Writing Stories to Tell in the Dark: Sami Ellis
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
There's a monster living inside of you.
It latches onto your mind, implants an idea, seizes control of your hands then forces you into a chair. Internally, you're screaming. "What is this? What's going on? Get out of my head?"
Then it takes control of your fingers. They move across the keys, opening a Word Doc and typing words. Words turn into sentences, then paragraphs, then a page.
More pages, the number in the corner goes up and up, speeding past a hundred. You get to the mid-two hundred territory and gasp. What is this? STOP!
But you don't.
You're possessed. This monster growls and you keep pecking away at the keys until you reach...
But the end certnainly isn't in sight for author Sami Ellis. Read on for all her advice about querying, pitching, being your best advocate, the horror genre, and the gut-busting humor she so cooly drops throughout this interview.
1. Welp, the first question for these sorts of things usually is the ‘how did you get your agent’ question--something I’m sure you’ve shared many times! But, would you please share the journey again, along with any advice for querying authors?
I'm not even sure if I've shared the story that often—I mostly just talk about all the rejection because I'm a grudge-holder and love bringing up past transgressions. I got my agent in a quite simple fashion—I was in PitchWars in 2019, my agent requested my MS from the showcase (then liked my pitch a few days later in pitmad lol). She was my only offer, really about the only person who acted like my book was worth reading to the end.
I started querying in 2016 and it only took 3 months for those dreams to be crushed. I kept writing—queried a new book in 2017, another new one in 2018, but in 2019 I was fed up. I was like "I have HAD it with these damn agents in this damn inbox!"
I think what saved me from myself—and the advice that I would give writers—is finding a community in my PitchWars class (and later the LitSquad ayyeee). People think that communities require some big movement, but it's something that starts really quickly. Beta reading for someone and keeping in touch. Finding a mutual who thinks like you or writes like you. Gather them, introduce them to each other, don't have all the same friends, find different groups with different strengths and weaknesses. Community is absolutely key for a calm querier's mind.
2. You have quite the entertaining Twitter persona, but you also share info that or whatever reasoning is sometimes kept from aspiring authors, especially marginalized authors. When given this information, how would you say authors need to approach their expectations for a career in publishing? What should be their motivation in writing? Fame, fortune, readers, peer approval, all of the above or none at all?
I often joke that I'm on a one-woman campaign to get all authors to quit so that it's easier for everybody to get through the industry, but the kernel of truth to that is—we put so, so much stress on perseverance and "keeping at it" in this industry that "take a break" seems like something we have to apologize for. So I don't really want authors to "quit", I just want way more to take a break.
A huge portion of writers' expectations are formed by our peers and by the outliers of the industry when the reality is we work for huge for-profit companies that would screw us over the first chance it got. For a lot of us, writing is our dream. Holding a book with our name on it, etc—but that doesn't make us special. So we must protect ourselves.
I love the diversity in authors' reasons motivations for going into the book business—I don't think there's a "right" motivation at all. Money's fine. Fame's fine. But we also shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we're special. You can be the greatest writer of all time. You could be the purest writer, filled with joy for the craft. You could be the most creative. Doesn't matter. This business will exploit you when they see the opportunity.
3. You founded WTMP, a writing mentorship. When one is seeking these programs or thinking of volunteering their time to one, what should they consider? How important is it to find community outside of Twitter interactions?
They should mostly consider how in touch the community seems. Do people still talk to each other after the program? What about mentees and mentors? And you should also talk to some people who have done the program, and ask them about their experience—just like you would a mentor. Ask their most recent mentee and an older one if possible, because they may have way different opinions!
As for communities—it's just about the most important thing you need. And you don't need to go through a mentorship program for someone to mentor you. People may not read your work immediately, but if you build a good relationship with someone you admire, it may happen. Mentorship programs are just designed to network for you, but it doesn't mean it's impossible to network without one.
4. There are some discussions about cold querying vs pitch contests/mentorship with agent participation. What would say to those who think a pitch contest is the only way?
Most—if not all—of your favorite authors did not get their agent through a pitch contest, but through cold querying. Some people think that the days of the pitch contest is over due to oversaturation and over-commitment from agents. I actually don't think they'll go away, like those people, but I can definitely tell you that pitch contests don't improve your chances the way many people think it does.
At first, they were helpful to find agents you wouldn't have considered querying before. Now that they're so saturated, sometimes they can feel like a popularity contest, and often more on-the-spot than regular querying. It's best to do a mix of both, with cold querying being your main bank of agent interactions. Pitch contests and mentorship programs are compliments to your writing career, not the end-all-be-all.
5. A little birdie told me horror is your thing and then some. With shows like Fear Street and a rise in agents asking for the creepy, scary, and chills, how would you define horror as a genre? What separates a horror book from something like thriller/suspense, gothic, or dark fantasy?
Horror has always been a genre that's truly for a specific audience (or, as Stephen King would say—horror is WHEW, CHILE, THE GHETTO), and I would say that the only thing that separates it as a genre is its use of fear. The only one that comes close is thrillers. Horror (and thrillers) use fear to drive the story—what scares you? What would creep you out? It's an idea for a set piece, a vision for a moment that incites fear. Gothic and dark fantasy are driven by horrific settings and situations. A backdrop that incites forbearance. A plot point that is horrific.
A less official, but easier, way to tell the difference between the genres is finding out who is setting the tone of the plot. If the monster (figurative or literal) is controlling things and manipulating the hero, it is horror. If the monster is controlling things, but the hero is fighting to gain control, it is a thriller. Gothic and dark fantasy stories do not follow these rules, and will have much more story and worldbuilding outside of the horrific elements.
6. Like everything else in our white-centered society, the horror genre is pretty vanilla. And that is not to say there is a lack of bipoc horror writers, but more so few have been given the opportunity (you know it’s bad when people list Octavia Butler on horror lists...pretty sure she’s firmly spec fic/sff). So, what is it like writing horror as a black writer? A queer black writer?
I love being me, I love being a queer, Black, woman horror writer. But it gets kind of lonely because people don't read my genre, don't like my genre, don't get my Black jokes—and some of that is absolutely okay. Disliking horror is common, because horror can trigger people—not everyone can handle it.
But I end up unsure of who didn't like my book because they didn't like my book, and who didn't like my book because they don't like horror, don't care for queer stories, don’t want to read about Black people.
And a lot of people really don't like horror. To use Hereditary and Midsommar as an example—you can tell how much people hate the genre because when those films came out, so many people came forward like "Finally! Something horror that's actually good!"
And it's okay that people hate horror, and like Midsommar! The problem is that—what about this Black girl? I'm not Jordan Peele, I'm not Ari Aster, I'm not Mike Flanagan. So if that's the standard you hold me to, then I'll never make it. I don't want to write what they write. I don't want to put out the stories they're telling. I want to write about Black women being bad people, Black families getting their secrets uncovered, and little Black girls killing the monster at the end of the story.
But my biggest fear is that everyone will tell me that sounds awesome to my face, but never support me when I'm not there.
7. Do you think Get Out has helped to put a spotlight on Black and other BIPOC horror writers or do you think it's brought on unspoken limitations about what type of horror black authors can write?
Both are true. Get Out started a movement where audiences and big businesses wanted to hear about Black horror again—because we were always here, just ignored. We were pushed into the forefront for the first time in a long time, and I think people genuinely wanted more Black horror. But then the limitations came. We could only talk about racism in our horror.
Remember when Us came out? I love that movie way more than Get Out. But, to me, it was more of a Black horror movie anyway. It's obvious I would like it better! But liking Us better was not the popular opinion at the time. So many people had latched onto the mingling of racism and horror as the only way Black story should have been told, and it was so frustrating to hear every white person say "I liked Get Out better" because I wanted to say—"so you liked the one about you?"
8. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
I'm not good at detecting burnout, but I'm definitely the type to stop everything and relax into the moment. Even if it takes months to get back into writing, I'm down with lowering my output to a sentence a day just until I can get back into the groove of things. Taking a long break altogether is also a choice of mine. Deadlines are noted, but if the words ain't comin' they ain't comin'.
If it's between me or the bag, I'll choose me every time. Because I'm the bag provider.
Also, as I've been known to say to Amazon—MY ANCESTORS WERE SLAVES. Ain't nobody deserving of a good rest more than the fruit that they bore. Ashe, ashe.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
9. Fear Street—what do you think is the best episode of the trilogy?
1666, hands down. I'm going on record to say that I found it racial that there was literally only 1 Black rap song on the soundtrack, but it was in 1666 as it was the best movie. The set pieces (THAT ONE SCENE, YOU KNOW WHAT I'M TALMBOUT), the wrap up. It gave me everything I wanted. I'm a speculative horror person, too, so I loved it that much more.
10. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
I've already listed a lot lmao—that writers should quit, that pitch contests aren't going out, horror and thrillers are closer to each other than gothic and dark fantasy. That I like Us better.
You know, I think my unpopular opinion is that enemies to lovers is boring now. Yawn.
11. A house on a haunted hill—name and describe three spirits that would haunt
your possessed house?
Somebody meemaw: she try to fatten me up so the house can eat me but jokes on her I'd die for a baked good so she's actually helping me
Hot Ghost: they wanna piece of this ouija but they can keep wantin cuz this ouija stay on the board
Widow Ghost: she jump scared me day 4 and I died from a heart attack
Sami Ellis is a queer horror writer inspired by the horrific nature of Black fears and the culture’s relation to the supernatural. She is also the co-founder of the Write Team Mentorship Program. You can follow her @themoosef on Twitter, support her work with The Write Cohort, or use her writing resource, the Agent Adjacent Cheat Sheet.