My debut as a horror writer

Tomorrow you will get to read my first ever horror story — and it’s a paid gig. Here’s how that happened and why it probably was inevitable.

My ghostwriting agency, Gotham Ghostwriters, regularly sends out emails with specific ghostwriting needs. I’m very selective about which ones I pitch, because my value is in writing tech-focused business books. A few weeks ago, they started seeking writers to write 500-word horror shorts and post them on Twitter.

I saw this and thought, “Well, I certainly know how to scare the crap out of someone in 500 words.”

As a young man I dreamed of becoming a writer of science fiction. I have been fortunate enough to actually live my career as a writer of truths rather than fiction. I was also an analyst, which is a job in which you logically extrapolate trends to predict the future — which is a lot like speculative fiction. So I found a way to scratch that itch and make enough to live a good life. But barring a little satire, I haven’t written fiction for 40 years and I’ve never sold any.

When the Gotham pitch came around, though, I thought it was time to take another shot, because a 500-word vignette is pretty-much the same a case study story, and I’ve written hundreds of those. Since I have no horror writing credentials, I wrote one on spec to convince them I could do it. That was the most fun I’ve had writing all year, and they loved it.

A strange thing has happened in the 40 years since I last considered writing speculative fiction. Back then, technology was what inspired us — space flight, computers, and robots seemed to have limitless potential. Now, technology surrounds us, and reveals its dark side on a daily basis: the spread of fake news, AI with racist and sexist biases, data breaches, ransomware.

My analytical mind immediately turns to dystopic ideas. And writing those has turned out to be easy. I’ve already cranked out stories on smart speakers and autonomous cars, and have more planned on cryptocurrency and sharing apps. (And just for fun, one on a ghost writer.)

My colleagues on this project are actual horror writers: Olivia White, Alan Baxter, Gabrielle Faust, John F.D. Taff, Richard Thomas, and Grady Hendrix. They’ve been writing and posting some scary stuff about haunted houses and creepy old guys and stuff like that. Their work is very unlike mine.

Obviously, as a newbie, I can’t teach much, but here are some observations:

  • The skill of writing fluid narrative is still similar, fiction or nonfiction. You still need a hook at the beginning, writing that pulls people through, and a twist at the end. This enabled me to be very confident in drafting these vignettes.
  • I found I could write one in less than an hour, but it took another hour or more to polish it. When you have 500 words to unfold something shocking, you have to be very careful of which words you choose. There’s no room for waste; you want the reader drawn along relentlessly.
  • My son, who writes fiction, does it in a very character-driven way. I’m still more about plot (typical of a nonfiction narrative). But the characters in these stories have gotten under my skin. They’re real people.
  • I could write dozens more. Tech is way scarier than goblins and vampires with far more diverse ways to terrify you.

You’ll see my debut offering at 8pm as a thread on my Twitter feed @jbernoff. To see all the stories, follow the hashtag #ScaryStories on Twitter, sponsored by Tomcat. I’ll post them here a little later.

I look forward to helping you have an anxious and fearful October.

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  1. Neil Peart of Rush talked about the work involved in writing the lyrics to “Manhattan Project.” He read a bunch of books and had to distill his knowledge into about 350 words.


    I’m also a non-fiction writer. I don’t have the chops to write fiction save for anonymizing companies as case studies in my books. I know of very few writers who can effectively write in both genres. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the matter.

  2. I eschew social media whenever possible; is there any possibility you could provide a link to the story from your blog?? Hope so – I’m really curious.