January 18, 2023
Frank Cernik has worked as a story editor and book coach for sci-fi and horror clients since 2016. By pulling story elements like characterization and world building into tighter resonance with authors’ themes and vision, he gives books the kind of staying power that keeps readers coming back. You can find his website at: https://frankcernik.com/
Let’s start with something tried and true: why do you edit horror? How did you get started with it?
Horrific moments show up in all kinds of genres, and my history with horror starts with an oblique angle. I was a squeamish kid, the kind who asked if everyone would be okay in the middle of a campfire ghost story, then one day in my mid-teens my younger brother showed me a Rammstein music video. At first, I found it pretty disturbing, but I found myself returning to it: there was something about it, about watching a half-nude man eat an angel’s wings, that I needed to understand. In retrospect, I think it was the simple acknowledgement that some things won’t be okay. Horror is one of the genres that is closest to tragedy, and after obsessing over that music video for a while I started seeking horror out.
What do you think makes good horror? Are there certain challenges in this genre that you, as an editor, pay particular attention to?
The piece that interests me most is horror’s relationship with trauma. Lots of stories in other genres will talk about trauma, but it has a special place in horror. One effective way to present it is through its consequences: kinds of pain that can’t be escaped, the lingering effects of neglect and ostracism, the spectre of misdeeds that persist. What do we do when, to quote Faulkner, the past is never dead, and isn’t even past? How do we respond to atrocity, or use its wreckage to make a world worth living in? How should we understand the harm that’s been inflicted, and the harms which are ongoing?
As for the particular challenges and pitfalls, I think the main one is in that relationship with trauma. Lots of people turn to horror to process their own experiences, and it’s important to be respectful of real pain. Depending on the work, that can mean cutting a shallow depiction of one thing, or it can mean drilling down and making the time for something else that seemed incidental but was secretly core to the work’s themes.
You’ve been editing since 2009. What changes have you seen over the years with respect to horror content? What changes would you like to see?
I’d love to see more people take cosmic horror and bring it home, so to speak. A lot of cosmic horror starts from a relatively well-understood version of our world, then has a fundamentally alien outside that intrudes upon the knowable world and damages the narrator’s senses of safety and self. What if we don’t have a knowable world, though? What if we are alien to ourselves and live on a world that is stranger still? To me, this was the most exciting part of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation: the depiction of a world that isn’t simply quirky but which actively resists being understandable, even to specialists, and meanwhile those same specialists are thinking thoughts and making decisions that even they find mysterious and inexplicable.
On the subject of the idiosyncratic, Addams Family creator Charles Addams said that “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” How do your lived experiences inform your editing practices in horror?
One of my coping strategies as an Autistic person in a neurotypical world has been to cultivate interests in emotions and in language, including in the academic studies I mentioned earlier. My support needs are low and I’ve always been able to operate on stealth mode (even if my interest in being stealthy has waned as I’ve aged), but even so I’ve regularly been surprised at neurotypical folks’ inconsistent standards and their propensity to interpret suggestions as criticism. (If this makes you uncomfortable, reader, please consider how framing Autistic tendencies as deficiencies feels to us. It’s not more correct just because it’s more common.)
Many of those surprises were upsetting to me, and I decided I wanted to learn how to express myself exactly and how to rigorously compare and contrast neurotypicals’ feelings to my own: the idea was to proactively manage both the message and its reception, and for better or for worse it seems to have worked. As an editing bonus, there’s a lot of crossover between “making sure people receive my message as intended” and “making sure the readers’ experiences line up with the author’s vision.”
What has reading horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Horror has taught me that nothing should be taken for granted. There is no guarantee that events will resolve themselves in any kind of satisfactory way, and even if we give all of our effort to resist and to make the changes we want for ourselves, we might still be outmatched. However, if we stay passive, then we leave ourselves to the whims of those who threaten us.
It’s also taught me to take care of myself. I’ve often found that if I start feeling erratic or unfocused, horror will help me to ground and re-center myself. Giving myself a horror reboot like that makes me just better at doing the things I care about. It’s not necessarily a lesson in horror as an aggregate genre, but the way that I interact with it and with myself is still instructive.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror writers today?
Revisions and redrafting take a very different kind of focus than drafting does. Trying to do both at once will sap all of the drafting energy you might have, and will significantly undermine your ability to finish what you’ve started. The first draft’s job is ‘to exist,’ and ‘to be good’ shouldn’t come in until at least the end of the second draft. So: if you are still drafting, please finish that before you start making adjustments to your existing scenes.
The sole exception to this is if you find yourself with writer’s block, which I generally believe to be a symptom of an outline (for plotters) or conceptual framework (for pantsers and plantsers) that isn’t fully baked. In that case, you may need to restructure a completed scene before you can progress with the next (or unfinished) one.
Also, success can be a difficult thing to predict, so writing for broad appeal might not get you where you want to go. Try instead to write something that goes deep, that really examines something specific and does so in detail. That kind of concentration will give readers something clearer to grab on to and compel their interest; it’s a better hook.