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Winner of the 6th Annual Writer

Read the grand-prize short story from the sixth annual WD Popular Fiction Awards, and learn more success strategies from winning thriller writer Marissa Gabel.

Please write a quick bio of yourself, including (but not limited to) your age, occupation, home town, and where your work has been published and what awards you’ve won.

I’m twenty-one years old, and currently a student at Simmons College in Boston. I’m originally from Stow, Massachusetts.

When not voraciously consuming every book I can get my hands on, I can be found lurking the galleries of local art museums or plugged into my iPod, listening to loud music.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing thrillers?

Thrillers are a joy to write because they capture the most basic element of storytelling: a hero pitted against a villain or a circumstance he or she must overcome. I believe the fear and tension appeals to people on a very human level. Another benefit of writing thrillers is how versatile they are. A lot can be done with the genre, which makes it very fun to explore.

I think the biggest challenge in writing thrillers is knowing exactly how much tension is enough, and when it’s too much. It’s a hard line to toe, but really rewarding when you get it right. Also, creating a protagonist who is both equal to the challenge placed before them yet still essentially human and vulnerable is a particular problem in thrillers. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep characters in larger than life circumstances believable.

Describe your writing process for this story. (How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea? Etc.)

I actually physically wrote The Alligator Tank down in the space of a weekend, but when I finally put it to paper, it was fully formed.

This past summer a friend and I went to this obscure little zoo out in the middle of the woods. We were given a tour, including a visit to the reptile room. Most of those creatures couldn’t do us more harm than the fuzzier animals we’d cooed at minutes ago, but they inspired distinct feelings of dread. There was something creepy about the alien grace of the animals. I like to think I’m tough: I like snakes, I’m not afraid of spiders, but I was unnerved, anyway.

After that, I think the idea sat at the back of my head, just cooking. Why do we find some animals so innately disturbing? What would that fear look like put into a different, more accessible danger: the kind we can’t control with cages and anti-venom?

I took those feelings of dread, and created Jack, the reptilian husband with a zoo that has distinct resemblance to the one I visited over the summer. Once I had my villain, The Alligator Tank was born.

Write a one-sentence summary of your story, designed to hook reader and draw them in.

Jack and Kathy are about to celebrate their two month anniversary, but all Kathy can think about is the car keys sunk to the bottom of the alligator tank in the basement, and a way out of her reptilian husband’s clutches.

How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?

I’ve been coming up with stories since before I could actually write. When I was little I would dictate stories to my mom, and then illustrate them. Later, starting in the first grade, I made some childish attempts at writing poetry.

I began to think about writing seriously in the seventh grade. I had read just about every book in the young adult section and was feeling unsatisfied with other people’s adventures: I wanted to make up my own. I fell in love with writing immediately, and have been writing in my free time ever since.

Who has inspired you as a writer?

When I was first learning to read I was given a children’s collection of Emily Dickenson. Her poetry was the first taste I got of the power of language, the way that words could be strung together to create something beautiful. Later, I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Learning about mythology was hugely inspiring.

Which genres do you write in? Are thrillers (short or long) your primary genre?

I feel most comfortable writing suspense, especially with psychological or paranormal elements. Also, being twenty-one, and still more or less enmeshed in my retreating adolescence, I still tend to write stories that feature young protagonists.

Describe your typical writing routine.

I’m a full time student, so I have to fit writing in alongside classes and studying. I try to make writing a priority, so it usually occupies my evenings in lieu of, say, watching American Idol. I consider it a good day if I can write for at least two hours. On the weekends, when I have free time, I write for four hours or more.

I find that writing is easiest in the morning just after I wake up, or at night. Mixing up where I write helps as well. I have a favorite spot in the library where I go when I need inspiration.

How would you describe your writing style?

I grew up on a steady diet of ghost stories, fairy tales, and horror movies, and I think it shows. I tend to write suspenseful, villain driven plots. My favorite character to build is always the one who gives the protagonist the most trouble.

What are the keys to a successful thriller? How does the short story format affect these keys?

I think the most important key to a thriller, aside from suspense, is a villain worth being worried about. There is nothing worse than a boring bad guy. The other most important key is hope, in order to make feelings of tension or even impending doom bearable. Even the darkest circumstances can be made palatable by belief that the hero has a chance of winning.

A short story needs to have all the impact of a longer story, but the challenge is having it encapsulated in a dozen pages or so. The villain needs to be that more interesting, the tension that much tighter, and the hero needs to inspire loyalty from the reader.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

Music. I can’t write without music, preferably loud. However, editing calls for absolute silence.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

It’s hard to say exactly where I get my ideas. I like to think that my subconscious cooks up ideas and then spits them out at me at highly inconvenient times, such as the night before a big exam, or when I’m driving.

I think I pick up on little bits and pieces as I go through my day. I have a love for the unusual, so I tend to notice things that don’t quite fit: decrepit witch-houses, odd behavior, anything weird. Those are the things that get fed into my stories. Once I have a premise, building a plot is mostly instinctual.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I would like to think that my biggest strength as a writer is building tension. This is probably because for years it was the aspect I struggled with most. I had to work harder to learn to use suspense than anything else, and that’s benefitted me because it now comes most naturally.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

Oh, gosh. It’s hard to think of an aspect I haven’t struggled with at one time or another. I think the hardest thing for me now is shaping relationships, especially of the romantic persuasion.

Reading taught me to write in the first place, so when I struggle I go back and look at other people’s work. I comb through plots and characters, looking for what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t. That helps give me perspective on what I’m doing wrong, and what I can do to fix it.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Well, when I was eight it was don’t use the same word twice in a sentence. Now that I’m older and I’ve captured the basics of writing, I’d say it’s write what you know.

The problem is, this is advice I rarely follow. I have never actually met a serial killer or climbed into a tank with an alligator, and have absolutely no desire to, ever. A better way to phrase this might be write what you can empathize with. If you can put yourself in a character’s shoes, roll around in her soul for a while, and really get an understanding of what she’s feeling, it’s okay to write. If not, it’s better to stick to something closer to your own experience.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

That would be when I finished my first novel. I was sixteen years old and a devoted reader, but a pretty lousy writer. I was just so surprised that I’d finally finished something.

What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?

Writing is an important part of my life; I simply can’t imagine going through my day without it. It will always be my passion, first and foremost, whether or not I turn it into a career. I would like to someday publish a novel, but for now I want to continue working on my craft and become a better writer.

Any final thoughts or advice?

Don’t be afraid to write what you want to and not what you feel you should. I learned to write when I gave up trying to be polite. I wish someone had given me that advice years ago.

Click here to read Marissa Gabel's winning entry, "The Alligator Tank."

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