Writing Tool: The Pandemic Attic Notebook

Anyone else having a little trouble concentrating these days?

Ugh.

In all honesty, I was having a bit of trouble concentrating on writing even before this global pandemic began. After turning in the draft of my next MG novel (a creepy book-within-a-book about sisters and stories and a haunted library, tentatively titled LONG LOST and coming out sometime in 2021—woohoo!), I found myself wavering between four other gestating projects, with a new baby and a just-turned-five-year-old occupying most of my attention, and then…

…Well, you know.

Suddenly, with no preschool or family help, most of my writing time was gone. But not writing at all was making me feel immeasurably worse, like it always does.

So I started something new. (I suppose I officially started it just over a year ago, during a between-books patch, and dropped it when my schedule got crazy again. But we don’t need to talk about that.) It’s called the Attic Notebook. I first heard about it from Laini Taylor, but many writer friends have pointed out similar exercises, like the “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way.

Here are the basics:

– Write in a designated notebook for 10 – 15 minutes each day, using simple prompts to get started, never stopping to revise or look back.

– Write in any form or style: poetry, essays, short or long fiction, whatever comes.

– Once you’ve filled the notebook, hide it away for at least six weeks.

– When you take it out again, imagine that you found the notebook at the bottom of an old trunk in someone else’s attic. Not only will you see the writing with fresh eyes, but it should feel a little like buried treasure.

lamp Attic Notebook

Each morning, before anyone else in my house gets up, I’ve been creeping downstairs to scribble in my Attic Notebook. I try not to think about why I’m writing, about what each  piece is for, about if it will ever turn into anything publishable or finish-able or worthwhile at all. I just pick a prompt and write. I’ve filled one notebook already, and I’m putting off the reading part for as long as I can stand it. Maybe I’ll run out of patience soon and sit down and dive in. But it’s been a great reminder that process matters more than product. And it’s helping me step outside of my anxieties for a little while each day, and that’s been sanity-saving.

 

(Voila: My Pand-Attic Notebooks! If you want to keep one with me during this era, I suppose you could call it a “Shelter-in-the-Attic Notebook,” or a “Quarantine Notebook,” especially if you want to get literal and let yourself read it after exactly 40 days…)

Here are some of the prompts I’ve come up with. Feel free to use them, to add your own, to find others–whatever works for you. And if you want to share any of your process, you can tag me on FB or Instagram (jacqueline.west.writes). It’s nice to remember that we aren’t really alone these days — even while we’re scribbling in the dark all by ourselves.

Prompts:
– Come in from the cold
– Capture the flag
– Paw print
– Lost button
– Shadow caster
– Last rites
– Switched at birth
– Freak show
– Winding road
– To be honest
– Since when
– Hour of beasts
– Hide and seek
– Choked with vines
– Paralyzed
– Survival of the fairest
– Beware
– Monarch
– Pomegranate seeds
– Poison field
– Pan pipes
– Courage
– Locked drawer
– Morning glory
– Sea of storms

 

 

SPOOKY FOOD SENSATIONS

Cookies

FRIGHTFUL FOOD THAT’S AWFULLY GOOD

When writing a story—whether it’s spooky or not—an author needs to include the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). I love to do a presentation with students to help them incorporate these senses into their stories and better bring their scenes to life.

One of my favorite senses to highlight is TASTE. While it’s not always as easy as some of the others to readily include, the sense of taste can immediately transport a reader into a story.

Fudgy chocolate. Buttered popcorn. Salty peanuts. Spicy salsa. Even monster cookies.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I’m sure at least one of these examples caused your mouth to water a bit. For certain, you could quickly identify the difference between the sweet chocolate and the hot, tangy salsa.

Food creates the opportunity to include the senses of SIGHT, SMELL, and TOUCH as well. That bag of fluffy, glistening, buttered popcorn in your hands is warm and a bit lumpy. The fragrant steam rising to your nose is totally tempting. When you include food in your story, you have a great opportunity to pull a reader in with numerous sensations.

Okay, enough writing tips for today. Now for the important part—some actual spooky food treats! No—not any of the over-the-top gross food I had such a fun time inventing for my monster stories. The recipes below may look a little ghastly, but they will be amazing taste delights.

Bat

BITE-SIZE BATS

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½ Cup of creamy or crunchy peanut butter

2 Tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

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Stir these ingredients together. You may need to microwave the mixture for 10-15 seconds to blend smoothly.

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½ Cup of old fashioned oats

½ Cup of crispy rice cereal

2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

2 Tablespoons of mini chocolate chips

Add these four ingredients and stir lightly until combined.

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Broken blue corn tortilla chips (for bat wings)

Tube of white icing gel and extra mini chocolate chips (for eyes; or candy eyes)

When forming the mixture into balls, carefully add a wing on each side. For the eyes, I squeezed out two drops of icing and put a chocolate chip on top. Or you could use this same method and place a candy eye on the icing drops.

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This recipe makes about 10-12 bats. They won’t hang around long though. They are too yummy!

WITCH FINGERS

Witch

Carrot sticks (I used a small bag of baby carrots.)

Blanched almonds

Cream cheese

Guacamole dip  (I used a prepared dip, but you could make your own as well.)

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Top each carrot with a dollop of cream cheese. Attach almond (aka: fingernail). Stick in a bowl of guacamole dip.

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Almost like magic—witch fingers to snack on.

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I hope you scare up some of these goodies soon!

 

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…
 

 

Fantasy Foods by Angie Smibert

bones-giftIn my Ghosts of Ordinary Objects’ series, food plays an important role. Bone (the main character) is growing up in a relatively poor part of the world (Appalachia) that’s now experiencing war rationing. Yet, her childhood is filled with food: from sweet tea to ham biscuits to collard greens to preacher cookies. Appalachian and most of Southern cuisine, and in fact most cuisines worldwide, grows out of necessity: poor people making the most out of the ingredients they have around them. Food tells you so much about the culture and their part of the world. (See below for a preacher cookie recipe!)

So, needless to say, food is—or should be—a key part of world building in fantasy fiction—including spooky stories. Think about the food of Harry Potter’s world. Butterbeer. Chocolate Frogs. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Maggoty Haggis at Nearly Headless Nick’s Death Party. Mrs. Weasley’s corned beef sandwiches. Cauldron cakes. I could go on and on. (In fact, if you play Harry Potter’s Wizards Unite, you can get some of these when you visit inns.) J.K. Rowling understands that part of the joy of being immersed in the wizarding world is yearning for a butterbeer or a trip to Honeydukes.

A few other middle grade and/or fantasy books have food that sticks with you. The Turkish delight from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind.

What are some of your favorite fantasy foods—from middle grade or other fantasy/spooky books? Any recipes you’ve tried? Please share below.

BTW, I highly recommend the Geeky Chef (www.geekychef.com) for fantasy food recipes!

cookies

Preacher Cookie recipe

Preacher Cookies are so-named because they were something you could whip up really quickly when your minister dropped by for a visit!

Ingredients:

½ cup butter

4 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

½ cup milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups of quick cooking oatmeal (not instant, though!)

½ cup peanut butter

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Mix the butter, cocoa, sugar, milk, and salt together in a saucepan.
  2. Boil the mixture for one minute. You just need to melt everything together. Remove from the heat.
  3. Stir in oatmeal, peanut butter, and vanilla.
  4. Drop dollops of the mixture (about a tablespoon each) on waxed paper.
  5. Let cool – and eat!

Angie Smibert is the author of the middle grade historical fantasy series, Ghosts of Ordinary Objects, which includes Bone’s Gift (2018), Lingering Echoes (2019), and The Truce (2020). She’s also written three young adult science fiction novels: Memento Nora, The Forgetting Curve, and The Meme Plague. In addition to numerous short stories, she’s published over two dozen science/technology books for kids. Smibert teaches young adult and speculative fiction for Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing M.F.A. program as well as professional writing for Indiana University East. Before doing all this, she was a science writer and web developer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. She lives in Roanoke with a goofy dog (named after a telescope) and two bickering cats (named after Tennessee Williams characters), and puts her vast store of useless knowledge to work at the weekly pub quiz. Find her online at: http://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/ 

Have a Spooky Summer

Hello Spookies! I hope you’re enjoying your summer so far, but if you’re like me, all you can do is count down the days until the fall and all that comes with it: cooler weather, shorter days, and most of all…Halloween!

We still have a ways to go, so why not make the most of what’s left of our summer by injecting a little spooky into it?

I recently saw the horror film, MIDSOMMAR (Warning: definitely NOT for kids!). To summarize, it’s about a group of friends who travel to Sweden to visit a friend’s quaint village for some summer solstice celebrations, but things are not as pleasant as they seem at first. What struck me most about the film was that it was a scary story set in the middle of summer in broad daylight. How rare it is to be so frightened by something that looks bright and cheery on the outside! The scares aren’t hidden in dark shadows, but are displayed in plain sight, which makes them even more horrifying.

The movie inspired me to think of ways to incorporate spooky things into summer stories for kids. After all, we here at Spooky Middle Grade are all about celebrating spooky stories ALL year long. So here’s a few ideas for all you aspiring spooky writers out there.

CARNIVALS

What says summer more than a carnival? Warm nights filled with the scent of funnel cake, and the sound of screams from kids on all the whirly-rides. With all the blaring lights and noise, it wouldn’t be too hard for a creepy thing to escape unnoticed amongst the crowd. How about a grotesque creature that hides among the plush toys that are offered as prizes at the ring toss? Or how about a creepy traveling carnie who guards the entrance to the fun house? What if some of the screams you hear are not just kids having fun…but screams of horror? Why not take it a step further and have all the carousel animals come to life and go on a rampage? Or a mysterious power outage that plunges the entire carnival into darkness (not to mention getting stuck on a ride, 100 feet in the air!). Do I even need to mention evil clowns? The possibilities are endless!

CAMPING

For anyone who’s ever shared scary stories around a campfire, you already know that this summer activity is perfect for bringing on the spooky! The woods at night are filled with countless possibilities: Bigfoots and sasquatches, howling wolves, hooting owls, and glittering eyes spotted among the foliage. The shadows cast by the fire are distorted and strange, and every snap of a twig could spell danger. Of course, these are all common tropes, so why not think outside the box? How about coming across a helpful troop of scouts who turn out to be possessed by evil spirits? Or how about finding a creepy tent that is a portal into another world? Or maybe your campfire circle accidentally summons a demon with a voracious appetite for s’mores?

BEACH

This may seem like the least obvious setting for a scary story – but think again. A lively beach boardwalk could incorporate some of the spooky elements mentioned in the carnival section above, but the ocean offers many opportunities for scares as well. Man-eating sharks, poisonous jellyfish, mysterious things brushing your toes in the murky waves (and no, it’s not just seaweed!), creepy sea pirates and mer-creatures are just a few of the things that can ruin a good beach day.

Again, you can challenge yourself to think beyond the obvious and come up with surprising and unexpected scares: corn dogs that bite back, beach sand that turns into quicksand, a kid digging up a cursed object, or coming across an ANTI-life guard! Or how about applying some sun-scream by accident?

However you choose to make your summer spooky, make sure you have fun with it. And don’t worry, autumn will be here before you know it!

Making Spooky Scenes Movie-able

Readers often tell me my writing is very cinematic and that as they read, they can see the scenes like a movie in their head. I didn’t set out to write in a cinematic way–it’s how I see the story in my head–but it got me thinking about how to make a book memorable like a movie (or, in my made-up word, more movie-able 😉 ).

I studied writing for the stage when I was in college then writing for film while I was working within the entertainment industry while I lived in Los Angeles, many years ago, and the two forms are very different from writing a novel. As a playwright or a screenwriter, your primary focus is story and character. You choose settings, like “Garden” but you don’t design them any more than what is necessary for the plot. And with film, you might offer suggestions of camerawork, like “We pull in on the letter”, but the director and cinematographer determine how that pull in is done, and they can and often do change what’s in the script dramatically. Even the editor can make the flow of a story completely different from what the screenwriter originally intended with a snip of the film–or click of their mouse today.

But writing a novel, you take on every job: You are the location scout, set designer, director, cinematographer, actor, sound technician, visual effects artist, editor… You even get your own craft services (yes, I’m talking about your fridge).

Call me controlling, but there’s something so fun about being able to create on all these different levels while writing a novel. And the more I can do to make my scenes movie-able, the closer I’m getting to what I see in my head.

So, how do I write a scene that reads like a movie? Here are three tips:

making-movies-1310643
Photo: FreeImages.com

Think Like a Cinematographer

Have you ever watched a movie where the scene shows a character hurrying out of the door then the camera pans over to their glasses on the coffee table? We immediately understand what the movie is trying to show us: The character is going to be in big trouble soon because they’ve left behind their glasses and won’t be able to see the danger ahead. In movies, shots will move in close to an object to tell the viewers it’s important, and in novels we can use cameras in the same way.

Imagine you’re writing about a person going to a haunted house for the first time. You might start out by describing the house as the character sees it from the outside (the wide angle shot), then give a bit of foreboding when the character thinks they see a flutter of a curtain in a upstairs window. As they move closer, they see more intimate details, like the grime on the brick, the crushed can hiding under the bushes. Then we move the camera even closer to focus on the scratches on the doorknob and the character’s hand hesitating before they press their palm on it and turn.

Use your descriptions to show wider views of scenes and closeups of important details to pull your readers into the action.

 

Photo: FreeImages.com

Think Like a Set Designer

 

Screenwriters can simply put “Int: Living room” to describe the setting of their scene, maybe adding “A large bookcase is against one wall,” if one of the characters will need to use that bookcase in the action of the story. It’s the set designer’s job to dress that set, decide the colors of the walls, whether there are curtains or blinds, whether they’re open or closed, the style of the furnishings, whether they’re new or worn, the artwork that’s hanging on the walls. All these things must show the time period of the story, the economics of the owner, and the taste of the owner, but also support the tone of the scene.

As novelists, we do all that plus we have the added benefit of using the sense of smell to describe a setting. Let’s go back to our character going to the haunted house. Perhaps when they open the door, the stink of stale air slams into them and they step back to take a breath before proceeding through the door. Inside, they notice the peeling flowery wallpaper that hasn’t been in style for thirty years. They walk down the hall and run their fingers over the top of a table against the wall, revealing a thin line in the thick layer of dust. Below their feet, the carpet looks orange, even though under the table it’s still a darker red, plus there’s a line in the center of the hallway that’s threadbare from years of being trodden on.

One caution for novelists here: Just like a set designer will choose a few choice items to standout to signify the mood and/or time, we’ll do the same. We want to describe some big items and some smaller but choose just the right ones that show what we’re trying to get across the best way. We might not include the World’s Best Dad mug that we see sitting on the coffee table if it does nothing to help our readers learn about our characters and world. We don’t want to give every single detail, because we want to leave some for our reader’s imagination. Maybe in their minds, there’s a water bottle on the coffee table or a vase of flowers. Novels are collaborative efforts between the writer and the reader and we want our reader to be able to fully participate by filling in the rest of the set. Give them a few good, solid, specific details so they can start to see that scene in their head, then let them do the rest.

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Photos: FreeImages.com

Think Like an Actor

Good directors will tell you that their job is to guide the actor so they can do their best performance. It’s the actor’s job to get across all the nuances of the emotion of the scene through their actions and voice, trusting that viewers will know what it means when they raise one eyebrow while saying, “Really?” To get the best performance, an actor must become the character. They must understand what the character wants in this scene and for the whole story, whether they’re shy around other people, scared or angry.

Novelists must be actors too. We must be able to get into the heads of not just one but ALL of our characters. We must know their motivation, how they move, the nervous ticks they might have and the ways they express themselves. We also need to know why they do all these things and how it affects them. Let’s go back to our haunted house, but this time we’ve got three friends walking down that hallway when suddenly, a cat leaps into their path. Character A screams and runs away. Character B freezes then shakes their hands their hands in front of them like they’re trying to catch their breath. Character C furrows their brow then laughs at their friends. From their reactions we can see their individual personalities without them even saying a word.

Use these tools to make your spooky scenes more movie-able.

Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.

BE A SPOOKY REBEL

One of my favorite things about art, whether it be painting, music, writing, or even cooking, is learning the rules…and then breaking them!

Mind you, this only applies to creative endeavors – breaking the rules in real life doesn’t have quite the same effect, but thankfully it’s a lot more fun to be rebellious in your projects…especially when writing spooky stories!

So what are the “rules” of spooky stories? They vary, but here are some common elements that you’ll find in any scary story:

SETTING: This is one of the most important elements of any scary book, show, or film. The setting creates the perfect atmosphere to frighten your characters…and your readers. Classic settings are gothic mansions, abandoned hospitals, haunted graveyards, ancient crypts, and foggy swamps and forests, to name a few. Needless to say, these places are often dark and shadowy – perfect for hiding ghouls and other foul surprises. By choosing the perfect setting, a lot of the work is done for you, and you can focus on other spooky things like…

CHARACTER: Part of what makes a scary story so terrifying is that you care about the characters and what happens to them. As you watch them enter a dark basement alone, or lose their phone, or trip on a root while trying to run away, you feel invested in their journey to beat the odds and survive. For this reason, the protagonists of a good horror story are often sympathetic characters. Often they are good, kind people. They’re innocent, and perhaps a little naïve…the exact opposite of whatever they’re facing. The stakes are always high with these characters—there’s a lot to lose if they don’t succeed, whether it be a loved one, or even the fate of the world itself.

Writing good characters also includes writing good villains, and there’s nothing as satisfying as creating the ultimate spooky antagonist. The possibilities are endless: ancient beings like vampires or monsters and ghosts, mad scientists, creepy animated dolls, clowns, and evil dentists…you get the idea!

PLOT: The final piece to the spooky puzzle is the plot. If you watch and read a lot of horror, you’ll notice certain tropes that show up time and time again. For example, when characters split up to investigate something, you just know something bad is going to happen. If there is a phone or a getaway vehicle…it most likely won’t work. And when the bad guy is defeated at the end and everyone think they’re safe…that’s rarely the case! Even though we know what to expect when watching or reading spooky stories, it’s still scary because you never know when the next thing will jump out at you, or what it will be. Also, a good spooky story excels at building suspense, setting the scene and the possibility of something bad happening. Sometimes the long descent into an ancient tomb is just as scary as whatever might be lurking inside.

So now that we know the basic rules of spooky stories, how can we break them?

SETTING: Challenge yourself to make a setting that normally isn’t scary into something that is. How about a video game arcade where all the games start flickering and malfunctioning at the same time? Or a dog park where all the dogs stop and stare at something their owners can’t see? Or a grocery store where you pull a jug of milk from the shelf….only to see something lurking behind it. By taking your spooky story into unexpected places, this gives you the opportunity to create new rules about what is scary.

CHARACTER: Just like with setting, try new and unexpected ways of creating characters. Maybe your hero isn’t as innocent as they seem. Maybe they USED to be the monster in someone else’s scary story and now they’re the ones being chased down. Maybe your protagonist is afraid of something that no one else is…pickles, for instance! If you write a story about evil killer pickles you’ll be able to make your reader see through your protagonist’s eyes and think twice about their favorite snack.

You can also have fun experimenting with new ways to create villains. One of the spookiest villains in Harry Potter is Dolores Umbridge. She looks like a benign old woman, dressed in pink, with decorative kitten plates on her wall, but she’s one of the most chilling and sadistic characters in the entire series. Even Stephen King, the master of horror, praised her character as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”

Think about ways you can make the ordinary…extraordinary. Think of the least scary thing you can, and find a way to subvert it into something terrifying! Our own authors in the Spooky Middle Grade group are great at this. Take Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES or Kat Shepherd’s BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES series.

PLOT: This one is the hardest to break the rules with, because so much of spooky writing depends on the balance of suspense and surprise. I would suggest that if you break the rules in spooky writing, choose only two of the three categories to do it with. For example, if you want to experiment with setting and character, keep the plot structure more traditional. But if you want to break the plot and character rules, keep the setting more traditional, or else your story might not resemble something spooky at all.

The key thing is to experiment and have fun. Even if you break every rule in the spooky book, you can be secure knowing you won’t end up in spooky jail….

…or will you? MWA HA HA HA!

Spooky Writing Tips for Kids

This week, I asked three spooky middle grade authors to share their favorite writing tips for kids. Hopefully these quick tips will help add that extra dash of creepy to your next terrifying tale.

S.A. LARSEN

Use all five senses when writing your scenes. But don’t stress about it. Just close your eyes and imagine what your character smells, feels or comes in contact with through touch. Reach your character’s arms out to let an imaginary breeze sweep along their skin. Have your character take a deep breath and almost taste the dying moss clinging to the trees. Playing with the senses from a creepy point-of-view is so fun in spooky stories!

SAMANTHA CLARK

Keep up the intrigue by dripping details into a scene, each one getting scarier than the last. And don’t forget to use all the senses. Maybe first they hear a howl in the distance. Then smell something dark and musty. Then feel drool drip down their neck…

CYNTHIA REEG

To help me get in the spooky mood for writing my monster stories, I brainstorm creepy vocabulary words before I start writing. Divide a paper into categories for the 5 senses–Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. See how many words you can think of for each sense. Even if you don’t use each of these words in your story, it will help set the tone for your writing. Scary on!

Thanks Spookies!!! I hope these tips help you add a little bite to your spooky story repertoire.

 

DEFEATING YOUR FEAR OF WRITING

black and white blur close up fingers

“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.

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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
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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
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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.

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