2024 WINNER SPEAK UP TALK RADIO FIREBIRD BOOK AWARDS
by Amy S. Cutler, author of A Shadow of Love
A spooky story that gets your heart racing and your spine tingling
Imagine walking down a street – any street – just taking in the sights and enjoying the day. There are people around, maybe a few dogs, a cat, a mouse heading into a drainage pipe. The scene may be interesting, but most people just pass by, thinking about their day or what they will say to their wife/husband/child/dog when they get home late. A writer thinks about these things too, with a few more thoughts piled on top. Thoughts like, “Boy this day really is beautiful, I wonder what would happen if the sky opened up and aliens took over the street?!” or, “That dog is trying to get to the cat, who is trying to get to the mouse. Why is that happening? What if there is a secret society happening on the other side of that pipe, and only the mouse can fit, but if the dog reaches the pipe first maybe he will shrink down to mouse size and run through, locking the other two out?”
In other words, being a writer is fun. Stories can come from anywhere, and the ideas are almost unstoppable. Taking an abstract idea and creating the first bits of a story around it is the fun part, playing the “what if” game until there is enough juice to fuel the creative fire is a great way to spend any day. The harder part is getting to the center of the idea and discovering if there is enough there to create an actual story, whether it be a short story, novella, or novel.
Sam Rebelein, author of Edenville which will be released in 2023 and The Poorly Made and Other Things in 2024, is a horror and memoir author whose work has appeared in a number of speculative fiction publications, such as Bourbon Penn and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He said if he can hear a good enough voice, he knows he can pull a whole story out of an idea. He explains, “If the idea is just an image or scenario, I usually have a much harder time figuring out what’s on the either side of that image or scene. But if I hear a specific voice that has a story to tell, I can typically follow it pretty easily from one sentence to the next.”
If Rebelein hits around five thousand words and feels like the voice he’s following is just revving up, he can tell that he has a longer project. “It tends to be about the size of the backstory for whatever image I have, and the word count. If I have just an image or scene and NOT a voice, that’s when things get out of hand, because then I’m trying to over explain myself to get to know that scene.”
Of course, there are key questions to ask before pulling a story together. For Rebelein, they include what is the urgency and beat of the story, and what is the best way to lay out all of the important information as soon as possible. “For instance, if I have a first-person narrator, how can I get them to reveal their age, gender identity, and name on page one?”
In 2016, Lisa Cron wrote a book titled, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). It is a writing guide that gives an alternative to the typical pantsing or plotting methods of writing a first draft. In it, she says that a story is about how the things that happen affect someone in the pursuit of a different goal, and how that person changes internally as a result. “What happens in the story is the plot, the surface events of the novel. It is not the same thing as what the story is about. Not by a long shot.” She goes on to explain that the internal change is what the story is actually about, “How your protagonist’s external dilemma – aka the plot – changes her worldview.”
There is endless advice on the best way to write a story: there is pantsing and plotting and anything in between, or outside of those boxes. Whatever your style, it is important to keep the very basic five W’s in mind: who, what, where, why, and when. Of course, the how is of equal importance in storytelling. After the idea is solid and the beginnings of the kinks are worked out, it’s all about sitting down and getting the words out. Writing can be quite cathartic, and when we are lucky, the voices in our heads come out through our words and create a story. As Rebelein says, “When some part of me has something to say, it says it! And I just follow along.”
by Amy S Cutler
Nicholas Sparks once said, “Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.” This is so, so true. There is no feeling like getting to the end. Even knowing the hours of revising and editing that is lurking around the corner, finishing the first draft is liberating.
There are SO many ways to tackle a first draft. There are pantsers and plotters and everyone in between. Some people outline and plot out every and turn, organizing either in a document, through a software program just for this purpose, on sticky notes, whatever works for them to get the key points of the story worked out before writing. Other people, the pantsers, just letting the words flow with no formal outline or solid idea of where the story is going.
I fall in between these categories. Usually when I get a story idea, I just sit down and write the first few chapters. After that, I sit back and think about where the story is going, how long it is going to be (many times, I find that I write the idea as a short story and am happy with that), and what I can do to make it better. If I outline too much, I get stuck trying to fit the story into the outline, rather than let it lead me. So often, I have no idea what is going to happen until it happens. I love when a story takes me by surprise, sometimes I cry right along with the characters as the story progresses. Other times, I will write a short story in a few hours, and someone will say to me, “where did that come from?” Truly, I have no idea.
There is software out there that is so helpful in planning a story. I am currently using one for a novel idea, and just the character sheets alone are priceless. The scene and details are much improved because of the software, but I do find that the actual story isn’t getting done, I’ve spent so much time playing with the details and no real time on the actual writing. This is kind of an experiment for me, so I can’t say if I love this way of creating a story or not.
Usually, I like my chapters to be at least a little polished before I move on. I know plenty of writers who say just sit down, write the story, and worry about fixing and editing and polishing for when the story is done. Personally, I find that the longer I work on a chapter, the more ideas I get moving forward, but I really think that a first draft is so personal and unpredictable, that writers should just do what feels good for them in the moment, and go with it. In this case, I believe that any first draft is successful as long as there are words getting down on paper.
As long as my fingers are going clickity clack on the keyboard and words are growing on the page (and not straying to social media or anything.com), I am happy.
About the Book
When Annabelle flees her abusive husband and moves into an 1860’s farmhouse, she soon learns that she is not alone; she shares her home with Christian, the ghost of a poet who killed himself in 1917. Christian, wanting nothing but solitude, tries to scare Annabelle away, but once they come together while she is dreaming, they fall in love. The clock is ticking for Christian, for moments after his hanging his fiance magically cursed his spirit to be stuck on earth for one hundred years, and his time is almost up.
With Annabelle’s ex threatening her and the spirit she has fallen in love with on the verge of disappearing, Annabelle becomes obsessed with staying with Christian, and will do anything to be with him.
Being in love with a ghost is bad enough, but for Annabelle, discovering that her true love will be crossing over at any moment pushes her over the edge of reckless behavior.
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Print length: 163 pages
When I was little, I knew that I wanted to be an author. For years I would fantasize about writing, locked away in a room somewhere, away from people, just myself and my typewriter (then word processor, then computer) churning out stories and watching my books become bestsellers.
What a cute image, right? The problem is that I was not the only little person with those fantasies, and my stories are just a few words in the giant vat of words produced by the talented writers of this world.
Writing a novel is hard work, but it turns out that it is the easy part when it comes to getting your book in the hands of readers. Once my book was published – a whirlwind of its own – I realized that I was now in the business of self-promotion.
With or without an agent or publisher, new authors need to learn how to promote their books. Just the sheer number of books out there is overwhelming. Readers are no longer limited to choosing books in their hometown library or bookstore; when you publish a book, you are in instant competition with millions of people. When the weight of this finally settled on me, I knew that I had to learn how to market myself.
The first thing I did was hire a marketing firm to create a website for me. I know of a lot of writers who do this themselves, but I know my limits both in talent and time. It is important for people to see that you have an online presence, and with your website you can share as much as you want about yourself as a writer that you want to, can push sales, grow an email list, and post some of your work so that readers will want more.
Speaking of online presence, I now have not only a Facebook profile, but an Instagram and Twitter account. Finding time to figure out what to post and how often is a job on its own, because you don’t only want to promote your book – that is boring and annoying for people to see the same content over and over, so it becomes a game of what to post and when. To be honest, this is still something that I am working on because when life gets busy, I forget about this important task. If I had unlimited time and energy, I would jump on TikTok as well, but I am struggling with regular social media posts and do not want to spread myself too thin.
I have also used Facebook and Amazon paid ads to market my book. I wouldn’t say that the goal here is to only make a sale, because what sells anything is repetition. Someone is not going to see my book for the first time and buy it, and I know that it’s more about branding then immediate sales – people need to see it over and over before they finally click and make a purchase.
Getting in the car and delivering your book to libraries and any local bookstore that will accept it is time consuming but necessary to get eyes on your actual product. Contacting influencers and bloggers is also a great way to be seen, as is having an author presence on sites such as Goodreads and BookBub.
The most important thing I have learned is to not be shy – if there is an opportunity to talk about my work, I must take it. That is easier said than done because I feel a little selfish sometimes, but to be successful in business, you must be passionate about what you are selling and therefore ready to sell at all times. I am lucky because my day job involves a great deal of marketing, but even with the knowledge that I brought with me, I still find that marketing my book is challenge because it requires me to speak up from a place of vulnerability, which doesn’t jive with the image I had of myself happily locked away, writing. Then again, stories come from being out in the world and living, and any challenge is an opportunity to grow.