“For Emily,
Wherever I May Find Her”

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

This winter, a friend of my nine-year-old daughter’s told me about a short story she’d written. Then she asked me, “How do you become a writer?”

The short response was “You already are a writer.”

I went on to tell her about how you can study writing in college but you don’t have to. I told her to read a lot of books and see how writing differs from author to author, how it changes in different time periods, stuff like that. I said she can write things to show other people or just write for herself. I told her to write stories, poems, cartoons, everything and anything. I also told her that I would write an article for her so she can use it over the summer.

Get inspired

Sometimes you need an idea to get going. You can use writing prompts. There are a lot of writing prompts for kids out there; you can find them in books (including ebooks) and online. You might be better off looking for prompts written specifically for children, not so much due to content but because your daily prompt could be “use ‘meretricious’ in your first sentence.”

But do you have to wait for an idea in order to start writing? No. There are writing-related exercises you can try.

  • Make a list of character names. This is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. The first “roll call” I remember writing was in sixth grade. I wrote first names I liked, as well as surnames, then matched them up. Then I decided which names would be in the same social circles. I thought of which boys and girls liked each other, who had brothers or sisters, who lived in what neighborhoods, stuff like that. Then I wrote down the things I learned about the characters.
  • Holden writingDraw a map. Create a town or a neighborhood. Name the streets. Look around where you live and think of how many houses fit on each block. Are they apartment buildings? Farms that are miles apart? Old houses with big basements? What’s the history of these houses? What kind of person would like to live in the house at this intersection? You can also use Google Maps or Bing Maps (as well as old fashioned things called “atlases”) to see how neighborhoods are set up. Look at the layout of New York City and compare it to the layout of Washington DC. Think of rivers and lakes. Is it hilly where you want your imaginary people to live? What’s the weather like? If you do this with sidewalk chalk, look at how the colors work together. Who lives in that pink house next to the big hotel? What happens where the yellow-green river passes under the white bridge?
  • Play with toys. Act something out with Barbie dolls, Monster High dolls, LEGO, Avenger action figures, Star Wars guys, a sandcastle, plush toys, board games, Minecraft, whatever. Playing with toys is a way of creating a story. When you’re finished, write down a few notes about what happened. Let your imagination go wild. It doesn’t have to make sense or have an ending, like the stories in books do.
  • Create a video game on paper. My seven-year-old son struggles with writing prompts but he loves taking stacks of paper or a magnetic board and creating level after level of mash-up video games. His current is Plants vs. Zombies meets SpongeBob. But think about your favorite videogames. There’s a story to them. Even games you think might not have a story. For example. Wii Sports. “Oh you just play sport games,” one person might say. A writer might think of the Miis used and their implied personalities, how the games build on themselves and get harder the more you play, or you might use two friends playing Wii Sports as part of your story.
  • Use pictures to inspire you. In sixth grade, our English teacher showed us photos by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. You can use famous pictures to give you story ideas or you can use the photos hanging on the wall at home. You can use paintings (and they don’t have to look realistic) to inspire you or even make your own artwork to get that creative part of your brain all warmed up and ready to work.
  • Read poems. I recommend the 100 Great Poems For Boys and 100 Great Poems For Girls collections. The books have many of the same poems in them so pick the one you prefer. Also your family might like The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family edited by John Lithgow (it comes with a CD). Check out collections by Shel Silverstein or Judith Viorst. You can find lots of age-appropriate poetry websites.

Create a portfolio

A portfolio is a collection of your creative work.

Okay so you’re ready to write a story, a poem, a comic book, a cartoon, a song… what do you do now? Well you can write on paper or on an electronic device like a computer or tablet.

When I was in fourth grade, I attended “College For Kids” (held at FAMU) and we were allowed to choose two “courses.” My choices for these college course things (I did them in later grades, with other universities) were always (1) photography and (2) creative writing. I was really lucky to participate in programs like these and I know very few kids have access to these things (hence articles like these).

Zoe writing Anyway, the very first thing we did in the fourth grade writing course was to create a book. We used long sheets of recycled smooth paper and folded them in half. Then we stapled the center. We then created a cover out of cardboard, fabric and yarn. Our job over the course of the semester was to fill that book. We learned about some of the things that TC already has articles about: characterization, setting, and plot.

My book was a hodgepodge of poems, song parodies (writing new lyrics to existing songs), one-page stories, and one-panel or four-panel cartoons. Some kids wrote long stories that used the whole book. Some kids wrote a poem on every page. Some kids drew a picture on one page and wrote a story on the opposite page (like Great Illustrated Classics). There’s no wrong way to fill your book. There’s no wrong way to make a book. You don’t even have to make a book. It can be a good idea to make a folder to put your writing in, whether it’s a real folder or a folder on your computer.

Diaries and journals are also nice to have. You can find them in stores like Justice, at craft stores like Michaels, or in the school supplies (a.k.a. “stationery”) aisle at stores like Target. Grocery stores also carry notebooks, composition books, and loose paper.

Anything can be a journal. You can write about your day (non-fiction), you can write a story (fiction), a poem, draw pictures, anything your pen or pencil can put on that paper. Some people hide their journals. Whether you want to hide your journal depends on you. If you have a very little brother or sister who might color in it or rip it up, you might want to store your diary (and other writing) in a high place like a closet shelf or cabinet. Ask an adult where a safe place for your folder might be.

Your workspace

If you have a place to be alone and write, close your door. If you don’t have a private place, use a book or the board from a board game to make yourself a wall around your workspace. This lets your parents, grandparents, guardians, sitter, brothers and/or sisters know that it’s work time for you. You can write in bed, on the floor, at a table, on the front steps, even in the bathroom!

If you don’t finish, that’s fine. Next time, you can continue (leave some space if you’re writing on paper) or start something new.

You don’t have to finish everything you start. And once you decide you’re absolutely, positively never going to write any more of that story or poem, you can come back to it.

It can be fun to make yourself a “writing time.” Set a timer for 10 minutes and create something. Maybe you’re not sure what to write about during today’s writing time. Try one of the prompts from the first part of this article.

Then what?

There are a lot of places you can send your work to be published, if you’re interested in that. Look for established publications (in print or online). You should not send anyone any money in order to have your work published. Lots of magazines run monthly contests, sometimes based on a picture or word prompt.

You can also print your work yourself. There are reputable companies that can convert your drawings and words into picture books. This is something an adult will help you research. Having things printed this way does cost money. You will probably only want one or two copies, depending on who you would like to give your work to.

You can also print things on your home or library computer. If you create copies of a book, have a book signing at home and invite people to come and hear you read samples of your work. Sell copies of your book and autograph each one personally.

Or you could just keep your work in your folder and enjoy it for yourself. There’s no rule about what to do with your work. If you can keep it, do. It will be fun to reread it as time goes by.

I’m the grown-up here

You have a writerling at home or next door. You might wonder what you can do on that front, other than buying pencils and notebooks or giving rides to the library and schlepping bags of books back and forth. Here are a few things writers of all ages would like to get from those who care about their growth and passion:

  • Someone to read it
  • Someone to say “It’s great!” even when it’s not
  • Someone to say “What happens next?”
  • Someone to say “How can I make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time?”
  • Someone to offer refreshments, particularly to deliver them to the writing space
  • A place of one’s own to write, preferably undisturbed
  • A safe place to store writing materials (notebooks, pencils, pens, idea books, a personal login on the computer, a folder to put special bookmarks, a folder in which to save documents, maybe even password-protected to keep siblings from deleting)
  • Someone to help spell big words
  • Someone to help focus big ideas
  • Someone to offer inspiration (go for a walk, visit a museum, tell a story)
  • Someone who reads for fun
  • Someone who talks about books
  • Music to write to (or quiet, if preferred)
  • Encouragement of exploration of wild and crazy ideas (“An abandoned amusement park haunted by fire-breathing unicorns? Sounds great! What happens to the wooden roller coaster?”)
  • Someone to provide books (buy or borrow) so the writer can see how people write
  • Someone to take pride in having a writer in his/her life

This article is dedicated to Emily R, a writer in Pennsylvania.

Final Poll Results

For Kids: Make a Book, Tell a Story!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Make some books as craft projects. Here are two places to begin: makingbooks.com and Blue Roof Designs. You might need some adult help for some of these. Both pages are safe for all ages (clicking around Pinterest, off of this particular board, you might want adult supervision or approval).
  2. Use paper and crayon, sidewalk chalk and the pavement, or a drawing program to create a town. Draw the houses and buildings or just plan out the roads. Think about what happens in the houses, the businesses, and parks. Write a story or poem based on your town.
  3. Write a rhyming poem about one of the following: an apple, skipping rope, a beach ball, a red sweater/jumper. Make your poem four lines per stanza and three stanzas long or write rhyming couplets (two lines together, all of the second lines rhyme).
  4. Play outside with a friend. Act out an adventure (astronauts, pirates, animal rescuers, princesses, etc.) and have fun. When your playtime is over, write a story about what you played (you can always change the details).
  5. Rewrite a fairy tale or folk tale with new characters or a new ending. For example, what if Sleeping Beauty was already awake and had to rescue the prince instead? What if Little Red Riding Hood was a wolf? What if the Little Mermaid lived in the Indian Ocean?

Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results

Haunted Ideas for Halloween

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Write a story based on the urban legend of “Bloody Mary”—teens summoning magical visions using a mirror and the repetition of the phrase “Bloody Mary.” What happens next? Something expected or something unusual?
  2. Write about a building originally designed to be a skyscraper but built on its side so it’s long with straight, parallel corridors meant to be elevator shafts. What is it used for? What mysterious forces might be upset by this change?
  3. Use a past “Dead of Winter” theme to inspire a horror story. These include: The Longest Night Of The Year; Death and Winter; The Ghost & The Darkness; The House At The End of the Road; The Souvenirs or Trophies of a Returned Soldier; The Haunted Lighthouse; Urban Legend; Alaska; Alternative Santa; Blood River Bridge; Ventriloquist; The Hidden Grave; and Skull and Bones.
  4. Enter the 2012 “Dead of Winter” contest using the theme “Heart and Soul”
  5. Research phobias, find one that you don’t find all that frightening, and create a character with that phobia.

Write What You Dig

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In the 1997 film Boogie Nights, Becky tells Buck he needs to find “a new look” rather than the “country western” look he’s been using. Later in the kitchen, a frustrated Buck tells Maurice how Becky, his managers at the stereo store, and others have been pressuring him to change his appearance. Maurice replies, “You know what I say? Wear what you dig. That’s it. Wear what you dig.”

The current phenomenon in the publishing world is 50 Shades of Grey, originally conceived as Twilight fanfic but appealing to suburban women who have made reading erotica mainstream. When E.L. James wrote 50 Shades, she likely wrote for herself, as most fanfic writers do. That she happened to tap in to an audience is serendipitous.

Erotica readers and writers—myself included—are critical of the book but hey. Read what you dig. Write what you dig.

My current read is Crackpot by John Waters (my immediate previous read was Role Models, also by John Waters). Waters is better known as a director and screenwriter, mostly of films that specialize in purposeful bad taste, a blend of art and anarchy. Waters says, “I’ve always said that in the film world you have to pretend eight million people are gonna love it and in the art world, if eight million people love it, it’s really bad.” So he makes the films he wants to see, whether anyone else wants to see them. He writes what he digs.

Katharine Hepburn, another Hollywood icon and writer, said “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” Again, write what you dig.

So why do I keep repeating this mantra? Writers increasingly write for an audience. This audience might be regular readers of a weblog or the friends who eagerly volunteer to beta-read our latest short stories or poems. As electronic publishing lends itself so easily to self-publishing, we find it easy to put our work directly into a reader’s hands. We want to please, which is natural. But, like Anastasia Steele—the heroine of 50 Shades of Grey—are we putting the receipt of our own pleasure in someone else’s hands?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep our audience in mind when writing. Stephen King writes of his Ideal Reader in On Writing; his wife Tabitha is the only person he claims he wants to please with his work. The focus of a single Ideal Reader can sharpen our focus. When we branch out to please many readers, to appeal to everyone, our work can be spread too thin and not hold enough appeal for any one reader.

Speaking of “digging,” if you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole with your current work—uninterested in working, out of fresh ideas—it’s possible you could be subconsciously trying to appeal to a wide Ideal Audience rather than an Ideal Reader or a narrow, intimate Ideal Audience. Chances are good you won’t produce the next Hunger Games, Harry Potter series, or 50 Shades of Grey so why put the pressure on yourself? Think of what you might achieve if you wrote what you want to read. You could become a cult icon! A hipster’s “discovery!” It’s not the size of your audience that matters; it’s the passion your audience has for your work (or even you).

Beyond the mundane answers you might give to “interests” at your social media profiles, what interests you and/or your Ideal Reader? Your mind might be racing now, everything from Dancing With the Stars to “cheese in a can.” Let’s go into that closet in the back of your mind, rummage around and find out what story ideas are lurking in there.

When you flip through TV listings, what catches your eye? CSI, Castle, or Law and Order reruns? Maybe you’d like to write a crime story. How about River Monsters or Man vs. Wild? An adventure story might be what you crave. It doesn’t matter if you know anything about these topics. Just write. Enjoy yourself. If something comes of it, fill in your technical blanks later.

Maybe your neighbor insisted on shoving 50 Shades or Twilight into your hands. Give her your own fanfic, erotica, or gothic manuscript or send her the document for her e-reader. You know what she’s enthusiastic about reading so give her something worth her enthusiasm. Call it a “thank you” gift for her inspiration (and thank her in your acknowledgements, even if you never intend another living soul to see the page).

Are there things that interest you that you’d never want to admit to anyone? Those are great sources for your fiction. Because you’re fictionalizing, you have no need to explain to anyone what your inspiration was. Blame your characters. No one need know you’ve visited the Mutter Museum 257 times, that for your eighth birthday all you wanted was to visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or that you paid an extra five dollars at the county fair to see the four-headed vampire monkey. No matter what The Weird Thing is, someone likes it: you. Write about it. Then sit back and enjoy the story or poem. Someone wrote it just for you.

Writing for an audience of one or two not only frees you from the need to please but also silences your Inner Editor/Critic. It can increase your honesty and allow you to examine uncomfortable subjects more closely.

If you’re a genre writer, think outside your genre. For example, if you’re a horror writer, you might be reluctant to let people know you’re working on a fantasy series (see Stephen King’s Gunslinger series). You might worry that the reaction will be “Where’s the horror?” You might feel pressured to shoehorn the genre in there. If yours are the only eyes that see your fantasy stories, whose expectations are you meeting? Every reader will be pleased.

Does it matter if anyone else ever sees these stories? Does it matter if no one sees you walk on your treadmill while listening to Viking funeral chants? No. If you exercise, you see results. Same with writing. If you write these single-reader pleasers, it’s good exercise. It gets you in the groove. It gets you motivated. It gets you not only to write what you dig but to recognize what you dig. If you decide to submit for publication and your work is rejected, think of that John Waters quote. If everyone liked it, how boring a world we’d live in! If you have enough pieces that please only you or your Ideal Reader, collect them. If they share this common theme, that’s unifying enough for a self-released collection; maybe you’ll find that Ideal Audience by just being yourself and writing what you dig.

Final Poll Results

A Writer’s Garden of Exercises

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. If you haven’t already, join Pinterest. Make any board(s) you like and use them for inspiration. Write about what others are pinning but write especially about those things you feel compelled to repin. Note any patterns in your pins or “likes.” Write about them.
  2. If you haven’t already, join Tumblr (or make a new Tumblr just for writing inspiration). Follow the same instructions as for #1, noting what you “like” or reblog. Check your archive page for visual patterns as well as contextual patterns. Write about something from your Tumblr posts.
  3. Write about a true secret. Fictionalize it if you like. Change or add details.
    1. Use Post Secret as inspiration
    2. Send your secret to Post Secret
  4. Write about something you find fascinating that might make someone else uncomfortable.
  5. Use a phobia as inspiration.
  6. Write fan fiction using a book, TV show, character, celebrity, film, comic, etc. as inspiration.
  7. Write about something you find pleasurable, erotic, or desirable, no matter how unusual you think it is.
  8. Set your story in a new-to-you location, no matter how unfamiliar it may be. This is also good if you’re stuck. Change your setting and rewrite, allowing the setting to change your story and characters.
  9. Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind to entertain herself while convalescing. Spend some time in bed writing on a laptop, netbook, or notebook.
  10. Set up a fictional blog, using your blogger as your first person main character. Start with your character’s “about me” or with an entry about what happened to your character today. Your blog settings could be public (searchable), semi-public (able to be viewed but not accessible by search engines), or private. You can protect your private blog with a password that you give to an Ideal Reader.

Gifts For Writers

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

My kindergartner has taken to writing his own books. He uses markers, pencils, crayons and inordinate amounts of typing paper to illustrate them. Most are about trains but he’s currently writing about Christmas and Batman, including the character of “Mystery Man.” No matter how many times I tell him that’s The Riddler, it’s his story and he’s doing it his way. I’m supposed to help him spell the words he wants, then get out of his way until it’s time to staple the pages together.

Santa will be bringing him some blank books and crayons so he’ll write more books.

Writers are pretty easy to please, unless they’re newly six years old. All we need is something to write on, something to write with, time, and creativity. If you have a writer in your life, your gift shopping has just gotten easier. Not only are these great gifts for the holiday season but they work year-round for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, “I finished/sold the story” celebrations: any occasion or none at all. What follows are gift suggestions to create writers and to encourage those who already write, even those who aren’t yet old enough to write without help but want to tell stories.


  • Rory’s Story Cubes: Rory’s Story Cubes is a pocket-sized creative story generator, providing hours of imaginative play for all ages. With Rory’s Story Cubes, anyone can become a great storyteller and there are no wrong answers. Simply roll the cubes and let the pictures spark your imagination. All ages; no reading necessary.
  • The Storymatic: The Storymatic is a writing prompt, a teaching tool, a parlor game, and a toy. Combine a few of the 500+ cards, and watch a story take shape before your eyes. No wires. No screens. No batteries… Just a box of pure imagination. Ages 12+
  • Family Dinner Box of Questions: Gather your family around the table and strengthen family bonds with questions that get, and keep, the conversation going. Eighty-two thought-provoking questions encourage family members to share thoughts, experiences and memories…icing on the cake! Ages 6+
  • You’ve Been Sentenced: Use a hand of 10 pentagon-shaped cards with multiple conjugations of funny words, famous names and familiar places to score the most points per round. Construct the longest, grammatically correct, and sensible sentence. Each card used in a sentence is worth 5 points but using some of the more difficult conjugations on the card can earn you bonus points. Any player can object to another player’s sentence, on either grammatical grounds, or the fact that the sentence just doesn’t make sense and all players vote as a “jury” on whether the sentence stands and the author gets to defend the sentence, no matter how ridiculous. Ages 8+
  • The Origin of Expressions: Guess the origin of common expressions or bluff your friends! 12+

Subscriptions (print or electronic):

  • Poets & Writers
  • Writer’s Digest
  • Literary journals: Especially good if your writer works in genre fiction like horror. These can be print or electronic, often both. Many are available via Amazon or at your independent bookstore. A small gift card with a note can buy a writer the journals she’s been longing to read. Grab up some of the literary journals and zines for sale and bundle them for a gift.


  • Lecture series: Usually one night or a series of single evenings. If you can’t purchase a ticket for your writer, offer child or pet care services so she can attend.
  • Book signings: Same as the lecture series, offer the writer the gift of “a night free” when an author is in town or tag along to show your support. If your writer isn’t familiar with the author, preface the signing by giving the gift of the author’s work.
  • Writer’s retreats and conferences: These are available worldwide for varying periods of time and at varying cost.
  • Beta reading: This is the gift every reader wants but might be too shy to ask for. Offer your eyes and opinion. You don’t have to know anything about writing, the topic at hand, or how to correct grammar. All you have to do is read. Encourage your writer to produce and let him know that when he’s ready for a reader, your inbox and hands are open. Stay positive, even when you would like to offer criticism and remember that your criticism is of the work, not your writer. For more information on how to give your feedback, we have articles and tips for you.


(in addition to fiction, memoir, or whatever the writer in your life likes to read or write; many are available in electronic as well as print editions)

Books for young writers:

(some are also suitable for adult beginning writers as well)


  • The Writers Block or The Creative Block: 786 and 500 prompts, respectively, to get your creativity flowing. Comes in a convenient desktop cube.
  • Blank books, Moleskine books, locking diaries or electronically password-protected diaries. Encourage writers to put it all down. Carry a little notebook with you to jot down your ideas. These are great books to encourage young writers. Even children who can’t yet write sentences can draw illustrative stories on blank pages.
  • Digital voice recorder. For the writer who gets inspired while driving or in flashes during a busy workday. Also great to capture real world dialogue or Aunt Sylvia’s story about the time Uncle Roy fell through the attic ceiling or Grandma Georgina’s recipe for homemade turkey stuffing.
  • Word 2010. Many writer-friendly changes exist in the latest incarnation of word, including the ability to create .docx documents. OneNote is another excellent tool, especially for novelists.
  • Netbook or Tablet. For the writer who doesn’t want to sacrifice electronic devices for portability.
  • Pens or pencils. Look at party supply places for pencils you can personalize. You can also get personalized pens in bulk at places like Pens R Us. Or spend your money on a fountain pen. All writers want one, even if they already have one.
  • Staples or Office Depot gift cards. For paper, ink, organizational supplies, you name it. Staples and its ilk are beloved by writers. If your writer wants a desk (for a writing space or for the lap), these are also available at office supply stores as well as second-hand stores or fancy furniture stores.
  • Nook, Kindle, Kindle Fire or other e-readers. Allows your writer to keep an entire library of reference and inspiration in a single place. More advanced tablet-style readers get your writer online as well.
  • Gift cards for bookstores, art supply stores, etc. Almost all bookstores—big or small—offer gift cards or certificates. You can never go wrong with a gift card that will put a book in someone’s hand, writer or not.

Final Poll Results

Creating a Monster: Interview with Shock Totem Editor/Creator K. Allen Wood

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Shock Totem is an American print literary journal specializing in horror and dark fantasy (horror-infused fantasy). Issue 1 was released in mid-2009, Issue 2 in mid-2010, and Issue 3 in January 2011. Editor K. Allen Wood (@kallenwood) is a friend to many of us here at Toasted Cheese and he was kind enough to take some time to discuss writing, editing, music, and giant Nazi chickens.

Toasted Cheese: Most important things first: what’s the latest addition to your music collection? What are you listening to these days?

K. Allen Wood: I like your style, Stephanie. Let’s see. I’m not sure I know what my latest addition is. I do have a small pile of recent additions on my desk, though; it includes albums by Foo Fighters, Cavalera Conspiracy, Therapy?, Jet Red, Cynthesis, Anathema, Ari Hest, Bad Religion, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, KMFDM and, get this, a 1992 demo by Wicked Maraya… on cassette!

As for what I’m listening to these days, it’s always an eclectic mix. I typically set iTunes to shuffle and press play. Currently iTunes shows that I have 85,758 songs on my external hard drive, so it’s always an interesting mix. For instance, the last ten bands played, according to Last.fm, were Queensrÿche, Shootyz Groove, Twilight Ophera, Ultimatum, Stuck Mojo, Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Live, Sprung Monkey, and Project 86.

It never gets old.

TC: What made you decide to create Shock Totem as a print rather than electronic journal? Do you ever feel pressured to create an electronic version?

KAW: Well, in the beginning we were going to be an electronic journal. I knew the traditional print cost for magazines was far beyond my budget. I’d seen too many publications close for that very reason, so I knew I couldn’t manage it financially. I didn’t even want to try. So creating an online journal was more practical, if less appealing.

But then Apex Digest shut down as a print magazine. I was bummed. They were my favorite magazine (I need issue 3, if anyone has an extra). I wanted Shock Totem to at least have the potential to sit on someone’s bookshelf like Apex sat on mine.

So I decided to look into print-on-demand publishing, which would all but eliminate the upfront cost of traditional printing. I tried a few different companies before choosing the one I felt was best and just went for it. I knew the stigma behind POD publishing would be a hurdle, but I also knew that it wasn’t the technology that was the problem, it was the horrible writers using it and the foolish critics that couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Done right, done well—which I think we’ve achieved with Shock Totem—it’s arguable that POD publishing is better than traditional publishing, at least for small-press outfits.

And no, I never feel pressured to turn Shock Totem into an electronic journal. It would save me some money, but I think we’d lose a lot of readers.

TC: Would you mind retelling how the title “Shock Totem” came to be, including the discovery that there already existed a book named Shock Totem (by Thom Metzger)?

KAW: It’s all John Boden’s fault. We’d been tossing around a long list of potential names for a while. Most were terrible, some laughable, and others kind of cool. But nothing really stood out. We had a short list of favorites—Nightfall Overture, Scrawl, Shades & Shadows, Blood Tells—but nothing really seemed fitting. It was basically a Best of the Worst list.

One day, John mentioned Shock Totem. Nick and I immediately liked it. It just sounded cool, you know. When asked where the name came from, John said something like, “I don’t know. The words just popped into my head earlier today.” So we added it to the list of potentials and kept thinking of more possible names. But we kept coming back to Shock Totem. At this point we’d already decided to be print magazine, so given that and taking into account the definition of shock and totem, it was the perfect name. And so it was decided.

Sometime later, Nick broke the bad news. He’d Googled the name and found out that it was also the name of an old book by Thom Metzger. That’s when John remembered he’d actually read the book back in college. Doh!

Of course, at that point, we were set on using it. We didn’t want to think of something else, so we decided to go ahead and keep it. We found that Thom Metzger taught at a college in New York, so to be gracious and professional, John contacted him and asked him if he’d be okay with us using the name. We didn’t have to ask, you know, as titles can’t be copyrighted, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Thom gave us his blessing, and thus, we exist.

TC: Your cover art is amazing and diverse from issue to issue. Is it solicited or submitted?

KAW: So far the artwork for each issue has been solicited. From the beginning I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in terms of artwork. I don’t know that Nick and John were on board with that vision at first, but I think they dig it now. I just really like the digital medium, things that are fantastical but look realistic. Artists like Travis Smith have been a big inspiration to me and I wanted to see that kind of work as the face of our issues.

When we branch out into non-magazine releases, which will be later this year or next year, then we’ll go for a different kind of style.

That said, we are open to artwork submissions.

TC: How does the editorial process work for Shock Totem? In other words, once an author sends you a submission, what happens to it?

KAW: First, a team of five pigmy lady-boys transcribe each submission into handwritten script. Each story is then placed on a gold satin pillow, packaged inside a miniature Kiss Kasket, and flown out to each team member via a murder of crows. Most never arrive, for whatever reason, but those that do make the magazine. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.

Some people probably think that way of doing business is unfair and unprofessional, so here’s the hooey-fooey but more acceptable answer: These days we have a submissions management system through which authors upload their stories. It’s a great system and much easier for us to interact with the authors. For me in particular. (You’d be amazed—and probably baffled—if I told you how submissions were handled for the first two issues.) While I may be the Head Cheese, we’re a team of five and we all have an equal voice. So majority rules. Three votes either way seals the deal.

TC: Are you able to meet face to face with your editors or do you handle much of Shock Totem’s business via Skype, email, chat, etc.?

KAW: We do most of our work through email and on super-secret forums. This past summer, though, Kurt Newton and I drove down to Pennsylvania and met up with John and Nick. I’d met Kurt at Rock and Shock the year before, but other than that it was the first time any of us had met. We stayed at John’s mother’s house, way up some mountain in Orbisonia. It was a ridiculously ridiculous week. (Ask Nick about the tragic and hilarious eruption of Mt. Pissuvius.)

This coming July, John, Nick and I will be at Necon, and I imagine it’ll be a good time. Next year, we hope to meet up with Mercedes at KillerCon in Vegas.

But I think it’s best that we handle Shock Totem business online and in emails. We joke around so much it’s a wonder we get anything done as it is; we’d never get anything done if we put this thing together in person.

TC: I’m positive that every submission is given a fair shake but what would make you stop reading a submission (a subject, a phrase, a technique, anything)? Is there anything you’ve seen enough of in the inbox?

KAW: Since I’m the one that does the main editing, I’m more inclined to quickly reject stories that have a lot of grammar issues, problems with flow or spelling or formatting. The other guys tend to look past those things. They read for story, but I don’t have that luxury; I have to think about what happens after.

We accepted a story for our first issue that had a lot of issues. There was a great story there, but it needed work, it wasn’t fully realized. Being new to editing and a little too inexperienced, I naïvely thought, with the author’s cooperation, that we could make the story shine. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. The author fought me every inch of the way. In the end, after about six months, the story was getting worse not better, so I reluctantly passed on it. The author wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

So that’s why I quickly vote NO on stories that would require too much editorial involvement. There may be a good story in some of those, but I now realize it’s not my job to fix it that much. Typically, though, we all read the majority of submissions through to the end.

As for things we’ve seen enough of, there are a few things that elicit a collective sigh. The eat– or kill–the–baby endings are really lame. You can see those coming a mile off. I could do without the whole Nazi angle. We’ve gotten stories with Nazi zombies, Nazi werewolves, Nazi were-raccoons, giant Nazi chickens, and many more. Sadly. But we’re still open-minded enough to know there are exceptions to everything, so we have few restrictions on what we’ll read.

TC: You don’t do “themes” yet the stories always fit well together. Your reviews are eclectic—books, films, music, games—yet cohesive with the creative content. Is that due to consistency in the editors’ tastes or do you consciously choose pieces that jive thematically?

KAW: Well, I think our diverse tastes help with that, believe it or not. John likes surreal, bizzaro kind of stuff; Mercedes is into dark and whimsical tales. I like stuff that is more fantastical. We each have our favorite styles, we all dig a broad range of styles beyond that, but at our collective core, we like the same thing: dark fiction. And everything is tethered to that core.

I also think most if it comes down to us having the integrity to stay true to the standards we set before our first issue came out. And that really comes down to one thing: Publish stories that we enjoy. If you publish fiction for any other reason, you simply don’t care enough. We don’t publish our friends because they’re our friends. We don’t publish stories because the author is popular. We print what we enjoy.

TC: Shock Totem has earned a reputation for being a “tough” journal in which to be published. Do you enjoy that reputation and do you think it has an impact on the submissions you receive?

KAW: At first it was like a badge of honor. When you see other publications accepting eighty percent or more of their submissions, it feels good to not be like that. But it’s a childish way to look at things. Having a low acceptance rate doesn’t mean you’re a good publication, you know.

And I do think being a tough market makes it harder for us. I can’t tell you how many authors have complained to me about how many times we’ve rejected them. Some people do it to bust my balls, but others are clearly angry about it. A few have even told me they’re never going to submit to us again because we’ve rejected them too many times, as if the act of sending us five different kind of stories should guarantee an acceptance. It’s baffling and sad, especially when you know they’re good writers.

So yeah, I think having a low acceptance rate makes it harder on a certain level. Of course, if it were easy I guess there’d be a lot more magazines out there.

TC: Is the content of Shock Totem similar to what you write or is it simply what you like to read?

KAW: A little of both, I think. Probably for all of us.

TC: Shock Totem 3 is almost the size of Shock Totem 1 & Shock Totem 2 together. When did you notice an increase in submissions, considering the timeline of when you launched until today, and did the quality of the submissions follow suit?

KAW: We got an obscene amount of submissions at first. Like forty a day for the first few months. And most of them were atrocious. The moment we upped our pay rate to 5 cents a word, the quality increased tenfold. Eventually the amount of submissions dipped a bit, for whatever reason. Maybe because we’re considered a tough market, I don’t know. Now we average about ten to twenty submissions a day.

Our third issue is bigger because we got a large number of quality submissions during that reading period. If only it were always that plentiful! We probably should have saved a couple stories for Issue 4, though, because Issue 3 was damn expensive. Haha.

TC: Do Shock Totem‘s sales support your paying writers or does that come out of your own pocket? Has this changed over the course of the journal’s existence?

KAW: Profits from sales help, but the bulk of the cost comes from my pocket. Nick and John help when they can, and I’m grateful for it, but they have families, you know, so that comes first. But to give you a little more insight, we have recouped from sales half of what it cost to do Issue 1. But Issue 1 sold a hell of a lot of copies—over a thousand—in its first year of release. Unfortunately, Issue 2 and 3 have sold less. But I think—or hope—that says less about the product and more about why so many people bought our first issue.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talked a bit about short-fiction outlets. In part, he said, “…a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.” I think that’s why Issue 1 sold so well: A lot of writers were checking out the new pro-paying market, not necessarily the new fiction magazine.

That’s okay of course. We may be selling less now, but we’re still selling well. And hopefully our upcoming digital editions will increase our sales, thus reader base. We also have a few more things planned for this year that should help as well. My wallet could use the break. Haha.

TC: Has Shock Totem introduced you to new subgenres or writing styles? Are there subgenres you’d like to see more of as submissions?

KAW: I’ve always been a reader with broad tastes, so I don’t know that I’ve been introduced to new subgenres, but doing this magazine has definitely given me new insight into writing styles, or what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve learned much more than I would have otherwise, I think. Or at least much quicker.

And personally, I’d like to see more steampunk come our way. Of a darker sort, you know.

TC: Very often I say to someone, “You have to read this story” and hand them the journal (Brian Rappatta’s “The Dead March” in Shock Totem 1 springs to mind). Do you notice yourself especially eager to get an issue to print because you have to share your discoveries with your readers?

KAW: Of course. Traci L. Morganfield’s “The Music Box,” Leslianne Wilder’s “Sweepers,” John Skipp’s “Worm Central Tonite!” and Aaron Polson’s “Wanting It” come to mind. “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” by Lee Thompson, is one from our upcoming issue that I can’t wait to see what people think of it. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and the ending is so bittersweet.

But depending on the person, I may suggest any story. I really like them all.

TC: Shock Totem had a flash fiction contest in 2010 (the winning story “Ruth Across the Sea” by Steven Pirie was published in Shock Totem 3). Will you run the contest again this year? Do you plan to add more contests?

KAW: Yes. It’s ongoing. Our third bi-monthly contest started May 1. There will be two more after that. (The contests take place on our forum, for those interested.) The final judging will be done after our September contest is complete, and the overall winner will then appear in Issue 5.

And we plan to have other contests, just one-off deals, you know, where people can win books or CDs, things like that. Our new website—which is updated constantly and far more interactive than our previous site—is where we’ll hold those kinds of contests.

TC: In what ways has Shock Totem evolved away from your original expectation for the journal (for better or worse)?

KAW: We’re almost the complete opposite of what we first set out to be. We opened our doors as an e-zine paying 1 cent a word, and now we’re a print magazine that pays 5 cents a word. And despite the additional cost to us, we’re definitely better for it.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of Issue 1, our overall vision remains the same: Shock Totem is a magazine full of stories that we, as readers, enjoy the hell out of.

We’re also pissing fewer people off. Or I am, anyway. Haha.

Final Poll Results

Write or Edit

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Shock Totem is devoted to horror and dark fantasy, which adds horror elements to fantasy.
    • Write a story or poem that mixes horror elements with another genre.
    • Take an abandoned or unfinished piece and rewrite/continue by adding horror elements.
  2. Shock Totem runs a one-hour story contest. Set your timer for one hour and try to write a complete story within that hour.
  3. Write a story or poem based on the latest addition to your music library.
  4. Start your own journal! It can be anything from a bi-annual print journal to a blog-style daily. Create your submission guidelines and submit your journal’s listing to Duotrope’s Digest. Post about your journal on our forums.