Halloween Haunts: The Real Creeps, or How to Create Horror Non-fiction Shorts by Lisa Morton
One of my favorite pieces of advice for new writers looking to make more sales is to consider trying some non-fiction. As an author who is known for both fiction and non-fiction, I periodically get requests for articles from editors who tell me that for every 300 short story submissions they receive, they get…well, zero non-fiction submissions.
I think many writers have this notion that non-fiction requires a different skill set, or doesn’t provide the emotional satisfactions they get from fiction. My answer to that: Then you’re doing it wrong. Certainly some non-fiction is intended to be first and foremost educational. Interviews should aim to reveal the person answering the questions; reviews are there to help consumers gain insight into possible purchases. But we’ve probably all read magazine articles that have angered us, amused us, or (for purposes of this genre) unnerved us. Moved us emotionally, in other words…like fiction.
Magazine articles can be a perfect way for writers to break into tough markets, and I’m going to suggest here that articles should be approached in much the same way that short fiction is. First, decide on your subject; it will be easier for you, the author, to choose something that you either have experience with or an emotional connection to. Have you ever had, for example, a paranormal encounter that left you shaken? Perhaps you witnessed a terrifying accident or even a crime. Maybe you saw a movie that scared the heck out of you, and you’ve always wondered why it was so effective.
Now you’ve got the heart of your piece. What would you think about next if this were a short story? A plot. Characters. Style. Ways to disturb your readers. Well, surprise surprise: you should apply all of those elements to your non-fiction piece, too. A sequence of events will unfold around an unsuspecting person or persons; if the writing is solid and the pacing good, it’ll build to a finale that will affect both those within the story and those reading it. See? That can describe either a short story or an article.
The biggest difference between a short fiction and a short non-fiction work might be in the research, and the amount of it you use. I just finished writing a story that involved interstellar travel; for the story, I researched space travel theories at some length, but then threw out most of my research and kept only what served to advance the plot. Had I been writing a non-fiction piece, however, I would’ve included more of that material in an article. I would have structured that research in a way that would build to the most dramatic conclusion possible. Whoever you’ve chosen to be the central “character” in your non-fiction piece would play into that climax, too. If that protagonist is you, don’t be afraid to get upclose and personal. Level with your readers about how you felt, about how this experience marked you or impacted you. Be honest. Use the same powerful language you would employ in a short story. Aim to leave your readers trembling, gasping, and still thinking about the piece days later.
Writing an entire non-fiction book can be a considerably daunting experience. Even if you’re writing about a subject you already know very well, research could take years, and there are a whole bunch of extra tasks with a non-fiction book, ranging from obtaining rights to use illustrations to preparing an index of your book. I would only recommend a full non-fiction book to someone who is aware of the time investment involved and prepared to make the commitment. But writing non-fiction short pieces doesn’t have to be any more time-consuming or labor-intensive than writing short fiction…and the end goals of selling a compelling piece that will entertain readers should be the same in both fiction and non-fiction.
Lisa Morton is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, a screenwriter, a novelist, and a Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. Her most recent releases are the non-fiction books Ghosts: A Cultural History and Adventures in the Scream Trade. She lives in the San Fernando Valley, and can be found online at www.lisamorton.com.