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Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

Ben Acker discusses the joy of reading scary stories growing up that led him to write his new middle-grade horror collection, Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires.

Ben Acker is best known as the co-creator and writer of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a monthly comedic variety stage show and podcast in the style of old-timey radio. That would have been enough.

Acker has written for television, comic books, and actual radio. Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires is his first book about defeating vampires with the power of storytelling.

Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

Ben Acker

In this post, Ben discusses the joy of reading scary stories growing up that led him to write his new middle-grade horror collection, Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires, what surprised him about writing for middle-grade, and more!

Name: Ben Acker
Book title: Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: August 30, 2022
Genre/category: Middle-Grade Horror
Elevator pitch for the book: Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires is a collection of intertwining campfire tales and ghost stories told by a 12-year-old narrator to distract thirsty vampires from his delicious neck-blood. It’s written for the kids who grow up to be Halloween adults and the current Halloween adults who were those kids then.

Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

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What prompted you to write this book?

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing cover versions of classic spooky stories. Ideas jumped in my brain for retellings of The Phantom Hitchhiker and that story about the Ribbon. They were so much fun to write!

Having gotten a taste for a specific tone—vibe and humor and heart—and for this form—short stories—I wanted more. I wanted to stay and play in that spooky little sandbox.

As a kid, I loved ghost stories that were so weird that as an adult, I’d convinced myself I’d made up. I loved the things that were the perfect amount of scary. I wanted nothing more than to essentially read through my fingers.

The idea to write a book of ghost stories that kids now might read or be read to or tell each other around a campfire grew to be irresistible. Even more irresistible was the idea to write one that kids might grow up and remember or misremember and later convince themselves were too weird to have been real.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The first idea behind this book—“What if there was a reason the Phantom Hitchhiker wanted that coat?”—happened years ago. The idea of writing a book of spooky stories to tell in the dark was more recent. The world has been plenty of scary lately, and it seemed like a therapeutic idea to create a book with scary in it that I could control.

It was October (the scariest month) of 2020 (the scariest year) that I was introduced to Justin Chanda at Simon & Schuster.

Now, almost two years, 20-some-odd stories and a framing device, and a handful of edits and polishes later, Stories to Keep You Alive Despite Vampires is out in the world.

At the start of the process. I thought this would be a book of mostly covers of classic ghost stories. It turns out it’s fun to make up your own stories from scratch too. At the outset, I thought the book would be sillier. While there’s plenty of silly in the book, I leaned in to the scary and weird.

Justin pitched the idea that there be a framing device. Now I love good ideas, so I worked out what it could be. It ended up providing us with a title, as well as being some of the most challenging pieces to land. It took all the drafts I had to get it just so.

The stories weren’t intended to be intertwined. That was another pitch from Justin: What if there’s one or some loose connections between the stories? He had no idea how far I’d run with that.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was surprised by how little I was asked to adjust my writing for the middle-grade audience. Not having written a lot in that space, I assumed there would be style guidelines, advice, words of wisdom, strong reactions to early drafts. I didn’t even get any you can’t say thats.

One thing I truly loved about being a young reader was encountering new vocabulary and new ideas. I could feel my mind expanding. I aspire to write that kind of book, the kind that doesn’t talk down to the audience. The kind where the audience and I are sharing the joke. It turns out that’s not only allowed but encouraged by the people with whom I worked on this book.

To that end, I want to mention the art. I love that the drawings in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are scarier than the stories. I knew I wanted that from the art in this book. I knew from his Instagram that illustrator Scott Buoncristiano could do it. I didn’t know if it was allowed. Fortunately, it was. The creatures in this book will stay lodged in the readers’ brains longer than the stories will.

Ben Acker: On Writing Scary Stories for Middle-Grade Readers

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I was surprised to find that writing short stories felt a lot like writing sketches. There is a purposeful leanness to each of the forms. The bones of each are supportive of the build of the thing and once you land the climax, it’s time to go. They’re confections; there is danger in making too much or too little of them.

Two stories surprised me once I was on the other side of them. They have in common the completely unfair death of a grandparent. It was only in retrospect I realized why they affected me and why they were supposed to. For me, growing up, a grandparent death was my introduction to the concept of mortality. My grandparents were sweet and kind and the idea that they could die was the most unfair thing in my world at the time.

It felt like an inside out writing process as compared to how I usually do it. I tend to have a pretty solid understanding of what I’m doing as I’m doing it. For it to reveal itself after the fact was surprising in a great way. Writing at its best can feel like being a conduit for an idea and that was definitely the case in these two stories.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope they are tickled and scared by the book.

I hope the language engages them.

I hope it fires the readers’ imaginations.

Getting loftier, I don’t think there are any conventional takes on old monsters in this book. I hope that the readers take from it that it’s who you are that matters, not what you are.

It feels a little like cheating to just say it bluntly, but I hope that the readers come away from this book more critical than when they came in. I hope they consider who is telling them the stories they hear and why.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

It doesn’t have to be any good until the fifth draft. Maybe the sixth, depending on your process. I think there’s an internal pressure to present as perfect on the page, at least starting out. You don’t.

You just have to get the idea down. Then you have to refine it. You get to refine it. I think if you trust the process and enjoy the draft you’re in, knowing you’ll get the chance to make it better the next time through, you’ll combat two of the big bad habits.

The first bad habit is fiddling with the draft before you’re done with it. You’ll never finish if you never finish. The second bad habit is bemoaning the act of writing. “Writing is hard,” people bemoan. Often. Publicly. Writing is fun, especially if you leave the hard part for the writer writing the next draft.

Really stick it to that writer. Have fun with your draft. Let it be flawed. Fill it with the energy of enjoying the writing itself as well as the act of it. Kick the ball of the hard stuff down the field. It’s the next writer’s problem. There’s every chance that by the time you get around to having to deal with the parts that are a drag, you’ll have figured out a way not to need those parts as much.

What was promising to be a daunting chapter can often become a hard-working paragraph or even a riveting sentence. If you aren’t interested in tackling the writing of it, the reader probably isn’t going to be there for it either.

And even if all of this weren’t true and every word was a promethean effort—even if it were the case that writing was hard, saying writing is hard has been done. It’s been done to death. It’s been said and said and said again.

It’s hack. Don't be hacky. I mean, you can be hacky, sure, of course. Be hacky if you want to, up until the fourth draft. By the fifth draft, though, get rid of it.

But you are a writer. No matter what.

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