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…
 

 

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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