HOWL Society Chats with Philip Fracassi

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HOWL Society: Phillip Fracassi is the author of award-winning story collection, Behold the Void, 2021’s Beneath the Pale Sky, and his debut novel, Boys in the Valley that comes out this Halloween. His short stories have been published in everything we’ve been dying to get into, including Best Horror of the Year, Nightmare Magazine, Cemetery Dance, and so many others. As a screenwriter, his feature films have been distributed by Disney and Lifetime with several projects in various stages of development.

Thanks for joining us today, Philip! 

Philip Fracassi: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me. It’s a lot of fun to be here. I wish that when I first started out six years ago—writing, you know, publishing fiction—I kind of wished that I’d had someone answering some of the questions I had. I miss-stepped quite a bit and I had to learn from those lessons the hard way

HS: Do you have an example of any missteps that are particularly notable?

PF: (Laughs) We can go right to the heart of it. You know, for me, the biggest, my earliest, faux pas was I signed a contract without an agent—or without a lawyer more specifically—looking at the contract and, and looking back on it, it was such a horrible deal, and it wasn’t just the money or the royalties.

It also was the rights that I’d given up, which was the bigger issue. Because most publishing contracts, they stipulate a certain amount of time that they have the exclusive rights to your content. So, if you do a book of eight stories, they had the exclusive publishing rights to those stories for three years, five years, seven years, whatever, but there’s a limit.

There’s a time limit. This contract I had signed was a forever thing. So basically, I’d given away my content forever. And it tied into media stuff which no publishing contract should ever do. 

I had to negotiate with [the publisher] through an agent to get my rights back. Then I sold them to Lethe press, which is the current and hopefully last publisher for that book. They also did Beneath the Pale Sky.

Cover of Beneath a Pale Sky by Philip Fracassi. Cover shows a ferris wheel submerged in water. The ferris wheel is tipping over. The sky is nearly white, and the water is a pale blue. A flock of birds flies through the sky in the distance.

HS: You’ve got a good relationship with them. 

PF: Yeah, he’s great. One of the things I like about Lethe, which is something that you guys will run into hopefully, or, you know, um, it’s one of the things to think about is how they distribute the books. A lot of the, especially on the independent side, a lot of current independent publishers, um, only distribute via Amazon.

So, it’s an Amazon ISBN which means it’s only available via Amazon. It can not be in bookstores, cannot be sold to or any of that stuff, which is not a tragedy because Amazon controls 85% of the market. Right. But. I like having books in bookstores. I like the idea of being able to have a bookstore order my book. I like the idea of libraries being able to order my book. 

HS: Are you interested in building relationships with other publishers?

PF: One of the things I learned about short story submissions, um, is you always start at the top and a lot of times a writer will be like, “oh, well, I’m not a very well-known writer, or I haven’t published anything or whatever. So, I’m going to just send the story to like this little micro press and hope that they do it,” which is exactly what I did by the way and it worked, so, you know, it’s not the worst thing in the world, but you always want to start at the top. Now, when I submit a story, I always start with like, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, you know, and then as those rejections come in, I tear down some other ones.

I always think it’s important to start at the top. And with publishing novels—or more so novels than story collections—the biggest thing an agent provides you is access to those bigger publishers, because most of those bigger publishers won’t look at unrepresented manuscripts.

That’s their kind of key master, right? You can’t get through to the big boys/girls without an agent to send your work to them. So that’s the number one thing an agent provides. 

HS: Places can take so long to get back to you. Do you have a goal when you’re putting together collections in terms of how many you want to have already been published, or do you wait to get a collection until a certain number of been published?

PF: Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. The general rule of thumb is you want about 80% of the stories to be previously published, but you also want to make sure you have at least two or three original stories so that people who have read all of your work will still buy the book basically.

A lot of times a writer will write an original novella and have a bunch of pre-published up. I kind of don’t buy into that all the way. I, you know, when I published Behold the Void I had only published, I think, at the time three out of nine stories in that collection. Mother, Altar, and Coffin. So, I kind of went against the grain and it worked out okay. 

Cover of Behold the Void by Philip Fracassi. Cover shows an abstract image in red, orange, blue, and teal tones. Hidden in the image are eyes, tentacles, some kind of animal's head. The swirling colors make it look like we are viewing all this contained in a nebula.

I often think about it as music. How bands work, right? Like I get a lot of shit for when I put out Altar on a very small press. People were like, because I got paid $25 for that story. And, I was like, look, I come from the music industry part of my life.

And that was the way they did it back in the like eighties, you know, the nineties bands would create these demo tapes. Right? And they’d send the demo tapes around to a hundred record labels, or they would pass them out at parties, and people got hooked on the band. And so I kind of treated my first two chapbooks, Mother and Altar, I kind of treated those like demo tapes.

I was like, I want to build readership. I want to build awareness. I want people to read my stuff. Um, so I didn’t mind that it was a loss leader. So there’s a lot of different ways to get there. And you should never take anyone else’s opinion as gospel, because it really comes down to what your personal situation is, where you are at, where you’re feeling like you’re situated, what you want to get out of it.

HS: How did you get your agent? You’ve had more than one, right? You switched agents before. 

PF: I’ve had three. There is no tried and true way to get an agent. The most common way is obviously to query them and then hope that they ask for your manuscript and then send them your manuscript and hope that they like it. And then go from there. 

If you have a writer who’s someone established or who has an agent, and you submit to that person’s agent, that can get you a little bit more attention from the agent.

My first agent, I got in a very unique way. I was hired to write a novelization of a video game. I didn’t have an agent, and the video game company wouldn’t hire me unless I had an agent. So, I was talking to the video game person, and she said, oh, well, I have somebody who can represent you for this deal.

That person came on, the video game deal fell through, but then he continued to represent me cause he’d read enough of my work and he was like, yeah, I think we can sell you.

[With my current agent], I Googled literary horror agent, and Elizabeth Copps was like the first name that popped up. I queried her. I had a novel done at the time, A Child Alone with Strangers. I queried her. 

I was messaging some of my author friends and I messaged Andy Davidson and I said, “Hey, you think your agent would be interested in looking at something of mine?”

And he said, yeah, here’s her name. And I was like, oh my God. I literally just sent her my book like a day ago. So, it was just happenstance. 

She liked the book enough that she represented me. And then after she found out that Andy knew me, and that was just icing on the cake.

I think the most tried and true way is to have a professional query letter, have a book ready to go, and make sure that book has been proof-read by a friend or by a professional editor.

Cover of Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi. cover shows a small house and barn in a valley, in the distance are tree covered hills.

HS: For a long time you were writing short stories, but now it seems like you’re focusing more on novels. Was that kind of a seamless or natural thing for you? Or was it something that you wanted to do because it would be better for you professionally? 

PF: The novel thing was an agent. My first agent said, “you’ve got to write a novel. Short story collections aren’t gonna make you any money.”

And so I did, I wrote the novel that’s coming out next summer, A Child Alone with Strangers

And I still write short stories. I just finished a 10,000 word short story, but I think I’m trying to get the novel thing going.

My best case scenario would be to have a sort of, uh, a similar sort of, um, output as like a Josh Malerman, or Paul Tremblay, or Adam Nevill, where they’re basically putting out a novel a year, and then they’re putting out a sort of short stories sort of here and there. 

HS: Do you think there’s any strong career benefits that you’ve seen, joining organizations like the HWA?

PF: I think anything that allows you to do what you guys do with HOWLS—anything you do that’s networking is valuable. I’m a member of the HWA. I like it. I feel good about supporting it. It’s a good organization. They do a lot for writers. I don’t mind giving them 60 bucks a year. They have a mentor program and stuff like that. 

I mean, writers are kind of, you know, we have a certain plumage. It’s not very common. So anytime you can associate with people who are like-minded, I think it’s a positive thing. There’s a lot of benefit that comes out of it, even if it’s just having conversations.

Is it going to help you get published? I don’t think so. Don’t expect your fate to suddenly skyrocket because of it, but it is great to be part of an organization.

HS: In a world where so many are MFA educated, how do you work on improving your craft outside of formal education?

PF: I don’t have a formal education. I don’t have a college degree and I never did the MFA program. I’ve talked to writers who have done it, and the general consensus seems to be that they don’t really feel it was all that helpful. But I do think that learning from people like Stephen Graham Jones—he teaches a course in the MFA program—I think it’s a beneficial thing for sure. For me, I am kind of a self-taught writer. I’ve learned how to write by reading primarily. I always tell people the best way to be a good writer is to be an avid reader and to take lessons from what you read. 

This book, Dryer’s English is the best book I’ve ever read on the mechanics of writing. It’s very specific about “don’t use this word,” you know.

I’ve learned also from publishing. If you have a good publisher, hopefully they’re going to give you edits on a book or a story. After going through that process, 20 or 30 times, every time that happens, you learn something new.

Anytime you read a book, next time you read a book that you’re like lost in, go back and read it again and figure out why did this, why did I get lost in this? Or why did this suck me in so fast? Or why did this passage seem so beautiful to me?

HS: Do you have any advice for newer writers that are starting to publish stories and how to capitalize on even those kinds of small successes building an audience? 

PF: For me, it was social media. I think social media is a huge tool. I mean, where else can you access infinite amount of people from your desk?

If I were to give advice to a new writer, I would say, put something out and beat the drum. As loudly as you can in every place. You can beg writers for blurbs, beg bloggers to review it.

That’s what I think is the best advice I can give, is to get stuff out and don’t be afraid to approach writers. I think a lot of new writers would be surprised at how open established writers are to helping new writers. Um, when I published Mother, I didn’t know anybody. And I sent it out. I sort of wrote a nice note.

HS: How crucial do you think physical ARC’s are versus just going the digital route? 

PF: I don’t think they’re important. I think digital arcs are fine. It’s really up to you if you want to spend the money. I think if you guys are self publishing, I don’t think you should spend the money doing a bunch of advance review copies. I would just do like a PDF file and use that. If you offer [a physical ARC], they’ll want it. 

HS: Do you have a day job, or do you make all your money writing? 

PF: For the last five years or so, I’ve worked part-time in film. I’m a union member. But a couple months ago, my wife and I had to sit down and decided that I’m going to try and write full time now. But my job is a little different than most jobs because if I need to work again, I can work again. I can just kinda put myself back on the availability list for the union and I’ll be hired to do like a three or four or five month show and make enough money to support myself for the rest of the year or whatever.

HS: Congratulations on making that transition!

PF: Thanks! Yeah it’s scary a little bit. But, like I said, it’s the right timing. 

HS: What does your beta process look like? Do you have a team of friends and people that you send work to before you give it to your agent?

PF: Yeah, I do! I like the beta process very much. The thing about a beta reading is to [when a reader comes back] with something that they like or dislike, you have to know, again, it’s not gospel.

You have to sort of know, okay, I see what you’re saying, but I’m going to disregard that. If the beta reader comes back to you with like, say 20 notes,  there’s no reason you can’t be like, uh, these 18 comments I don’t care about, or I disagree with, but these two comments are really good. 

HS: Does location matter regarding networking and such?

PF: I think that networking is really important, but it doesn’t need to necessarily be locally, but it can’t hurt. I think going to conventions and conferences and stuff like that was wildly helpful.

And I would highly, highly recommend doing that kind of stuff. Even if you meet two people, it’s like you have two more people who are sort of in your corner and that can be really helpful. 

HS: I’m currently in the position where I’m considering putting together a short story collection. And I’m wondering if it would be a better choice to do a self published collection or to actually shop it with an agent. Traditionally, do you have any thoughts on a first collection?

PF: You’re not going to have much luck shopping your story collection to an agent; agents want novels. They don’t want short story collections. They can’t sell it for a lot of money. I think if you were to self-publish a short story collection and have it be professional looking and do fairly well, get some reviews, get some people to talk about it.

Get it out there. If nothing else, when you send an agent your novel or whatever manuscript you can say, I’ve published this thing. And even if you self published it, it’s not nearly as frowned upon as it was. I think it’s much more common. Especially if you can get some blurbs or you can get like some award attention or you can get some of the stuff reprinted or in magazines or whatever.

There are so many indie publishers now, even if you go to any press, that’s a micro press. I think that is better than self publishing. I would try and sell it first. I just think it’s a better perception that a publisher would publish your book and separate the author and the publisher.

HS: Thank you for volunteering to do this! This has been really helpful.

PF: It was a lot of fun! Always, always happy to help other writers.

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