Friday, August 30, 2013

So you want to be a horror writer?

"I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I can feel the scrutiny of my future English 101 students, their freshmen eyes screaming, "OMG, I literally can't believe this bozo is our teacher."

At this point, you may have guessed that the topic of today's conversation is either writing. It's something I do every day and will soon be teaching. Yes, that's right. I will be leading a class of 25 college freshmen on the first steps toward successful graduation. I'm reminded of why I, at 23, decided to get off my ass and go to college: no one would buy my short stories, which meant I was missing something. I needed to fins out what I was missing. In my English 101 class, I learned that just because I never finished a research paper in high school didn't mean I couldn't write one. I've been lucky to have instructors who have encouraged my genre pursuits and after a half-decade flirtation with journalism, I'm back in the fiction business. I'm hoping to get at least one student who wants to be a writer. One who is excited about English 101 because it's the required first step toward taking 300- and 400-level literature and writing course. I want at least one student who wishes they've been in school long enough to take the Victorian ghost stories class I am taking as part of my master's degree.

When that one student reveals him or herself, I hope they have an interest in my preferred genre. I want the student to say, "I know what we are learning in class is important, but I want more. I want to write horror; what else should I read?"

You, dear reader, are in luck. I'm going to give you the answer for free. 

We start with the foundations of any proper horror education: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These books are easy to find. Every library should have at least one copy of each and you can often find cheap versions at your local bookstore. If you are up on technology, you can get free versions for the Kindle. All those options are great, but I suggest tracking down the omnibus edition featuring the Stephen King introduction. King, the acknowledged 20th century master of horror, tells you exactly why it's important to begin with these texts and what each has meant to the genre. King's colloquial voice eases novice readers into the texts, which can be difficult to get through if one has never read anything from the 19th century. Consider it a primer, the Dick and Jane of horror fiction.

Writer and editor Mort Castle compiled On Writing Horror for the Horror Writers Association. Published by Writers' Digest Books, the revised edition includes King, again, and his 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters acceptance speech. As a Writers' Digest Book, the manual includes information on everything from characterization and setting to actually marketing your work. Contributors include Joyce Carol Oates, Joe R. Lansdale, Bev Vincent, Michael A. Arnzen, Tom Piccirilli, Ramsey Campbell and more. Highlights include a conversation with Harlan Ellison and his short story " Quiet Lies the Locust Tells." 

The Horror Writers Association should be one of your first stops if you truly hope to pursue writing in this genre. Working toward full membership is a noble goal, but the organization won't shut you out just because you haven't sold anything yet. The website is filled with information on craft and marketing and features a number of roundtable discussions.

Since he has come up already, we should mention two more Stephen King books: On Writing and Danse Macabre. On Writing is exactly that: a book on writing. King gives us a limited autobiography followed by a manual that has quickly become a staple of college writing courses. No matter the genre in which your fictions inhabit, King's lessons and guides can give you a hand up. The magic secret, of course, is simple: read a lot and write a lot. Danse Macabre has elements in common with both On Writing and his introduction mentioned above. He talks about horror in the 20th century including film, TV and books. Because the three classics were given new life via Hollywood in the 20th century, they have a place in the book. You won't necessarily learn anything about writing but you will get reading and watching lists to help you gain a firm foundation in what has been done before you came along.

Horror has generally been an underground genre. This often leads to not knowing what is out there and authors wallowing in undeserved obscurity. That's where Hellnotes comes in. Founded by David B. Silva in 1995 as an email newsletter, Hellnotes features reviews and interviews covering established and up and coming authors. The site has market listings, convention schedules and more to fill many of your genre needs.

Once you write something, you want to know where to get it published, right? Otherwise, what's the point? (There is a point but that's a topic for another time.) For the horror genre, turn to Dark Markets. The site highlights authors and new markets as well as a fairly comprehensive listing of print and online markets for your gruesome tales. Check it out and tell them Warning Signs sent you.

Before you submit any story to any market, make sure it's been proofread. Sure, your spell check in Word is great, but sometimes you need a little bit more. So who do you turn to if your girlfriend hates horror and your professors think you are wasting your time? Try Grammarly. The online resource serves as that extra set of eyes that we all need. No one is perfect, not even me.

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