How to Make Yourself Write

You’re home from work. The kids are asleep. The house is––not clean, but not a disaster area, either. Now you have time to write.

But…

You should reply to that email before you forget. And what about that book you bought yesterday? Besides, you need a shower…

Before you know it, it’s 10:30 and you wrote a grand total of four words (“Rachel sighed. She was”). You’re reading an article about elephant hawk moths while watching the latest Netflix show while pretending to read your new book (if it’s on your lap, it counts, right?). You haven’t been productive. You haven’t even replied to that email.

How do you break this cycle of procrastination? There are a lot of guides for this––I recommend Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K for anyone who wants an in-depth guide––but if work, family, and screens have fried your concentration, let me show you what’s worked for me.

Turn Off the Internet

So simple, yet so hard. The internet never runs out; it never goes down; it’s a tap of the keyboard (or the smartphone screen) away. Turn it off anyway.

You might think you need it. Your main character found an elephant hawk moth at the site of an art heist. What’s the genus and species for elephant hawk moths? Another character mentioned the “elephant’s foot” in Chernobyl––what year was Chernobyl? And you need Google Maps to know what that intersection looks like. What kind of tree is that?….
Twenty minutes, forty minutes, two hours disappear down a funnel. Now you’re reading some pointless argument on Twitter, and the baby’s crying. Congratulations. You played yourself.

The real enemy of genius is the router in the hallway. Turn it off. At least turn off the internet on your computer before you start. Otherwise you can lose hours, even days to endless distractions.

Don’t Break the Chain
(a.k.a. the Seinfeld Calendar Method)

A September calendar with yellow highlighter.
Photo by Estee Janssens on Unsplash.

Here’s how it works:

  • Print out a blank month-long calendar. No doctor’s appointments, birthdays, holidays, et cetera.
  • Write a goal to hit each day. It could be anything from 100 to 10,000 words. Make it a little beyond your comfort zone, 20% higher at the most.
  • Every day you hit your goal, draw an “X” through that day on the calendar. When you don’t, don’t.
  • Hang the calendar somewhere visible, e.g. your office door.

That’s it. it’s a simple, effective way to get yourself to write more. When you’re on a streak, you’ll feel more motivation to push past any resistance and reach your goal.

If you’re having trouble concentrating, try a “stupidly easy” goal, like 100 words a day, then build up from there. I’ve done that a few times.

Outline

Outlining has been a mixed bag for me. I find it best to write a “beat outline” for all the major beats to hit, e.g. inciting incident, key incident, midpoint, etc. The story always diverges from that outline, but having the outline keeps me from wandering too far into the weeds.

I’ve used a Rowling-style subplot spreadsheet during the editing process. They’re too detailed for a first draft, when I’m still figuring out the plot and sorting through different subplots . I’m planning out a more formulaic book so I might use a subplot spreadsheet for this one. We’ll see how that goes.
Think of an outline as a trellis for the story. The story will create its own path over the trellis, but the outline keeps it from tangling around itself, and gives it an underlying structure that might not otherwise be there.

Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, both by K.M. Weiland, are great guides for this. Her first act, second act, and third act timelines are also good at-a-glance reference guides.

Describe Your Scene Before Writing It

This comes straight out of 2K to 10K. It’s been a lifesaver on numerous occasions. Rachel Aaron suggests writing a 300-400 word description of what happens in the scene you’re about to write. For me, a few sentences  suffice for most scenes.

It doesn’t matter if how prosaic your descriptions are. Nobody will see them except for you. Here’s a tweaked example from my own notes:

Rachel wakes up, wants to sink back to bed, then sees an unpaid bill on her nightstand. Gets up with many groans, notices photograph of her mother. Remembers her own mother working back-to-back shifts, coming home exhausted. Throws back the covers.

Not a thrilling synopsis, but it gives direction to the scene. You might prefer to write something more in-depth, or do a bullet-point list, or catalogue the main beats you want to hit (unpaid bill––mother’s photo––memory: mom smoking on edge of bed––covers). Experiment, see what works best for you.

Characters can and will surprise you. Rachel might end the scene by calling a number scrawled on a napkin, or fetching a diamond ring out of her pocket, or stealing the neighbor’s motorcycle. It doesn’t matter. No one will read these descriptions, so no one will care if the scene doesn’t follow them. Let the story go where it will. Think of T.H. Huxley’s words:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

Your book’s “job” isn’t to follow your outline with complete fidelity. It won’t be what you imagined it would be, but it might be better.

Nonfiction writers can also use descriptions to make their work simpler. Before you start an essay, a chapter, or a section of your project, try to list all the points you want to make, or the key topics and events. This can make it much easier to write without hitting a wall.

Record Yourself

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The above post shows some notes I wrote for my review of Swim Through the Darkness by Mike Stax. Instead of translating these notes into prose, I recorded myself giving a lecture (to no one) based on them, transcribed the recording, then edited the transcription. This review was the result.

I’ve found great success in recording myself for fiction and non-fiction. I can quickly note what I want to say, even if I don’t know how I’ll say it yet. When I say something out loud, I know at once if it sounds stupid or not, and can add something that sounds less stupid while I’m recording.

I can also use bullet points, speech/thought bubbles, stick figures, and arrows to connect different ideas and characters. This helps me record a rough draft in a short time.

When to Record Yourself

A woman in a green velvet shirt and a cream-colored blazer holds a smartphone while sitting in front of a laptop. Photo by Rawpixel on Unsplash.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Find a time and place where nobody will interrupt you. You need a recorder or an app on your phone. If you want to knock out an entire chapter, or more, you either need to jot down your notes in advance, or write and record your notes during the same session.

And that leads to another possible hang-up: if you write notes ahead of time, when will you record them? If you don’t make time, it won’t happen. You might not understand your notes if you don’t record them within an hour or two of writing them down. You might not understand your own handwriting.

The third big hang-up is transcribing your recordings. You can transcribe them yourself, which takes time. You can pay someone to transcribe them for you, by finding them on Upwork, Fiverr, Stenosearch, or another transcription website.

Some transcriptionists will give you a slight bulk discount, but expect to pay about $1/minute for English-language dictation services.

I’ve used Rev, which allows you to record yourself speaking, and pay for a transcript within the app, for $1/minute. Be careful though, Rev automatically rounds up, so if you’re created an audio file that’s three minutes and one second long, it’ll cost you $4.

To save money, you could record yourself reading the same notes twice; the second time around, you may speak more quickly, since you know the material better.

You can also use dictation software. That takes a little patience to master. Dictation software’s done me dirty in the past, but many people swear by it. It’s up to you.

Write in the Mornings

I’ve been a night owl since I was a kid, so I honor this advice more in the breach than the observance. However, I find I’m more productive when I write in the mornings. It doesn’t happen often though.

No Caffeine

Even a small amount of caffeine makes me jittery and unfocused. Cutting out tea and chocolate works well for me. Your mileage may vary with this one.

The one drug that improves my concentration is a lot more addictive and stigmatized…

Nicotine Gum

I’ve never smoked or vaped. However, I used to used to chew nicotine gum when I had to study for or take an exam. It was startlingly effective. I could focus, without distractions, for at least an hour, often longer. The gum energized me without making me jittery. No wonder people get addicted to this!, I thought.

I stopped using nicotine gum when I noticed my usage creeping up to two or three times a week. Nicotine is addictive, and addictions can sneak up on you. I now chew nicotine gum a few times a year when I’m stuck like a fly in syrup.

Don’t use nicotine gum if you’re under eighteen, pregnant, trying to get pregnant, breastfeeding, easily addicted, somewhat-easily addicted, or if it makes you uncomfortable for any reason. I’m not a doctor, so talk to your doctor if you’re worried this might interfere with your health.

Hire (or Acquire) a Babysitter

A baby sleeping on a white bed.
Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash.

This is for parents, especially moms. You’re still “on duty” when your kid is asleep, while your partner’s wrangling the kids, or while you’re in the house with them. Negotiate regular time off where your partner, a family member, or a babysitter you trust watches your children. Tell them not to disturb you during your writing time unless it’s an emergency.

Consider hiring someone for this one. Grandma’s doing you a favor when she watches the kids. Unless she’s putting them in danger, what’s your leverage? You can tell her not to give them junk food or plop them in front of an Xbox, but these are suggestions, not commands. Your options are: find alternate (and more expensive) childcare, or go without.

Even if Grandma is the nicest woman in the world, even if she loves the kids to pieces, this knowledge will inform her behavior on some level. “Megan doesn’t want the kids to play video games, but she had to have this time to write her book. If she does what she wants, why can’t the kids do what they want?”

A babysitter faces more livelihood-altering consequences: a bad review, a complaint with her agency, getting fired, losing income. If you’re paying her to babysit, then you can pay someone else instead. A babysitter is less likely to care what you’re doing while they’re watching the kids, unless it interferes with their work.

Take all this with a grain of salt. There are plenty of wonderful families and horrid babysitters in the world. Go with what works.

Leave the House

A well-lit coffee shop, with white walls, wooden floors, and candles on the tables.
Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash.

In your house, you’re confronted with things you need to do: bills to pay, dishes to put away, lawns to mow, surfaces to clean. A fresh environment allows you to step away from that daily grind. That might mean a library, a coffee shop, a study hall, a hotel lobby, anywhere you can work on something for a few hours without being disturbed.

Nervous? I get it. Who wants to be the pretentious snob writing in their Moleskine at a coffee shop? Trust me, nobody cares. People worry most about their own lives and concerns. Unless you’re making a scene, they don’t notice you. Maybe leave the black beret at home though.

What helps you write? How have you overcome your own procrastination habits? Let me know in the comments.

Feature photo by Lonely Planet on Unsplash.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas. I’m sorry if your true love didn’t get you twelve drummers drumming. I didn’t get any either. I did get some very nice chocolates though, which is much better than having twelve people drumming inside my house.

Tomorrow is Epiphany, the Feast Day that celebrates “the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.” It’s associated with Christ’s birth and the appearance of the three wise men.

Epiphany is the traditional start of Carnival season in Louisiana, so I plan to bake some King Cakes to celebrate.

Feature photo by Rhaúl V. Alva on Unsplash.

2019

Happy New Year! Here are some updates on the website, and on my upcoming book, I Am Not Thirteen.

  • I Am Not Thirteen is a paranormal thriller set in the recent past. I’ve posted a preview of the book cover on my Instagram. I’m excited to share more about the book as the publication date gets closer.
  • I’m currently working on the sequel to I Am Not Thirteen. Sequels are challenging in their own way.
  • There’s a long post coming up in the next few days. I don’t plan to update this blog very often, so hopefully the little that I do post is helpful to you.
  • I’ve finally migrated aomonk.com to another webhost.
  • I’m planning a subscriber-only book giveaway in the near future. If you’re interested, sign up for the newsletter here.

Feature photo by Nordwood Themes on Unsplash.

Half-Baked Idea

The untold story of the early 21st Century is how synthetic communities (e.g. forums, Facebook groups, Tumblr, blogospheres, subreddits, etc.) can exacerbate or even create mental problems by rapidly spreading dysfunctional ideas, worldviews, and behaviors. Cases in point:

  • “Pro-ana” websites that glorify anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Members of these forums often trade tips on how to starve themselves or throw up, how to survive on 300 calories a day or less, how to deal with side effects such as hair loss, etc. Can offer support and entrench someone in their disorder at the same time by reinforcing bad thinking patterns.
  • Incel websites where “involuntarily celibate” men trade bitter stories and anecdotes about their failures and issues with women. Focus tends not to be on self-improvement but on blaming others, such as desirable men, desirable women, women in general, society, etc.
  • Shoplifting blogs that share tips, tricks, “haul” pictures, etc. can stimulate and trigger cravings to shoplift. Most users are probably not kleptomaniacs but it can still lead someone to engage in risky behavior that they otherwise wouldn’t. (Similar phenomenon with certain websites about self-harm, drug use, dysphoria, and other disorders.)
  • MLMs often rely on synthetic and para-social connections to sustain themselves and keep their members invested and investing. Can lead to compulsive spending on “inventory” that never shifts, ruining real relationships by badgering people to buy (“Hey hun!“), and keeps the dream alive even when the market is completely saturated.
  • Political extremism. Political posts across the spectrum are full of heightened emotions and aggression, with some people openly calling for the enemy to be gutted or burned alive. This isn’t new, though there’s more of it now. I’ve seen more posts casting politics as an existential struggle.
  • Fan clubs for mass murderers.

On some of these websites, the most negative/toxic/painful content floats to the top and gets the most attention and reinforcement. Can create a toxic loop where the reader/user/member looks for support, feels worse, looks for more support, feels even worse, looks for more…can’t psychologically return to “no support,” which keeps them locked in even though the support they get is not helping. Attempts to get them to break free come to nought, because it feels like they’re being torn away from their only real support, i.e. “the one group that gets it” or “the people who really understand me.”

Feature photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash.

New Words of the Week: Chatoyant, Cicerone, Kilim, Lagniappe, Serape

I learn or relearn new words almost every week. Then I post them here.

A cat with vivid green eyes staring at the camera. Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.
Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

chatoyant, adj. Having a narrow luminous streak perpendicular to the direction of the fibers, as in tiger’s eye gemstones or the sheen off a spool of silk. From the French “chatoyer,” i.e. “to shine/reflect like a cat’s eye.”

The chatoyant gem shone at us from the bottom of the pool.

Landscape with Roman ruins by Paul Brill.

cicerone, n. (pl. cicerones). A guide who takes visitors to museums, galleries, ruins, and other places of interest, and explains the historical, cultural, scientific, or aesthetic significance of these sites. An old-fashioned word for “tour guide,” essentially. Since many of these guides like(d) the sound of their own voice, the word gently pokes fun at their gabbiness by tying them to a great Roman orator.

The word “cicerone” has taken on a new meaning in the past half-decade. The Cicerone Certification is for “hospitality professionals with proven experience in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers.” The exam might be taken by bartenders, brewers, or restaurant managers who want their beer selection to be a cut above the competition.  If you come across any sneering references to “draft beer lists designed by a cicerone,” they’re referring to someone who’s taken this certification, not a tour guide who likes to talk.

Greg became the cicerone of the group, expounding on the geological and historical significance of every rock face and ruin, until a church bell chimed right as he said that the “bells had not rung for over a hundred years.”

Louisa’s interest in culture began and ended with the cicerone-curated beer list at the Cupcake Brewery in Williamsburg..

A two-panel Aksaray kilim.

kilim, n. (pl. kilims). A flat tapestry-woven carpet or rug, made with the traditional flatweaving techniques practiced across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and North Africa.

Golden-hued wooden walls, large kilims, thick-piled rugs spread across the floor, and a roaring fireplace, all worked on Tom like a sedative.

lagniappe, n. (pl. lagniappes). A small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase, e.g. a small eraser with a purchase over $25. Adapted, by Louisiana French speakers, from the South American Spanish la yapa/ñapa for a free extra.

Burt’s Ice Cream’s newest lagniappe––a keychain pendant with orders of three or more cones––has driven business through the roof.

El Sarape Rojo by Alberto Garduño.

serape, n. (pl. serapes, also sarape/sarapes). A blanket-like shawl, with colorful patterns and fringed ends, traditionally worn by men in Mexico.

It wouldn’t be a Western without gunfire, buried treasure, and a few men facing each other in dusters and serapes.

 

Feature photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween. Hope you have a fun, safe, and spooky day. Don’t eat too much candy–I already have.

SPOOKY GROOVES (THAT ARENT THE MONSTER MASH)
1. The Crystals–The Frankenstein Twist
2. The Cramps–Aloha from Hell
3. The Cure–The Same Deep Water as You
4. The Cocteau Twins–Lorelei
5. Christian Death–Romeo’s Distress

Horror vs. Thriller: A Study in Stephen King

A young girl struggles to control her psychic powers. Her surviving parent forbids her from using them. Eventually, she reaches a breaking point and unleashes her powers in a deadly confrontation. Are we talking about Carrie? Perhaps, though this also applies to Firestarter, another novel by Stephen King. While Carrie is widely considered a horror novel, Firestarter is better understood as a paranormal thriller––a similar, but not identical, genre. Why? How does Firestarter––with its psychic protagonist, its gruesome fiery deaths, its sense of encroaching and omnipresent menace––differ from Carrie?

Or are they so different? Michael Jackson’s greatest hit isn’t called “Horror,” after all. Thrills & Chills magazine featured few, if any, of the tropes we associate with the thriller genre. Words change meaning, and genres change over time. Although they’re similar, something separates horror stories and thrillers, even when paranormal elements are present in both. I’ll try to tease out what separates them.

This post contains spoilers for both Carrie and Firestarter.

What is horror?

A man alone at night under a yellow streetlight. Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.
Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.

Horror stories focus on scaring or unnerving the reader. They often showcase the pain and fear of their characters. Grotesque and uncanny imagery are mainstays of horror stories. Characters may also behave in strange and unsettling ways, or observe things that defy rational explanation.

Some horror stories slowly build, over hundreds of pages, to a dramatic conclusion. In others, nothing outright terrifying happens, but there’s a permeating feeling of unease that suffuses the story. In others, the action starts early and never lets up until the end.

Horror does not necessarily mean supernatural. Misery, Flowers in the AtticBlood Meridian, American Psycho––all horror, none supernatural. My favorite horror movie, The Wicker Man, is preoccupied by supernatural questions––the film’s heart is the clash between the starchy Anglican Sergeant Howie, and the sinister pagan Lord Summerisle––but it features no obvious supernatural events.

Horror stories are more likely to feature characters whose behavior and reasoning is far outside normal human experience. Carrie White has completely understandable reasons for snapping (if I had telekinesis in school…), but when she snaps, her thinking is literally paranormal––separate from normality. Here’s a glimpse into her psyche, just after killing her mother:

Carrie went out the back door, staggered across the lawn, and rested (where’s my momma) against a tree. There was something she was supposed to do. Something about (roadhouses parking lots) the Angel with the Sword. The Fiery Sword. Never mind. It would come to her. She crossed by back yards to Willow Street and then crawled up the embankment to Route 6. It was 1:15 A.M.

“Plug it up!”

The cover for Stephen King's Carrie, showing a young woman with blood dripping over her face.Carrie begins with a locker room hazing, where girls throw tampons at Carrie White and chant “plug it up!” while she cowers, naked, in a stall. The scene focuses on Carrie’s emotions, the cruelty of the other girls, and the blood running down Carrie’s thigh and onto the tiles.

The opening scene sets the emotional tone for the book. Carrie White is a “frog among swans…a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.” She’s an outsider, a grotesque, and the other girls won’t let her forget it. Especially not when they see blood running down her leg.

We can feel it all as it happens: Carrie’s pain and incomprehension, the shrieks and laughter of the other girls, the “first dark drops of menstrual blood [striking] the tile in dime-sized drops,” the tampons thrown at Carrie and hitting her in the chest. It’s visceral, disturbing, and disgusting. We’re already in a horror story.

What’s a thriller?

The term “thriller” refers to a book with an exciting story, often involving espionage, crime, or an insider’s view of a particular profession, such as medicine, law, law enforcement, or the military. In many thrillers, the main character enters a mysterious and dangerous situation, survives attempts on his or her life (or body, sanity, etc.), and must find a way to solve the central mystery and neutralize the threat.

Does this sound a lot like the plot to many famous horror stories, such as Halloween? It’s true, there are a lot of similarities, but the emotions evoked are different. While horror stories rely on evoking fear, terror, and dread, thrillers rely on anxious tension, i.e. excitement and suspense, to keep the story going. That means lots of action, reaction, and revelations to keep the reader interested. Grotesque or terrifying things may happen, but they exist to ramp up the tension and make the stakes clear, not to horrify the audience.

In thrillers, the evil characters have coherent motivations, even if their actions are horrifying. Their thought process is not outside the bounds of normal human experience; people have been greedy, ruthless, self-serving, etc. since the beginning of time. Thriller antagonists usually lack that uncanny factor that’s present in so many horror stories.

Captain Hollister (from Firestarter) might be ruthless, but his reasoning is easy to follow. When Charlie McGee grows up, she may have the power to detonate nuclear-bomb-sized explosions with her mind. One slip-up could mean millions, even tens of millions of deaths. Brainwashing her, canalizing her talents, can save all those lives. If that doesn’t work, there’s only one way to keep the world safe. Would you really leave the fate of the world up in the air like that?

There are thrillers with paranormal elements: psychics, ghosts, vampires, witches, et cetera. These may offer an “insider’s view” on a lifestyle (or afterlifestyle) that doesn’t actually exist. Many paranormal thrillers use otherworldly elements to raise the stakes. Can Jack Protagonist rescue his pregnant wife from the warlock holding her captive? How can he be sure that she’s under a spell? And can he save their baby from the warlock, before he sacrifices it to the Dark Gods? All these questions add to the suspense, and keep the reader engaged in the story.

Some novels and films fit into both genres. Silence of the Lambs is a classic example. The story follows Federal Agent Clarice Starling on the hunt for a serial killer, with help from the charming and murderous Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Both Lecter and Buffalo Bill are grotesques straight out of a horror story, and the book contains plenty of gorey and disturbing imagery, yet the plot structure is more typical of a crime thriller.

“Daddy, I’m tired.”

The cover of Stephen King's Firestarter, showing a young girl backlit by flames.Firestarter starts with the two lead characters, Andy and Charlie McGee, running from government agents through downtown Manhattan. Andy flags a cab; the agents follow. While en route, Andy uses his psychic powers of persuasion to make the cabby “see” and accept an imaginary five-hundred dollar bill, to ditch their tail and head out of Manhattan towards the airport.

The scene shows us Andy’s anguish as he tries to protect his daughter, literally (if caught, they’ll be killed) and spiritually (if she understands too much, she won’t be an innocent kid anymore). We also see Andy’s agony as he uses his powers; every time he gives someone a “push,” it hurts him more, but he has to do it or they’ll die. The McGees can’t rest until they’re either safe, or dead. We’re in a thriller.

Charlie and Andy’s psychic powers might as well be specialized weapons, top-secret documents, an ounce of Unobtanium––anything dangerous that the government will kill to get. This cat-and-mouse game continues, in different forms, for over a hundred pages; Andy and Charlie, gifted but outnumbered and outmatched, must still find ways to evade the government and stay alive.

The Monster

Most horror stories and thrillers contain at least one monster. I’m using “monster” in the most catholic sense, to include all supernatural and strange-but-natural creatures in a story. These can include, but aren’t limited to: ghosts, vampires, serial killers, serial killer killers, cult leaders, mob bosses, aliens, Presidents, Presidents who are secretly aliens, et cetera.

Most monsters have special powers, natural or otherwise. A killer might be dumb as a diaper and half as charming, but he’ll be strong, semi-impervious to bullets, and lucky. Or he’ll be seductive, with twisted but compelling logic for his actions.

In horror stories, the monster’s powers have a destructive bent, whether or not they’re intended that way. Their powers usually drive the course of the plot. The mad scientist’s creation destroys its creator; the ghosts reenact their own deaths, powerless to change the past; the videotape kills whoever watches it, seven days later. This power is often central to the story, as a source of strength and a fatal flaw.

In thrillers, the monster’s powers are more likely to be sidelined by a larger conspiracy, which uses or wants to use them for its own ends. Although Charlie McGee’s power is destructive, the U.S. Government is far more powerful and destructive than her. She and her father keep the government at bay for a long time, but even they can’t hide forever.

Marketing Terms

Horror and thriller readers have different tastes, desires, and expectations. Generally speaking, horror readers want to be frightened or disturbed, and expect sinister imagery, memorable villains, and unsettling scenarios. Thriller readers, in contrast, expect a fast-paced plot, shadowy conspiracies, and outmatched protagonists beating the odds. You can have all these elements in a single book––there’s no bright dividing line between horror and thriller––but marketing will want to focus on one genre or the other, even if your book features elements of both.

Different subgenres and sub-subgenres carry different expectations. A cosmic horror anthology contains different imagery and subject matter from a legal thriller. You might enjoy both cosmic horror and legal thrillers, but the average reader is going to be upset if she opens the latest John Grisham and gets a story about a verbose diarist exploring a lost city in the astral plane. Likewise, if you pick up a book called “Outskirts of Carcosa,” you might be upset if it’s a straightforward legal drama, without even a single cultist, worm god, or page-long paragraph.

You can tell the difference between a horror and a thriller novel just by glancing at the cover. Look, for example, at these two premade covers by Damonza. Which one is a horror novel and which one is a thriller?

No brainer, right? The first one screams “Warning: Contains a poorly-lit mansion, a backlit psychotic woman, and blood motifs,” while the second one says, “This book is about a woman going back to her hometown to investigate some mysterious disappearances, and is currently on an endcap display in your local Target.” If you like blood motifs, you’re more likely to pick up the first one; if you like Target thrillers, the second. In theory, these covers could be for the same book, but they’d be marketed very differently, even if the contents were exactly the same.

As Grady Hendrix points out, a lot of Stephen King’s books are marketed as horror even though they don’t fit in that genre. Firestarter might sell better as a horror novel than as a thriller. And if it feels more like a horror novel to the average reader, even if it technically meets the criteria for a thriller, then it belongs in the horror section anyway. Hence the very horror-ific cover art on Firestarter’s audiobook.

Rules of Thumb

If you’re dealing with a higher level of government than the local police, maybe the County Sheriff at the highest, you’re in a thriller.

If there’s more than five pints of blood, it’s a horror story.

If someone used bleach to clean up that blood, it’s a thriller.

Feature photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash.

Why are essential oils so popular?

You might have noticed an uptick in articles, posts, and social media chatter about essential oils in the last few years. I know I have. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of essential oils being touted as a cure or treatment for anything, aside from maybe a stuffy nose. Health food stores sold them in wooden racks, hippies used them as perfumes, crafty types used them to scent homemade candles. Like stone lanterns or Nag Champa incense, essential oils were a home accessory for homes with Tibetan prayer flags on the premises. Especially if the residents weren’t Tibetans.

Fast forward to today. I know at least two women who’ve sold essential oils through Facebook. Both are Christians, with nary a prayer flag in their homes. Because I have small children, I’ve been informed (occasionally by strangers) that vaccines are not as effective at preventing disease as, say, a blend of melaleuca and lemon oils. And sales are booming––up from $55 million in 2015 to $133 million in 2018.

Where is this coming from? How did essential oils make the leap into mainstream (or mainstream-adjacent) society? Why are essential oils so popular now, especially among Christian stay-at-home moms? Most importantly, why are these oils considered a treatment for everything from autism to cancer?

What Are Essential Oils?

A hand pours essential oils into a diffuser giving off steam. Photo by Drew L from Unsplash.
Photo by Drew L from Unsplash.

An essential oil is an oil extracted from a plant that contains the plant’s “essential” or characteristic fragrance. Essential oils can be made from barks, leaves, rinds, and flowers.  They are usually extracted by distilling the plant using steam, though they can also be cold pressed, ram pressed, or slow folded, depending on the plant.

Essential oils are very aromatic. A few drops of oil can stink up a room for hours. Because they’re so concentrated, a little goes a long way. They can be used to scent lip balmsbath bombs, and other cosmetics.

Essential oils can be dangerous to ingest, especially in large quantities, and can cause rashes or even allergic reactions when applied to the skin, especially if they’re not diluted in a carrier oil. The following oils are not safe to ingest:

  • Oil of wintergreen is chemically related to aspirin. A small amount of wintergreen oil can be fatal to children. Oils are rapidly absorbed in the body, which can lead to children being poisoned and falling ill very rapidly.
  • Pennyroyal oil is poisonous to the liver.
  • Eucalyptus oil, camphor oil, and sage oil can cause seizures if swallowed. Camphor oil is especially dangerous, and cause cause seizures within minutes of absorption. According to the National Capital Poison Center, “amphor poisoning also occurred when skin preparations containing camphor were applied repeatedly on children – more frequently than the label recommended and/or covered up with extra clothing.”
  • Nutmeg, and nutmeg oils, can cause hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting if too much is ingested.

A Short, Incomplete History of Oils as Medicine

A green mortar and pestle containing leaves and dried flower petals. A hand drops oil into the pestle from a frosted glass bottle.
Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash.

This “trend” is the latest iteration of a phenomenon that spans multiple religions and civilizations. Anointing (≈ blessing, treating) with oil was practiced across the ancient Near East. Ancient Egyptians [PDF], Greeks, and Jews all used oils for a wide variety of purposes: to prepare food, to make perfumes and cosmetics, to treat illnesses, perform religious rituals, and confer status on the anointed recipient.

Anointing with oils is mentioned throughout the Bible. The Book of Exodus includes detailed instructions on how to make oil to anoint priests, as well as “the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand.” Several books in the Old Testament, including Leviticus and Numbers, contain painstaking enumerations of when and when not to use oils in offerings to God, how much must be used, and when it should be used during the offering.

Anointing oils are prominent in several of the gospels. The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine into the wounds of the injured man before bringing him to the inn. When Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, they “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” And when a sinful woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head, he admonishes the Pharisee who scoffs at her, saying, “You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”

These anointing oils were probably not pure essential oils, which can be caustic when applied directly to the skin. Some of the more elaborate anointing oils, such as the anointing oil described in Exodus, contain ground spices that would have given the oil a strong scent. Essential oils are quite time consuming and expensive to extract, so they would be used for special purposes, which may or may not include healing

Why was oil so widespread as a treatment for illnesses? Have oils proven to be useful in treating illnesses or infections? Generally speaking, no––especially when we’re talking about serious, chronic conditions, such as asthma or cancer.

Anointing Today

Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953, the day of her coronation.
Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953, the day of her coronation.

Anointing with oils never went away. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches still use oils to bring comfort and strength to the sick, to anoint clergy, and to bless the newly baptized and confirmed. The Anglican Church still practices holy unction, including royal unction, i.e. anointing a new king or queen with holy oil before their coronation. These rituals are not as prominent in Protestant denominations––many, in fact, do not practice it at all. Perhaps this is why so many Protestants and Evangelicals have cottoned onto the essential oils craze, out of a desire for this sort of ritual in their life.

Anointing and healing oils aren’t limited to the Occident. The Buddhist “eye-opening” ceremony sanctifies a painting or statue by “painting in the sculpture’s pupils, pricking the eyes with a pin, or anointing the eyes with a liquid such as oil.” Oils are also used in ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine, e.g. in “oil pulling” mouthwash, where a person swishes oil around in their mouth for up to twenty minutes, in order to “pull” toxins and debris out of the mouth.

Many newer religious movements have adopted oils into their rituals and practices. Mormon priests use oils to anoint the sick. Some neopagans and wiccans also use oils in their spells and rituals, often using blends of different herbs to attract a desired outcome or result. And plenty of new age belief systems and movements have used oils––essential or otherwise––in their practices.

“There is no new thing under the sun.”

A bottle of I'm Fabulous Body Oil. Photo by Anis M from Unsplash.
Photo by Anis M from Unsplash.

Today’s #oilymama may be misguided, but she’s reaching back to something ancient, whether she knows it or not. A Jungian might say this arises from our collective unconscious, an instinctive or primal return to the “old ways” during a time of uncertainty. Some people embrace more ancient treatments and cures, even if they’re far less effective than what’s new, out of a distrust of the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Why now? I don’t think there’s any one answer. Multi-level marketing companies, such as doTERRA and Young Living, encourage this trend, selling through social networks and close-knit church communities. Political and cultural uncertainty play a role, though it’s hard to tease out exactly how. Growing distrust of modern medicine leads people to look for alternatives, even if they’re not very effective. All these trends combine together to create a perfect storm for essential oils to serve a quasi-spiritual, quasi-medicinal role similar to the one it served in antiquity.

I grew up in a hippie-filled town, and went to Catholic school for nearly a decade. Still the religious, cultural, and medicinal significance of oils escaped me. They were simply not around while I was a kid. The hippies I knew stuck to light Buddhism, meditation, crystals, bentonite clay in a glass of water. Essential oils were around, but not a huge part of day-to-day life. I never remember oils being used during mass, or discussed during religion class. Lorenzo’s oil is the closest thing I can think of––a “miracle oil” that could help young people with chronic, degenerative disease, although clinical trial results have been mixed. Why essential oils are popular now, and weren’t then, is not entirely clear, but in the long run, they’re not going anywhere.

Feature photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash. Thanks to the commenters on this post, especially avocadosungoddess11, for their input.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Cover of My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix.This book follows a friendship from its inception, at a middle school roller-rink party, until its end. Abby, the book’s protagonist, is a scholarship student with working poor parents in Creekside, South Carolina. Abby’s best friend, Gretchen, is from a well-heeled Reagan Republican family in Old Village, “the la-di-da part of Mt. Pleasant where all the houses were dignified and either overlooked the water or had enormous yards, and if anyone saw a black person walking down the street who wasn’t Mr. Little, they would pull their Volvo over and ask if he was lost.”

One night, some ordinary high school debauchery goes very wrong, and Gretchen disappears––only to reemerge literally “not herself.” It’s up to Abby to figure out what’s wrong, because nobody else seems to notice, or care, that her friend is changing in new and alarming ways.

This book’s plot progression reminds me of The Witch. As Abby tries to help Gretchen, she’s alienated from all her friends, her friend’s parents, her teachers, her principal, even her own family. This progression is more horrific than the gross and supernatural events that accompany Gretchen’s possession.

I read this book over a couple of days, foregoing work and sleep to finish it. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in horror novels, or anyone who wants to surf the wave of 80s nostalgia. If any of this appeals to you, give this book a try. Hendrix is a gifted writer, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Starting a Successful Blog…When You Have No Clue! by Gundi Gabrielle

Starting a Successful Blog When You Have No Clue by Gundi GabrielleThis book (more like a long article) allowed me to start this website, so it’s only fair that I review it.

Before I read this book, I thought self-hosting on WordPress was next door to impossible. I tried to get an SSL certificate for another website I own, and was completely adrift. Every “help” page was written in a language that I almost understood, but not quite. Common words were used in a technical way that eluded me, and trying to figure them out just lead to more confusion. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and couldn’t seem to bridge the gap. How could I therefore install WordPress on my own? Gabrielle made the process very easy to follow, and I was able to transfer this site from WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress.org site without much trouble.

Ironically, the one issue I did run into was getting an SSL certificate. My hosting provider offered one for free, which I didn’t know. Before you buy any hosting package, I recommend checking to see if your host offers some kind of SSL certificate before you sign up. It’ll save you a headache.

If you already know how to set up a self-hosted WordPress site, then there’s no reason to buy this book. If you want to use one of the many free articles and videos on this topic to get started, then I wouldn’t get this, since it gives you information you can find for free on the web. This book is only a dollar, though, so if you’re looking for one book to get you started, instead of toggling through a million articles online, I would recommend reading this book.

This book only shows you how to set up your website, plus some tips for choosing a theme. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive guide, look elsewhere.