Writing Tool: Apps to Keep You Going

mom writing

Hello to all the spooky readers out there who are also spooky writers! Today I want to talk directly to you! Since Covid hit, I’ve been hearing two different strands of the same conversation:

Extroverts: I just need to get out of this house/apartment/yurt and see some PEOPLE.

Introverts: I’d be fine if I wasn’t trapped in my house/apartment/yurt with all these PEOPLE.

Either way, the consensus is that all of this is taking a toll on our writing. I’m in the introvert camp. And because I live in a smallish and very busy house, I usually begin my writing routine by…well…leaving. I do my best work in coffee shops, and sometimes even at the bar of a favorite restaurant. I can work in noisy public places, because nothing going on around me is:

  1. My problem
  2. Going to lead to a bigger problem later (i.e. kids putting liquid dish soap in the dishwasher)

At home, I have to find ways to create a bubble around myself so I can focus. And like most of us, since March I’m basically always at home. So today, I’d like to share a few of the apps and tools that have helped me keep writing.

Ambient Noise Apps:

One of my favorite tricks is to drown out the noises I find distracting. I can’t always do this with music, though. I sing along instead of writing, or I get picky about individual tracks and start skipping around. One app I use instead is Coffitivity, which offers me several different coffee shop background tracks. It lets me add music from another app as if it’s the overhead music in the shop (which helps me leave it alone) and offers the option to choose which sound is dominant, the music or the background noise. I also *loved* the Ambience app, but it’s discontinued (woe)! So far the best replacement I’ve found is Noise– Mix HD. Most ambient sound apps are designed to help you sleep, which is not what I’m looking for! This one has everything from a dog park to a pool at a hotel. You do have to buy individual sounds beyond the basics or purchase the app upgrade, but it’s totally worth it.

Productivity Apps:

My favorite is Focus Keeper, hands down. For those who aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro method, you work in short bursts (like twenty-five minutes) with five minute breaks in between. After a certain number of bursts you get a longer break. The ticking of the timer keeps me focused (although I confess, because I’m a spooky writer I sometimes catch myself looking around for the Bent-Necked Lady from Hill House), and the bell that signals a break is followed by ocean sounds. You can set your own sprint lengths, pause the countdown if you need to, and use it in tandem with music or the ambient noise apps above. Mac/Google Play

Genuinely Wicked Apps

If you’re a Mac user and your primary distraction is web surfing, there’s also a desktop app called Self Control that is not messing around. It will lock you out of absolutely everything until your writing burst is done.

Lastly, there’s my perennial favorite, Write or Die. Don’t Google it. I don’t know what’s going on with Version 3, but it’s a mess. V.2 works fine, though! There’s a web client, or you can purchase the desktop version. You tell it how vicious you want it to be, from getting rickrolled if you pause too long to watching your words erase themselves one by one until you start typing again. Very motivational!

Hopefully some of these apps will make you feel like you’re getting out of the house (or at least help you filter out what’s going on IN your house) so you can write. I’m also definitely here for whining and commiseration, so come find me on twitter (@Saille)! Happy writing!

–Sarah Cannon 

Toying With Spooky Stories: A Writing Prompt

Let’s just be honest: toys are creepy.

Our stuffed animals stare at us with their button eyes while we sleep, and we can’t be completely sure they stay where we put them. Dolls? Equally freaky, if not more so. Puppets? Stop. (There is a reason the villains in my first book were evil puppets.)

Canva - Fluffy Stuffed Animals
They like to watch you while you sleep.

So it seemed only fair that when the kids in Twist, my book that comes out this month, had a bunch of monsters to defeat, they’d use toys to do it. It’s about time toys pulled their weight.It was a lot of fun, actually. Toys lend themselves well to weaponization. What parent hasn’t stepped on a Lego during a midnight bathroom trip and been convinced they were going to lose their foot? And there’s no alarm system as freaky as a Speak and Spell that accuses you suddenly out of the darkness. We all understand why Kevin McCallister used paint cans as booby traps in Home Alone…they’re heavy. But toys…toys are diabolical. They bring a level of psychological warfare to the table that’s hard to beat.

I mention this because while I love inventing creatures both friendly and foul, my favorite trick is presenting the commonplace, slightly askew. Familiar objects can send chills down your reader’s spine in the right context. That’s why the little wind-up primate with his clashing cymbals is so horrifying in Stephen King’s short story, “The Monkey.” It’s why a trail of Reese’s Pieces can lead to almost-unbearable levels of tension. And it’s why the juxtaposition of a Dungeons and Dragons miniature with a real-life danger doesn’t minimize the threat for the viewer, but gives them a focal point that makes them even more nervous.

Canva - Brown Haired Female Doll
She’s sad because you won’t share…your soul.

Familiar objects like toys are wonderful elements in a scary story, specifically because they’re so benign…until they aren’t. Once you’ve noticed how not-quite-right they are, you can’t unsee it. I know, this is a terrible thing I’m doing to you right now, but I am, after all, a spooky author. It’s literally my job. Of course, turnabout is fair play. So…

The next time you pick up your pencil (or ask your students to pick up theirs) why not pose the challenge of making a beloved childhood toy scary? If that doesn’t float your boat, if you really truly won’t be happy unless you can create a monstrous threat, see if your characters can solve that larger-than-life problem with household objects so basic, they’d normally overlook them completely. Especially if they’re toys! I guarantee good, spooky fun…besides, you’re already halfway there! Admit it: the Elf on a Shelf freaks you out.

Doesn’t he?

Canva - Grayscale Photo of Giraffe and Monkey Plastic Toy on Floor
Start here: the monkey is waving at…


Right In the Funny Bone: Why Spooky and Funny Are A Natural Fit

If you haven’t done it yourself, you’ve seen someone else do it. They reach a scary moment in a book, or a jump scare in a movie, or even stumble upon a prankster who jumps out at them from behind something– and instead of screaming, they burst out laughing.

boy in black v neck shirt with looking straight to the camera with a shocking face expression

What is it that makes us laugh when all signs point to “AHHHHHH?” Scientists have a handful of theories:

Some say it’s a sort of peace offering– an instinctive reaction to confrontation. Laughing shows we’re not looking for a fight, so whatever’s coming at us will hopefully back down and go away.

Others suggest that laughing is a way to manage our fear. When we laugh in the face of danger, we’re trying to convince ourselves things are less dire than they seem.

But my favorite explanation (and the one that makes the most sense in connection with scary stories) is that laughing when we’re afraid or crying when we’re happy actually balances us out emotionally.

Speaking as a reader, one of the things I love most about middle grade is the way our main characters are centered in their family and community– I draw deep satisfaction from the inherent wholeness and balance of middle grade worlds. As a writer and lifelong smart aleck, shared humor is one of my favorite things to write; to me, it’s a sign of a close, happy community. I can’t imagine penning a family or town where people don’t joke, tease, and mildly snark.

child in blue and yellow jersey shirt with the two other kids
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

As you read this, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s conflict, not happiness, that drives a story. Especially a spooky story!” You’re right, of course. But it’s also important to remind the reader what your characters are fighting for. Shared humor reinforces a sense of belonging and reminds us what we like about certain characters. Conversely, humor meant to embarrass or bully someone hardens our hearts against a villain.

Wisecracks are also the perfect opportunity to illuminate individual personalities and relationships between characters in a “show, don’t tell” way. For example, when a group of kids has to cross dangerous territory, a competitive best friend or sibling might say, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” in order to get a head start. The competition between the characters gives them the courage to face the peril.

On the other hand, a nervous friend who’d rather be at home under the covers is more likely to resort to gallows humor, like, “It’s my night to feed the dog. He’s going to be seriously crabby when I die and his bowl is empty.” How other characters respond to this joke will be revealing. Are they impatient? Reassuring? Or do they toss another joke right back?

If you love writing stories with lots of scares, laughter can also provide some much-needed contrast. I adore a runaway horror story as much as the next spooky author, but like true joy, intense fear is hard to sustain. Worse, fear actually gets exhausting after a while. Raise your hand if you write to exhaust your readers. No? Then consider providing moments of levity to give them a break.

This is all well and lovely and I mean every word, but don’t be fooled– I’m no altruist. There are lots of upbeat reasons to put some banter in your book, but you can also use laughs to trap the unwary. I love to use humor to lull my readers into a false sense of security. Then, when it’s time for the next creepy moment, I’ve got them exactly where I want them! So, if you haven’t tried mixing jump scares with jokes, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a serious person to deliver some serious scares!

portrait of happy girls sitting



About the Author


Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity, has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three kids and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries.

She is probably human.

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