By Laura Sibson
Today we welcome Rob Costello to share about his writing process. Rob and I attended VCFA together, and his writing has long impressed me. In fact, I use his short story “The Hole of Dark Kill Hollow” from Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter (Candlewick, 2020), in the university class I teach. I also deeply respect the level of compassion and insight he brings to his writing workshops.
Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your writing process and the ways it’s evolved. As you know, I’m a big fan of your short stories and I’m excited to read more from you. Could you tell us about your latest published work?
My latest published work is a short story called “I Am the Other One,” which was featured in the January 30, 2022 episode of one of my favorite horror podcasts: The No Sleep Podcast. This program is pretty well known for doing elaborate productions with professional actors, musical scores, and full sound effects. As someone who grew up listening to recordings of old radio shows like The Shadow and The Jack Benny Program, this was a tremendous thrill for me, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. They did a superb job!
The story itself is a Cain and Abel tale that goes to some very dark places about the rivalry between two “gifted” young brothers. The funny thing about it for me is that it began life as a middle grade story I wrote for a workshop as a student at VCFA. Trust me when I tell you it’s no longer middle grade! In fact, it’s now pretty gruesome and comes with a strong content warning. But that’s emblematic of how my writing never seems to sit comfortably in one genre or age category.
I describe myself as someone who writes “for and about young people.” Though my stories range from dark and disturbing adult horror to light and humorous YA, the common thread binding them together is that they’re almost always about queer kids wrestling with the many real-life issues they face.
Congratulations on your story being featured in a podcast! It’s interesting to hear how it morphed over time. Many authors say that the process for writing each book is often different from the last. This has been true for me as well. How has the process of creating your most recent project differed from your previous projects?
I’ve always been drawn to the idea that each new story has to teach you how to write it. For me, this is where the majority of my time and effort goes. I’m a pantser who writes chiefly from the gut and the ear, so it can literally take me years to learn what a short story or novel truly wants to be about. Once I understand that, the rest is pretty straightforward. But figuring that out is always the biggest challenge for me and the thing that makes tackling each new project a unique experience.
In terms of process, this manifests in different approaches to finding my way into the story. For example, with my first novel (which is currently with my agent), I spent a lot of time side-writing to get to know the characters. I drafted diary entries, background sketches, and even a one-act play to figure out key relationships.
While virtually none of this material made it into the final book, it all proved essential nonetheless. Without it, I would have never fully understood the story I was trying to tell. (Also, I managed to repurpose some of it into a short story entitled “Whatever Happened to the Boy Who Fell Into the Lake?” that I published last year in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Waste not, want not!)
As for current projects, I have several on the boil right now. Because it often requires such a long time for me to go deep enough into a story to learn how to write it, it’s important for me to work on more than one thing at a time. My friend Sarah Aronson taught me the benefits of having a side project—what she calls her “peach sorbet”—as a kind of a creative palate cleanser to keep your writing fresh and fun. I fell in love with this idea and have since fully embraced it, so much so that right now I’m working on several peach sorbets, including a couple of novels, a novella, various short stories, and an upcoming speculative YA anthology that I’m editing (and contributing a story to) that will be announced soon.
Among these projects, I’m most focused at the moment on a queer, Hollywood #metoo haunted house novel set in 1978. The main challenge with it so far has been figuring out the nature of the haunting itself and how it relates to the sexual exploitation the characters suffer in the film industry of the 70s. I’ve spent a lot more time in research for this book than my previous novel, learning about ancient Greek mythology (satyrs play a big role in the haunting), as well as the history of the movie business, and the experiences of gay men and boys in Hollywood over the years.
Because part of the story is told via a contemporary podcast, I’ve also been listening to podcasts and reading transcripts, in particular This American Life. (As with my first novel, much of this research may not end up in the finished book, but I did manage to use some of it for another short story entitled “The Thing With Chains” that I published last November in The Dark Magazine.)
Wow, you have so many projects on the burners! I’ve also benefited from Sarah Aronson’s wonderful guidance. For example, I’ve been using the Pomodoro method since she mentioned it to me years ago. Each time I begin a new project, I challenge myself on some level whether it’s by including flashbacks or creating an interlocking grief narrative. In what ways did your latest project challenge you, and what did you learn from a writing craft standpoint?
I think the biggest challenge I face is trying to do too much. I’m an overwriter by nature, and my ambitions always seem to exceed my grasp. For example, my initial vision for the haunted Hollywood #metoo story involved three interwoven storylines, told in three different POVs (first, second, and close third), at three different times in the main character’s life. This quickly proved far too unwieldy, so I’ve jettisoned one storyline/POV and drastically reduced another such that the main thrust of the narrative now takes place in close third in 1978.
Another example: The YA horror novel I’m also working on right now (which I describe as Carrie meets Thelma & Louise meets We Have Always Lived in the Castle), initially began with six POV characters (again in first, second, and close third), and is now down to four (in first and close third). It may well end up reduced to two, both in close third.
From a craft perspective, I guess you could say what I’ve learned from all of this—and it’s something I seem to need to relearn with each new project—is that, for me, less is more!
Can I just say how much I love the comps for your YA horror novel? You are ambitious from the outset whereas I tend to add elements as I go. There is an abundance of professional advice available to writers from guidance on developing craft elements to suggestions on how to avoid distractions. If you turn to a particular craft book or approach (e.g., David Macinnis Gill‘s sticky-note plotting or the Pomodoro method) during your drafting process, would you share with us what you use and how it’s helpful to you?
As someone who writes mostly by instinct and from the gut, I have to admit I don’t find craft books very useful. Systemized approaches to writing simply don’t work for me. About the only craft book I’ve ever found really helpful is Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story (Ten Speed Press, July, 2012), which I’ve used during revision as a kind of check to make sure I’m meeting reader expectations.
To be honest, the most beneficial craft advice I get comes from simply talking about writing with other writers. One of the greatest blessings of my writing life has been the opportunity to teach creative writing, one-on-one with my book coaching clients, in my hometown with my friend Anne Mazer, and most significantly, at the Highlights Foundation, where I’ve been on the faculty of the Whole Novel Workshop since 2014.
I always say that my experience working with our gifted students and my brilliant fellow faculty members has felt like receiving a second MFA. They’ve taught me so much and made me a stronger writer.
I think whatever you can do to connect with other writers will always prove far more creatively beneficial than reading a library’s worth of craft books. In this vein, I’m excited to be co-teaching with Nora Shalaway Carpenter a new Intro to Writing Short Fiction for MG & YA Writers webinar this May at the Highlights Foundation. Short stories are my first love and the glue that holds together my writing life. Yet, so many children’s writers seem wary of experimenting with the form. Nora and I hope to change this!
Thank you for sharing so generously today. I’m thrilled to know that we can find you teaching at The Highlights Foundation again this upcoming year. And we’ll keep on the lookout for your new projects.
Rob Costello (he/him) is a queer man who writes contemporary and dark speculative fiction with a queer bent for and about young people. His work has appeared in The Dark, The No Sleep Podcast, Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Narrative, and Rural Voices:15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America.
He holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an alumnus of Millay Arts. He is an active member of the Horror Writers Association and has served on the faculty of the Whole Novel Workshop at the Highlights Foundation since 2014. He lives and works in Ithaca, NY with his husband and their dogs. Find out more at www.cloudbusterpress.com or on Twitter @CloudbusterRob.
After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, you can find her running the streets of her Philadelphia neighborhood or hiking with her dog. She teaches creative writing at Arcadia University and at the Highlights Foundation; she also leads creative writing workshops for middle schoolers, teens and adults. Sibson is the author of young adult novels The Art of Breaking Things (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019) and Edie In Between (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2021).