Wendy N. Wagner & Living the Nightmare

Horror Tree
6 min readApr 23, 2024

Wendy N. Wagner & Living the Nightmare

By Angelique Fawns

Wendy N. Wagner is no stranger to horror and speculative fiction. She’s the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and the Managing Senior Editor of Lightspeed. Hugo-award winning and Locus-award nominated for her editing, she’s also been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award with her short fiction. Her latest book, Girl in the Creek will be released by Tor Nightfire in 2025. Wagner uses cli-fi cosmic horror to explore the dark side of beautiful places.

Nightfire teases the storyline with this:

“Deep within the wild Clackamas National Forest, the shadows of looming trees and long-abandoned mines have sheltered hikers and harbored serial killers. Hidden in the forest are ghost towns with deteriorating buildings overrun by glowing fungi and phosphorescent spores that even local experts can’t identify. Not to mention the missing persons posters multiplying around town, many of hikers who never returned.”

I finally managed to track Wendy down on twitter and ask her if she would talk to us.

AF: As an editor of two of the most coveted short stories markets out there, I’m sure you get a huge slush pile every month. Are certain kinds of stories overdone? What should writers avoid submitting to your magazines?

WW: I know there are magazines with lists of tropes and story elements they won’t consider, but that’s not the case at Lightspeed/Nightmare. Both John Joseph Adams (the editor in chief at Lightspeed) and I are always really excited to see something classic explored in an exciting new way. We are both most interested in really human approaches to genre fiction — so fiction with strong voices and powerfully drawn characters.

At Nightmare, my goal is to find horror stories for all kinds of people, so I like to explore a very broad expanse of the genre. That probably means that if I’ve published a story about vampires that year, I’m not going to publish another vampire story for a while . . . unless it’s doing something very different with the topic! But honestly, the only thing off-limits at our magazines is AI-generated content.

AF: If you had a wish list for stories or themes you wanted to see more of, what would they be?

WW: I almost never see genuinely scary science fictional horror, so that’s something I’d love to see. And as an outdoor enthusiast, I would love to see more adventure horror.

AF: Do you have any tips for nailing the opening of a story?

WW: I think there are three things to remember about story openings. The first is that a beginning is often sculpted in the revision process, not in the drafting. Writers often need to start a story in a place that isn’t the best spot for a reader to enter the tale. So write as much as you need to, but after you’ve finished the first draft of the story and understand what it’s really about, go back and evaluate the beginning to see if you’ve actually started in the right place.

Picking the right starting place is the second most important thing to keep in mind. A good story needs to start in a place of tension. That’s why the first sentence of Kafka’s Metamorphosis — which opens with, gasp!, someone waking up — is still one of the most riveting opening lines in literature: Gregor Samsa doesn’t just wake up; he wakes up to discover he’s been transformed into “a horrible vermin.” Not a pony, not a butterfly: a horrible vermin. That’s how he describes himself! That kind of self-loathing is tense.

The last thing to think about when designing your opening is that, as super-agent DongWon Song says: “In an opening you need to focus on stakes, not outcomes. Give us a moment to understand what a character wants. And what they want will tell us about who they are. And once we see who someone is, we’ll start to give a damn about the rest of it.” I think this is such stellar advice. A good short story is more about risk than about happenings.

AF: As a writer who works with short fiction and longer formats, which do you like better? How does your process differ?

WW: I much prefer to write novels. Let me clarify: there’s a lot of joy to writing a short story, which packs all the problem-solving and exploration of a novel into a tight space. For me, short story writing is incredibly satisfying and exciting! But I’ve developed a writing addiction which requires me to spend a chunk of time writing every single day, or I get really depressed. Writing novels makes it much easier to get in that daily fix.

AF: How did you get your start writing? What’s been your favorite moment in your career to this point?

WW: I wanted to be a writer from around the age of seven, and I was lucky enough to take a number of creative writing classes as a kid. But I didn’t get really serious about completing things and trying to publish them until 2007 or 2008, when I started writing and submitting short speculative fiction.

I’ve had a lot of exciting moments along my journey. I’ve signed with agents; I’ve had novels accepted by a number of different kinds of publishing establishments; I’ve had stories published side-by-side with names like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin; I’ve brought home a Hugo award; I’ve been nominated for the Locus and the Shirley Jackson awards. I’ve been blurbed by one of my literary heroes. All of that has been really awesome!

But luckily, I’d say the most exciting moment is something entirely repeatable. It’s the moment I finish the revision of a novel/novella. Each of those moments has been the most exciting moment in my career. For me, I feel like writing a book is like setting up a bunch of challenging puzzles and trying to solve them when at the same time manufacturing the pieces. Making that all come together? That’s pure bliss! Then I forget how excited I was about that book and start getting excited about the next one. It’s a hilarious, wonderful cycle.

AF: If you could give young Wendy one piece of advice when you first picked up your pen, what would it be?

WW: Have faith in your stories and just keep writing — no matter what!

AF: Where do you see the potential for the most profitability in the spec fiction writing world?

WW: You’ll have to ask that advice from someone else! I try my best to sell my work, but I don’t have any kind of business sense or master plan. My only strategy is to just keep writing.

AF: Tell us the story of Girl in the Creek. How long did it take you to write it, what was your inspiration, how did you find a home for it? What is your writing routine?

WW: The day after Christmas 2019, I was hit by a car and broke my ankle, so it was really hard to get out and enjoy nature (my favorite thing). Once I finally got my cast off, but before I could walk or run, my husband and I took a drive up the Clackamas River, a spectacularly beautiful river that begins in the Cascade mountains and ends close to my house. It really piqued my interest in local history and the development of the area, which included a lot of mining. The novel — which has been described as “Twin Peaks meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — grew out of that research.

I had a lot of false starts on the project, though. I started it, threw away about 10,000 words, started over again, and then wound up throwing away the new first 40,000 words. Luckily, all that exploratory writing wound up helping the story come together very quickly and I wrote the first draft in a few months! I then revised the novel and sent it to a handful of agents. Luckily, Lane Heymont of the Tobias Agency really liked the book and signed me quite quickly. He was mastermind behind selling the story!

AF: What’s in the future for Wendy N. Wagner?

WW: I have a novel on my agent’s desk right now. Here’s hoping we can sell it!




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