.

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, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.