My Zoom-based horror writing workshop “The Art of Dread: Crafting Contemporary Horror” is over, but I am providing this guide: The Art of Dread: Getting Started, to all who are interested in getting started in horror writing and submitting.
GETTING STARTED: A guide to improving your writing, working with feedback, and navigating the submissions process.
Note: This guide focuses on short fiction as opposed to novels, and it focuses on horror writing over other types of writing. I think its advice can apply more broadly, but that is where it is focused.
I’ve been gathering ideas from writer friends for this, and I’ll continue updating this guide as I receive new suggestions.
Last Update: January 22, 2022
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Methods for Working on Your Writing
So, you want to work on your writing skills! Some folks will refer to this as “leveling up.” There are all sorts of ways to go about this, and it’s probably best to consider using multiple methods. Some common suggestions for improving your writing skills are listed below. I did not make these up; rather, they are all well-established methods agreed upon by many.
Not every one of these will work for every writer, but I recommend trying all of them before you decide which ones will work for you–and it would be good to give each method more than one try. Your attitude toward the methods might change over time. For example, I dreaded peer feedback in school, but as an adult I’ve come to value it.
We’ll look at five categories:
- Literary-Focused Methods
- Self-Focused Methods
- Community-Focused Methods
- Direct Guidance
- Questions for You
Let’s think of “practice” as a noun as well as a verb. You need to practice any skill in order to maintain and improve your abilities. You also want to think about developing a practice–a way of writing–that works for you. It might not stay the same throughout your writing career, but having a regular way of writing that you tend to stick to at any given time can help you be more productive.
There are different opinions on what kind of practice you ought to strive for:
- Some will recommend a certain word count (or hour count) per day or per week. Goals like that can be helpful for some.
- Finding the right time of day, location, and tools for writing may also be important. Some writers are fine under every condition, and others work much better using a certain pen, a certain device, writing in the morning versus evening, full or hungry, etc.
- A certain order of tasks might also be important for you, for example starting with an outline, starting a writing session with an “invention technique” such as listing ideas or fastwriting (aka freewriting), or beginning your writing session by reading over the last day’s work are common recommendations.
- To add variety to your practice, you can bring in writing exercises from craft books, set yourself challenges (such as the Ray Bradbury short story challenge, his listing exercise, or writing for a certain themed submission call, such as those listed in Horror Tree or Submission Grinder). I asked some writing friends what they recommended, and some a further suggestion was Writing Exercises from Matt Bell.
Reading is one of the most commonly recommended methods for improving your writing. As with writing practice, some find a goal of a certain number of books to be helpful; others don’t want that pressure. Consider various styles of reading:
- Reading deeply in the area you want to write in will help you become more of an expert in that area and put your work in conversation with the authors most like yourself. Reading novels like the one you’re writing or reading the magazines you submit to is a very common suggestion for this reason. Refer to the Further Reading section of this page for a list of established horror magazines, or find more through The Submission Grinder (instructions for using this submission tracker are in Submitting Your Work).
- Reading a variety of genres and types of literature is thought to help give you range. As a horror writer, you of course want to read a lot of horror (perhaps even drilling down in a particular subgenre) but you might also find it helpful to read poetry, science fiction, literary realism, or even screenplays.
- Don’t discount nonfiction reading. Keeping up with the news can help inspire story ideas and help lend your work more relevance if you are writing in a contemporary setting, and of course reading history and researching the time period is helpful if you are writing historical fiction.
- Reading craft books can help you develop your critical and reflective skills. You can find craft books that are mostly encouragement, others that focus on teaching you certain structures and templates (Save the Cat and the Snowflake Method were often mentioned by my writing friends), and still others that focus on specific topics such as how to convey emotion. Refer to the Further Reading section for a list of horror-focused craft books, or select any non-horror craft book and see if you can apply its advice to your writing. There are so many craft books to explore!
Analyzing some of what you read is another common suggestion. It’s not realistic to think you’ll read a lot and analyze all of it, but sitting down to take apart a story that you think is excellent (or one that really didn’t work for you) can be a good way of developing a sense of what works–and how it works–so that you can try to emulate the same in your own story.
Some understanding of literary analysis can be helpful, so taking a literature class, reading about literary analysis, or even reading some well-developed reviews (as opposed to reader-reaction style reviews) might be needed to develop those analytical skills. You can also read about reading online. Refer to Corrine Kumar’s SFWA blog post “Active Reading to Step up Your Writing,” for example
Listening to the New Yorker Fiction podcast can also be a great (and easy) way to start developing analytical skills. A story is read and then the participants discuss what it means and how it works! A horror writing friend of mine also recommends Elder Sign: A Weird Fiction Podcast, and his recommendation made me think of Faculty of Horror, which analyzes horror movies.
Reflection is a large part of what college writing classes focus on because when you can become more self-aware of what you’re doing, you can make more progress on your own with less direct intervention from a teacher, editor, or peer commenter. It’s about developing critical ability. Reflection is a very broad term and could refer to a variety of different actions, for example:
- Reflecting on your practice and process as a way to see if changes are in order. (The questions area at the end of this section will start you on this.)
- Reflecting on what you’ve learned about writing after reading a book or writing a new story.
- Reflecting on your own taste as you take note of your reactions to something you read.
- Reflecting on how you revised a piece: taking note of what changes you made, why, and what the effect was.
- Reflecting on your goals for your writing.
- Reflecting on your preoccupations and tendencies as a writer (to better understand what you have to offer or as George Saunders terms it, your “iconic space”).
Cultivating the Right Attitudes is another self-focused method for improvement. There are certain attitudes that can be counterproductive, and there are ways to get past them or at least minimize their damage. I’d say that some general attitude changes that would be helpful are:
- Heartbreak over rejection→ resilience in the face of rejection
- Jealousy of other writers→ support for and happiness about others’ successes
- Imposter syndrome→ confidence about your value and the value of your writing (a great chapter on this from Charlie Jane Anders here)
- Taking all feedback to heart→ taking feedback with a grain of salt
- Focusing on rules and recipes for writing→ seeing writing as an art form and rules as suggestions
That sounds fine, but how would you go about changing your attitudes?
The best way might be to seek out more information. For example, if you have the idea that good work = easy publication and your work has had a few rejections, you might be feeling blue and defeated, but if you can understand that rejections are about more than just the quality of the work, then you might be motivated to keep submitting your pieces. And that is true: stories are often rejected by several editors before they’re accepted. It’s a matter of finding a publication where your story works with the editor’s theme and vision, fits into the current issue, and isn’t too similar to another story they’ve already decided to accept. Submitting more, volunteering as a slush reader, and reading or hearing more people’s rejection stories (such as Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy blog or a quick search of “rejection stories”) might help ease your rejection fears. Making meaningful friendships with other writers can help with jealousy, and reading about imposter syndrome (and being open to pep talks about it) might help with that.
Confidence is also a goal! It is hard to have confidence all the time, but think about what kinds of activities give you more confidence. For example, I might be worried about whether a story is good enough to send to Nightmare or Black Static, so I would do things that help me feel more confident about it, like soliciting feedback from beta readers and addressing their comments, reading the story out loud so I’m sure everything is as intended, etc.
Confidence and a sense of ownership of your work will also help keep you from taking feedback too directly. You want to think of feedback as something for you to process and use in your own way, not a set of directions. This will help you understand that conflicting feedback is not a failure of your critique partners–it’s just a reminder that different people have different ideas about how a piece is working and what would make it work better.
Peer Feedback from beta readers, critique partners, or writing groups is a common suggestion for those working on their writing. Peers can give you ideas about how to revise, but perhaps more importantly, they can give you a sense of how editors and readers might experience your work. By reading and analyzing their work, you will develop your critical skills. I’ll give some practical ideas for finding and working in groups in the Forming Writing Groups and Giving Feedback section.
Volunteering is another community-focused method.
The HWA offers some levels of membership the ability to serve on a Stoker Awards jury, for example, which is a great way to develop in-depth knowledge of what’s being published in a given year and to get to know more people in your organization. Slush reading is a particularly helpful kind of volunteer work. In larger markets, slush readers (aka first readers) are the people who read submissions and decide whether or not to recommend them to the editors. In smaller organizations, the editors might read every story. Slush reading will give you a sense of what other writers are producing and provide insight into why very good stories are often rejected, which will help you cultivate a positive attitude toward rejection. You can contact magazines you like or watch for requests for slush readers on social media.
Socializing with other writers in person, at conventions, on social media and private discussion boards, etc. helps you cultivate the attitudes you want to have, gives you connections, and makes the work of writing more fulfilling for everyone in the community.
Sometimes you might want guidance from someone with more or different experience–a teacher, mentor, editor, agent, etc.
Participating in a mentorship: HWA, SFWA, and other organizations sometimes offer free mentorships. Take advantage of these if they are available to you. You can also hire coaches, editors, and the like, but I don’t have experience with this, so I’ll suggest doing your research if you intend to go that route.
Taking classes and applying what you learned from them is another excellent idea. Is there a college or literary center nearby where you can take a general creative writing class, or a literature class? Would you like to take a horror writing class such as the Fright Club workshop, a horror-focused Litreactor class, or Horror University from HWA? If you have the time, funds, and inclination, there are also prestigious workshops of 2-6 weeks or more that focus on genre writing more generally (usually science fiction, fantasy, and horror) such as Odyssey, Clarion, Clarion West, Viable Paradise, and Taos Toolbox.
Reading craft books: Reading and doing the exercises in an exercise-based craft book such as the horror-focused book Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner can be very similar to taking a class (only there isn’t any teacher feedback). George Saunders also has a literary analysis-based craft book I really love called A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and a companion newsletter Story Club. Refer to Further Reading on this page for some books focused on horror and related matters.
Editors and agents: this is for later, but eventually you will be getting direct guidance from editors who accept your work (or reject it with a personal note) and perhaps also agents!
Questions for You
What is your current writing practice like? Is writing practice something you would like to further develop, change, or improve? If so, in what ways?
What are your current reading habits like? Do you sometimes analyze what you read? Do you feel you have the tools to be able to analyze what you read? Is this an area you would like to further develop, change, or improve? If so, in what ways?
Do you currently reflect on your writing process, revision, etc? Do you have any attitudes about writing that seem to hold you back? Is this an area you would like to further develop, change, or improve? If so, in what ways?
Are you currently working with any peers or peer groups? Are you in contact with other writers? Do you do any writing-related volunteering? Is this an area you would like to further develop, change, or improve? If so, in what ways?
Are you currently taking or considering any classes or working with any exercise-based craft books? Is this an area you would like to further develop, change, or improve? If so, in what ways?
Forming Writing Groups and Giving Feedback
How do you find critique partners?
If you don’t have a local writing group, you might meet potential critique partners in a class (I met several of mine in the Fright Club workshop and in Litreactor courses) or through social media. (One of my favorite readers reached out to me after reading a published story, and I have replied to writers posting on Twitter their requests for beta readers.) There are online discussion groups such as HWA’s Discord and for various conventions (Flights of Foundry is an excellent one for newer writers), so these might also be good places to meet potential critique partners. Once you have at least one SFWA pro-paying sale, you will be eligible to join Codex Writers Group and can meet critique partners there as well.
What kind of a group do you want to form?
There are pros and cons to different types of peer feedback. Large groups offer a greater variety of perspectives (one hopes) and smaller groups or pairings might become tighter and more intimately involved with one another’s work. People who write in different styles and genres will give more diversified perspectives, and groups with more similar people might be more insular but they are more likely to “get” what you are doing. Critiquing others’ work is time-consuming, so you don’t want to be in a large group or regular meetings if you can’t make that time commitment.
Do you know how to give helpful critiques?
Some people avoid beta reading or being in a peer group because they aren’t sure how to be a good reader –and sometimes that fear is well founded. If you have a very different idea of how to critique than your peers do, it can have the opposite effect you intend–break down relationships rather than building them up. Read up on peer commenting, communicate frequently and ask your partners how your feedback is working for them, and when in doubt, err on the side of gentle critique.
Here are some starting points for learning about peer critique:
- Clarion West Workshop Methods
- Storyville: How to Survive a Creative Writing Workshop | LitReactor
- Leveling Up as a Writer with Peer Critique (Writer’s Digest)
- Six Guidelines for Cultivating Trust (Burlington Writers Workshop)
Submitting Your Work
In this section, I’ll walk you through the submission process. We’ll look at how to find markets for your work, consider where would be best to send your work, and go over some submission terms. In deciding where to send your work, you’ll want to consider:
How do you find places to submit your work?
There are two main options: Duotrope and The Submission Grinder. Unless you already have access to Duotrope, let’s start with The Submission Grinder since it’s free. Very rarely, there are submission calls on Facebook and other social media that are not listed in The Submission Grinder, but that is rare. Most calls are listed here.
If you haven’t used The Submission Grinder before, here is how:
- Go to the page and at the top right, pull down the “Search” menu.
- Choose “Advanced Search (Fiction)
- If your genre is clear, choose the genre (Horror, Fantasy, etc.).
- Enter your word count, if you are searching for a place to send a particular piece.
- If you have a minimum acceptable payment, type that in.
- If your piece is a reprint, or if it is a simultaneous submission (already submitted somewhere else), check that box.
- Hit “Search” at the bottom of the page. Results will show. Notice that you can change the order by clicking “Pay” (which will rank them by cent per word) or “Avg Response” (which will rank them by how quickly the market tends to get back to folks).
- Click the link to one of the markets. Notice that this page will allow you to see more details about the market such as a statement of what they are looking for and a deadline for when they will close. It links to the market’s website and shows how many people are waiting for a response.
- Cick “Website” to read more about this market. You might need to search on the site for the “Submissions” or “Guidelines” page, which is sometimes in an area of the site called “About Us,” or sometimes listed at the bottom of the home page.
The Submission Grinder will allow you to track your submissions as well if you go to “Log In” and “Register.” You can also track submissions on a private spreadsheet, but many writers find it more convenient to use The Submission Grinder or Duotrope to do this. Please see The Submission Grinder FAQs if you have any questions about The Submission Grinder.
Is your piece acceptable for the market?
The first thing you want to look at is whether the work fits with the guidelines. Read them carefully, and make sure that you can submit something in the genre requested, within the word count limits, in the requested file type and format, etc. If your work is close, you might consider revising so it fits–adding or cutting a few hundred words, for example, or emphasizing a certain element that is important to the call. If your piece is not close, you just need to move on to a different market
Consider sending something else to this one–or writing something new. Some writers find it inspiring to use submission calls as prompts for new stories.
Look closely at anything the guidelines say they do not want to see. For example, many horror markets will specify whether they are open to seeing gore or not, and markets of all types will often specify that they do not want to see various content such as eroticism, sexual assault, etc.
Your work will probably meet the guidelines for several different markets, so how do you prioritize them? Consider fit, pay, time, and less quantifiable factors:
How appropriate is your piece for each market?
Often, submission guidelines will ask that you read a copy of the magazine, or read one of the publisher’s previous anthologies, before you submit. This is a good idea because it helps you to see whether your piece fits with the tone and style of the market’s other pieces. Various markets might take horror, but some might focus on “quiet” or understated horror, some might be committed to representing horror from a variety of cultures, others might want more sensational pieces, and so on. Knowing what the market favors will help you choose where to send your work.
This can go too far, however, which is why this advice is so important: “Don’t self-reject.” If you worry too much about whether a piece will fit and do not send it in, then you might miss a good opportunity–and the publisher might miss seeing a piece they would have loved, a piece that might have stretched or changed their vision for the magazine or anthology.
Sometimes you’ll see a call that sounds perfect for your piece. You have a story about evil rats and are wondering who will love it, and along comes a horror anthology call for rodent stories. Send it in!
How much do you want to be paid for your writing?
Pay rates for fiction are often designated as pro (5 or 8 cents per word and up, depending on genre), semi-pro (at least 1 cent per word), token (less than 1 cent per word) and non-paying. There are some variations: Some markets pay a flat fee regardless of the story’s length, some pay in contributor copies, and some offer royalty shares rather than up-front payment.
Pay is important for its own sake, but as a beginning writer you might also want to seek out pro-paying markets in order to gain membership eligibility such as
- Codex Writers Group–1 sale at SFWA pro-paying rates (currently 8 cents a word)
- SFWA active membership–3 sales at SFWA pro-paying rates, totaling a certain word count.
- HWA active membership–3 sales at HWA pro-paying rates (currently 5 cents a word), totaling a certain word count.
Some writers will set a minimum rate of pay. For example, they might refuse to submit for less than pro or semi-pro rates. Sometimes other factors can override whatever rules a writer has set for payment.
How long will the publication take to make its decision?
Many submission calls will estimate how long the editors might take to make a decision, and even if they do not, Submission Grinder or Duotrope will give you data about how long others have waited. These are guesses. Something could go wrong and they might take much longer because an editor had outside issues to deal with, or they might hold your work a long time because they like it but are unsure how to place it in an upcoming issue or anthology.
All else being equal, you should choose the market with the fastest average return time. That way, if your piece isn’t chosen, you can send it to the next place more quickly. This is especially true if the markets you are considering do not accept simultaneous submissions.
Less Quantifiable Factors
Where would you like to see your work published?
Some markets might be on your list not because of pay but because of less quantifiable factors such as prestige or personal preference. For example, you might want to submit to a magazine or journal that is well respected among your friends and colleagues, one that has a large readership, one you feel sentimental about because you have been reading it a long time, or one that tends to publish authors you admire.
Sometimes these factors are more important than the other factors for me, but you have to decide for yourself how to weigh the various factors.
Some terms to know as you start submitting:
- Cover letter: Many guidelines will ask you for a cover letter. In some cases, they will specify what they want to put in it. In the event that they do not specify, a brief note thanking them for considering your submission along with a very brief note about where your work has been published is a good idea. If you have not been published, that’s fine! Submissions | PseudoPod has an example of a standard cover letter.
- Bio: The cover letter in the link above also provides some biographical info about the author, but sometimes you will be asked for something longer. If the guidelines ask for a 50 or 100-word bio, they are looking for more detailed information, often given in third person. See the end of this document for my bio, and look at the bios you see in magazines and anthologies for ideas on how to craft your own.
- Format: Some guidelines will specify a format for your document, and some will specify certain file types (.doc, .rtf, etc.) For formatting, Shunn, Classic or Modern, some modification of Shunn, and anonymous formats are common.
- Submission manager: Some guidelines will ask you to submit through email, but others will ask you to submit through a submission manager such as Moksha or Submittable. The guidelines will link you to this manager, and it will keep a record of your submission.
- Simultaneous submissions (aka simsubs): Some markets don’t mind if you submit to others at the same time. They ask only that you let them know if a piece is accepted so they can stop considering it. Other markets insist that you let them reach a decision before submitting elsewhere. In other words, they prohibit simsubs.
- Multiple submissions: Some markets will allow you to send multiple submissions at the same time. Often there will be a limit such as two or three. Other markets will allow you to send another submission as soon as the first is rejected, while others ask that you send only one submission during each call. Always make sure to take note of the guidelines and avoid submitting another piece until it is allowed.
- Originals are stories that have never been published anywhere. Markets assume works are original unless you say otherwise.
- Reprint stories have already been published somewhere else, but you have the rights to them. If the previous market required exclusivity (in other words, to be the only market publishing a piece, often for six months or a year), you need to wait for exclusivity to expire or request that the market waive exclusivity before it can be reprinted.
- Acknowledgement (aka confirmation): Some markets will send an acknowledgement, in other words an email confirming that they received your submission, often with a “thank you” and sometimes with an estimate of when you will hear back. Others do not do this.
- Query: If a market has taken longer than expected to get back to you, you may send a message asking if they are still considering the piece. Often, the guidelines will specify how long to wait before querying.
- Hold notice (aka “bump”): Sometimes a market will let you know that they liked your story and are considering it. Note that many markets do not send these notices, so don’t assume a piece isn’t being held if you don’t receive a “bump.”
- Revision request (aka R & R for revise and resubmit): Sometimes an editor will want to print your story but isn’t entirely sold on it the way it is. They might ask you to revise it and send it in again. This is the only time you should ever send a piece to the same market a second time.
Here are some magazines you might want to look at. There are of course many others, but these are some that are well established and open to submissions regularly:
Horror & Dark Fantasy Magazines
Apex Magazine (many stories free online)
The Dark Magazine (stories free online)
Vastarien (pay what you can for digital issues)
Nightmare Magazine (many stories free online)
PseudoPod (free audio and text)
Black Static (you can get digital issues inexpensively, or order the magazine)
Cosmic Horror Monthly (you can subscribe or buy individual issues)
Weird Horror Magazine (you have to buy the magazine, no free issues)
Tales to Terrify (free audio)
Mixed-Genre Magazines with Some Horror
FIYAH Literary Magazine (not free but has previews)
Three-Lobed Burning Eye (stories free online)
Dark Matter Magazine (most stories not free, focuses on dark science fiction)
Uncharted magazine (free to read)
Khōréō (some issues free)
Augur Magazine (some stories free)
Bourbon Penn (some stories free)
Fantasy and Science Fiction (some pieces free and you can get it on Kindle)
Horror-Focused and Horror-Adjacent Craft Books
Here, in alphabetical order, are all the well-known horror-focused craft books that I’m aware of. Thank you, writer Twitter, for suggesting many of these! Some focus specifically on horror writing or related genres, and some are more general craft books but are written by horror writers. I will definitely add more as I learn of them:
- Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror With Stephen King, editors Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller
- Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk
- Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative by Chuck Wendig
- Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror by Stanley Wiater
- Dark Thoughts on Writing: Advice and Commentary from Fifty Masters of Fear and Suspense by Stanley Wiater
- End of the Road by Brian Keene
- It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life, editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson
- Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens
- How to Write Horror Fiction by William Nolan
- Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seat by Jane K. Cleland
- Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers by Laurie Lamsen.
- On Writing by Stephen King
- On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, editor Mort Castle
- The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre, editor Joe Mynhardt
- The Writer’s Guide to Poisons by Benjamin Sobiek
- Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
- To Each Their Darkness by Gary A. Braunbeck
- Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre, editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson
- Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer–a guide for speculative fiction with some application to horror
- Writers Workshop of Horror, edited by Michael Knost
- Writers Workshop of Horror 2, edited by Michael Knost
- Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner (and the Writing in the Dark blog)
- Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper
- Writing the Uncanny: Essays on Crafting Strange Fiction, editors Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst
- Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans
- Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art and Practice of Writing by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (the chapter “Run Fast, Stand Still or The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or New Ghosts From Old Minds”)
About the Author
Christi Nogle taught college writing for twenty years. Her debut novel, Beulah, was published in 2022 by Cemetery Gates Media. Her short stories have appeared in over fifty publications including PseudoPod, Vastarien, and Dark Matter Magazine along with anthologies such as C.M Muller’s Nightscript and Flame Tree’s American Gothic. Christi is a member of the Horror Writers Association, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and Codex Writers’ Group. She lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their gorgeous dogs. Follow her at christinogle.com or on Twitter @christinogle
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