Crafting Novellas: An Interview with Laurel Hightower
Laurel Hightower is a horror lover, legal nerd, and mom. Today, she is opening up to the art of crafting novellas and her most recent release ‘Below’ which was released in March of 2022. The synopsis describes it as “While driving through the mountains of West Virginia during a late-night snowstorm, a recently divorced woman experiences bizarre electrical problems, leaving her with little choice but to place her trust with a charismatic truck driver. But when an unexplainable creature with haunting red eyes gets between them, she is forced to make one of the toughest decisions of her life. Will she abandon the stranger who kept her safe—or will she climb down below, where reality has shapeshifted into a living nightmare?” Let’s dive into the interview!
Rob E. Boley: So with Below how did the story manifest? Did you start with Abby and her character arc or did you start with Mothman?
Laurel Hightower: Well, I definitely started with Mothman. I wanted to include him in something. I’ve always thought he was a cool cryptid. I love the ambiguity of Mothman, you know? And the scariest parts of a horror movie are always before you see the critter. And with Mothman, you never quite see him, right? I had it on the backburner as something I wanted to write about. But basically I create characters and I make a list of elements and then themes. You know, it sounds very organized, but it doesn’t all happen at once.
So Mothman was hanging out as something I wanted to write about. And then, yeah, I had this scary experience when I drove to Scares That Care last year. Like Addy, I wanted to do something that would usually scare me. I wanted to be more independent. But, yeah, the drive kicked off vestibular vertigo, so I felt really wonky on that drive through West Virginia. Since then, I’ve really learned to deal with it and it doesn’t actually affect my ability to drive. But it was very unexpected and very disconcerting. I felt weirdly out of control. It was kind of terrifying. And so I was like, okay, I have to write about this. And of course, since I was driving through West Virginia, that became my Mothman story. I just put those two things together.
And then, we were driving along on another trip and my husband’s driving, thankfully. We go over an overpass next to a semi. Sometimes as a horror writer or as an anxiety ridden person, you think of the worst possible thing that could happen in that moment. Like, what if that truck just sailed over the side? What would I do? So that was the last piece.
REB: Did you know from the beginning that Below was going to be a novella? Like, you’ve done a couple novellas, and you have another on the way. Is that length your sweet spot?
LH: It’s really getting to be. I wrote Whispers in the Dark first and that was 109,000 words. I have another one called Silent Key that is forever being shopped around. But that’s about 88,000 words. When I started, it was like 200,000. What I’m realizing is how easy it is for me to get lost in those sorts of arcs with that much stuff going on.
So with Crossroads, I’d never written a novella. I was told that they don’t sell and there’s not much point in them. So I needed to either expand it or make it a short story. And I said I’m going to write it at whatever length that it comes in and then see what I think. It’s gotten easier for me to determine whether this is a novella length idea or a novel length idea. So with Below, I knew I could add extra elements to stretch it out, but I didn’t want to. I wanted it to be tight, to happen all in one night and almost entirely in one setting. So yeah, I wanted it to be a novella from the start. Actually I was afraid it was going to be a lot shorter.
REB: To keep it lean and mean, were there any roads that you almost went down but were like, nope, we’re staying on track. Were there any scenes that you cut?
LH: No, there really wasn’t. Below had an uncharacteristically small need for editing. I hammered out the first draft in less than a month and kicked it to a couple of beta readers. They had invaluable but fairly minor notes. So I made those changes and then I kicked it to Max.
Josh Malerman said this a while ago, and it’s really stuck with me. He said a novella holds a single note. I’m not a musician, so to me, that translates to walking on a single path. With Below, I didn’t always know what was going to happen next. Some stuff really surprised me, which is the best way for it to happen when your brain gives you little Easter eggs and fun stuff to find. So I really didn’t have to cut anything. Actually Max had me add a scene to it.
REB: For a lot of the story, Addy’s by herself. So I loved the imagined internal dialogue with her very judgy ex-husband. That dialogue moves the scene forward and breaks up the page. That was a really effective device. Was that something that happened or was that a conscious decision?
LH: It wasn’t intentional in that sense. That was a big part of the original impetus for her character. I always say, I’m not my characters, but there are always parts of me and parts of my experiences in them. I’m really bad about constantly having that internal dialogue, the criticism and thinking about who would get mad at me for doing this one thing—that constant conversation in my head. Thematically, once I settled on Addie, the book was about believing in yourself.
If someone tells you that when you’re younger, it’s such an abstract concept. But getting older, I’ve realized it’s very concrete. Do I listen to my gut? Do I listen to what I know? Do I stick to what I’ve seen and insist upon that? Or do I let someone else control the narrative and write their own truth over mine? And that can be a struggle. So that was an aspect of her character arc that I wanted to explore—finding that confidence a little bit later in life.
REB: One of the things I like about Below is that you captured the wonky what-the-hell-is-going-on factor of Mothman. The more you read or watch about Mothman’s history, it’s so nuts. There are flying saucers, a bridge collapsing, men in black—it’s not just this giant moth guy flying around. There’s all this bizarre stuff that goes with it. And I thought you captured that vibe really well but also in a very unique, original way. How deeply did you dive into researching the Mothman legend?
LH: My desire to write something about Mothman was because I had watched the movie when it came out. And when I finally read Keel’s book [The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel], I was like, damn. They did a great job with the movie because it captured the parts that translate to the screen for people’s attention. But reading the book, the Mothman wasn’t even the main point. He’s not the danger. He’s not the risk. It’s all this other craziness.
I really wanted to include that because the idea of the creature being like a magnet, drawing all this other sheer insanity, was so interesting and so disconcerting. So I really didn’t do any research over and above Keel’s book. I may have Googled a few times for very specific pieces of information, like what was the height that most people were reported him being.
REB: What appeals to you about writing novellas?
LH: With Crossroads, it was sort of an accident. At the time, I’d been told by people who should have known more about it than me that novellas were not sellers. But there have been marvelous novellas in horror for quite a while. It’s really catching on and people enjoy the ability to sit down and fly through something in a very short space of time.
Also there’s such a speed element to novellas. For the novella I’m working on now, I started keeping track of my word count and having very modest goals, like 200 words a day, 500 words a day. Writing a novella lends itself to that. I don’t get lost in them.
From a practical standpoint, publishers are really opening up, seeing how the sales are good and the appeal is there. With the page count being lower, they can price them a lot lower than a novel. So they’re able to be more profitable at a much lower price because of the cost of printing, even shipping.
REB: Have you had any challenges selling novellas? Or was it was pretty easy to find a home for them?
LH: I was a little bit daunted with Crossroads. I had tweeted something when I was working on it asking about people’s experience selling novellas. I actually had a couple of publishers tweet back at me and say, we’re into novellas. And actually, we’d like to take a look when you’re done. Then by the time it was finished, both of those publishers were kaput.
When it was done, I sent it to three publishers. It worked out really well with Off Limits Press because I had just spoken to Sam a month or so prior on a podcast. So we were familiar with each other. She was launching her press. I am an inveterate rule follower, and she said she wanted books at 35,000 words and up. Crossroads was only 34,000 so I didn’t even think about submitting it. And she finally messaged me. I told her it was only 34,000 and said, I’ll take a look anyway.
She got through it pretty quick and was really happy with it. It was such a cool arrangement, for a first launch for her imprint and then for me, because she’s an author. So we had all the same goals and we just worked in tandem very well.
And with Below I was very cheeky. I just messaged Max and was like, what’s up? I have this. Because I study the small presses to look at who does a really good job marketing and who acts with decorum—who is somebody that I can really see working with. And Max was one of those and luckily, yeah, he really dug it. I also thought of Max because I knew that he would tell me if it sucked. I feel like we’re all very blind to the holes in our own writing. I don’t ever want to put out anything less than my very best work. So it’s important to me to have beta readers and editors who will tell me if I’m talking out of my ass.
REB: Right! So if there’s a horror writer out there who’s thinking about writing a novella or working on one now, what wisdom would you impart to them?
LH: I would say stick to your guns if you feel like that is the right length for it. I would say outline, even if it’s very loosely. I know a lot of people get very turned off by outlines and say they can’t write that way. I’m not going to argue with you. Everybody has their method and that’s great, but I think that a very loose outline or scene plan can help you stay on that course because you can visualize it—is this a whole other storyline that’s branching off here or am I staying with what I’m doing?
Also really keep in touch with yourself and what you’re writing. The one I’m writing right now, I’m coming back and seeing . . . This is what I want to say, but I need to make it scarier here, you know? So keep an eye on what you’re doing, and if it ends up being more of a short story or a novel, then that’s okay. Better luck on a novella next time. Novellas are a great thing to aim for, really. I have gotten very addicted to reading them.
REB: Yes. Same here. Totally. Last question. Can we get any kind of teaser on the current project?
LH: Well, it’s horror. Horror is my first love. I probably will dabble some in crime and things like that, but I love horror. This is going to sound like a Lifetime movie, but thematically it’s about parental isolation and mom guilt. Which I know dads get guilt, too. I just happen to be a mom. So it’s about the constant self-immolation, the constant feeling of being not good enough, which is even harder, when you apply it to your child. If I’m not fulfilling my own potential, the only person I’m really cheating is myself. But if I’m not giving my child everything he needs, then there’s constant guilt. So yeah, it sounds like a Lifetime movie but there will hopefully be some really creepy gross moments in there, too.
REB: I’m sure there will! Thank you for taking the time to talk. I really appreciate it.
LH: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for asking me. I love that you’re writing about novellas because I think it’s an exciting avenue.
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Rob E. Boley likes to make blank pages darker. He lives with his wife and his daughter in Dayton, Ohio. By day, he manages and analyzes big data. Yet each morning before sunrise, he rises to strike terror into the hearts of the unfortunate characters dwelling in his novels, stories, and poems. His fiction has been seen lurking in places such as A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. His poetry has been known to prowl in publications such as Wild Goose Poetry Review, California Quarterly, Horror Writers’ Association Poetry Showcase, and Undead: A Poetry Anthology of Ghosts and Ghouls. He co-founded Howling Unicorn Press with his wife, author Megan Hart, to conjure tales that thrill, chill, and fulfill. You can learn more about this weird figure of the dark by visiting his website at www.robboley.com.