The horror, the horror of being and becoming a horror writer
by Adam Nevill
"Easy" never came into getting published as a horror writer. I began writing my first novel, Banquet for the Damned, in 1997. I finished it in late 2000. It took two years for all of the rejection letters to come back. “No horror” being the usual refrain. By that time, I’d forsaken a career in television for a second time. I was living on a shoestring (again), enduring an existence above an old pub in East London, working nights as a security guard and going mad with sleep deprivation and despair. As a lesson in futility, this is not unique. This all happened before the current digital age, but however your book gets to market, the three core lessons I learned are as relevant as ever if you want to stand out.
1. GO UNDERGROUND
Even if your chosen field is out of vogue in mainstream publishing, there will be a world of small presses in which to cut your teeth. Small presses actively look for new voices. Dedicated well-read fans of the genres actually own the small presses (and that’s not something you can take for granted with the majors). I’m not talking about eBook platforms that publish every single thing sent to them in the hope that one title will go stratospheric; I’m referring to dedicated small publishers who are curators of the genres they love. Start below, down there, la bas; it’s very satisfying to emerge from the underground with a profile and to then attain more mainstream success.
The underground is your friend, and increasingly in the rapidly changing world of books, the underground can be your savior. For quality and innovation, and for precursors to future trends, even for first-class book design and packaging, what emerges from the genre underground often puts what is published above ground to shame. The underground won’t support a career, but it can start one if you have the patience to serve an apprenticeship down there.
A master in my chosen field of horror, Ramsey Campbell, recommended I send my novel to one of his U.K. publishers, a small press, in 2003. The small press, PS Publishing, accepted Banquet for the Damned within a week and produced a beautiful limited edition that garnered critical acclaim and gave me a small profile. Without the advice on the appropriate place to send my novel—to someone not just receptive to the genre, but enthusiastic about it—Banquet for the Damned would have remained an uneaten meal, moldering on the pantry shelves of my hard drive.
2. GET INVOLVED
As well as researching the small press scene, get involved in the actual genre community. Go to open nights and signings and groups and conventions. Opportunities to contribute to small press anthologies will arise and you will meet established authors, the reviewing community, and guest editors. You are no longer just an attachment on an email coming out of the void; you become more than another outline with three sample chapters. One circuit of a dealer’s room and you’ll see a miniature book fair of small dedicated publishers, cover artists, websites and calls for submissions. If you have talent, people in that world will soon notice. If you have the requisite passion, but need tuition and advice, there are panels and workshops at conventions in which accomplished writers give their time. Support the scene and it’ll support you.
3. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
The other part you really have to get right you will do all on your own. Forget about deals and careers for a moment, or even for a few years. The writing is what counts. I have a very old-school approach to writing because it’s the only one I know: read the canon of the field you want to contribute to, acquire the craft of good writing through practice, develop a voice. If it takes 10 years or longer, so be it. Apartment 16 took four years to write and The Ritual another two after that. There was no deadline, deal or publisher waiting for either book, or even any readers besides my dad. And during most of that time, little had changed in publishing: No one was publishing horror in the mainstream beyond some series fiction in the U.S. and the big names from the 1970s. So why did I write them? Because I was driven to. After the two novels were complete and delivered to my new agent early in 2009 (an agent who took me on because he’d read my first small press novel), publishing in the U.K. had just begun to turn its capricious eyes back towards supernatural horror in fiction. There was even an auction for Apartment 16 and The Ritual. How times had changed over a decade.
But I believe the commercial success of these two novels, the critical reception, the foreign rights deals and film options that have exceeded all of my expectations as a former small press writer, only happened because I spent so long gestating, evolving, developing and rewriting those first three novels over a decade, while also contributing short stories to small presses to build profile. In total, it took 15 years to "make it"; 15 years of making writing, and reading better writers, the main purpose of my life.
Why be another literate adult who gets lucky with a fad that is hot right now? Or one who loses patience and just self-publishes first drafts straight to eBook? Be as much of the real deal as you can be. Writing should be a purpose for life. Writing well comes from the repetition of hard work and application. Eventually it will deliver dividends at some level. There is no shortcut to being good at something.
Always write what you feel compelled to write. And if what you are writing makes you feel uncomfortable or even ashamed, then stick with it all costs . . . it’s where the most affecting writing often comes from, particularly in horror. If I don’t feel I’m close to damaging myself by the time I finish one of my novels, I know the writing is at risk of being flat and ineffectual to the reader. The same good practice and principals apply to writing well, and enduring, in every genre and category of fiction.
For those about to go underground, I salute you!
For more on Adam Nevill and his new novel, Last Days, visit his website. And don't miss his list of 10 horror novels every horror writer should read over on The Book Case!