This summer I participated in Pitch Wars—a competitive author mentorship program, which concludes with an agent showcase—and I was fortunate enough to work with Amelinda Bérubé as my mentor. Amelinda has a flair for crafting creepy stories and characters that will haunt your memory. She was kind enough to discuss a little about her writing process with me.
What is your favorite stage of writing, and why? Research? Brainstorming? First drafts? Revising?
Revising, absolutely. It’s so much less excruciating when the words are out there on the page and all you have to do is make them better! Research is a close second, though; it never fails to get me excited and lit up about a project, no matter how frustrated or stuck I am.
Are you a plotter, pantster, or both? Or does it vary throughout the creative process?
I’m an unhappy hybrid of the two, I think. Plantser? I would dearly love to be a plotter, because I need to know where I’m going, but I can only figure out so much before I actually start writing. Delilah S. Dawson once tweeted that writing a first draft is like running a race through the forest in the fog while being chased by zombies. I feel this on a deep and personal level.
What do you find to be the most important ingredient in creating stories that frighten at a deep, psychological level?
I have a theory that the key to this is a combination of anchoring things in super concrete details and not explaining too much. Think CORALINE, for example: part of what makes the other mother’s black button eyes so uncanny is the way they put this highly specific and ordinary thing in a weird and terrible new context. And we never find out *why* the other mother has black button eyes. We never find out exactly what she is or where she came from. But she wouldn’t be as scary if we did. I find that nightmares have the same properties – vivid, concrete detail and events that seem animated by some sort of internal logic you don’t have access to.
Also, my experience has been that I do my best work when I put some of myself into my writing. I kind of feel like figuring out how to get some little piece of my heart on the page was a really important lesson, if a surprisingly scary one. You know that saying about “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader?” I think the same goes for fear. If you’re working through or articulating something that genuinely scares you, if you’re taking a risk and making yourself vulnerable, I think that comes through in the story.
How would you define an “atmospheric” novel, and how does it tie-in to writing horror/gothic literature?
I call a book atmospheric when even insignificant moments are saturated with a certain feeling or flavour, when the prose evokes a certain emotion so vividly it’s almost like a smell. An atmosphere of mystery and dread are really key to a spooky book – so that you can *feel* the creepy things coming before they ever turn up. And part of “gothic,” as I understand it, is reflecting a character’s troubled inner landscape in their surroundings, so a really visceral feeling of setting is part of how we understand what’s going on at a deeper level.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite horror/gothic tropes?
All things supernatural, especially when they collide with our modern ways of overcoming isolation and vulnerability. Misbehaving technology is something I really enjoy, even something as basic as a failing flashlight or a cell phone with no reception. I’m also bizarrely fond of zombies, whose grossness would usually not be my jam, but I love how they inhabit the threshold between life and death in this utterly gruesome and physical way. You can ignore a ghost, or be unable to detect its presence…but you’d by god better not ignore a zombie.
My least favourite trope is probably the virginal final girl, and all the accompanying implied punishments for sexual sins. Like, deep-seated fear of women’s sexuality is definitely a thing, but I’m convinced there are sex-positive, empowering, thoughtful ways to explore it while still being scary.
What are some of the most valuable things you learned during the writing of your first novel? Was writing your second novel a different learning curve?
Some of the most significant lessons from writing the first one:
* Nuts and bolts: pacing, how much space character development should take, how to build romantic tension (and damn, that last one is *hard*, and I will never disrespect romance writers again)
* Sometimes when you think “oh man, I really don’t want to write about that,” you really need to – the stuff you’re afraid of is powerful, though it might take you several drafts to come around to facing it head on
The writing experience was completely different for the second one, mostly because I sort of knew what to expect this time and didn’t have to spend time dithering over whether it was done yet. I floundered around for the first 75 pages or so, but once I figured out where it was going, I blazed through the rest in an extended fit of cackling glee, and didn’t get scared until I was done (“oh…my god…WHAT HAVE I WROUGHT??”)
Who are some of your greatest literary influences and what have you gleaned from them?
I devoured books by Christopher Pike and Dean R. Koontz as a tween, to my teachers’ dismay. I don’t remember much about those books beyond a few standout premises, but there’s definitely a solid bedrock of weird and creepy there. I didn’t get into Ursula Le Guin’s fiction until I grew up, but her essays on fantasy and science fiction and fairy tales have really shaped my ideas about what SFF is all about and what it can do. One of the books that most inspired me was actually a middle-grade ghost story called STONEWORDS by Pam Conrad; it won an Edgar in 1991, and I first read it as a teenager. It’s lyrical, understated, dreamlike, and utterly haunting, and every time I re-read it I think OH MY GOD YES EXACTLY. I think that was the book that first really showed me that a spooky story could be so beautifully written.
I saw that you also make stained glass. Do you incorporate art into your stories, or vice versa? Have you made any stained glass images inspired by your stories?
Glass has kind of fallen by the wayside these past few years, unfortunately – I actually gave up on writing for a few years when my first attempt at querying fizzled, and glass was one of the projects I threw myself into in its absence. It’s a very satisfying and surprisingly forgiving craft. Most of my stained glass art was based on art nouveau and nature imagery. Now that the writing is back, it’s basically devouring all the time and energy I poured into glass, and I don’t even really miss it, so I think it was mostly a substitute. I should totally work it into a story at some point, though!
Amelinda Bérubé has spent the last ten years as a writer and editor with the Canadian public service, prior to which her career path meandered through academics, carpentry, and administrivia. Amelinda is a passionate fan of YA, SFF, and all things spooky. Her debut novel, THE DARK BENEATH THE ICE, will be published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 1, 2018. You can pre-order it here.
Learn more about Amelinda on her website: http://www.amelindaberube.com/ or you can find her on twitter @metuiteme