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A Haunting At My Desk: What Writing and Ghost Stories Have in Common

by Jesse Bowser
I don't do well with scary stories.

Don't get me wrong, I love them. I really get into horror movies, I absorb any sort of "true" ghost stories I can hear, and when one of my friends has a spooky tale to share, you can almost guarantee I'll listen. But the truth is, I get scared. Maybe not during the movie or while the story is being told. But later, when I'm alone, it starts to get to me. I'm an obsessor, and as much as I tell myself, "Yo, Kody, stop thinking about that scary crap. You're just going to freak yourself out, you crazy," it's so much easier said than done. Because by telling myself NOT to think about it, I end up thinking MORE about it. And that's when I psych myself out.

No, seriously, after I watched Paranormal Activity, I wouldn't let myself sleep until it was light outside. For two days. It wasn't pretty.

So as much as I love them, scary stories are just not good for me. Actually, as I write this, I'm wide awake after watching a horror film that, while watching it, didn't scare me in the slightest. But now, when the floorboard squeaks or someone upstairs makes a noise, I get a little freaked out.

In some ways, I think my reaction to scary stories is a lot like the fear I (and others, I know) get about writing. We get a few negative ideas in our head, and they can seriously screw with us. If a horror movie keeps us from sleeping, these terrifying thoughts can keep us from writing.

I'm talking about those deep dark fears we try not to let ourselves think during first drafts but often still do. The ones you KNOW won't help, but that once you've thought them, its hard to go back.

What if this book is so bad agents will laugh at me when I query it?

What if my agent reads this draft and thinks I'm an idiot?

What if the book comes out and I only get one star ratings and can never sell another book again?

Just like a bump in the night make us freeze, eyes wide open in our beds, thoughts like these can paralyze the creative process. They start as small things you know are ridiculous, things you can try to combat with mantras like "This is only a first draft! It's all right if it sucks!" or "I won't please everyone, and that's okay! Someone will love it!" But the truth is, once you've dwelled on the ideas for so long, they start to eat away at you. And writing a book you're just sure will fail seems like a waste. Why write at all?

I've psyched myself out this way before. It's like when I was little, I was CONVINCED the Boogie Man lived under my bed (thanks in large part to my not-so-nice older brothers). There was no evidence, no proof, but I just knew it, so I wouldn't sleep. Last year, I had a project I was just so sure was terrible that the thought of touching it filled me with dread and anxiety. I didn't work on it for weeks, sure I was failing miserably and not wanting to embarrass myself with what I thought was a disaster of a novel.

So what can you do to get rid of this terror?

I'm old enough now to know that the Boogie Man isn't under my bed, but I still get scared. So when I realize a movie or a story has truly messed with my head, there's only one thing I can do. I turn up some loud pop music, I dance around the living room, I think happy thoughts, and then I watch something hilarious and cheerful - like an episode of "Friends" or a funny movie. And eventually, I fall asleep.

Strangely, similar works for the writing fear as well. Whenever I start to psych myself out (which happens at least once or twice a book) and find myself stalling, I step back, take a deep breath, put on some Lady Gaga, and after a nice little bit of dancing, I turn on a movie that I love and admire and find inspiring. And I forbid myself from thinking of the negatives. Then I make myself write again.

Just like its normal to let scary stories get to us, it's normal for writers to let the fear of failure keep us from writing our novels. But we can't let fear control us. You can't survive without sleep and you can't find success as a writer if you never actually write.

So don't psych yourself out, and if you do, be willing to throw a dance party to work through it. I swear, it works better than you'd think.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch some "Roseanne" and laugh until I can sleep again.
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. I LOVE this post, Kody. I'm a horror fan myself, so I have no problem reading or watching it (though I do love the connection you've made here!). But I am definitely one of those people that angsts and worries over what my agent will think of my writing, what editors will think when it goes on submission -- heck, even what my betas will think!

    It's a double edged sword. On the one hand, that mentality forces me to keep looking at my manuscript to make sure it's the best quality it can be. On the other, stress never feels good. Comedy movies are the best at alleviating that feeling. :D

  2. I actually don't watch horror movies for the same reason--it bothers me for hours (even days) afterwards. So I avoid them completely.

    As for writing, you're totally right. If you let the fear get to you, it's paralyzing, and sometimes even though you tell yourself not to think about it, it still creeps in and whispers to you while you're trying to write. And if you let it, it'll keep you from writing for a long time.

    Haven't tried throwing myself a dance party, but that sounds like fun. Great post!

  3. I've always said that there is nothing like 90's pop music to combat the creepy. Or the sad.

  4. This post came along at just the right time for me. Thanks.

  5. Easier said than done. But nice post. Just be happy I'm on this site at all. Can you guess who this is yet? Hehehe.

  6. OMG. When I was a college student, the movie Seven came out. I didn't sleep well for six weeks. SIX WEEKS. I haven't watched it since (around 15 years now).

    Yet my WIP is a ghost story. hmmm...


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Item Reviewed: A Haunting At My Desk: What Writing and Ghost Stories Have in Common Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger