DEFEATING YOUR FEAR OF WRITING

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“Fear is a steal trap,” Gran advises Evangeline, the heroine of my debut middle grade novel. EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU is the story of twelve-year-old Evangeline Clement, a haunt huntress apprentice studying the ways of folk magic and honing her monster-hunting skills. As soon as her animal familiar makes itself known, the only thing left to do is prove to the council she has heart. Then she will finally be declared a true haunt huntress. Of course, things do not go as planned for Evangeline. And when she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to resolve an unusual case, she must summon her courage to defeat a powerful evil that’s been after her family for generations.

Gran goes on to warn Evangeline, “Fear keeps you from moving forward. It binds up your courage as well as your smarts.” These wise words of Gran’s hold true for nearly any situation we encounter, whether it be hunting monsters or writing essays.

As the leader of a local writers group for the past dozen years, and having been a member of numerous critique groups, I’ve learned that one thing we creatives all have in common is fear. And we have a lot of them, like: showing our writing to family and friends, getting our work critiqued by other writers, not knowing how to begin our stories, not knowing how to end our stories, or not being able to come up with any new ideas. But one of the most common fears I’ve seen is that of simply getting started, rallying the courage to just jump in and begin the writing of that novel, memoir, or short story. I call it “freezing on the high-dive”. Taking that initial leap can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be.

After discussing this topic with numerous fellow writers over numerous coffees and teas, I’ve come to suspect this particular fear stems from the mistaken belief that we have to get our words right the first time, that somehow a perfect stream of brilliance must flow straight from our head and onto the blank sheet of paper. This unrealistic expectation can lead to a lot of frustration and writing resistance. Fortunately, there are a few easy techniques writers of any age and any writing level can incorporate to defeat their fear of writing and get their words moving forward. These simple tips can be applied to everything from the writing of novels and essays, to the writing of thank you notes.

The first step is to think of the writing process as one that uses two distinct parts of your brain: the creative side and the editorial side. Going into a project while trying to use them simultaneously is when many of us run into trouble. The two parts do not play, or work, well together.

Once you’ve accepted the fact that you’ve essentially just carved your brain into two halves, the next step is to hush that editorial side. Reassure it that it will have its turn to make corrections and clean things up later, but for now it’s Creative’s turn to play. Allow your imagination to run wild and free. Let go of rules and logic. There are no right or wrong ideas in this phase of your project. Don’t worry about choosing the perfect word, and don’t worry about things like spelling and punctuation. That’s Editor’s job for later on.

If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas, here’s another helpful tip: just start writing. Write anything, even if it’s simply the words, “I don’t know what to write.” There’s something almost magical about the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, that gets the creative tap flowing. Taking away all those expectations of perfection will conquer that fear of not being able to think of anything to write.

Now that you’ve got some great ideas and images, and maybe even some really cool lines of dialogue, let your creative side take a rest. This is the time to set your internal editor free. Allow it to get to work picking and choosing what elements to use, what order to put them in, and making sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all up to snuff.

This is the technique I used while writing EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU, and I’m using it now as I work on the sequel. Keeping the creative half of my mind separated from the editorial half has helped me defeat my fear of just diving into the writing. It’s helped me overcome my worry that my writing is too sloppy, nonsensical, and filled with mistakes. I know that by setting my creative side free to do what it does best, it’ll provide me with fun, fresh, and unexpected ideas. Sometimes it delivers more ideas than I can use, or ideas that are in need of further research and tweaking, but that’s okay, because I know I’ll soon be unleashing my editorial side to make my words all shiny and clean.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

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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!

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About the Author
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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.

Find her on Website | Twitter | Facebook

Spooky Mashups and How To Create Them

I love a good mashup. My two favorite T-shirts are mashups, one of The Little Prince and Star Wars and another of Back to the Future and Tin Tin. They’re the best.

What is a mashup? If you haven’t heard of these ingenious things, mashups are where you take two things that aren’t usually together and put them together in a new, unique and wonderful way. Like Star Wars and Snow White, my third favorite T-shirt, where the designer used that classic picture of Snow White surrounded by forest animals and birds and swapped her for Princess Leia in the same pose.

Here’s another: the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas (that’s the movie in the picture above). I love this movie, and this is one of many story mashups that blend different types of stories to make something new, unique and wonderful. In this case, it’s spooky and Christmas and musical. Three types of stories you wouldn’t ordinarily think go together, but if you’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend you rush to watch it — after you’ve finished reading this post, of course), you’ll know it is indeed unique and wonderful.

Blending a spooky story with another genre is one of my favorites to write. It keeps the spooky element but also takes it further. Like with my book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, the boy is lost on a mysterious beach where everything is trying to hurt him. That’s the spooky part, but he’s also trying to discover what happened to him, so there’s mystery too. Plus there’s magical elements to the story, so it’s also contemporary fantasy.

Here are some other examples of spooky mashup books:

Spooky and funny — NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES and FROM SUNSET TILL SUNRISE by Jonathan Rosen, DR. FELL AND THE PLAYGROUND OF DOOM by David Neilsen

Spooky and historical fiction — THE GHOSTS OF ORDINARY OBJECTS by Angie Smibert, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE by Janet Fox

Spooky and fantasy/contemporary fantasy — SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella, MOTLEY EDUCATION by S.A. Larsen, ODDITY by Sarah Cannon

Spooky and mystery — EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU by Jan Eldredge, THE PECULIAR INCIDENT ON SHADY STREET by Lindsay Currie

Spooky and adventure — BONE HOLLOW by Kim Ventrella, BEYOND THE DOORS by David Neilsen

If you haven’t read these yet, do! They’re fun, and you’ll learn about spooky mashups. Reading is one of the best ways to learn about writing. (Also, all these books are in our Spooky Reading Challenge, so you could win prizes!)

But how can you come up with your own spooky mashup ideas?

For this, I want to borrow from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world (a series that’s mostly fantasy but also has some spooky). Remember the boggart from HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN? If you don’t, check out the entry on the Harry Potter Fandom wiki. Since boggarts change into your biggest fear, Professor Lupin teaches Harry and his friends that the best way to combat them is to think of something funny so the boggart will be both! Ron Weasley’s biggest fear is a giant spider, so he imagines a spider wearing roller skates. Pretty funny, huh?

This is like mashups. Taking two things that ordinarily wouldn’t go together to come up with something new, unique and wonderful.

You can use this idea to create your own spooky mashup. Step 1: Think of something spooky. Step 2: Think of something that’s very different. It can be something funny, an action you love doing, or a different type of story that you love to read.

For example, say in step 1, you think of werewolves. They’re pretty spooky. Then in step 2, you think of skateboarding.

Now, with the help of a what-if question, you can turn this into a mashup story. What if a kid had the chance to compete in the world’s best skateboarding contest, but the night before he’s bitten by a werewolf? And the contest is at night and during the full moon? And the kid discovers that a group of werewolves are planning to be at the contest to attack everyone in the audience???

I want to read that story. 🙂

What are your favorite spooky mashup stories?

Have any ideas for your own spooky mashup?

Tell me in the comments.

Overcoming Spooky Fears with Cynthia Reeg, Author of From the Grave

Morning Spookies! I’m super psyched to share this next spooky author with you. She’s a former librarian (tosses confetti) who loved riding bikes and playing baseball as a kid; and reading, of course. She also has an adorable Schnoodle pup named Holly. ***Here on Spooky Middle Grade we love our furry friends! And if you’ve skyped with us, you’ve probably met a few. Let’s peek at her books first. Isn’t Frank the cutest?!!!

Welcome Cynthia! We’re so glad you’ve stopped by Spooky Middle Grade! Let’s start with a bit about your spooky books and something readers don’t know about your main character Frank.
Not only are they spooky, but they’re also a little kooky, and super exciting fantasy stories–I think. 🙂

Frank’s full name is FRANKENSTEIN FRIGHTFACE GORDON—He’s too blue, too neat, and too tame to be considered a real monster.

I love his middle name! #Spooky Woot!

So he and the other misfits are put into the Odd Monsters Out class at their school, Fiendful Fiends Academy, to change their wayward ways. But Frank is more interested in showing they are monster enough–just the way they are!

Smart monster.

Why do you like writing spooky books?

I was a scaredy cat as a child who could never watch the monster movies with my brothers. Perhaps this is my chance to control the monsters now–although my monsters do still surprise me at times. And as a former librarian, I know how much students LOVE to read spooky books.

Yay for spooky books! 

What do you think young readers can gain by reading spooky books year round?

We all enjoy a good fright from time to time. Something dark. Something unexpected. Something creepy–and most likely slimy. Reading spooky books can help us face real fears and challenges in our own lives. Facing a classroom bully might seem easier when a reader sees how Frank stands up to Malcolm McNastee or evil Principal Snaggle!


What’s your favorite thing about being a published author?

I love seeing students excited and entertained by my monsters. How cool is that to know that these funny, crazy, endearing characters who stepped out from inside my head are here now to hang out with young readers who are eager to be part of the Uggarland adventure. I truly love helping kids get excited about reading and writing through my stories and classroom visits.

Care to share your one piece of writing advice to newer writers?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Study the craft. And hang out with kids!

Please let our readers know what your working on now or what’s up next for you.

I have a number of projects I’m working on now from a couple of nonfiction manuscripts–one told in haikus about an endangered Japanese wildcat and the other exploring winds around the world. Plus, I’m polishing a contemporary MG novel with a bit of a mystery and submitting a fantasy baseball story filled with topsy-turvy characters. And finally, I’m in the researching and outlining phase of an alien-focused MG novel which I’m hoping will be truly out-of-this-world!

You are so busy! Make sure to come back and let us know where these projects lead. Can’t wait! Thank you for sharing yourself and your spooky books with us.

About the Author

Cynthia Cynthia Reeg 8/19/2016 www.timparkerphoto.comis a curious librarian who ventured from behind the stacks to become a children’s author. Now she contends with monsters, mayhem, and odd assortments of characters–both real and imagined–on a daily basis. As an advocate for children’s literacy and supreme defender of reluctant readers everywhere, she manipulates words into wondrous kid-friendly creations to be enjoyed over and over again. As one of her poems attests, Cynthia is always reaching for the stars. For more, you can find her: Website | Twitter | Facebook

Readers, did you read any kidlit stories about Frankenstein as a child? As an adult?

Spook On!

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Haunted House Tales Don’t Always Take Place in a Haunted House

The Haunted House is one of the oldest spooky story settings in literature.

Scholars have traced this time-honored meme all the way back to the Stone Age and a series of cave paintings depicting four frightened cave teens entering Ye Olde Abandoned Cave and getting attacked by the ghost of Og who really doesn’t want other cave people messing with his cave even though he was stomped to death by a woolly mammoth a couple of years back.

That’s one interpretation, anyway…

As I travel around the country bringing the joys of all things spooky to elementary and middle school students, the discussion of The Haunted House is always one of my favorites. Nine times out of ten, the wisdom I share on the subject blows the kids’ minds (the tenth time I usually get chased by an angry mob to the city limits).

See, when you think of a haunted house story, you tend to think of a story about… a haunted house. The Haunting of Hill House. The Haunting. The Haunted House on a Hill. The Hill House Haunting. Things like that. But I have a few other favorite haunted house stories of which you may not have thought: Jurassic Park. Alien. A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Jaws.

In fact, for my money, Jaws is one of the best Haunted House films ever made. It’s almost the perfect Haunted House film.

“What? But… what are you…? There’s no….!! MY MIND HAS BLOWN!!!”

Relax. Allow me to explain.

The first thing to know about Haunted House stories is that there are RULES. Follow the rules, and everybody’s happy. Deviate from the rules, and the story doesn’t quite work. Simple as that. And the first rule of Haunted House stories is that they need to include a man-eating shark.

Actually, no.

The first rule of Haunted House stories is that they take place in an enclosed location from which there is no escape. The characters are stuck there and have to deal with what is going on. No putting it off until morning, no magical heel-clicking, no climbing out a window and leaving it for the next idiot who stumbles along.

The haunted house in Jaws is the ocean. In Alien it’s the Nostromo. In Jurassic Park it’s the island. Nightmare on Elm Street? Their dreams.

Next, you need something evil in the enclosed location. This can be anything–ghost, monster, dentist, you name it. This may seem obvious, but it’s important enough to stress. Otherwise you get a story of a bunch of people trapped in a room who take out their phones and play Fortnite until they’re rescued. Boring.

The third thing you need for a haunted house story is a collection of flawed characters. It’s no good having just one character, you need a bunch of them. Their flaws may be as simple as she or he lacks self-confidence, or they haven’t yet gotten over the loss of a loved one, but they all have something wrong with them. Maybe they think they’re better than everyone. Maybe they are obsessed with washing their hands. It really doesn’t matter as long as there’s an identifiable flaw.

The reason the flaw is important is because it generally leads to their death as the characters are taken out one by one. In general, anytime a character in a haunted house story finds himself or herself alone, you can be pretty sure they’re about to die. How does this translate to Middle Grade (since we generally don’t turn our Middle Grade books into blood baths)? They are taken out of commision. Knocked unconscious. Trapped in the cupboard. Turned into a newt.

And this happens because of their flaw. The character who lacks self-confidence didn’t think he can make the jump over the yawning chasm after everyone else has jumped across. And because he doesn’t jump, he’s captured by the seven-eyed monstrocity chasing them. And then eaten.

The last rule to remember is that only the innocent (and dogs) survive. Haunted House stories grew out of parents’ need to keep children alive.

“Mom? Can I go play in the abandoned glass, needle, and razer blade factory?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I said so.”

“Why not?”

“Because it is dangerous.”

“Why not?”

“BECAUSE IT’S HAUNTED! OK? THERE ARE GHOSTS IN THERE THAT WILL SUCK OUT YOUR BRAINS!”

“Oh. OK.”

By ensuring that only the innocent survive, we are subconsciously teaching our children to be good citizens.

“You should wash your hands, Billy. Remember when SallyJesse didn’t wash her hands in He Vomits On Your Grave? She exploded. You don’t want to explode, do you, Billy? Better wash your hands.”

Yes, spooky stories make for valuable life lessons.

And yes, the dog always survives.

All of these rules aren’t meant to constrict a writer in plotting out a story, rather they are intended to serve as a guide. If you know the rules, you can break them and know exactly what you are doing and everybody is happy. Haunted House stories are some of the most enjoyable spooky stories around. Writing one can be a whole lot of fun.

Just make sure the dog survives.

Happy haunting!