I began writing what would eventually become my first novel, Suffering Madness, in 1995. My design goals at the time were fairly small – I was targeting the short story market in magazines to try to develop a name. After enough rejections to wallpaper my office, I realized my writing was pretty bad.
Fortunately, my desire to write and tell stories overshadowed any detail like the mechanics of writing, and I was dumb enough to press past the rejections telling me I was clueless. I joined three critique groups at the same time, each requiring writing assignments and critiques, and each holding their own strength in writing. One focused on character development, another on the mechanics of writing (“The Elements of Style” by Shrunk and White was their foundation), and the last centered on how to tell a really good story.
All three were brutal to some extent, however one was absolutely bloodthirsty in devouring any mistake in grammar, spelling, or weak plots. Some writers jumped ship in their first or second week; but as I already stated, I was too dumb to know any better. I suffered through the critiques bleeding all over my precious creations, cutting up my babies, and splattering blood ink on my stories. I learned to develop thick skin and separate constructive criticism from personal opinion.
In hindsight, I spent roughly twenty to thirty hours a week working all three critique groups over the course of about four years, and I have the bruises and scars to prove it. Yet each provided their own school of instruction and helped get my writing published in magazines, anthology books, and excerpts in newspapers.
And then Suffering Madness was conceived in the death throws of a short-story writing assignment for one of the critique groups. Several supporting comments from an otherwise critical crowd brought the story out of the obscurity of an assignment into the light of a realistic novel.
The first draft of Suffering Madness rounded off at about 130,000 words three years later, the second draft paring it down to 65,000 words. The story survived seven more drafts to polish out at 95,000 words.
These specific words caught the eye of Suzanne Kirk, then Senior Editor at Scribner. She liked it, though without an agent, could not take me past a handwritten letter, two dots and a smiling mouth. Unfortunately, even with an encouraging letter from a prominent editor, agents would scurry away from my writing like frightened spiders. Why? Several reasons were given. Not enough warm fuzzies about the project (really… this was verbatim, part of the response!), Scribner was not on their list (what fiction agent would not bend a little for Scribner?), and what I believe to be the real challenge: Suffering Madness was too cross-genre to market.
This novel lands solidly in the horror genre, yet presents spiritual aspects lending to a Christian flavor. Could there be a Christian Horror genre? Ha! Let’s laugh now while the ink is still fresh on our monitors. So, I believe in God and like the horror genre… am I the only one?
Hmmm… This poses a whole new set of rules for marketing, attracting attention, and getting this project off the ground. Ten months were spent marketing to agents (some of the best prima donnas do not accept simultaneous submissions… based on experience, stop wasting your time and skip them!). By the time I landed an agent willing to work on a cross-genre project, Suzanne Kirk had retired.
I lost the next few years to cattle-prodding an agent through two marriages, two divorces, and two agency closure/start-ups.
Within three months of “releasing” my agent, Suffering Madness found its way to the desk of four of the top ten most prominent publishing editors in the United States (I backdoored three to get around the no-agent clause). Their reasons for rejection varied, yet personal responses provided insight to the central theme of dismissal: cross-genre.
To the point: Suffering Madness was too scary for the Christian audience and too preachy for the secular market. You can’t suck the blood out of bodies, grind their hands in garbage disposals, and scatter their remains all over a circle slide in a schoolyard playground and appeal to a Christian audience. You also have to be careful with the “J” word for non-Christian markets; if a character says, “Jesus”, they should be cussing and not preaching.
I learned publishing is less artistic and more business in the United States. The gatekeepers in the publishing world require a toll for passage – you must be a good gamble. A cross-genre novel for an established author like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Richard Matheson is an easy risk or gamble, but the odds are against a new author.
Thankfully, there are specialty publishers willing to risk the odds and work with new artists and gamble on the results. Though, small publishers in this category tend to have small marketing budgets, we are establishing some ground in sales and seeing five star reviews (Amazon reviews! Real reviews from real people!).
So, are there challenges in writing horror novels? Absolutely. Anything worth your blood and sacrifice, scraping the scales off the underbelly of society, staring evil in the eye, and still holding your head up on Sunday in church is worth the challenge.
My advice to authors: hold onto what you believe in and write what you enjoy.
Glenn Sasscer lives in Northwest Ohio with his wife and three children.