When I was a little girl, I told myself stories. I hand-wrote pages of scenes between characters, and when I learned to type, I wrote my first story – a mystery about a crime-solving cat modelled after Humphrey Bogart. I was a voracious reader of speculative fiction. It wasn’t until high school that it finally clicked with me that the books I read were written by people who did that for a living. When the understanding fully set in, I knew I wanted to be a fiction writer when I grew up. I was lucky; my family, teachers, and friends were supportive and encouraging, and I wanted to be a writer enough to be persistent.
Despite the fact that back then, nearly all my writing influences were men, it never occurred to me that being a girl might prove to be a hindrance. I don’t see any need now to rehash tales of sexual harrassment, misogyny, snubbing, etc. I have also been lucky in that a large number of the men in this field used their position to try to bring about equality for their fellow writers. I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends and colleagues who believed in me and my work. And anyway, my intention for this article isn’t to complain about problems, but rather, to offer practical, applicable solutions. Still, for background’s sake, it’s worth at least a cursory mention that there was a problem with sexism in horror publishing, and that although it has greatly improved, it still exists in little – but I belive conquerable – ways.
I’ve been writing horror fiction for about two decades now. My first professional short story sale was in 2002, and my first novel came out from Leisure Books in 2007. I’ve had the unique privilege of having seen publishing’s evolution, and there are a few things I’ve learned that I’d like to share with other women writers about how to build their careers.
This applies to any writer, really, but for women writers, I think it has particular value. If women are not afforded the visibility of other writers, or don’t naturally come across the same opportunities for promotion – awards, Best Of lists, anthology slots, adaptations to other forms of media, etc., then the first way to counterbalance that is to be prolific. No one who has a substantial body of work can be ignored for long. Being prolific proves a number of things – you can get stories written, you aren’t going to flake after a book or two and move on to another career, and you have considerable experience in the craft.
Go after what you want in your career like you believe you deserve it. I think this is tough for women sometimes. We pass over opportunities because we find reasons why we don’t think our work would be a good fit. We try to be polite. We’re taught aggression/assertiveness, whether it’s sexual or social or professional, makes us unladylike at best and an unloveable person at worst. This is partially cultural, partially socio-sexual, relating to business being once the realm exclusively of men, and the modes of exceeding in business, much like war, developed based on gender expectations and values.
All of that is a lot to unpack in a single article, and I won’t try. But I will say, women need to stop hobbling themselves when opportunities arise. You CAN be assertive AND classy. You can ask where your royalty check is and negotiate contracts to your advantage. You are the best advocate for your own work. Treat it with value and importance.
Be Financially Viable
Let’s face it – publishing is a business, and business is about money. Publishers want to make money. It makes sense for a publisher to look for writers to work with who will make them that money. They want writers they can call on to reliably follow the guidelines of the project and turn in a quality product on or before deadline. They are also looking for writers who have name recognition – writers who readers recognize, and whose reputation with readers translates into sales.
You’ll eventually make connections who may suggest you to publishers should a writing project come along that you would be a good fit for. And if you don’t, be bold, remember? Introduce yourself. Put yourself in the running for projects. Talk to your agent, if you have one. You can prove to publishers that you can write quality work, can be called on in a pinch, are reliable enough to get it done, and responsible enough to get it done on time. That’s the easy part.
The tough part is building a reputation with a readership that translates into sales. Men traditionally have a head start on us, as there weren’t as many women writing horror commercially back when horror first became commerically viable. So some of it is a matter of time.
Some of it is a matter of highlighting fellow women when they achieve something of note – prestigious awards, bestseller lists, reviews in high-profile places, publication with venerable publishing companies. It’s about raising readers’ (and other publishers’) awareness of reader appreciation of our work, and positioning ourselves and our fellow women as creators who will bring in sales.
When we reach a point where we can call ourselves writers without qualifying our sex or gender along with it, I think we’ll have reached equality in publishing. I think we need to show our talent and financial feasibility in these objective terms, and I look forward to exploring other ways to do that going forward.
Mary SanGiovanni is an award-winning American horror and thriller writer of over a dozen novels, including The Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, The Kathy Ryan series, and others, as well as numerous novellas, short stories, and non-fiction. Her work as been translated internationally. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh, and is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers. She was a co-host on the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene, and currently hosts her own podcast on cosmic horror, Cosmic Shenanigans. She has the distinction of being one of the first women to speak about writing at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA, and offers talks and workshops on writing around the country. Born and raised in New Jersey, she currently resides in Pennsylvania.