Vintage WD: Six Steps to Salable Horror

For fans of the terrifying and macabre, this article from 1989 features horror, Gothic, and science-fiction author Matthew J. Costello's advice on top-notch horror writing that sells.
Publish date:

Writer's Digest, July 1989

By Matthew J. Costello

WD Vintage_1889 Costello

Harley-on-Hudson used to be a nice kind of town. Tree-lined streets and well-trimmed lawns.

But something started to happen … a small boy disappeared on the way to the town pool. An elderly lady vanished one moonlit night coming home from choir practice. An overheated teenager never returned from a hot date.

Then the Aqueduct, the 30-mile system of tunnels that once carried water from Upstate to an expanding Manhattan island, became overgrown with a strange, sticky webbing.

Growing, filling the tunnel…

Yes, my idea for the beginning of my novel Sleep Tight was crystal clear. I had a real grabber (the boy is snatched) followed by wonderfully creepy events.

Then I started writing the synopsis. Early on, I used a lot of “grabbing” detail, but as I continued, my writing grew progressively less detailed until at the end I only hinted at things too, ahem, ghastly to relate, using the kind of breathless prose found on the back of dust jackets.

I packed my material together with a snappy, professional cover letter and sent it off to one of the top editors in the horror field—who promptly fired back a letter scolding me for breaking The Cardinal Rule of Submitting a Horror Proposal.

But, at the risk of teasing you, let’s first look at other important steps to successfully terrorizing your selected editor—and, eventually, your readers. Then I’ll reveal my horrible mistake. The first steps apply not only to proposals but also to the final draft of your novel.

Part 1: Writing Horribly

• Make ‘em sweat immediately. People don’t pick up horror novels for a casual read, dozing off in their easy chair while Phil Donahue drones on in the background. Readers want their pulse rate to kick into high gear, to feel the rattling of the windowpanes, the howl of the wind, the slow, steady trudge of dead-heavy feet across the splintery floor. Start with a bang.

My novel Beneath Still Waters opens with two boys, circa 1938, paying their last respects to their town about to be engulfed by the waters of a new reservoir. They climb the fence guarding the deserted town, digging their black Keds into the chain-link ...

And before he could say anything, to tell Jackie he really didn’t want to climb the fence, that all he wanted to do was get the hell out of there, Jackie started climbing. He felt trapped. By his friendship, by their plan, by the fence.

Below them, the town awaits, with the old Rialto that played great double features, and Woolworth’s, where the boys always got free refills of Coke.

They walk through the ghost town. The new dam casts shadows on the deserted streets.

They walk through the ghost town. The new dam casts shadows on the deserted streets.

And they hear a sound coming from one of the abandoned houses…

It was a cry.

He looked at Jackie thinking maybe he had imagined it. But then it came again, louder now, and oh, God, there was no question it was coming from somewhere inside the house.

No question at all.

This big old house with all its shutters pulled down tight. Just like someone with their eyes closed. Like his dad on a Sunday afternoon, sitting in the dark green easy chair after dinner.

One of the boys follows the sound, never to be seen again … as the water floods the town, burying a strange secret for 50 years.

What happened? Readers (and editors) plunge on, hooked by these first 20 pages. To similarly hook your readers:

Limit your point of view. Write your story from the viewpoint of a few main characters. And remain faithful to each point of view. Let readers experience everything through that character’s eyes, memories, and feelings.

Place important characters at risk. Write about characters readers will care about, characters important to the story from the very beginning. Then place them in jeopardy.

Make the atmosphere strong. Your opening scenes should be immediately vivid. Creating a definite sense of mood and place is always important in good horror writing, but take special care with your opening. Use all of your point-of-view character’s senses to make the reader picture everything, as clearly as possible. Later in your book, a breakneck plot may not allow, or need, such detail. But in the beginning, it’s absolutely crucial.

• Make your world come alive. If your character is fleeing some flesh-hungry reprobate strolling suburban streets, you must imagine the crazy, terrified thoughts careening through his or her mind, the sound, muted by his or her terror, even the way the air smells and tastes.

Here’s a nasty moment from Sleep Tight:

She stopped.

There was someone behind her. Helen turned just as she felt the strong hands grab her.

She opened her mouth to scream, not even knowing what her screen would sound like. But she never heard it. His hand, a massive, powerful hand, closed around her mouth, while his other hand reached around her midsection. She felt herself being lifted up, her feet were off the ground, and then Helen began to wet herself.

Oh sweet Jesus, she thought. What is happening?

Surely someone will see, someone walking a dog, or some teenagers in a car, someone.

Please, she begged silently.

You must be there for the reader to be there. Unpleasant at times, but necessary.

If you have a character going through some experience, terrible or otherwise, you just have to put yourself through that experience yourself. How can you help your imagination do that?

Don’t just visit your characters’ world; live it. Rex Miller’s novel Slob is one of the field’s recent major success stories. It’s a gripping, graphic story of a monstrously obese killer called Chaingang. Miller sold new American library Slob, and a series of six books featuring its protagonist, a hard-boiled cop named Eichord.

He didn’t go into it lightly: “I had a total lock on one-half million words. There were 200 pages in outlines alone. I developed entire lexicons for each book in the series. My office was festooned with character sketches and maps.” Miller pulls no punches in his suggestions. “It takes total immersion in the world [you’re writing about]. You have to live it, eat it, breathe it.”

Do what your characters do. If your characters are skin divers or hunters or champion chess players, learn how to do what they do. You may not reach their level of proficiency, but you’ll gain a real understanding of what makes them tick. For Beneath Still Waters I went to a dive shop to learn about underwater microphones. Later, I climbed on top of a dam … just what my characters had to do.

Root your characters and story in the world you know (taking care, of course, to adapt and change your real characters and settings; it is, after all, fiction we’re talking about). Whatever people or job situations you are familiar with can provide rich, realistic characters and settings close to home.

Research—in detail. Visit scene locations. Every place you go can provide likely candidates for settings in the book that you are already imagining. Carry a microcassette recorder around to instantly record your impressions of places you see, images you’d lose if you didn’t immediately describe them on tape. (You can catch priceless characters this way. Set up a character file with 3x5 index cards. Sometimes just a few words on a card can make someone you saw months ago spring back to life.)

Use the library—your high school teachers weren’t kidding you. Your friendly local library contains a phenomenal amount of useful information, and some surprisingly helpful people work there, eager to help you with your research.

The horror novel I’ve just finished, Midsummer, opens at the Naval Research Station, a scant 100 miles from the South Pole.

And no, I’ve never been to Antarctica.

But I have read more than a dozen books about the area, its geology, and the strange history of exploration. I have a wall covered with maps of the frozen continent.

Making the world come alive demands that you use all of your faculties. It will be a nerve-wracking, exhausting process, but it’s also the most important thing you’ll do. Readers must identify with the characters, and this will happen only if they are as real as you can make them. They have to be our neighbors, our friends, living in an everyday, believable world.

Facing the worst nightmares you can throw at them.

• Let your characters do the doubting. Face it. If you’re writing a horror novel—a novel rooted in the classic storytelling of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz, you’re dealing with a pretty unbelievable stuff.

Werewolves. Ghouls. Vampires. Zombies. Ghosts. Spirits. Creatures.

A lot of hooey.

How do you make the hooey believable? Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot provides a textbook example. King took the threadbare myth of the vampire, as hoary and overused as anything in the horror canon, and dressed it up with a contemporary feel and the pacing of a thriller. Gone were the cobwebs, the musty castle, the flowing capes that recalled Bela Lugosi’s stately bloodsucker. King gave us a recognizable small town (see “make your world come alive”), with honest-to-goodness wisecracking kids coming under the spell of a too-clever vampire.

And we didn’t doubt the story at all.

Because the characters did. They never questioned Mr. Barlow’s presence in the old house, or the funny way that the antique store he opened never did any business. Most of King’s characters didn’t see what was going on, even when picking up a coffin-carrying crate from the docks. They disbelieved for us ... even when the proof became overwhelming.

In the presence of such disbelief, the readers could only shout, “There are vampires in your town, you fools!” King had us, right in the palm of his hand.

In my novel Sleep Tight (skip this if you plan on picking up the book—I’d hate to spoil any of your fun), the characters, and the readers, are told by a professor that some terribly evil creatures from distant galaxies have opened a passageway into the small town of Harley-on-Hudson. A doddering professor patiently explains that the creatures have tried to enter before … destroying the Aztecs, devouring the Roanoke Colony, crashing into the Tunguska Forest in Siberia. Everyone ridicules the Professor, laughing at his preposterous ideas.

All the while we know, yes, clever us, know that the old boy is right on the money. Their disbelief in the face of so much evidence makes us accept the whole premise.

Letting your characters disbelieve … question … doubt every incredible thing that happens puts readers on the side of the supernatural—just where you want them.

• Know what’s scaring people these days (or at least what editors think is scaring people). Find out what the leading paperback companies are publishing. Search the racks and read the books.

Do publishers seem to favor certain kinds of stories? What trends in the genre are working? What’s already been done? Avoid the hoary clichés of horror … but, if you do use them (and we all do) put the stamp of your own expertise, your own vision and voice on them, to breathe new life into the dead—as King Did in ‘Salem’s Lot.

Know what trends to avoid. John Silbersack, an editor at New American Library, warns against opportunistic ideas dealing with real-life horror. Horror novels where the AIDS crisis figures in or not likely to be well received. And despite the celebrity of new wave graphic horror—dubbed “splatterpunk”—most editors are not interested in gratuitous sex or violence. (Ginjer Buchanan, an editor at Berkeley, laughingly told me about a novel with a scene where, “Kittens are thrown to pit bulls.” Berkeley passed on the book.)

Part 2: Selling Horribly

• Write that book! Er, don’t write that book! Many editors will eventually want a complete manuscript from unagented and/or unpublished authors. Night Stone’s Rick Hautala wrote his first books in toto. But after a string of successful novels, Rick recently sold two books to Warner Books based on nothing—absolutely nada.

Six years ago, I hand-wrote the complete manuscript of a first novel, on endless yellow pads. The writing proved almost illegible when it came time to type up the manuscript. The book got some nibbles, but it remained unsold. When I came back to fiction again, I had years of nonfiction work behind me. I prepared the first three chapters and a short synopsis, and I sold the book.

What should you do?

Write the three chapters. The first three. Not the best three. An editor wants to be drawn into the book from the beginning. Then write a synopsis of the rest of the book. (But first see my advice below.) Then query editors; ask if they’d like to see your proposal. Some may say no, and some yes. Either way, you’re likely to get feedback that will help your book.

If you’re unpublished, interested editors will want to ask for more, maybe the whole book. But now you’re writing knowing that they’re interested and perhaps you have a better idea of just what they’re interested in. And who knows? Your proposal might be strong and compelling enough to convince an editor to make an offer for the book before you even finish.

When writing sample chapters, especially for your first novel, preview the feel of the whole book. Let the editor meet the main characters, get a real sense of who they are. Get your main storyline going, as well as any important secondary plot lines.

Then, in a synopsis, tell the editor the rest of the plot, and explain the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Melissa Ann Singer, editor of Tor’s horror line, suggests devoting about two paragraphs of text to each chapter.

And no editor wants numbered outlines that resemble your high school social studies report on Ecuador. Also, the style of writing should be straightforward. If the hero is a werewolf, writer Rick Hautala says, “You just gotta say so.”

Writing synopses isn’t easy. But it can help you when you write the book, giving you a road map.

“Basically,” says Berkeley’s Ginjer Buchanan, “the synopsis tells you where the story is going to go ... though not all authors know where it’s going to end up.” Too true. The synopsis ending for Beneath Still Waters didn’t match the cataclysm I wrote for the finished book. But that was no problem. The synopsis showed the editor that I could tie up all the loose ends of the book. If I happened to do something better when it came to actually writing the thing … well, no one complains about a good, exciting climax.

Which brings us to ...

• Don’t tease the editor. Now, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

My proposal about the troubles in Harley-on-Hudson was summarily returned, with a peevish note complaining about my teasing the editor. It was, to quote the editor, an “annoying habit.”

Unlike prospective readers skimming back-cover blurbs, the editors must know the whole story. Not just the beginning, or the middle, but the very end. And if you don’t know how it will end, don’t bother sending in the proposal.

Such coy proposals die a quick death. Tor’s Melissa Singer says she dislikes it when “the author plays games with me and doesn’t tell me enough about the story. The ending is the most important part of the book.” And Rick Hautala says it’s a big mistake to “try to create suspense by withholding information in an outline.”

While Stephen King has suggested that horror is about keeping that spooky door closed as long as possible, in a synopsis you should put all your cards, improbable as they may be, right on the table.

• Finally, if you succeed in getting a really scary book published, send it to me. I’m dying for a good read.

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