Ty-ing Up the Genre – Why Do You Wanna Write Horror?posted by
Hosted by Ty Schwamberger
Written by John Everson
Did you ever get this question from a well-meaning but ultimately clueless friend, relative, ignorant passerby: “Why do you wanna write horror? I mean… why not write something good? Maybe a Tom Clancy kinda thing?”
We all have our own personal answers honed for that question, usually elucidated after forcibly restraining ourselves from hauling off and clobbering the narrow-minded nimrod that uttered the uninformed self-absorbed words. Do people ask that of mystery writers? Or sci-fi writers? Do those same nimrods ever ask themselves why they slow down when they see the flashing lights of an ambulance in secret hopes of seeing the body? How can they not understand that horror is not a dirty niche, it’s a universal emotion that we all explore in our own ways? We are all fearful mammals and the literature of horror, regardless of how it’s labeled, helps us deal with our fears. While the “death” of horror has been trumpeted many times, the truth is the literature of horror will never die. Only the labels change.
What the allure of “the dark side” is, I can’t answer for you, you can’t answer for me. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter. There’s a deeper question that you should be asking yourself, today more than ever before.
Why Do You Wanna Write? Period.
Because the game is changing. The e-revolution is upon us and all of the rules are being re-written. As the world of publishing shifts, it’s important for you as a writer to ask yourself, what do you hope to gain by writing?
- Fame? Slavering fans who point you out in the grocery store?
- Riches? You want to actually earn your living writing made-up stories?
- Self fulfillment? You just have to write and don’t care if anyone really reads it?
- Paying it back? You want to give to others all the enjoyment you received from reading?
It’s important to revisit that question with yourself once in awhile, because it should be informing your goals and expectations on the result of your writing. What you hope to gain from writing should be driving your decisions on where to submit and how to publish and what you’re spending your time working on. If you want to write for Penquin, you might not want to be spending a lot of time self-publishing Mutant Redneck Orgy books. Probably not paving the way for a big house career path. On the other hand, if that’s what you really want to write, don’t care if you make a bunch of money from it and don’t care if you have 5 readers or 500…then that’s absolutely what you should do. But you need to go into it with the understanding of the potentials from that path.
Why do you wanna write and what your end goals are should be questions you have answered. We all have different reasons that send us down the path to doing what we do. And sometimes we get caught up in the rush of everything that happens after we start down that path that we forget why we got on it in the first place.
I’m sitting here at the bar at Rock Bottom Brewery in Chicago on a busy Saturday night, and I’m betting the bartender couldn’t tell you why he thought it’d be a good idea to tend here… he’s been making drink after drink after drink for the past half hour and I haven’t seen him slow down long enough for me to ask him if I can get a menu. He might be making good tip money, but his now is probably not what he was envisioning when he applied for the job.
When I started submitting short stories to little magazines almost 20 years ago, my goal wasn’t to be rich and famous. Thank god, because I’m not and if that was the goal, I have more or less wasted the last two decades.
My goal was mostly the paying it back bit. I wanted to give back the same kind of enjoyment from fiction that I’d gotten as a kid. And I’m sure there was a bit of a thirst for minor fame and glory. But I never really expected to pull a lot of money from the deal.
Again… thank god for that cuz it ain’t happened!
But I’ve seen a lot of authors over the years get bitter and angry when, after moving steadily upward from market to market, they didn’t get the riches to follow.
Just a hunch here… but I’m guessing that “riches” wasn’t their original prime motivator when they first sent their naked zombie apocalyptic orgy story to Eat Flesh Magazine back in 1995 and accepted a copy of the side-stapled publication in payment.
They stopped asking Why Do You Wanna? until their internal goals for writing had shifted to become substantially different than what the path they were on could realistically fulfill. And then they found themselves disappointed.
None of this is to say that ultimately expecting to make money in this business is wrong. But there’s a different set of career goals and decisions to make if a full-time job is what you want out of writing than simply a little ego-boost and pocket cash. Goals change over time and that’s again why you need to stop occasionally and say to yourself now:
Why Do You Wanna?
Lots of people make a good full-time living at writing. I should know — I started my adult career as a journalist. The key in the “I live by my writing” career choice is a) you’re a hired gun that writes whatever will pay the bills and b) a corollary – you write on whatever topic you can.
As horror writers, we write on the topic we love. News for you: you can’t always make a living at doing what you love. Of course – we all define “make a living” differently too. I know full-time writers who make a good living at writing horror-oriented things and I know full-time writers who say they make a living at writing – but it’s not a level of economic success that I would personally call “success” – or a living. Yeah, some people break their backs at it and manage to feed themselves… at least for a few years. But it’s often not sustainable, in large part because of too narrow of a focus. Open yourself to writing in multiple genres, including non-fiction, and you’re probably going to succeed a lot better as a professional writer. That’s far more likely than succeeding as a full-time professional horror writer. Just know this — as a “pro writer”, you won’t always write what you love to write. There’s a different mindset involved there. Ask me about covering school boards for the suburban newspaper some time.
I decided a long time ago that my goal in fiction was to write the kind of creepy stories I loved and that I wanted to read. I wanted to entertain, regardless of pay or market. And then I published books. I got excited to reach a larger audience with my stories. And I wanted to reach an even larger one. For awhile… the path “upward” seemed certain.
And then last week, the bottom fell out. When my publisher Leisure Books announced that they were dropping their mass market horror publishing and would be focusing more and more on e-books and less and less in print, I found myself faced with a critical question: do I personally want to be an author of e-books?
My instinctive answer was a spittle-heavy cough of “Not on your dead, mutilated, demon-infested corpse.”
Yes, I know, Leisure will be producing a line of trade paperbacks to hopefully regain some bookstore shelf space and my books should appear in that format, but the writing is on the wall. More and more publishers will be moving out of traditional print in favor of e-books. There’s no overhead there (or very little) and a lot of potential profit. I personally don’t mind e-books as an ancillary method of fiction delivery, but I don’t see myself ever buying one. In my heart and mind, they are not “books”. They’re unproduced manuscripts floating around on the Internet without the engaging smell of ink and the tactile sense of paper. Without the yellowing factor of time and without the sense of space and permanency. E-books are the digital idea of a book that has yet to be printed.
Won’t do it, I said.
Might have to just quit writing entirely.
And then I asked myself again. “Why Do You Wanna Write Horror? Why Do You Wanna Write Anything?”
“To entertain an audience,” I answered quickly. “To give people the same enjoyment I got from reading fiction when I was a kid and…”
Who’s full of shit now? If today’s readers are getting the enjoyment out of and being entertained by e-books than why do I care if they’re e- instead of p-?
Because I like seeing my name on a spine. Because I like having my work physically on a shelf. That’s probably the deepest held motivation of a lot of writers, no matter what motivation they suggest publicly. So yeah. I hadn’t asked myself and explored “Why Do You Wanna?” for real in awhile.
Because I want to produce books that people enjoy that sit on a shelf and are permanent.
That’s a little different answer stemming from a little different place than “I just want to entertain.”
Yeah. So maybe my goals weren’t quite as pure as I thought. If I was in this simply to get paid, I wouldn’t care about the format of my resulting work, just the cash. If I was in this simply to entertain, I wouldn’t care about the format, just the reviews and reader comments.
Why Do You Wanna Write Horror?
If it’s to make a living, you’d better consider topic diversification if you hope to pay for health insurance.
If it’s to make a movie, perhaps consider a career in effects and makeup — it’s a lot easier to backdoor your way into a script from there than it is to sell one to Hollywood from writer-land cold. Hollywood sees horror films as effects gardens, not great scripts that should be made.
If it’s to see your name on a book spine that more than a couple hundred people buy, well, all I can say is go look at the horror section in Barnes & Noble’s. What? There isn’t one? There you go.
If it’s really to entertain readers, regardless of format, you’ve got some good years ahead of you. The whole game is changing, and that means there are going to be a lot of new avenues that we can’t even predict right now. I hope you’re as selfless about your desire to “entertain” as you think you are. And that you like e-books and intend to spend countless hours promoting them so that people can find your work amid the sea of other e-releases. It is possible to succeed in that market – look at the Amazon ebook bestseller list and you’ll see some relative unknowns from indie houses or simply self-published work sprinkled amid the predictable big names.
The e-book discussion is a book of columns by itself, but it’s a reality to factor into Why Do You Wanna. The problem I see with e-books in the long-term, aside from their lack of physicality (which I’ve learned IS a factor in my personal reasons for Why Do You Wanna), is that they completely level the playing field of publishing. Some might see that as a good thing, but I don’t think so. As the floodgates open and anybody can upload anything to the “store” and slap a price tag on it, the editorial review process that has heretofore culled and chosen books to publish and promote and bring exposure to from amid a muddy sea of half-baked slush piles will be washed away. It will become harder and harder for new authors to make a ripple and be seen amid the ocean of uploaded narratives.
With the digital age, we gain increased freedom of publication, but it also waters down the marketplace such that it will become harder and harder to prove your abilities and actually make a living at writing because the choices for readers of what to buy and read become exponentially vast. Instead of 1,000 people buying Book X, maybe only 100 will, because the other 900 potential buyers were presented with so many choices, they didn’t see or decided not to spend the time on Book X. Instead of having editors read the slush piles and decide upon a slate of books that will be promoted for potential purchase (still a vast slate, but finite and with some quality control), the entire world will become a digital slush pile. Perhaps major publishers will continue to be looked to and trusted for their lines of books but in reality, they become less relevant in the marketplace. Does the average reader now really pick up a book and decide whether to buy it based on the logo on the spine? I don’t think so. The reader chooses based on the cover and the interesting back cover description. But their choice in finding a good story was made a little easier by having a publishing system in place, because only a small percentage of the manuscripts churned out by hopeful authors that year ever got a chance to be seen by a reader browsing in a bookstore.
I’ve always been a believer in the editorial process, even when it didn’t go my way. I’ve always been a believer in having my own personal library of books in a room that I can go into and sit and enjoy being surrounded by the tomes of my past, sitting in shelves on the walls. An e-reader doesn’t quite give you that same feeling.
Why Do You Wanna?
Think for a minute before you answer.
I’m still thinking this week myself.
You can check out John’s work at: John Everson
Ty is an author in the horror genre. To learn more about his work, you can visit his website at: Ty Schwamberger