The Long Hard Odds:
A Few Hints on Getting
that First Horror
by Michael Marano
Photo by Dion Wenchell
Copyright © 1998 Michael Marano. All rights reserved.
I have read in the publication Afraid, edited by the late Mike Baker, 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 coming out (Dawn Song, coming in June from Tor)--the odds were 20,000 against. Add the fact it is first Horror novel, and that it is coming out as a hardback from a major publisher, the odds must shoot up dramatically. I mention this so that you have reason to read what I have to write on this subject. I found ways to change the odds. But first, a pep talk.
Those twelve year olds who read Goosebumps six 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'm ready to make my move. Are you?
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 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 works 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 write full time; I still don't get everything done.
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. I know good writers who waste time and energy 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 has two novels coming out this year--he wrote them in MS Word 2.1 on a PC running Windows 3.1. Make due with what you have.
A few other hints:
There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. Send out the best manuscript you can; 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 perfect?
Don't be obsessed with the writing techniques 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 everything long hand and hires someone to 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 (not really a technique) 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.
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 them 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 in the way you would your heart and soul to an aloof lover. Decide to be a professional, and you will be treated as one.
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 that true artists have no concern for money. 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 bitch about how unfair the market is when your Miami Snow Shovel Emporium goes belly up.
Research the book market. Read everything relating to your chosen 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 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... because this agent just got through a messy divorce and needs to pay lawyers and alimony. He's been desperately scoring big fat deals for new writers left and right, getting his fifteen percent so he can pay those lawyers. 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 selling another book, and fades away. Sound fantastic? Happens more often than you think.
This is how you have to think, to make sure you send your work to where it will be read and bought. Want a personal incident? I wrote a very nasty Horror story that treated of a particular disease as a metaphor. I was about to mail the manuscript when I read that the editor to whom I was sending it had just been hospitalized for the very disease I'd written about. Could have been a bummer, huh?
You want your book read by an editor? Write a book an editor wants to buy. Editors want to find the next Stephen King as badly as writers want to be the next Stephen King. If you'd 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. Any jerk can write a serial killer story--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 wretched "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.
I was trained as a medieval historian. I have studied angelology, demonology, alchemy, Kabbalah in the way a business major would study spreadsheets. I was a Horror reviewer for years. I'm an old punk rocker. I have read literary criticism from Plato to Derrida. I can honestly say that because of these factors, I'm the only person who could have written Dawn Song, which is the story of a Succubus on a pilgrimage to Earth that traverses the inverted Tree of Evil from the deepest pit of Hell to material existence on Earth, a pilgrimage the structure of which is based on a series of alchemical formulas. Not many people in the 20th century think in these terms, a damned few of those who do are Horror writers.
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 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.
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Posted 8/26/98. The content of this page is copyright © 1998 Michael Marano and is protected under international copyright law. Photo copyright by Michael Marano and custom graphics by Yvonne Navarro and Webette Designs. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without the express written consent of the appropriate party is expressly forbidden. Don't swipe stuff-- it's tacky.