It’s no secret that many writers credit their creativity to liquor or caffeine. But how do each of these substances really affect your brain? Ryoko of I Love Coffee has created this infographic that should help writers figure out when to hit the bottle…and when to order another espresso.
It’s hard, looking back — reading what I wrote at age 13, in the throes of adolescence and on the cusp of discovering postmodernism, with no academic scaffold or frame of historical reference to ground me. While the explorations of a child into the nature of good and evil might be of interest to posterity, that doesn’t mean the setting is cohesive or the fiction particularly readable.
And so what, if the characters have gone through about 10 different names? What’s a few sex changes between friends? Suddenly, they’re getting married and having children — that was never in any of the outlines. They have minds of their own, and while I can (mostly) keep them straight between incarnations, my friends and family are lost. It might as well be a completely different story. It might make more sense if it were — but it’s not.
They ask me why I can’t just finish what I’ve started. Why so many re-writes? Why can’t I let it go? And there’s just no way to explain, when I’m 13, 15, 17, that I just can’t write what I envisioned, not yet. I’m not good enough. Someday, maybe, I will be.
At some point, though, doesn’t that turn into an excuse to let the project slide? To tell myself that it’s just not writable? It may lie dormant for years, slumbering beneath the surface. This isn’t writer’s block anymore: it’s a creative impaction, wedged deeply in an uncomfortable, private hollow that’s impossible to reach.
And in the midst of it, I forget to feel guilty. There’s too much life in the way: short stories that suddenly seem far more surmountable than a novel or a trilogy; doomed romances with other aspiring writers who barely write; day jobs to pay the bills that just become jobs; school and homework and student loans.
There’s one advantage to forgetting. When I rediscover my manuscript, I can finally look at it with stranger’s eyes, and for the first time see the truth: it’s pretty terrible. When it makes sense, it’s preachy. The characters aren’t likable and it’s not because they’re horrible people, it’s worse: they’re boring. The plot doesn’t go anywhere. The setting is bland and, I realize, I never actually had any real idea what the world was even supposed to look like.
With years of work built on that unstable platform, where can I really go?
Well, there’s one thing: I can always start over. Again.
According to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the study of reading, the superficial manner in which we read material online is making it difficult for us understand works…
She didn’t have any siblings. She didn’t really need any. Her imagination kept her company, dreaming up worlds inspired by the books she read. Books were her friends from the very beginning. They brought her to places only her mind believed, delicately held only in the pages. But to her, these places, these characters, were real. For the times when she opened a book, a new reality would whisk her away. And she would only return hours later with a smile on her face.
She devoured books like food, always hungry for more. And sometimes she would return again to the ones that captured her most. But mostly, she always moved onto a new book after finishing one. There was always a new adventure to discover. New friends to meet. New problems to solve. She brought books with her everywhere, for if there was a spare moment, it was used to dive back into a world no one else but her could see.
She would read while other kids would play on the weekends. Summers were spent wandering the rows of the air-conditioned library. But she never felt like she was missing out. In the cool, dry air of the library, she would run her hands over the book spines, searching. Searching for her next adventure. Triumphantly carrying her spoils, she would only emerge from the stacks hours later. Wavering under a fictional high-rise of literature, she would carefully line up to take her books home and into the sanctuary of her bedroom.
She grew up, as all little girls do. And over time, her trips to the library diminished. The never-ending stack of books in her room slowly disappeared. Book by book, her room had never felt emptier. The stories she always looked forward to were replaced by the disinterested, hard facts of textbooks. Textbooks were cold, uninviting. They never extended a hand out to her, welcoming her into their fantasy, for there was no fantasy within their pages. Instead, they stared back at her unblinkingly.
She felt tired. Tired of these books forced upon her, for they were strangers who had taken the place of friends. Tired of the reality they imposed. Tired of the deceptively colorful diagrams and charts. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t escape them. How she longed for the worlds she used to escape into. And so, for the very first time in her life, she fell out of love. Reality had taken hold and driven a wedge between her and the books she had loved so much.
She no longer remembered what it felt like to get lost in hills of creamy white pages, surrounded by fields of black type. She taught herself to not miss any of that. Stories became just that — stories. They had always been fiction, but a fiction she could believe in. Now, they were a fiction she could hardly lose herself in. But one day, she surprisingly found her way back to the love that she had lost.
She picked up a book, but it wasn’t just any book. It had been years and years since she had traded her fictional worlds for matter-of-fact statements. This was the first book since then that she was curious about, that she couldn’t wait to turn the pages of. She was about to start a new life in a faraway country, so sure, she had picked it up because she needed to occupy herself on a long flight. But it didn’t really matter that she had done it out of necessity. What mattered is that she did it.
She settled into her seat and pulled out the book, taking her time to admire the lovingly illustrated cover. It was like seeing an old friend again. She couldn’t help but smile to herself. She carefully opened the book, afraid it might disintegrate in her hands — a figment of her imagination. Her eyes widened, sparkling with the joy of discovering a new, secret world carefully tucked away behind the cover. She gobbled up the words, falling head-first into this new reality that she hardly noticed when the plane took off.
She fell in love again with every word, every sentence, she read. She breathed it all in, wrapping herself with the pages of new people to befriend, new journeys to embark on, and new stories to tell. And so there she was. On a plane, miles away from home. On a journey of her own to start anew, she found comfort in the old, knowing that these adventures would always welcome her with open arms. Knowing that these books were a slice of home, of her childhood. Books were her friends from the very beginning. And they would always be till the very end.
This short story was originally published on Medium.
Lately, I’ve been in a downright writing slump. For a time, it seemed that creativity flowed like a river – filling me with easy inspiration. Now it’s full of clichés…like the one preceding this sentence.
Part of the reason to the slump is my lack of a writer’s schedule — I’ve stopped writing every day. Last year, I always worked at the same place, at the same time, and I was amazed at what I was able to get done. But I’ve let that go, and now I write only when rare flights of fancy hit. It hasn’t exactly been working out.
But recently, my writer’s workshop reintroduced me to an old friend: the freewrite. I’d forgotten how good it feels just to get your pen moving across that paper, or typing with the purpose of simply writing. There are lots of ways to freewrite: I include journaling and prompts under the umbrella. Both of them have a simple goal: getting your creativity out of your body and onto the page, without stopping to edit or nitpick your work.
Creativity in its purest form is something you let happen without thinking about. The other parts can come later. Developing an idea, editing, fixing up your words, all come after you’ve finished vomiting nonsense on the page.
Freewrites are helpful to anyone who feels like they’ve lost their creative spark. What’s liberating about a freewrite is that you’re supposed to suck! It’s the first step in a writing process where you are meant to vomit everything in your head and hope it somehow makes it onto the page. Sentences will run, grammar won’t exist, your spelling will be appalling, and your handwriting might look like another language. And being able to stop worrying about those things is incredibly liberating!
There’s another side to freewriting, of course: it also reminds me of how terrifying writing can be. After all these years, parts of me are convinced that I have to create brilliance. I am once again battling with my arch nemesis: perfection. But after a few minutes of free writing, my body gets into it. The pen scratches against the paper and I become unaware of what I’m even writing about. And after a rough start, I feel better. Cleansed. As if coming to the page daily can open the door to all the writing projects I want to work on.
As writers, we all find ourselves in these slumps, battling against our own perfectionism and failing to finish anything as a result. I think many writers stop themselves from writing before they ever get a word out. We sit down at the computer and expect the words to just flow. And then our fingers freeze over the keys. We feel overwhelmed. Our inner critics come out of the woodwork, and after hours of staring at a blank screen, nothing happens. We bite our nails and troll the internet for inspiration in a futile attempt to jumpstart our creativity.
We ignore the fact that journal writing, working on prompts, and writing the crazed thoughts in our heads is just as productive as working on our freelance projects or novels. Freewriting is a form that exercises our writing muscles, and gets us in the space to write deeper and longer until we can move onto other forms of creation. It’s one of the strongest parts of the writing process. The point is just to do it: get in a habit of journaling and working on prompts. Get in the habit of writing for the sake of writing.
Starting is one part of the battle. Maybe this will help: start out slow. Try five minutes of freewriting a day, on any topic. Write nonsense. Repeat yourself. Write about your fear of writing, about the color blue, the sun—anything that get you moving your pen across paper. It will be hard at first, but once you start, you’ll soon find yourself reconnecting to your creative source.
Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. See what happens when you freewrite every day for a week. It’s only five minutes. Don’t know where to start? You can download the Renegade Word’s free writing prompt e-book, or look through the collection of prompts on our website.
And remember: above all else, give yourself some room to have fun!
Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?
Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.
That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.
- Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.
- Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
- Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
- Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.
- Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a software program like Natural Reader.
- And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can have a character either think or say these things instead of going into lengthy narrative. Look for any passage that feels like author intrusion or an info dump and find another way to impart the information.
If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten your writing.
The publishing industry has been changing rapidly over the past few years thanks to the ease of self-publishing and the rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. While before an author would have to pay to publish a book out of their own pocket, the internet has made it easier than ever to find an audience and fund creative work that might not fit in at a traditional publisher.
One such project is Writings to Die For, where Kevyn Arnott of Kill Adjectives plans analyze the final writings of famous authors in depth. As Renegade Word’s resident Dead Author Fan, I reached out to Kevyn to ask him about this intriguing project.
Lauren Seegmiller: To start off, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? I noticed your blog, Kill Adjectives, doesn’t have an “About Me” section.
Kevyn Arnott: Let’s see, I’m a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. I’m an English major who some how wound up working in the technology field. I began writing the blog early this year when I felt professionally successful, working at Apple was a longtime dream, but I felt unfulfilled working such long hours. So I began writing this blog, and I’ve never been happier. In fact, three months after starting the blog I left Apple, and now I’m a technology consultant, which gives me much more flexibility in my schedule and thus more time to write. Life’s good.
LS: I’ve read on Kill Adjectives that before Writings to Die For, you’ve been really interested in authors as biographical figures. Is your educational background in English and/or creative writing? Are you a lifelong voracious reader? What led you to this project?
KA: Yes to both. I studied English specializing in Creative Writing, and I’m absolutely a voracious reader. There’s also a major history buff in me.
Honestly, there are numerous things that led me to this project. The biggest one has to be a realization I had while writing a term paper on George Washington for a history class. Many people know George Washington as this great American and first president, but very few know that he was a terrible general, soft-spoken, and oddly enough a homebody. Ironically, the best thing he did was leave the Presidency after his second term, which created a rare peaceful transition of power. He was hardly the founding father that we want him to be, yet we built a large tower in his honor, put his face on two most commonly used currency pieces, and frequently name things after him.
There’s an importance to dehumanizing George Washington, which happens when you take away his mistakes, his imperfections, and his personality. My term paper ended up focusing on the reasons why an organization dehumanizes or idolizes someones. I believe the title was The Infamous Name Behind the Forgotten Man.
This thought never left me. As I look at literary history, I see the same thing. I find that authors become less human as we move further way from them in time. This happens because we naturally look fondly upon fallen greats. We idolize them. We uphold them. We dehumanize them.
We start by removing mundane unpleasantries, then we take away their poor decisions, and we start reading only their great works. The truth is being human is making mistakes. Eventually, every literary great will end up like William Shakespeare, which is to say untouchable and lacking any documented emotion.
I prefer to study authors as they were. In the case of Writings to Die for, the last work isn’t typically their best. It’s usually rough, sometimes unfinished, but always purposeful. Authors, to me, are human, which is to say riddled with mistakes and engulfed in emotional context. Obviously, this isn’t your typical way to study an author.
LS: Of course, the Kickstarter campaign goes into the greatest detail about Writings to Die For, but could you sum up your campaign in few sentences?
KA: There’s really three major parts to Writings to Die For. Firstly, it’s a biographical exploration into famous writers’ lives and what led them to write their final works. Secondly, it’s a textual analysis of their last works, and thirdly, with the help of a researcher in psychology, we go into the mind of the writer in their final days.
LS: What is your goal, and what will meeting it allow you to do?
KA: The truth is research is expensive. I sometimes quadruple-check facts if needed, and to do that I’ve invested a lot in resources and time. Oddly enough, the more famous the writer the more energy it takes to research. For example, Shakespeare is as famous as you can get, but researching this man is a chore if you want to learn about the man behind the playwright.
LS: How did you pick the authors you chose for this project? Did you have to leave anyone out? (You mention Douglas Adams in the campaign text.)
KA: I chose authors from a pool of literary greats who had full writing careers and changed the writing world in some lasting way. The criteria, in which I chose from that pool, was solely dependent on the last works and the role it played in their live’s themes. Sometimes, I had this really incredible author, but their last work was a work that didn’t do much to further our perspective on who they were. In the Kickstarter, I mentioned Douglas Adams was on the cusp of being included, and after many messages encouraging me to include him I’ve decided to raise the book to thirteen featured writers.
LS: Following the author question, I’m curious about the works. For example, Sanditon by Jane Austen was unfinished when she died, but Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss was published the year before he died. And Hemingway’s letter, which you address in this post, is a private epistle. Why did you choose the works that you did?
KA: I chose works that were as close to the death as possible. Because of this, there are a few unpublished works in the mix; in fact, the unfinished works are some of my favorites because I know that the words I’m reading are raw and untouched. To get that level of access into a famous writer’s mind is a rare feat.
From what I’ve researched about Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go was his last work. There have been a few pieces published posthumously, but everything I’ve found has put those works as unfinished and abandoned earlier in his career. Hemingway’s letter was a matter of a few weeks before his death, and that letter is chilling in the context of his life. To be in this book, the author needs to be prominent and the last work needs to be meaningful. With that combination, I’ve come across some of the most gripping stories that I feel are either untold or seldom told.
LS: I have a B.A. in English literature and one thing that really stood out to me about your project is this: I can remember often being warned against the so-called “biographical fallacy,” or the idea from New Criticism that advocates keeping an author’s work separate from the author him/herself and avoiding biographical interpretation of works. Of course, that’s not the be-all and end-all of textual analysis, but I wonder if you could talk about your project’s relationship to the idea of the biographical fallacy?
KA: Absolutely, biographical fallacy is a very real thing. You have to separate the writer from the narrator and characters. They’re distinctly two different things in the case of plots, dialogue, characters, but in the terms of themes and subtext it’s hard to disguise a writer’s true feelings and thoughts. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson struggled with his father his entire life. He never was able to acquire the admiration of his father. Ultimately, Stevenson’s last work and self-proclaimed and unfinished masterpiece was Weir of Hermiston where he explores the relationship of a father and son. When it comes to a writer’s last work, it appears all too common for that writer to choose a story that is exposing, troublesome, and extremely dear.
LS: On your Kickstarter, you write that you worked with someone in the field of psychology. Can you talk more about that? Can you share an example of some of the insight they provided?
KA: I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with someone who is highly knowledgable in psychology. She specializes in abnormal psychology and has worked on ground-breaking mental illness research. Without giving away too much, she’s helped me look at the authors’ psyches in vastly different ways.
LS: And this is unrelated to the Kickstarter, but as another writer who loves dead authors, I want to know: who are you reading right now? Do you have any contemporary authors you’re a fan of?
KA: I’m always reading a few different things. Currently, I’m reading Bar Rescue by Jon Taffer, which isn’t about dead authors but rather dead bars. I just finished Contagious, which was very insightful to the marketing world, and the deadest thing I’m reading or re-reading is John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” which isn’t so much as reading as it is trudging, but nonetheless I love Milton, and I will gladly trudge through his works.
Since making my last contribution to the Renegade Word I have secured my first official regular writing gig. I now contribute weekly columns to Hot For Writing and have had to teach myself a thing or two about writing on demand. I’ve started employing a few rules to my writing regime to ensure that I can come up with and produce a decent column when I need one.
1. Stay Alert.
The site I write for focuses on news and culture so this is particularly relevant to me. But for any kind of regular spot you need to find something to write about, so keep an eye and an ear on the news. This also means being tuned in on Saturday—even if you don’t plan to write until Wednesday. Little things cropping up at any time could inspire a column.
2. Keep Reading.
Once you are consistently knocking out a particular kind of writing, you need to investigate your field a little more deeply. The world of online content is constantly under construction, and no matter what your readership is your work is a part of that process. Reading other similar sites and pieces also provides a great source of inspiration, even if that inspiration comes in a “I could have done a better job than that” format.
This goes hand-in-hand with the reading element. Part of the work of writing online is coming back for the comments: seeing what people have to say and responding to it. Likewise, it’s probably useful to get commenting on some other online writing that you’re into.
One of the main joys of writing on the internet is that you get to start conversations with likeminded people. Equally, it’s important to not get sucked in by trolls. There is a valuable difference between intelligent discussion of an issue—which may or may not include differing opinions—and the general flame wars that can crop up in any unsuspecting comment section.
Often I find that I’m turning the same idea over and over in my head. I’ve considered it as a topic but not really decided if it is worth writing or not. I can do that for days at a time without making any progress. It isn’t until I dive in, do some research, and start getting words onto the page that I can actually tell if it’s worth pursuing or not. Writing and thinking about writing are very different processes.
5. Don’t Be Deterred.
By very definition, not everything that you do can be your best work. You are going to be more pleased with some pieces than you are with others. And whilst it is important to remember that you absolutely must put the effort in with every piece, you can’t expect everything that you come up with to be another masterpiece. That’s a surefire way to dishearten yourself, and one of the hardest parts of writing is being able to self-motivate. I read somewhere once that although it’s fine to love writing, it is important to remember that writing does not and cannot love you back. You have to fight your own fight.
On balance, being a regular contributor has been good for my writing. It isn’t always easy and I don’t always produce the work that I wanted or expected to, but I do believe that it’s been a valuable and generally incredibly interesting experience.
Almost every TV pilot starts with a character entering a new life-stage. One of the most convenient setups for a pilot is to show how a character navigates a totally new environment. The first episode of my favorite TV show, Mad Men, starts on Peggy Olson’s first day as a secretary at Sterling Cooper in 1960. I also just started watching The Good Wife, which follows Alicia Florick’s first day at a law firm after fifteen years as a stay-at-home mom—and after six months of scandal following the downfall of her husband, the former State’s Attorney. The movie Mean Girls starts with Cady’s first day of public high school after growing up in Africa.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that I watch too much TV—it’s that new situations are an imaginative gold mine. Think about it: conflicts arising right and left, desperate grasping for alliances, new characters, and testing how your character will react to all of these stimuli.
We’ve all been The New Kid at one time or another. In my experience, it’s not a very fun role to play. Thankfully, I was never singled out at school; my first days at new schools were the same first day for hundreds of people. I’ve only ever been The New Kid on the job. I’m pretty shy and really awkward. I’m also a big doormat and kind of a suck-up. I get really flustered and I can’t stop asking questions. I feel like I’m wearing a mask and I’ll be anxious for the whole day, no matter how nice my supervisor.
But that’s me. Maybe that’s not your character. Maybe your character feels at ease rather than singled out. Keep in mind that a new situation can be an easy pathway to reinvention—everyone knows someone from high school who changed their name once they got to college. Maybe at their last school or office or whatever, your character ate lunch alone in a bathroom stall. But now maybe she’s confident to just stride right up and sit down at the Cool Kids’ Table.
How to use this prompt
If you’re a fiction writer, put your character in a new situation and see how they react based on the personality you’ve constructed. Maybe they do the opposite of what you expect. If you’re a poet or a nonfiction writer, perhaps you can take this prompt a little more personally. Share your experiences with being new. Did you rule the school (or office or whatever) in a single day, or did you hide in a bathroom stall whenever you could?
Share your responses in our forum!
Did you feel it? I did. At the end of that final clock chime as October faded into November, I swear I heard the ding! of a cash register drawer shooting open. I could feel the waistband of my pants tighten. I think I had visions of sugar plums that night.
Yes, Virginia, now the sneaky Christmas aisle at Target can stop pretending. It’s officially the holiday season.
I am not someone you could describe generally as “perky” or usually “optimistic” and I have days where even “nice” is a stretch. My high school nickname was Debbie Downer. My family isn’t religious, but we celebrate the classic American secular Christmas. And I love Christmas. (I will also say “Happy Holidays” to the end, but my family happens to celebrate Christmas so that’s where my experience lies.) I love the old-time-y religious carols, I love my mom’s elaborate Christmas town, I love our family tradition: opening presents, watching A Christmas Story, seeing a movie, and eating a fancy dinner. For one day, I’m a total togetherness cheeseball and I love it.
So I love Christmas. But I really don’t like the Holiday Season.
I don’t like crowds and I don’t like shopping. I get anxious about finding the perfect gift. And I like getting presents as much as anybody, but the so-called season of giving comes with an awful lot of rampant consumerism. My mother grew up with seven siblings and not enough money to go around, and she’s often said that Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday because it’s just a meal you eat together. Now it’s just a meal you eat together before you go put yourself in mortal peril because maybe you can’t afford a TV when it’s not on sale.
I used to work for a certain popular coffee chain. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the generosity and cheer of the customers warmed me. However, those two days of kindness were preceded by about six weeks of really unpleasant customers and promotions that left me exhausted and cranky. My manager made my supervisor cry on Christmas morning and subsequently terrorized the staff. I ended up staying 90 minutes past when I was supposed to leave. And I was one of the only people who got a lunch break. It sucked to watch people come in with their whole family and try to hide the fact that I was crying at the espresso machine because mine was waiting for me at home.
So that’s my holiday baggage, but there’s so much more that comes with the whole holiday season: Daylight Savings Time ends and it’s dark all the time, it’s right in the middle of flu season, those of us in temperate zones have to fight terrible weather—and a lot of people have to endure airports during that weather. It’s stressful, and on top of that stress there’s a lot of overeating and feeling bad—both overly full and guilty for overeating.
And, of course, togetherness often involves family, and family is always fodder for drama: feuds, drinking, noise, repeating yourself endlessly… Although Snopes itself says that the supposed increase in holiday suicides is a myth, Tolstoy’s words still hold true: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
How to use this prompt
If you’re a poetry or fiction writer, how do your characters react to the spirit of the season? Do they embrace it or recoil? What specific trials will your characters have to encounter this holiday season?
If you’re a nonfiction writer, reach into your own experience. Do you have a wacky or tragic (or both) holiday story you’ve been meaning to write down? If not, what are your feelings surrounding the holiday season? Do you live for Black Friday or avoid it on principle? (Or could you even avoid it if you wanted to because you work in retail?)
Share your responses in the forum!
With Halloween fast approaching, one of storytelling’s most popular genres prepares to take center stage: Horror. We can imagine early writers sitting around campfires spinning tales of comedy or romance or epic struggle, but, just like today, they would have also told tales to bring thrilling chills to their audience and scare nightmares into them.
How do these masters do it? From Edgar Allan Poe to HP Lovecraft to Stephen King, they all play upon the minds and faint hearts of the audience by creating worlds readers half-create themselves.
1. Connect with Readers’ Fears
There’s a reason “It” is a clown and a giant spider: clowns and giant spiders are terrifying!
A good way to begin writing a Horror story is to determine what it is that terrifies people. It can be as easy as an out-of-control car, a creepy neighbor, someone in a mask, or, to quote Family Guy, a lamp monster.
Ghosts and monsters are clear examples. Both come from beyond the readily known. A ghost itself represents the great unknown of death, and the thought that something can come out of that unknown and act, even potentially injure, breaks the comfortable bubble of the human mind pretending it understands the universe. A monster, too, comes from the unknown: the shadows in the closet, the crevices under the bed, or the darkness in the woods where elders said never to go. No one knows what the monster is exactly, so no one knows how to fight it. It is an unstoppable force that will overwhelm and kill.
Lovecraft revolutionized the monster by showing mankind’s feeble place in the universe. On a more day-to-day level, there are still things that unnerve us in their unpredictability. Mental illness, disease, robbery, attack by someone we don’t know (or someone we do), all these destroy our shells and leave us horrified and exposed. Ask yourself, what scares you?
2. Build through Pacing
“Jump scares” are valuable tools in movies, but something suddenly popping doesn’t quite work as well in written word. There are times to show a shocking attack or a monster popping out, but to make the story really roll, you have to build it. As the story-world comes together, the reader’s mind creates as much as the words on the page.
Start off the story and even scenes showing the situation at hand. Misery shows a writer who is looking to reinvent himself. That’s an interesting enough story on its own; it has plenty of room for drama and characterization. But when he suddenly comes under the mercy of the deranged fan who refuses to let him, then it gets scary. Then there’s Marion from Psycho, stealing money from a bank and hiding out in an old motel. The motel owner is creepy, and he grows creepier and peepier until the absolute unthinkable happens.
To have your readers sympathize with the protagonists in Horror, show their lives before it comes upon them. There are plenty of terrible zombie or slasher movies where unsympathetic people are out doing something dumb and suddenly get killed. Half of the time, we end up laughing at them and saying, “Yep, had it coming!”
Showing people already living their lives with their own worries and hopes, just like our own, gives the reader a better connection. When the monster appears, the reader is just as horrified as the protagonist. Poltergeist has a loving family hoping to see days of prosperity after plenty of hard work. We don’t want to see stuffed clowns and disembodied forces hurt them. We are willing to invest our emotions and journey with them to see the little girl rescued from a force we don’t even see.
3. Use the Senses (But Leave Room)
To really give the readers the desired scare of prickled hairs with hearts pounding and fingers trembling as they try to turn the page, the author needs to use sensory description. Paint the scene and draw the audience in with not only visuals of the horror, but hearing, touch, even taste and smell.
“A creature sits in the shadow” becomes all the more horrifying when the writer tells of its “rasping, staggered breathing from ill-formed lungs.” It “stinks of putrid rot, the foul air of refuse and sewage” burning the inside of the nostrils. As its tentacles slither over the wooden floor, they are cold and wet, unyieldingly strong yet spongy, oozing black pus.
While giving details is a great way of supplying description, avoiding precise visuals gives the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps with something creepier than words could ever convey. Many classic Horror movies do their best work never actually showing the monster or at least saving it for one shocking reveal. Alien has a famous deleted scene of the xenomorph in its entirety as a lanky guy in a suit doing a hilarious walk. The alien is far more terrifying when all we see are flashes of the creature circling in the air ducts or a close-up of its horrid claws.
Humans are primarily visual creatures, and if we take away specifics, the mind floods in with possible realities. When there’s a crash in the dark, it’s most likely the cat knocking over a stack of books, but we immediately think of a deranged burglar bursting in or some wretched creation of pure evil crawling out of the Netherworld to drag us from our beds into a mind-crippling eternity of torture.
4. Show the Emotions
Like any genre, Horror has a certain mood and word choice that flows through it. Because the passion of the reader is so important to Horror, the wording must suit. Romance has its sultry, tantalizing purple prose, and Action its fast-hitting, short-cut sentences, but Horror crawls and slithers until it suddenly strikes to leave its audience screaming.
Poe’s “The Raven” gives an excellent taste of poetic, horrifying language. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary” tells us that the protagonist is up late, tired but unable to sleep. It gives so much more with the word “weary” than “tired.” His soul is exhausted, worn down to the point even sleep is not restful. Then, of all things, a bird bursts into his room and begins talking to him. Or, as Poe stated more horrifically, “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” In any other wording it would be ridiculous, but the Raven’s quote has haunted us for over 150 years.
Guiding the emotions of the reader is the skillful art of the true master of Horror. Anyone can conjure gory scenes or talk about a monster, but a great writer captures the readers by connecting them with characters who face an enemy beyond understanding. Steer the emotions with carefully chosen spooky words, and read them aloud to test terror. If your neck prickles and your arms shiver with scales of goosebumps, you’re on the right track.
If you want to put Jeff’s tips into action, post what horrors you come up with to the forum!
I am in my twenties, but I don’t always feel like I am. I mean, I can go to a bar if I want to. I finished a Bachelor’s Degree. I pay rent. I have a job (actually, two jobs—okay, I have two paying jobs and do a bunch of other stuff).
But I still have some traits that have stuck with me from being a poopy-faced teenager. I hold grudges. I cry a lot. From social media, I see people I knew in high school getting married, having kids, buying houses, and doing other “grown-up” things, whereas I sometimes spend my nights eating cereal straight out of the bag in my bed. It’s a feeling of being unmoored. Not having anything to tie me down can afford me grand opportunities: I could quite my jobs and sow my wild oats, I could see the world, I could go teach in another country. But I really don’t like being unmoored because for me, in the past couple of years, being unmoored means having to move.
Nobody likes to move. In the past twelve months, I’ve moved twice within my city (three times if you count the month I spent having to move back in with my parents after my lease ended). The rental market in my city is ridiculously tight; each move required two months of searching. For my first move, I made twenty appointments to meet potential roommates. For my second, I didn’t bother counting.
And, really, I’m one of the lucky ones. My city is booming, so I’ve known several people who have had to move back in with their families, or who have spent months couch-hopping. I’ve had friends move five times in the same city in one year. I’ve had friends who have had to pack up and move across the country in the hopes that they can get a job in their field. I’ve had friends who have moved around the world for jobs: the Mediterranean, the Black Forest, the Kalahari, the Gobi.
With trans-global moves, of course, comes culture shock in the purest form: having your typical experience of one culture be put into the context of a new one. But there’s also the shock of dealing with a new roommate and/or landlord. I don’t deal very well with change, so my first couple of months in new surroundings tend to be very stressful and I do things like have wine and candy for dinner or become afraid my new washing machine will ruin all my clothes.
For me, the worst part is having to straddle the past and the future. On the one hand, you have to uproot your material possessions and box them up. You might have to sort through and decide what’s important to keep. I’ve never been good at parting with things; I always wonder if I’ll miss them when they’re gone. I feel like my things are me, and the act of sorting usually involves some emotionally weighty reflection on where I’ve been and who I am (remember? overemotional?). But when moving, those feelings have to coexist with the push toward the future. And if that future is uncertain—like it was in my last move—I become very distressed.
Now that I’ve laid bare a lot of my neuroses about moving, I can sum it up by saying I hate feeling untethered, but that’s kind of how my life has to be right now—whether I accept it or not. Even if I could afford to buy a house where I want to live in my city, doing so would kill possibilities of me finding a new city for reasons like work or future school. Of course, that’s not how everybody feels. Some people thrive on getting a fresh start, or always pulling up stakes.
How to use this prompt
Moving is a big upheaval in bother literal and figurative ways. If you’re a fiction writer or a poet, maybe think about what that kind of upheaval does for your characters: are they glad to be closing this chapter of their lives? Where are they moving to and why? Do they have to part with precious items? And some people move because they’re running away from something…
If you’re a nonfiction writer, think about times you’ve moved and what all went into it: fighting with roommates or landlords or movers or the market, a grand trip across the nation, or several appointments in the same neighborhood.
Sorry my guidance is a little lean, but the topic of moving is rife with possibilities. And anyway, I need to finish putting my new apartment together. Post your responses in the forum!