When I was kindly asked to write a blog post about editing horror, I was happy to accept an invitation to discuss two of my favourite things: editing and horror fiction. But then, I stepped back and thought some more, and a question occurred to me: How is editing horror any different from editing fiction in general? At first blush, the answer to that is a simple one: it isn’t.
Except—and don’t you love the exceptions?—when the editor is involved early in the editing process. Both developmental editing and manuscript evaluations offer the greatest opportunity to help authors shape their manuscripts. Many of my clients across all genres are independent self-publishers and therefore don’t generally have the budget to saunter their leisurely way through the various levels of editing, but those who do ask for those early stages will likely benefit the most.
Again, that’s true of all genres, but I’d argue that horror especially profits from the big-picture approach, for the simple reason that horror fiction is more afflicted by clichés and tired tropes than any other genre. There’s a reason we reach for the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” when we want to illustrate hackneyed writing.
It’s because I love the genre when it’s done right that I’m more than happy to collaborate with an author at this early stage, setting up payoffs and working on establishing the unique details and features of their narrative in opposition to those overused elements.
Aside from avoiding the tired formulas and familiar bromides of horror fiction, an early editorial intervention can also add new life to character arcs and setting, as well as the more obvious plot and story lines. To some extent, the horror writer is constrained by reader expectations, in that certain elements are essential:
- protagonist or anti-hero
- antagonist (supernatural or otherwise)
- building tension
- increasing tension
- releasing tension
- inevitability of conflict
- final confrontation
But the leeway within those expectations is surprisingly generous. Ambiguity is often a strength, even at the resolution stage. For example, does it turn out that the main character was actually haunted or simply delusional? Either possibility is horrific. Losing our minds is arguably more terrifying than any skulking spectre. (I confess to a preference for psychological horror over supernatural horror.)
It’s important to add something here, although it might appear to be stating the obvious. Due to the nature of the genre, any editor considering horror fiction as a new avenue to explore needs to ensure they’re fully prepared for the extreme nature of the content. It can run the gamut from mildly creepy to gut-wrenchingly traumatic, from ghosts to gore. If you choose horror, you will likely find your so-called line in the sand at some point, beyond which you prefer not to tread. You will need to be completely transparent with your authors about this.
As for stylistic/substantive editing and copyediting horror, there are plenty of considerations those activities share with all genres, but one element I’ve found interesting about horror specifically (which it often shares with its cousin, dark fantasy) is the tendency of authors to capitalize their creations. I generally work hard to dissuade them from this. When vampire, ghoul, or zombie are all lowercase, it’s difficult for an author to justify capitalizing their terrifying creations the Spleenrenders, no matter how justifiably proud they are of them. Yet even this is nuanced. If there are many spleenrenders, I’d lowercase, but just one? Capitalize away.
A quick word on length. With some obvious exceptions, I find that horror fiction lends itself more to brevity than expansiveness, so I do encourage authors to keep their word count down. Some of the genre’s greatest authors created their most memorable work in short story or novella form: Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, M. R. James, Harlan Ellison, Daphne du Maurier, Robert Aickman, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others.
I’d even argue that Stephen King’s best writing can be found more often in his novellas (again, with notable exceptions).
Also, some of the greatest short stories ever written in English are often horror tales, such as
- Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”;
- William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”;
- Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”; and
- Joyce Carol Oates’ astonishing “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.
Anyway, that’s enough for our purposes. I’ll end with this: Aside from editing chops, the most important tool an editor can bring to a horror story is enthusiasm and a love for this oft-maligned genre. As some find peanut butter and chocolate complementary, I find existential terror and beauty likewise. In the darkest of seams, we sometimes find gleaming things.
*The resolution is not necessarily a desired one; more than in most genres, a nihilistic ending in horror is eminently permissible where earned.
Written by David Antrobus; copy edited by Lydia du Bois
David Antrobus is a writer and editor born and raised in England who has made the Vancouver area his home since the late 1980s. He writes both fiction and non-fiction and edits in multiple genres. He’s edited brand new authors and “The New York Times” bestsellers. His love of the written word is matched only by his astonishment at how much more he learns about those words each and every day.
Lydia du Bois is an educator, editor, and writer. She holds an MA in philosophy from SFU and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she focused on communication in clinical settings. She provides individualized teaching at the Vancouver Learning Centre and designs customized learning resources in her spare time.
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