“There are writers’ cliques in horror, and if you don’t belong to one, you can’t get published. And not only don’t they support new writers, they actively work to keep us out!”
I’ll be fifty-eight soon. I started writing and submitting fiction to publishers when I was eighteen, which means I’m coming up on my fortieth anniversary as a writer. I can’t tell you how many times during my career I’ve heard statements like the one above, and not just regarding horror but other genres too. The people making these statements believe there’s a nebulous group of professional writers who are friends and who won’t allow anyone into their closed circle. They exclusively publish each other’s stories in magazines and anthologies, and they sing the praises of each other’s work and no one else’s. Somehow, they act as gatekeepers for their entire genre, making sure that no new writers can rise to their level in publishing and become a threat to their power and prestige.
Are there writers’ cliques? I suppose it depends on what you consider a clique. There are groups of writers who’ve become friends over the years, maybe because they all started writing at the same time and have a shared history in the publishing industry. Or maybe they’re friends because they met each other and hung out at various conventions over the years. Or maybe they’re fans of each other’s work and became connected that way. Often, it’s a combination of all these things. And yes, if any of the writers edit a magazine or anthology, they’re more likely to invite their friends to submit because they know the quality of their writing and that they’ll be easy to work with. But do these groups really act as genre gatekeepers, repelling any new writers who dare to challenge their supremacy?
Not that I’ve seen in the last four decades.
“Sure you’d say that, Tim,” you might be thinking. “You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time now. You are one of the cool kids.”
Allow me to laugh my ass off for a few minutes before I go on.
. . .
Okay, I’m back <wipes away tears of hilarity>.
I’ve never felt like an insider of any kind during my life, and while I’m friends with a lot of writers, these friendships in and of themselves haven’t furthered my career. I’ve gotten encouragement, advice, and support from these friendships – I mean, isn’t that what friends do for each other? – and sure, there’s a certain amount of networking that goes on, but it’s not as if any of us know The Big Secret to having insanely massive success as a writer. If we did, we’d take advantage of this secret ourselves and be swimming in cash like Unca Scrooge in his money bin. Whatever success I’ve achieved in my career has come two ways: 1) Writing regularly and constantly striving to become better at my craft and 2) Persisting in the face of rejections, self-doubt, poor reviews, and career setbacks. So when I get invited to submit to an anthology or when a friend tells me about a writing opportunity that’s not common knowledge, it’s because I’m a skilled writer with a long track record of publication. I’ve taught college writing classes for almost as long as I’ve been writing, and I’ve liked the vast majority of students that I’ve had over the years. But the ones I’ve recommended for various writing opportunities have been the ones with the most skill, not the ones I liked the most.
In my experience, there’s no such thing as all-powerful cabals of writers who work to keep newer writers from rising to their exalted level. So why do newer writers continue to believe in such cabals, and why do rumors about their existence pop up again and again throughout the years? I don’t know for certain, but you likely won’t be surprised to learn I have a few theories.
1) A need for control. So much of a writer’s career when it comes to publishing is beyond our control. It’s difficult to believe that luck plays a gigantic role in which writers go on to big careers. We can’t control luck (although we can prepare ourselves to take advantage of whatever luck comes our way). And we sure don’t want to believe that our writing, while (hopefully) good, isn’t good enough for us to climb the ladder of success much farther than where we’re at currently. It’s far easier to blame someone, anyone, for our lack of major success. Blaming people gives us something specific to focus on rather than something abstract, like luck, and if some cabal of writers is out to get us, it’s because we must be a threat to them, which means we must be as good a writer as they are, if not better. Not only is the fantasy of the sinister writing cabal more emotionally satisfying, it allows us to control the narrative of our career, giving us a villain to counter the hero we so desperately want to see ourselves as.
2) Envy. We often admire those writers we see in our imaginary cabal, and we wish we could be part of their circle. We want them to recognize us as an equal and anoint us a True Writer, worthy of being one of the cool kids. If we believe there’s an inside, it hurts to think we’re on the outside and may always be.
3) Social media. We see writers post successes on social media all the time, and often these successes demonstrate that these writers are leveling up in their careers. Major book contracts. Critical acclaim. Award wins. Film adaptations. It’s only natural for us to wonder when we’ll get these things, and we fear that we may never get them. It can begin to seem that every writer aside from us is having fantastic success all the time, but this is an illusion. We pay more attention to these announcements than when someone posts that they managed to write 500 words today. Writers with major success are few and far between compared to all the writers chugging away, writing and hoping, day after day.
4) Belief that relationships in the writing community should be transactional. We supported a writer when they were starting out, engaged with them on social media, commented on their posts, retweeted announcements about their book releases . . . and when they start to have success, they don’t reach down and lift us up to their level. We can become angry, even bitter. We say they’ve forgotten where they came from, that they’ve turned their back on the people who helped them when they were coming up.
5) Career expectations warped by society’s view of success. American culture says you’re not a true success unless you become mega famous and mega rich (and it doesn’t hurt to be mega beautiful, either). If society has been ramming this definition of success down your throat all your life, you end up believing it, even if you don’t realize it. So whatever success we do achieve is like cold, bitter ashes in our mouth. Because it’s not – and can never be – enough.
6) We overestimate our writing ability. A lot of us fear that we’re not good enough writers, but many of us believe we are fucking AWESOME! Not only that, but our writing is so much better than the shit more successful writers crap out. How can they be such big hits when we’re not? We come to believe that something is seriously wrong with publishing when such a profound injustice can occur. The only way someone as talented as us isn’t successful yet has to be because someone is purposefully keeping us down.
So if there aren’t any sinister cabals preventing your success, and belonging to a clique won’t help your career in any appreciable way, how can you, all by your lonesome, do the things that these mythical cabals are said to do?
1) Continue improving as a writer. Whatever success we get in the publishing world comes from the quality of our work. Sometimes that means literary excellence, sometimes it means our work is entertaining, sometimes it means our work fits the needs of the current market, and sometimes it’s all three. But the quality of our work is the only thing that we can really control, and while we may not all have the capability of becoming Pulitzer Prize winners, we can all improve.
2) Find a niche that works for you. One of the reasons writers achieve success is that they’re recognized as producing a certain kind of work: literary horror, humorous romance, fast-paced thrillers . . . If you can find a specialty that works for you – one you enjoy and that readers respond to – you’re more likely to find some measure of success, even if you never become a bestseller. And don’t just write typical genre fare. Write the stories only you can tell. Look at the most successful authors in your field. None of them are the same. They have their own voices, visions, and themes. You should too.
3) Try writing something different. On the other hand, maybe you already have a specialty and your career isn’t going anywhere. Maybe you should experiment a bit, try writing some other stuff, and see if maybe a different genre/niche might work better for you career-wise. For example, John Jakes started out writing science fiction before becoming a bestseller writing historical fiction. Lawrence Block wrote soft-core erotica as a young author before turning to mystery fiction. Maybe you just need a change.
4) Make connections with people for the right reasons. When I first started going to conventions, I read articles and books on networking and tried to employ the techniques I learned. I felt awkward, and more importantly, I felt like I was trying to cynically use people to further my own career. I said fuck it, I’m just going to be myself and if I make connections with people, it’ll be because I like them and they like me, not because I read some goddamn business book filled with networking techniques. I don’t try to force connections, and I don’t expect those connections to lead to anything other than my getting to know some great people. If those connections end up benefitting my career, it's a nice bonus.
5) Support others without expecting any support in return. I regularly like, comment, and share other authors’ social media posts, but I don’t expect them to do anything for me in return. If they do, I appreciate it, but my support doesn’t come with a price. If writers email me asking for advice, I give it without considering how they’ll repay me. Expecting one-to-one reciprocity for your support and not getting it will only lead to anger and resentment on your part. Understand this: No one owes you anything for your support. Your support should be freely given without any expectation of reward. If it isn’t, it’s not truly support. It’s merely you trying to use others for career advancement.
6) Understand that other writers can’t work miracles for you. Sometimes when I hear a new writer wonder why more successful writers don’t help them, I think, “What the hell do you think we can do for you?” We can’t work magic and transform you into a wildly successful author. We can recommend you to agents and editors, but we can’t make them take you on. I’ve recommended a number of writers over the years – some of them well-published professionals – and very few of those recommendations have paid off for them. I’ve taught probably thousands of students over the years, and only a small percentage of them have gone on to any kind of writing career. Plus, we can’t help everyone who wants our help. If we tried, we’d never have time to write anything of our own. I help newer writers by teaching classes and workshops, as well as mentoring writers through the Horror Writers Association’s mentoring program. I also write this blog, put publishing and writing tips in my newsletter, and record videos about writing and publishing for my YouTube channel. And I’ve written two books on writing horror: Writing in the Dark and The Writing in the Dark Workbook (which is forthcoming). Sure, these things promote my work, but they also allow me to give advice to many writers at once. I do what I can, where I can, how I can, and I choose how much or how little of it to do at any given time for my health and my sanity.
7) Forget society’s definition of success. If you buy into the American myth that mega success is the only real success, you’ll always believe yourself to be a failure, no matter how much writing success you have.
8) Have realistic expectations about a writing career. Recently, Laird Barron posted on Twitter that “Every day, art Twitter expresses shock and amazement that most artists live and die in obscurity.” This is the painful truth of living a life in the arts, and you need to make your peace with it. Very few people on Earth read for pleasure, and many of them probably don’t enjoy the kind of fiction you prefer to write. Even the biggest flop of a movie has millions of more viewers than your fiction will have readers (maybe in your entire career). Learn that it’s okay to have a small audience that gets your stuff and enjoys it. Learn to appreciate the experiences you gain from a life in writing. Realize that writers you consider masters today will be forgotten soon after they die – just as most of us likely will. Try not to let this get you down. Appreciate the moments as you live them, write for today, enjoy your life and career, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
9) Make peace with not having much control. You can rage about not having control or you can accept it, but you will never get control over every aspect of your writing career. If you accept this, your life will be a hell of a lot easier and more enjoyable.
10) Understand it’s all a crapshoot in the end. There is nothing you can purposefully do to ensure that you have mega success as a writer. NOTHING. No one is trying to keep you from succeeding. The odds of any big success in the arts are so slim as to be almost nonexistent. That doesn’t mean your shouldn’t try to take your career as far as you can in the time you have – you should! But your primariy concern should be producing good work and sharing it with the world (even if it’s an extremely small percentage of the world). Your life won’t be worth more if you’re one of the few lucky ones and achieve mega success, and it won’t be worth less if your success is minimal. Be ready to take advantage if and when luck comes your way, but in the meantime, just keep writing. And for fuck’s sake, try to enjoy the journey.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
Planet Havoc: A Zombicide Novel
Advance reviews of Planet Havoc have been good, and Jonathan Maberry was kind enough to read an advanced copy and provide a blurb!
“PLANET HAVOC is the best of all worlds –space adventure, military SF, snarky humor, and zombies! Tim Waggoner brings the pain and all the jolts in this rollicking action horror thriller!” – Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of the Joe Ledger thrillers and KAGEN THE DAMNED
Planet Havoc is due out in April and is available for preorder.
Scoundrels and soldiers band together to survive the onslaught of alien-zombies spreading across the galaxy in this riotous adventure from the bestselling game, Zombicide: Invader
A deserted R&D facility tempts the hungry new Guild, Leviathan, into sending a team to plunder its valuable research. The base was abandoned after a neighboring planet was devastated by an outbreak of Xenos – alien zombies – but that was a whole planet away... When the Guild ship is attacked by a quarantine patrol, both ships crash onto the deserted world. Only it isn’t as deserted as they hope: a murderous new Xeno threat awakens, desperate to escape the planet. Can the crews cooperate to destroy this new foe? Or will they be forced to sacrifice their ships and lives to protect the galaxy?
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We Will Rise
My next horror novel is due out this July from Flame Tree Press!
In Echo Hill, Ohio, the dead begin to reappear, manifesting in various forms, from classic ghosts and poltergeists, to physical undead and bizarre apparitions for which there is no name. These malign spirits attack the living, tormenting and ultimately killing them in order to add more recruits to their spectral ranks.
A group of survivors come together after the initial attack, all plagued by different ghostly apparitions of their own. Can they make it out of Echo Hill alive? And if so, will they still be sane? Or will they die and join the ranks of the vengeful dead?
You can preorder the book here:
Flame Tree Press: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/we-will-rise-isbn-9781787585249.html
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Barnes & Noble Hardcover
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