On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 60

The Zeppo

"It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, super powers⁠—Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires⁠—and you're, like, this little nothing. You must feel like ... Jimmy Olsen."  
     — Cordelia Chase to Xander Harris

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 3, episode 13, “The Zeppo,” Cordelia Chase relishes in pointing out her ex-boyfriend, Xander Harris’s, utter ordinariness, telling him that he’s “the Zeppo of the group”—the tragically un-hip, totally un-cool, useless hanger-on. However, Xander goes on to have a very un-Jimmy-Olsen-like day in the episode in question, an ordinary guy proving he’s capable of doing some extraordinary things despite his lack of super powers. The ordinary person doing extraordinary things is a common trope, but in this week’s writing prompt, I’m challenging you to employ a less common one.

What if your hero was an ordinary Zeppo like Xander, but instead of saving the day by doing something out of the ordinary, they did so simply by being their regular self? Maybe your hero saves the day/world/humanity/the universe by taking out the trash, skipping school, hugging someone, ordering a cup of coffee, or doing any number of other uneventful, seemingly unimportant things. What if they were completely unaware that they’d even saved anyone or anything at all? Does that sound boring to you? I say it’s only boring if you make it so, but I don’t believe that you will because you’ve got this brilliant thing called an imagination that can turn something mundane into something fantastic.

Happy writing, fellow ink-slingers!

On Writing

Spooky

When I was a kid, I was terrified of clowns. To me, they were monsters that wanted to snatch me and do horrible things to me. That was my worst nightmare—living out Stephen King’s It.

These days, I’m scared more by the horrendous things that actual humans do to each other than by some fool in clown makeup, but I still haven’t read or watched Stephen King’s It because I’ve been afraid that it’ll bring me horrible nightmares.

That’s what good horror storytellers do, isn’t it? They tap into our worst fears and nightmares and make them a reality. They play to our survival instinct.

So what makes a good horror story? For me, the sensory experience is a key factor, making the reader or viewer see, hear, and most of all, feel the fear. A spooky scene or creepy music can do that. For example, the scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Jonathan Harker is riding in the carriage through the foggy dark and hears the wolves’ howling; he knows they’re out there but he can’t see them, or much of anything, and he’s wondering if he’ll even make it through the night to Dracula’s castle. Stoker did a terrific job of setting a scary scene there. Similarly, one of the things that makes the original Halloween my favorite scary movie is the music that plays throughout the film and hearing Michael Myers breathing through the mask. The sound, in that case, was the most frightening part. You hear him and you know he’s there even when you can’t see him and that’s creepy. Or you hear those first notes of the eerie soundtrack and you think, get out of there, Laurie, get out now!

Cultivating suspense is also a key element of scary stories and sensory imagery is a big part of that. Poe was great at using sound, repetition, and visual imagery to magnify the suspense in stories like “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the “Telltale Heart.” Stephen King does a fabulous job of this as well. In The Shining, for example, he makes us feel Danny’s fear when he’s in room 237 by describing what Danny smells and feels and it’s creepy as hell. He uses strict anticipation in the scenes when Danny’s trying to hide from his father, similarly to the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot where Mark is held captive in the Marsten House and trying desperately to escape before the bad guy comes for him. You feel the characters’ fear building as the threat looms closer.

Sometimes, though, the most frightening stories are ones that could actually happen, where the monsters aren’t easily identifiable because they’re regular people. That’s the hallmark of Lovecraft Country for me. The supernatural elements are plenty scary, but the reality of racism and the acts done in the name of it are far more frightening.

I think another element that makes for a good scary story is the unexpected, the shock factor that some storytellers bring into their work. Seeing the main characters in Lovecraft Country held at gun point in the dark woods by racist law enforcement is scary enough. You, like the characters, are wondering what awful things these men are about to do, and then suddenly, something completely wild happens, leaving you going, “What the — ?” That sort of jaw-dropping turn is highly effective.

I’m not just a fan of vampire stories and some mildly gory tales of the supernatural, though. I like the campy stuff too. I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it wasn’t scary yet incorporated elements of the horror with humor and terrific dialogue in a sort of send-up of the genre. The dark humor was what made the Evil Dead movies for me. They were gory and disgusting, sure, but they were outrageous and hilarious too, more a parody of horror films than strict horror. I adore Taika Waititi‘s What We Do In the Shadows for all of the same reasons. If I need to laugh—really laugh—I watch that movie. Dark humor is a thing of mine. Give me bloody disgusting plus ridiculous or outrageous situations and witty dialogue and I’m in love. That’s why I fell so hard for The End of the F***ing World, I think, and a huge reason why Harold and Maude is my favorite film. They’re love stories, yes, but they’re darkly, wickedly funny and, yes, very bloody and gross. They have this fabulous mix of hilarity and horrific. My dream story to read or film to watch would probably be something that’s legitimately scary but also really funny. It’s a hard combination to master, but a brilliant one; if you can pull it off, it’s golden in my book.

What are the hallmarks of a good scary/horror story for you? Who, or what, are some of your favorites?

On Writing

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Anxiety and focus issues are some serious super creeps known to plague writers. If you’re haunted by such ghouls, then you may find yourself spending a lot of time staring at the horror that is a blank page or screen or over-preparing for the battle instead of heeding the call to action (i.e., getting caught up in things like researching, outlining, or character sketches instead of writing the actual story). You might sit down to write and have every intention of doing so, but some nasty little troll has other ideas and you end up chasing it in an endless time loop of distractions like checking social media, texting a friend, surfing the web, or drawing pictures that have nothing to do with your writing project. If any of that sounds familiar, then I empathize, fellow ink-slinger, because, unfortunately, I know all too well what’s it like to battle those Big Bads. Here are a few tips I’ve collated from my own experience in the fight.

Break It Up

If you struggle to stay focused (and I wouldn’t be shocked if the majority of people do given that the average attention span is a matter of seconds), then try building in more shorter writing intervals with breaks in between instead of fewer extended sessions.  If your goal is to write a certain number of words or pages per day, you certainly don’t have to write them all in one go.  Breaks will allow your brain to hit the reset button and hopefully you’ll be able to approach a project with renewed focus. If your brain is rested, it can also come up with fresh ideas.

Go Dark

If you’ve been staring at a blank page or screen, then try going dark. Turn off the computer screen and type away, even if you’re just banging out a string of nonsense letters, or close your eyes, pick up your pen, and do some automatic writing (ie, writing whatever comes into your mind). This is a fantastic way of unlocking your subconscious mind and letting it roam free as well as experimenting with letting go period. I realize that for someone with anxiety, that may sound terrifying; you need structure, you have to have a plan! There’s nothing wrong with an outline or plan, but you have to allow at least some room for flexibility because the creative process is by its very nature free-flowing. Start by trying just a few minutes of being like water; see how it goes. You might be surprised by what comes up when you do. I’ve found that this tactic often leads to some of my best ideas/work.

Daydream

If you’re losing interest in what you’re working on, then instead of forcing yourself to plow away at it, why not embrace the boredom? Boredom actually sparks creativity, so go ahead: imagine a place or that you’re some other person and let your mind wander, do a “what if?” exercise, or write in your journal. Sometimes distraction can actually be a good thing.

Get Reacquainted With Your Muse

Maybe you’re stuck for ideas because you’ve lost sight of your purpose. What was it that inspired you to write this project in the first place? Thinking about that, reminding yourself how you feel about that person/place/thing and why you wanted to write about it might be just the thing to spark renewed interest.

Work on Something Else

If you’re stuck sorting things out with a particular project or have lost interest, then work on something else for a while. It’s OK to take a break (as long as it’s not permanent or you don’t completely trash what you’ve been working on). Working on something different will get your creativity going again and might just help you figure out where to pick up the thread with your other project.

These are just a few ideas to try if you get stuck. Ultimately, you’ll need to explore what’s driving your anxiety or focus issues in the first place. What’s the root cause? Once you figure that out, you have a responsibility to yourself to take the necessary steps to manage it. If you can’t do that on your own, that’s OK; Buffy was the Slayer and she had a Watcher (well, two at one point) and the Scooby Gang helping her fight the Big Bad every week. We’re not superheroes, so we’ll likely need a lot more back-up to win the fight.