Monday, May 20, 2019

Riding Out the Storms

Over the last month or so, I’ve seen social media posts from writers who are discouraged – so much so that they want to quit writing entirely (and some who have already done so). A writer who believes he wrote a book that was essentially invisible. Writers who are depressed because their newsletter stats show that no one clicked on the links to their books for sale. Writers encountering one rejection after another, dealing with shady editors and agents, volatile and unstable markets, markets that take forever to pay (if they ever pay at all), lack of reviews, lack of readers . . . And maybe worst of all, feeling like they’ve made no impact at all, that they might as well have chucked their stories down a hole for all the good they’ve done in the world.

I know that a lot of people use social media to vent, and that these feelings of discouragement might only be temporary. But I also know that there are plenty of people who struggle to keep writing day after day. I know writers who’ve quit. You might even be one. Over the years, I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone to intense workshops such as Clarion or gotten an MFA and haven’t written a word since. I know writers who’ve written three books, had their publisher pass on a fourth, and who have stopped writing altogether. I know writers whose books are constantly pirated and who see no point in creating new content if other people are only going to keep stealing it. And of course, I’ve known writers who’ve had so much to deal with in their personal lives that finding time to write seems impossible.

I’ve had my share of discouragement, too. My first novel contract was abruptly canceled by the publisher because they “no longer felt comfortable with the book.” I’ve been nominated for awards nine times but I’ve only won once. My first agent gave up on me after a year. My second agent lasted nineteen years, but toward the end of our relationship, he stopped responding to my attempts to contact him. Editors have lied to me. I’ve pitched short story collections to some who tell me they don’t do collections, except they’d already published a bunch and went on to publish many more in the future. I’ve had editors tell me their publisher doesn’t offer advances only to learn they are giving other writers advances. I’ve requested blurbs from writers who say they don’t have the time but go on to regularly blurb others. There are editors who, after I’ve made progress on a project with them, ended up ghosting me. I’ve had editors publish my stories and never pay me. I’ve had interest from and worked with Hollywood people on stuff that goes nowhere. I’ve been offered tie-in projects that end up never happening, getting canceled, or which are given to someone else. I’ve written and published books that got little notice and few reviews. There are a lot of Year’s Best anthologies I’d love to have stories in but never have. I’ve had publishers drop me after a few books. I’ve had book contracts canceled after I’ve written the book for the publisher. And I could go on.

I didn’t write the above to engender any sympathy (but if you want to feel bad for me, I’m not going to stop you). I want to show you that writers who most people might see as successful (or semi-successful), have plenty of things happen to make us discouraged, too. The truth is, discouragement is a perpetual part of a writing career.

 So how can writers – those who are just beginning, those who’ve stopped writing, and those who’ve been writing for a while and find it hard to keep going – do to deal with discouragement?

·         The Darwinian view. Many professional writers take the attitude that if someone can be discouraged from pursuing writing as a career, then they don’t have what it takes to become a writer. And maybe there’s some truth to that view. But it’s also a facile way of avoiding any responsibility for nurturing the next generation of writers, said nurturing being part of what makes a good literary citizen. But as I often tell students and attendees of workshops I present, a writing career is, in many ways, about mental and emotional resilience. And ultimately, that can only come from within us. No one can give it to us, not even the most gifted of teachers and devoted of mentors.

·         It’s okay to stop. No one ever tells you this, but it’s perfectly fine to explore something – like writing – and decide for whatever reasons it’s not for you. Or to write for a while and then decide you’ve gotten what you needed from that time, and move on to explore something else. If you do this, you’re not a quitter or a loser.

·         It’s okay to take a break. You don’t need to write 24/7 365 days a year to qualify as a “real” writer. You can write for a couple years, take a few (or many) years off, and come back to writing when you’re ready, when you feel like you’re creatively energized again. Plus, while you’re taking a break, you’re living life, which means when you return to writing, you’ll have more experience to draw on. And sometimes you need to take a break for your mental and physical health, what I call “maintaining the machine.”

·         Don’t buy into society’s – or any other writers’ – paradigm for success. In America, people are what they do, and their success is judged by how many things they can acquire with the money they make. Writers often believe that that the ultimate expression of a writing career is to be able to write full time and support yourself financially solely with your writing. That’s when a writer has “made it.” But this is bullshit. I’ve known many writers who write full time and are barely living above the poverty line. Plus, they have no healthcare. They are so stressed by trying to pay bills and so worried about getting sick or injured, that they don’t produce any more work than writers with day jobs. Stress is the enemy of creativity. Feeling like you have to live up to some imaginary standard that others have created – and feeling that you’re constantly failing to reach that standard – can make you feel like you’re a failure before you even begin. Each of us make our own path as a writer, and it’s fine if your path is different than anyone else’s. In fact, it should be different. It’s yours. Do what you need to do to be able to make a life that’s conducive to writing, whatever that means for you. I decided a long time ago that what I wanted wasn’t to become rich or win a ton of awards or have millions of readers. I couldn’t control whether or not I got any of these things. I decided I wanted to have a life in writing. That aim was entirely within my control, and I’ve achieved it. I won’t know the ultimate shape that life has taken until right before I die, but there’s no doubt I’ve created it.

·         It’s okay to have a small audience. Writers are often told – either directly or implicitly – that they need to have the biggest audience possible. We need as many followers on social media as we can get, as many subscribers to our newsletters as possible, as many reviews as we can get on Amazon, as many books sales, and on and on. If your goal is to make a ton of money, then all of this is true. But if you want to make money, why the hell did you choose to become an artist? If you want to make money, go to law school or medical school. We pursue art because it’s what we love, it’s who we are, we can’t imagine living life without doing it . . . If you’re writing what you love and feel satisfied with your work, then it’s fine if you have a small audience. If you cook a meal, how many people do you need to serve it to in order to feel satisfied? Bigger is better is a fallacy created by American consumer culture. Better is better, and you decide what’s best for you.

·         Stick to your guns or explore new territory? Writers are often told they need to pick a genre, to create a brand, and then stick to it. That’s marketing talk, not artist talk. There’s nothing wrong with taking a market-based approach if it helps you create your best work and you find that approach fulfilling. But you don’t need to write the same kind of thing forever. It’s okay – and healthy – to explore different types of writing from time to time, especially if you haven’t had much success with one type so far. By trying different types of writing, you might find the success that’s eluded you so far. A friend of mine in college wanted to be a science fiction writer. Instead, he became a well-published author of sports articles. I know writers who started out in one genre – YA – and became a hit in another, like romance. If nothing else, trying something new can re-energize you when you return to your main focus. Earlier this year, I wrote a one-act play, the first play I’ve written in over thirty years. I wrote it just for fun, as a kind of creative vacation from the horror and tie-in fiction I usually write. Remember the old saying: A change is as good as a rest. I don’t know if anything will ever come of this play. I’ve submitted it to a theatre company, but even if the play is never produced, it still gave me what I needed, and I returned to my usual writing feeling refreshed.

·         It’s a long haul. Sometimes REALLY long. How long does it take to establish a writing career? If you go immediately to self-publishing, hardly any time at all. (And whether that’s a good thing or not is very much up for debate.) But in the case of traditional publishing, the amount of time I’ve heard most often from people – and which my experience bears out – is about ten years. And that’s just to get to the point where you’re regularly selling your work. How much longer does it take to become a “success”? The rest of your life. In any art form, there is always more to learn, more to explore, more to achieve, both creatively and in terms of the business aspect. The truth is no artist probably ever reaches whatever they consider to be ultimate success. Stephen King craves acceptance from the literary establishment. Literary writers want a larger audience and more money. Writers of entertainment-based fiction covet awards for literary excellence (to the point where some of them tried to rig the Hugo Awards in their favor several years in a row). Dissatisfaction and restlessness are important fuel to an artist. They might even be two of the defining qualities of an artist. Once you reach the summit, there’s nowhere left to climb, and the climbing is where all the fun and challenge is.

·         Rejection means nothing more than a no from one person at one time. Rejections are the most common part of a writer’s life. They are inevitable and, when you’re starting out, they’re numerable. They begin to add up fast, and they have a cumulative effect. They seem like a chorus of voices saying your work sucks, you suck, and you should never write again. Now it’s true that at the start of a career, when a writer is still learning his or her craft, that the stories they produce may not be publishable yet. But if you keep writing and growing as an artist – and you get better at targeting your submissions to specific publications/publishers – you’ll start selling. The rejections will still come, though, (I still get them) and you have to remember that unless you get specific feedback that helps provide insight on how to improve your writing (which editors are under no obligation to give you), one rejection is just one, and it’s not a statement about you and your writing. It’s just a no. Do your best to put it behind you, keep sending your work out, and keep growing as a writer.

·         Don’t set unreasonable deadlines for yourself. When I decided to become a professional writer (I was probably eighteen or so) I gave myself until I was thirty to sell a novel. If I couldn’t do it by then, I’d put my energies into some other career. As my thirtieth birthday approached, I still didn’t have a novel contract. But on my birthday, the man who would be my second agent called and offered to represent me, and I figured that was close enough. I’m sure I would’ve kept writing anyway, but I soon realized that it was foolish of me to set a stupid deadline like that. Don’t set yourself up to fail – or at least feel like a failure. The writing life is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.

·         Envy is the writer’s disease. I have no idea who first said this, but I’ve heard it many times over the years. It’s too easy to compare ourselves to other writers who get larger advances, have greater sales, larger audiences, better reviews, more awards. Don’t do this. I repeat DO NOT DO THIS. This way lies madness. Admire other writers’ work, learn from it, learn from their accomplishments and their setbacks, but never compare yourself to them. Unless you’re a narcissist, you’ll always come out second best when you compare yourself to someone else, if for no other reason than it’s impossible for you to be someone else. You can’t have anyone else’s career. You can only have yours.

·         Social media makes envy worse. I’m fifty-five. As I said earlier, I started writing seriously when I was eighteen. Back then, there was no Internet. You learned about other writers’ careers by reading interviews with them in physical magazines or by watching them be interviewed on TV. You could also read books about writing and the writing life written by authors. I didn’t start going to writing conventions until my late twenties – by which time the first public message boards were appearing – but you could learn from other writers there (especially after they had a few drinks). Since there was less information out there, there was less to be envious of. Now every writer trumpets their successes (no matter how minor) on social media as part of relentlessly promoting themselves (as they’ve been told they have to do). Now there’s a shit-ton of information out there to make us feel bad about ourselves. It’s harder than ever to stop ourselves from making destructive comparisons. That’s why it’s so vital that we keep fighting the writer’s disease.

·         It’s a calling. We write because we have to. It’s an essential aspect of ourselves and how we manifest those selves in reality. We can stop writing, but if we do, something inside of us withers away. We stop being our authentic selves. (And if this isn’t true of you – especially if you have other creative outlets – then the thought of quitting writing shouldn’t bother you at all.) So regardless of what level of success we achieve, we have to write anyway, so why let success or failure bother us? They are both immaterial to producing writing. But on the other hand . . .

·         It’s a job. I don’t know if the magazine still does this, but for years, The Writer proclaimed on its masthead that it was the oldest magazine for literary workers. That’s a wonderful way to think of ourselves: literary workers. Everyone knows that a job isn’t all sunshine and rainbows every day. Hell, it’s almost never sunshine and rainbows. And we don’t get upset by that. We expect it, we deal with it, and we keep forging ahead (assuming the job isn’t so awful we have to quit to protect our mental and/or physical health). But by thinking of writing as a job, it’s easier to accept the drawbacks and the hardships because you understand that sure, they suck, but they’re also par for the course. So keep grinding it out.

·        We need to create many things to make one truly lasting, impactful thing. I read an article recently that discussed a study on creativity. The researchers came to the conclusion that an artist needs to make a lot of things to create something truly special, something that strongly resonates with an audience and has a chance to make a lasting impact. And the kicker? Artists don’t know when they’ve made a special thing. In fact, they’re a terrible judge of their work. As an example, the researchers talk about Toto’s hit song “Africa.” It was a song they tacked onto the album just to finish it, and no one thought much of it. But almost forty years later, it remains well known, by old and young alike. Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” Poe’s “The Raven.” Sure, these authors produced other great works, but those two works are the most famous, at least as far as the general populace is concerned. The lesson here? You’ve got to write a lot of stuff in order to have a shot at producing your own “The Lottery” or “The Raven.” One work of art that you’ll be known by, that will become your ultimate brand. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker and Dracula, George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire (which will undoubtedly always be better known by the TV show title, A Game of Thrones.) Yes, you can find examples of artists who produce one work – Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird – but they’re exceptions. So if you don’t keep writing, you may never produce the one great work (which could be a series or a character, not just one story or one novel) that will become your artistic legacy, and perhaps change the field you write in forever.

“Perseverance furthers” the I-Ching tells us, and writers love to pass along this piece of advice to each other. This advice has the beauty of being absolutely achievable. It doesn’t guarantee how far perseverance will take you, but it clearly implies that it’s the only way you’ll get anywhere. The trick is to think of your path as a journey of learning, discovery, and growth as opposed to a race to some imagined finish line. Write, write, write. Send your work out into the world. Write some more. Get better. Repeat.

And don’t let the bastards get you down.

My novel Supernatural: Children of Anubis was recently released.
Sam and Dean travel to Indiana, to investigate a murder that could be the work of a werewolf. But they soon discover that werewolves aren't the only things going bump in the night. The town is also home to a pack of jakkals who worship the god Anubis: carrion-eating scavengers who hate werewolves. With the help of Garth, the Winchester brothers must stop the werewolf-jakkal turf war before it engulfs the town - and before the god Anubis is awakened...

My horror novel They Kill is coming this July from Flame Tree Press.

Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet.

My novel Alien: Prototype is coming in October.

Corporate spy Tamar Prather steals a Xenomorph egg from Weyland-Yutani, taking it to a lab facility run by Venture, a Weyland-Yutani competitor. Former Colonial Marine Zula Hendricks--now allied with the underground resistance--infiltrates Venture's security team. When a human test subject is impregnated, the result is a Xenomorph that, unless it's stopped, will kill every human being on the planet.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Power of You

            “This is a hell of a story, but I’m not sure this is the way to tell it.”
            A number of years ago, I submitted a story titled “Ghost in the Graveyard” to an anthology called Gothic Ghosts, edited by horror legend Charles L. Grant. I knew Charlie a little from the Genie boards (a forerunner of today’s social media), but not so well that I felt comfortable writing him and asking him to clarify his comment. I didn’t really need him to explain, though. I knew what he was reacting to: the story was written in second person. For some people, reading a story in second person is an acquired taste. while others would rather gargle with battery acid than subject themselves to second person.
            I can’t remember if “Ghost in the Graveyard” was the first time I wrote in second person, but a quick glance at my bibliography shows that it was the first such story I had published. It appeared in All Hallows in June 2000. Since then I’ve written around twenty more second-person stories, which is about a seventh of all the short fiction I’ve had published. Not a huge proportion of my overall output, perhaps, but enough to form a collection of its own. As the years go by, I seem to be writing in second person more often, and one of my most recent second-person stories, “How to be a Horror Writer,” has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
            If readers have been exposed to second-person fiction at all, it’s most likely through Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But unless they read literary fiction or were an English major in college, they probably haven’t encountered it anywhere else. Which is a shame, because second person can achieve effects that first and third person can’t. Here are some things to consider when writing in second person.
·         Use present tense with second person. Past tense – “You were eating an apple and you thought it was delicious” – doesn’t work well with second-person stories. Using you already keeps the reader at a distance from the story (which I’ll talk about later), so using past tense would push them away even farther. Present tense works better for second-person stories. Present tense is weird in fiction. You would think that present tense would indicate to readers that the events they’re reading about are happening right now, this very instant, creating a sense of immediacy and urgency. But instead present-tense narratives come across as passive and lacking in energy. This is one of the reasons literary writers often favor present tense. They want to avoid any hint of melodrama in their work, want it to appeal to the intellect rather than emotions. The passive nature of present tense can intensify the distancing effect of passive voice.
·         Second person creates cognitive dissonance in the reader. You’re constantly telling the reader that he or she is doing something when they damn well know they’re not. It’s almost as if their subconscious is always reminding them that You are not this person and you are not doing this thing, you are not this person and you are not doing this thing. This is one of the main reasons readers have trouble with present-tense stories, I think. But it’s also one of the great strengths of second person. Instead of inviting readers to relax and fall into the story, second person makes them wrestle with it mentally. Reading is always an interactive experience for readers, but second person creates a different sort of interaction. This effect works well for horror and weird fiction. Readers feel uncertain, unsure what to expect. They aren’t safe. Safe fiction is comfort food for the mind, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But unsafe fiction can affect readers far more deeply and leave a lasting impression.
·         Second person creates a distancing effect. It puts the reader in the position of being an observer rather than a participant in the story. It keeps them at arm’s length, keeps them off balance. This isn’t the normal way a story is told (as far as they’re concerned), so they aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen. They aren’t sure of the “rules.” As I said earlier, they aren’t safe. And good horror fiction – any fiction that matters – should never be safe.
·            Second person creates a numbing effect, and it has a flat, steady pace. If a character is experiencing something outside of what they believe to be the norm, something that is unreal or nightmarish, second person can create the same sort of detached numbness people experience when they’re dreaming. Second person allows readers to experience the same dreamlike detachment that the viewpoint character in a story experiences. The flat pace works well to create a sense of creeping menace, of a slow, inexorable progression toward whatever awfulness awaits at the end.
·            Second person tends to work better at short lengths rather than long ones. Jay McInerney’s famous second-person novel Bright Lights, Big City is a slim book, running under 50,000 words. I think the effects of second person – the distancing, the observer effect, the numbing, the flat, steady pace – can wear on most readers after a time. The effect can’t be sustained past a certain point. Exactly where that point is depends on the individual reader, but in general, I’d say that second person works best at short story or novella length.
·            Second person appeals more to readers of literary fiction than readers of commercial fiction. This is another reason narratives written in second-person are rare. Commercial fiction doesn’t necessarily mean hackwork. I write a great deal of commercial fiction, usually for the media tie-in novels that I do, and I strive to make these novels just as good as anything else I write. But commercial fiction is intended to appeal to the widest audience possible. To do this, it needs to be relatable and readable. It needs to welcome readers to the story and its characters, not keep them outside the story, as second person does. Since Choose Your Own Adventure-type stories directly address the reader at each decision point – If you want to open the door, turn to page 37. If you want to leave the door closed, turn to page 113 – second person works well. This is the only regular use of second person in commercial fiction that I’m aware of, though. Second person is more of a literary technique than an entertainment-focused technique.
           Second person can broaden a reader’s perspective on what fiction is and what it can do. It’s always good for readers to encounter narrative styles they may be unfamiliar with. The more varied reading experiences they have, the better readers they become overall. Stronger readers are more likely to expand their reading tastes and try new types of stories, which in turn makes them even better readers, further enriching their lives. Second person can be one more tool to help readers gain a deeper appreciation of literature, making writers better ambassadors for our art form.
How do I decide when to use second person?
1.      When I want to create any of the previously mentioned effects.
2.      Instinct. Sometimes a story feels as if it should be written in second person. Why, I don’t know. When I feel this, I don’t question it. I just go with it.
3.      When I’m not sure how to find my way into a story, I play around with different techniques. My short stories tend to be less plotted out than my novels, and they often focus on very abstract or imagistic ideas. This means that I’m not always certain how and where to begin a story. I’ll draft different beginnings, using different techniques and voices, and whichever turns out to be the key to unlock the story for me, that’s the one I use. Sometimes second person is that key.
4.      What I’m writing is very personal. I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City earlier. McInerney’s novel is based on his experiences as a young man living and working in New York City during the 1980’s: lots of partying, lots of coke, lots of sex. He had trouble writing the book until he tried second person. I believe using second person created the distancing effect he needed in order to write about his experiences, even in a fictionalized form. It works the same for me. When I’m writing a story that’s drawn very closely from my own experience, so much so that it could almost be a personal essay if I wrote it differently, second person gives me the distance I need in order to write about that experience. It helps me be a more detached observer of my own life, which allows me to work more effectively with my experiences as words and ideas on the page.
5.      When I’m having trouble getting started on a story, I often go straight to second person without trying different techniques. Writing stories in second person is as natural to me as breathing. The words pour out of me like water when I use second person. I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s a part of me that’s always a detached observer of my own life. (I wouldn’t be surprised if most artists are like this.) Writing in second person allows me to tap into that observer part of me. I serve as a mentor for the Horror Writers Association, and a while back I was mentoring a gentleman who was an award-winning playwright and teacher of playwrighting. He wanted to learn to write fiction more effectively, but when I read his stories, I could see that he was writing them as if they were plays, just with more words – description, narration, etc. – surrounding the dialogue. I knew that he was writing stories from the same perspective as he was writing plays: from the perspective of someone sitting in the audience and watching. I wanted to show him that he needed to write with a close attachment to one character’s viewpoint, as if he were one of the actors on stage experiencing the events of the play as they progressed. I wasn’t sure how to explain this, so I sat down to write a story, paying attention to how I focused my awareness when I wrote, hoping that I’d come up with the right concepts and vocabulary to communicate to my mentee the difference between writing from an audience member’s perspective and writing from an individual character’s perspective. I wrote a second-person story, which already has a detached observer’s point of view embedded in the technique. It worked. I was able to show my mentee the difference between the two ways of approaching writing. And the story I wrote just as a teaching tool? It was “How to be a Horror Writer,” the story that was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.
If you’ve never tried to write fiction in second person, read some examples then give it a shot. You might find it an interesting and rewarding, challenge. You’ll add another technique to your writer’s toolkit, and who knows? You might discover a new voice to speak with.

If you’d like to check out an example of my second-person fiction, you can read one of my stories for free on my website. “Portrait of a Horror Writer” was originally published in Cemetery Dance 48:
If you’d like to read “How to be a Horror Writer,” you can find it in Vastarien Volume 1, Issue 2:
The Shirley Jackson Awards will be presented at Readercon on July 14th. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Stepping Up to the Plate: The Art of the Pitch

Pitching your work to editors and agents at conferences is nerve-racking as hell. Writers tend to be introverts, so it’s hard for us to market ourselves and our work in person to someone. And it’s a major pain trying to distill an entire novel into a short synopsis that you can deliver verbally to someone else. But pitch sessions are a great way for writers to make a first connection with an agent or editor, and even if the idea of giving a pitch makes you break out in a cold sweat, you should do it as often as you can. So here are some tips on the art of the pitch.
  • Know pitch sessions for what they, and what they aren’t. You aren’t selling your work at a pitch session. You’re trying to get someone interested in taking a closer look at your work. You want to intrigue them, entice them. Give them a delicious taste so they want more.
  • Research the people you’re pitching to ahead of time. Read editors’ and agents’ bios on the con website. Google them to see if you can find print or video interviews with them. See what other clients they have/books they’ve published. Not only will this research enable you to shape your pitch to their needs, it’ll show that you’re a serious professional.
  • Your work must be complete. No agent or editor is interested in your ideas by themselves. They’re only interested in work that you have finished and can send to them tomorrow. If you don’t have anything finished, you’re wasting their time and yours.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A pitch isn’t about you. It’s about the person listening to your pitch. Agents and editors want to know who a book’s target audience is and how they can best market it to that audience. They don’t care about your inspiration for writing the book, how much time you put into it, or how much in love you are with your own world and characters. Writers can – by necessity – be very self-absorbed when it comes to the creation of their work. But when it comes time to market it to others, you have to forget about yourself and think about the other person’s needs. How will your book fulfill those needs? How will it do that better than another book?
  • Be able to categorize your book and its audience. No one likes to put labels on art as if it’s a can of peas, but that’s exactly what has to be done in order to market a book to readers. Even literary novels are categorized to market them: “An insightful coming-of-age tale set in the Great Depression.” What genre (and subgenre) does your book fit into? How long is it? Who do you envision as the audience for it? What makes your book different from all the bajillion other books out there?
  • Here’s a pitch formula I ran across a while ago that I find useful: Write one sentence about the character, one sentence about the conflict, and one sentence about the cool concept.
  • Make damn sure you talk about the conflict. The most common complaint I’ve heard about listening to pitches from agents and editors is that writers will say a ton about their characters and world but never mention what the conflict is. Conflict is drama. Conflict is story. If you make certain to talk about the conflict in your story, you’ll be far ahead of many of the others pitching at the con.
  • Don’t tell everything about your story, character, or world. Pitches are supposed to be short. They’re supposed to deliver an intriguing taste of your work, and nothing more.
  • If your book is part of a series, mention that, but don’t go into detail about the other books at this point. Agents and editors only want to know about the first book. Knowing there’s series potential there is good, but their focus is solely on the current book.
  • Prepare. Don’t wander into a pitch session and wing it. Prepare first. That will help you take maximum advantage of the short time you have to pitch, plus preparation is the best way to head off nervousness. If you can get a look at the space where the pitches will be held ahead of time, do it. Familiarizing yourself with the room will give you some idea of how noisy or quiet it will be, how loud you’ll need to talk, etc. It’ll also help decrease your nervousness.
  • Practice. Go through your pitch several times before your scheduled meeting. Practice on you own, or with family and friends. Video yourself and see how you did. You can practice before your pitch, too. I often see people practice pitching to each other in the hallway before their scheduled meetings.
  • Time yourself when you practice. You want to make sure you get your entire pitch in during your meeting, but you also want to leave some time for the editor or agent to ask questions. Time yourself in practice so you don’t go over time – or too far under time – during your meeting.
  • How should you dress? Editors and agents don’t really care how you dress. Writers tend to be casual people anyway. Plus, agents and editors are often the only people dressed in business attire at a con, so writers tend not to dress very formally. But you want to look professional, and more importantly, you need to be comfortable. Tight, uncomfortable clothing will only exacerbate your nervousness. I usually wear a polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. A turtleneck or mock turtleneck if it’s wintertime. Business casual is a good look to go for, but honestly, agents and editors are far more interested in what you have to say than what you have on.
  • Write your pitch down and read it during the meeting if you have to. I always bring print-outs with my pitches on them to pitch meetings. I usually don’t have to read the print-outs, but they’re there if I need them. And if you’re extremely nervous, it’s okay to read from your print-out. It’s best if you can speak without notes, meet the other person’s eyes, etc. But you have to do what you need to in order to get through the pitch, and if that means reading your notes, so be it.
  • Don’t booze it up, over-caffeinate, eat a big meal beforehand, etc. Have fresh breath. Bathe. You need a clear head, so avoid alcohol. You don’t need extra nervous energy, so avoid caffeine. Plus, both alcohol and coffee can give you dry mouth – and they’ll make you feel like you need to pee, especially if you’re nervous. Eating a big meal can make you uncomfortable and your nerves might cause an upset stomach. Brush your teeth beforehand, eat a mint, chew some gum so you have fresh breath. (Just don’t chew the gum during your meeting.) Make sure you’ve bathed and are wearing deodorant. It’s easy to let some of your hygiene standards slide a bit when you’re super busy at cons. Don’t. You don’t want agents and editors to remember you as that person with the terrible body odor and horrible death-stench breath. You want them to remember your work.
  • Only bring water if you think going to have serious dry mouth during the meeting. Having water is a temptation when your nervous. You’re tempted to play with it because your hands need something to do. You’re tempted to sip it periodically because you’re nervous. Both of these are distractions during your meeting. You may feel like you have to pee if you drink too much, of course, but worst of all, you might spill your water on the table, the floor, and maybe even on the agent or editor. Only bring water if you will physically be unable to get through the pitch without it.
  • Don’t speak too fast. When people are nervous, they tend to speak faster than normal. That can make you hard to listen to. Plus, your nervousness will make the person you’re pitching to feel uncomfortable. You want the agent and editor to focus on your work, not on how nervous you are. Practice will help you speak at a normal pace during the actual meeting.
  • Don’t oversell yourself or your work. Yes, we have to market ourselves, but it’s often difficult to know how much and how far we should push. Billing yourself as the next Stephen King or saying that your novel will be a huge bestseller and change the genre forever will only make you look ridiculous. Be enthusiastic about your work, talk about why you think readers will like it, yes, but don’t act as if you think you’re the greatest writer since Shakespeare. You’re not. Me neither. Remember, a pitch is about your story, not you.
  • Leave a little time for questions/conversation. Don’t take up the entire meeting talking about your story. Leave some time for the agent or editor to ask you some questions or for you to ask questions of your own. If you’ve researched the agent or editor and can ask questions directly related to them and the places they work, you’ll come across as far more professional. Plus, a pitch meeting goes both ways. You want to know if this agent or editor is right for you.
  • Ask how they like to work with writers. This will give you a good sense of what the editor or agent’s working style is like. It’s important that you feel this is a person you could work with and hopefully develop a good business relationship with.
  • It doesn't hurt to bring some material -- say a synopsis and three chapters of your book -- to a pitch meeting, just in case an agent or editor asks to see it right then. But most agents and editors don't want to carry paper around with them at the con or schlep it onto the plane when they go home. If they're interested in your work, they'll most likely ask you to email it to them later.
  • You can pitch even if you already have an agent. It doesn’t hurt to meet editors and get a sense of who they are and how they work – and to give them a sense of who you are. Your agent can follow up with them later if they’re interested in taking a look at your work. In my case, I often pitch to movie and TV people looking for literary works to adapt. My agent follows up with them afterward.
  • Hallway pitches. If you can’t get a formal meeting with an agent or an editor, you can always approach them after a panel, in the hallway, in the bar, etc., and ask if you could pitch to them. They may listen to your pitch right there or they may make an appointment with you to pitch later. Be courteous when you do this. Don’t bug them while they’re eating, having a conversation with someone else, or sitting on the toilet. Being assertive is one thing. Being rudely aggressive is another.
  • Be yourself – or at least the best version of yourself. I said earlier that agents and editors are primarily interested in your story, and that’s true. But they also like to get a sense of who you are as a person and what it might be like to work with you. Do your best to be yourself, but it’s okay to be the best version of yourself. Be more outgoing if you’re an introvert. Be more calm if you’re usually a spaz. If you normally swear like a sailor, tone down your language. The main thing is to treat a pitch like it’s a conversation between two people, because in the end, that’s all it is.


Just Released!

My tie-in novel, Supernatural: Children of Anubis, is now out!

Sam and Dean travel to Indiana to investigate a murder that could be the work of a werewolf. But they soon discover that werewolves aren't the only things going bump in the night. The town is also home to a pack of jakkals who worship the god Anubis: carrion-eating scavengers who hate werewolves. With the help of Garth, the Winchester brothers must stop the werewolf-jakkal turf war before it engulfs the town – and before the god Anubis is awakened...

I had a lot of fun writing the werewolf family in this book, and it was great to invent a new monster species – the jakkals – for it as well. This the fifth Supernatural tie-in I’ve done, and I think it’s my best one yet. I hope you check it out and see for yourselves!

Cover Reveal!

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Alien’s release, Titan Books revealed the cover to Alien Prototype, my forthcoming tie-in novel set in the Alien universe.

When an industrial spy steals a Xenomorph egg, former Colonial Marine Zula Hendricks must prevent an alien from killing everyone on an isolated colony planet.

Corporate spy Tamar Prather steals a Xenomorph egg from Weyland-Yutani, taking it to a lab facility run by Venture, a Weyland-Yutani competitor. Former Colonial Marine Zula Hendricks--now allied with the underground resistance--infiltrates Venture's security team. When a human test subject is impregnated, the result is a Xenomorph that, unless it's stopped, will kill every human being on the planet.

What the official synopsis doesn’t reveal is that the Xenomorph is born from a host who carries a deadly virus inside him – a virus that mutates the Xenomorph, making the creature even more deadly than its kind usually are. Part horror, part science fiction, and part action, this novel was a blast to write, and I hope people will enjoy it!

Release Date: Oct. 29. 2019

Coming Soon!

My next horror novel for Flame Tree Press, They Kill, is due out in July, but you can get a review copy now at the NetGalley site:

Here’s a synopsis:

What are you willing to do, what are you willing to become, to save someone you love? Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet. Corliss gives Sierra a chance to make Jeffrey’s resurrection permanent – if she makes a dreadful bargain. Can she do what it will take to save her brother, no matter how much blood is shed along the way?

My story “Voices Like Barbed Wire” has been selected to appear in Year's Best Hardcore Horror Volume 4. It’s my third appearance in this series! Available now in both print and e-editions.