Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Spec Fiction & the Accidental Horror Writer

By T.W. Fendley

On Saturday, writer/illustrator Jennifer Stolzer and I held a workshop entitled "Spec Fiction: From the Final Frontier to Middle Earth" at the St. Louis Writers Guild's miniconference, Writers in the Park.We focused on the differences between the genres and subgenres of Speculative Fiction, and how that affects us as writers. In case you missed our talk, here are the handouts we discussed:

"Song of the Spheres" by T.W. Fendley
Flyer:Science Fiction & Fantasy Tropes: (Stories We've Seen Too Often)

Flyer: Science Fiction & Fantasy Resources

PowerPoint: Science Fiction history and subgenres

PowerPoint: Fantasy history and subgenres

Writing genre fiction can get confusing. You think you're writing science fiction, but others tell you it's fantasy or horror. For those of us who write speculative fiction, I think the lines are often blurry. At least, they're pretty tricky for me. Here are a couple of examples.

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of getting to know Fran Friel, the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of MAMA'S BOY AND OTHER DARK TALES. Although it had been years since I'd read horror, immediately I downloaded her book. I was glad I did. What really surprised me was finding I'd already read one of the short stories--a tale about malevolent dust bunnies.When I learned Fran's new story, "House of the Infinite," was out in the May 2011 issue of Necrotic Tissue, I rushed to get it, too. As I read the futuristic gladiator story, it struck me that I wouldn't have been surprised to find it in a science fiction magazine.

That made me wonder about some stories I hadn't been able to sell. I decided to test my hunch. In my email inbox was a Writer's Digest reminder about its short story contests, so I entered one of my science fiction stories in the horror competition. A few months later, I learned it placed second! Even as I danced around my office, I was thinking, "Hmmm, I guess that means it's horror." Always quick to catch on, I am.

And that wasn't the first time I'd had a blindspot about what makes a story "horror." I thought my first novel, LITTLE SISTERS, was a mystery until an agent told me otherwise. In that case, my murderer telepathically controlled black widow spiders. I guess it should've been easier to for me to figure that one out.

Anyway, that's why I sometimes think of myself as an accidental horror writer. I don't think I've ever intentionally tried to write horror, but what I write sometimes has a mood or an edge that simply isn't "right." Or the "evil element" isn't completely vanquished. It's more than just a gory scene or two. I used to love scary stories and movies, and Edgar Allen Poe has always been a favorite. Maybe that's what comes out when I'm writing?

Well, at least I've worked out the genre for my short story, "Origin of the Species," but now I'm rethinking some others. I've been bombarding traditional sci-fi and fantasy 'zines with my queries, but what if the stories are actually Young Adult, or mystery or horror. It sent me back to the basics, to get more clarity about the differences between the genres. Writer's Digest offers one of the best lists of Fiction Genre Descriptions I've found, but you have to register. (It's free and you can also access other free stuff, like their list of 101 Best Websites for Writers). Writing to Publish also has an extensive list of Fiction Genre Definitions that even breaks each category down into subgenres (more than 25 for horror).

If you've been having trouble finding a home for one of your horror or science fiction stories, it's possible that you need to reconsider the markets where you're submitting. Check out the genre lists and try sending it to a different kind of publication. You may find you're an accidental fantasy writer!

(Note: My post entitled Accidental Horror Writer originally appeared April 2, 2012, on 4 The Love of Writing.)


Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting on The Writers' Lens.Your comment on today's post will enter your name into this week's drawing for Faye Adams' LAUGHING WITH THE MOON.

This is T.W. Fendley. You can also find me at and on Twitter @twfendley.


  1. I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only writer suffering from genre confusion. When is a thriller a suspense or a murder mystery? When did pararnormal fiction become defined only by vampires and werewolves? Is a ghost story involving only friendly spirits considered horror?

    I was considering submitting a quirky little story I have to the upcomoing WD contest, but I have no idea which genre to select for it. Does it make me a bad writer for crafting a story that doesn't seem to fit exactly anywhere?

    Great post!

  2. It gets crazy, doesn't it? Some contests let you enter the same story in more than one category, if you're willing to pay for the privilege. I've considered doing that, but instead, I've just tried another category in the next contest.

  3. Great article - I am totally surprised and astounded by the genre label of every story I write! :-) I second everything both you and Janet said - it *is* so confusing. In hindsight, I realize that I had so many rejections on my novel because I was querying the wrong genre. Finally having found a home for what turned out to be a contemporary fantasy/fantasy lit, I was both amused and surprised when it popped up on Amazon categorized as "genre fiction > horror > ghosts." HORROR???? Definately NOT! But, it turns out, other than Romance (all definately not) and Horror, there are apparently no categories on amazon for stories involving ghosts! Go figure!

  4. BTW--You actually can change/add to the Amazon categories, though the Kindle update requires your publisher to request the change. Of course, first you have to find a more suitable category and maybe there isn't one for fantasy ghosts!