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Essential Tips for Aspiring Horror Writers

A handy guide to navigating the business of full-time horror writing.

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  • Photo Credit: Andrew Neel / Unsplash

So, you want to be a horror writer? Whether you just finished your first NaNoWriMo, you’ve got a few short stories making the rounds looking for a publication to call home, you’ve self-published a novella on Amazon, or you just have ideas jotted down in a notebook that you haven’t yet turned into even a single story, you’re already on your way.

And chances are, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve probably already heard a lot of advice—whether from teachers, parents, professors, peers, other writers, or sites like this one. So why listen to me? It’s not like I’ve hit the “big time,” whatever that even looks like for horror writers these days. But I’ve published three collections of short stories so far, one novel, two books of nonfiction, and more than fifty stories in various venues. I’ve been in Best Horror of the Year on several occasions. Maybe more important to this topic, I’ve been writing full-time for more than five years now.

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I don’t bring any of that up to suggest that my advice is going to have any more validity than any other you may have heard. After all, if I have one piece of advice for you, it’s that everyone comes to this gig differently, so only take the advice that works for you, no matter who it comes from. Rather, I bring it up to say this: I only got this far because of advice that I received from other, more established authors in the field. The least I can do is pass a little of what I’ve learned on to you, and hope that it helps.

Most lists of advice for aspiring writers are all about honing your craft. That’s obviously important, but, like I said, there’s lots of advice out there for that. So, while it goes without saying that you should read widely and well—that you should study and hone your talents—this list is going to focus on some of the more practical, business side of advice that many of us wish we had gotten earlier on.

Know your goals.

Sure, we all want to be New York Times bestsellers with a bunch of movie adaptations and a whole lot of money, but that’s not very likely to happen. So, before you get started, figure out what’s important to you. Is that simply telling the stories you want to tell? Is it getting published in prestigious venues? Or is it making a living as a full-time writer? All three of these things are possible simultaneously, but if you know what you’re prioritizing, you’ll have a better idea of how to work towards it.

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Know your tax options.

Most people who write full-time—even the ones with novels on the bestseller lists—also freelance at least some of the time. They write all sorts of things that you might not imagine, from journalism to corporate marketing copy and technical manuals. If you’re going to try making a living as a writer, talk to a CPA about your tax options, and learn the difference between a sole proprietorship and an LLC. It might mean the difference between making it as a freelance writer and not.

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Don't take rejection personally.

Even the best writers get rejected—sometimes frequently. And even writers who are widely published and celebrated still get rejection slips from time to time. A rejection isn’t an invalidation of you, and, perhaps more surprisingly, it isn’t even an invalidation of the story. In my career, I’ve also worked as an editor, and I had to reject a lot of stories that I wanted to accept because we simply didn’t have the space or the budget for them at the time. When a rejection letter says that your story just wasn’t a good fit, take them at their word and go on to the next market.

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Support other writers.

Writing isn’t a competition. It’s easy to compare yourself to people in the field who seem to be doing better than you, but you shouldn’t. Everyone’s road is different. What’s more, there’s plenty of room at the table for everybody. Someone else’s success isn’t taking your spot. Build other writers up, support them, read their stuff, leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. The horror genre is a surprisingly small field, and you’ll get a lot farther making friends than making enemies.

Set realistic expectations.

Being a writer is hard, and most people who set out to become a full-time writer don’t make it. Most days, writing full-time isn’t glamorous, and a huge chunk of your time goes into things besides writing, from phone-calls or Zoom meetings with clients to simple bookkeeping. And most people who do make it as full-time writers spend years establishing connections and readership before they are able to quit their day job. Ask around, you’d be surprised how many of your favorite writers still have regular 9-to-5 jobs. So don’t quit yours when you make your first sale. Set realistic goals and expectations, and be ready to put in a lot of time.

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Don't sell yourself short.

Especially early on, it can feel like you’ll never “break in,” and there’s a real temptation to publish a story anyplace that will take it. Resist that urge. Organizations like the Horror Writers Association and the SFWA set professional rates, which is the amount that professional writers should expect to be paid (per word) for a short story. You don’t have to always hold out for those rates, but you should keep them in mind. A publication that can’t afford to pay you for your work probably doesn’t have the readership to make the sale worth it “for exposure,” either, and a handful of publications in reputable venues goes much farther than dozens of publications in places no one has ever read.

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Take advantage of expertise.

As I already said, I wouldn’t be where I am without the advice and generosity of others in the field. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to help, if you’re willing to listen. Sometimes their advice isn’t easy to take, though. I learned as much from rejection slips and points of view that I initially disagreed with as I have from anyone who took the time to mentor me. Try to listen with an open mind, and take advantage of what works for you. Besides social media, blogs, and conventions, there are books on the subject that can help, too. Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better is an indispensable guide to surviving the unpredictable and often low-paying life of the freelance writer.

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Featured photo: Andrew Neel / Unsplash