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.”