Writing Exercise #5 (Mon 6/18)

Ok, here is your prompt…remember the rules (15 minutes, no editing, worrying, revising or judging. Just write).

Your character is a SCHOLAR with a VERY LIMITED VOCABULARY.  The elements that lead you into the story are the LAST NIGHT BEFORE LEAVING TOWN and a KNOCK ON THE DOOR AT TWO IN THE MORNING.

There’s a story there, just waiting to happen…jump in and start writing!

Daily Writing Exercise #4 (Wed 6/13)

15 minutes of writing without thinking. Let your thoughts just write whatever comes next. This is for your eyes and your eyes only…unless you want to share. Maybe it’s awesome, maybe it’s hysterical, maybe it’ll prompt your next great novel…

EXERCISE #4:

You are buying a new home and are doing a walk through with your realtor. She opens the front door, you step into the (supposedly) empty living room and…???????

Write it entirely as dialogue, a conversation between you, the realtor and (if you want) whatever/whoever is in the living room..

Have fun!

Celebrating Creativity With Imaginative Young Minds

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting my son’s elementary school and sharing a day of reading and creativity with some of the students.

I was invited to my oldest son’s 5th grade class where they are beginning to learn about and explore creative writing. After answering some general questions about the craft and about my own methods of revision and work processes, I read them the first chapter of my middle-grade work in progress.

If you ever have the chance to sit down with a large group of children and share your work with them, DO IT! To begin with, it is magical. No matter how many adult readers, editors, and peer readers you have, none of them can give you the intangible reactions you hope to get from your target audience.

I was escorted to my chair (a VERY comfortable rocking chair) by the student of the month and then the kids gathered around, in bean bags and on the rug; in chairs and on stools. I explained the premise of the story and told them that they were my first young audience to hear the beginning of the story. They were excited. I was excited.

And so I read….and it was AWESOME! There were laughs when there should have been laughs. There were smiles when I hoped there’d be smiles, and there were shocked expressions or gasps when I’d written in sections that were expected to cause those same reactions.

If I’d had the book done and published and ready for purchase, I would have had a room full of new readers. In other words, it was a success. They’d not only enjoyed the story, but they’d given me the proof that I had succeeded in my attempt to write a fun, quirky and enjoyable story for young readers. It was written all over their excited faces.

And afterward, I fielded questions about the rest of the story, about writing in general, and about key concepts and components of storytelling. It was great to discuss, point of view, foreshadow, metaphor, theme, climax, character evolution, and idea generation with the kids. They were as excited to demonstrate that they’d noticed the foreshadowing clues as I was to hear that my inclusion of them in the story had worked. They were as eager to learn what happened next as I was to tell them about it.

It was truly a rewarding experience. To give them a chance to explore their creativity and to pen a short story of their own, I prompted a little writing exercise. Using Rory’s Story Cubes (and if you haven’t seen these, they are the coolest things!), we rolled up nine images and put them up on the projector so the whole class could see them. The idea is that our minds think in pictures and an image gives us an infinite variety of interpretations. So, we rolled up the nine dice (the student of the month had the honors) and broke the class up into groups of three.

One person was responsible for writing the beginning. They had to write the hook and establish the conflict, along with introducing the character. Another child wrote the middle, working toward conflict resolution and inserting obstacles. The last person wrote the climax (having worked out with the middle writer where they were going to “meet”) and the resolution.

The groups were free to arrange the nine images in whatever order they wanted, each person taking three of the images and incorporating them into their section of the story. Their teacher and I listened in to the brainstorming process and watched as they eagerly created fantastic tales, some of which included mysteriously locked doors, laser shooting eyeballs, a honey-hunting cyclops, and giant alien bees. It was so much fun! And afterwards, some of the students shared their work with us, reading their sections and demonstrating how their voice, their imagination and their approach differed from their classmates who had the same pictures to work with.

I hope that when I left, I left some of them with a hunger to continue creating. I hope that when I left, I left some of them eager to tell more stories, to explore worlds within their own minds that they may have been hesitant to explore. I was there once. I was a 6th grade student when a similar experience had changed me forever. It was a similar experience that showed me that all I wanted to do was tell stories.

If even one creative young mind takes pen in hand and walks through that door of imagination and storytelling, then I’ll feel as if I have come full circle. But I’ll never know that, we’ll never know that, until they are sharing these same sentiments one day and remembering that afternoon in 5th grade when there were no walls and their minds could take them places where nobody could hold them back.

Here’s to creativity. Here’s to the next generation of wordsmiths, ready to ply their craft at the imagination forge.

What Scoundrels We Fiction Writers Are.

Scoundrels. That’s right. Rogues and villains. Desperadoes. We fiction writers (notice I say we) are all of the above.

Don’t pretend it isn’t true and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Any proper fiction writer can’t help but find themselves in the company of likewise shady characters. Think about it, we lie. We steal. Why, we even commit murder. Sometimes before breakfast and especially when short on coffee. We wage wars and level cities. We do terrible things all in the name of fiction.

Of course I am speaking figuratively (my lawyer told me I had to state this), but we do these things in our writing. We have to do these things in our writing. The very essence of fiction is fabrication. In other words we. are. lying. We create a lie and announce it to the world. We lie and sell those lies. We are paid (if fortunate enough) to lie. It’s storytelling, sure. It’s make-believe, but it all falls into the same basket. Not truth = lying (or insert synonym here if it makes you feel more warm and cuddly). But it’s ok. People want us to lie. They want to hear the falsehoods we create, because they know you’re just spinning a yarn. And for the time they are immersed in our lies, they are entertained; on vacation from the labors of reality.

Lying. That’s the jaywalking of the fiction writer’s world. Let’s move on to bigger fish. We steal. No, I’m not talking about your neighbor’s antique silver flatware, or that sweet corvette you saw in the parking lot. I’m talking about a bigger commodity, a more abstract and invaluable resource. We steal dialogue and names, clothing and hairstyles, memories, experiences, places and events. To be painfully clear, I am not, in any sense talking about the MORTAL SIN of PLAGIARISM. I am talking about observing and recording. Listen to people speak, to their dialect and speech patterns, the topics of conversation and the slang that they use. Write it down, file it away. Sit in a park, the mall, a bus stop, and watch people. Notice that guy checking his watch every 30 seconds? Why? There’s a story. Where’s he going? What or who is he waiting for? Practice studying people and details. You never know when a habit, personality quirk, or article of jewelry or clothing may pop into a story. Write these things down, but also develop your mind to retain these scraps of worldly currency.

I’m always practicing this. I got my haircut the other day, the first time in 90 weeks, and I happened to have the same hairdresser as the last time I was there. I noticed that she had a new tattoo on her wrist and that her nose was pierced. Not that I was stalking her (hadn’t seen her in 90 weeks), but I remembered that she didn’t have those things before. When I commented on her new additions since I’d been in last, she was very surprised that I’d noticed. We are writers. We notice details.

But we don’t stop there, oh no. We murder people on the page. We take unsuspecting characters and BAM. We kill them. That’s just the way it goes. Fiction requires conflict. Conflict often comes at the cost of one or more character’s lives. We make our characters suffer. We make them struggle through seemingly impossible odds to get what they want. We knock them down to their lowest points and then step on their heads. Does this sound like the act of a wholesome creator? No. It sounds like the act of a successful fiction writer.

Point is, don’t deny your true nature. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Our readers expect it of us. Our craft demands it. And damn it, sometimes it’s just fun. ;]

So get out there, you rogue. You are a card-carrying scoundrel with a license for abstract villainy, all in the name of fiction.

Diabolical laughter is optional but encouraged.

Time Heals Owl Wounds

No, I am not referring to wounds suffered in owl attacks, although I am sure the same principle applies. And odds are, if you’ve been attacked by an owl, you probably deserved it.

I am referring to, in a purely Potterical analogy, communication. Specifically, those forms of communication that we, as writers, dread. The communication that smacks us back out of the ego-swelling dreams of multimillion dollar advances and movie rights. The rejection.

Whether it come in a letter (a what? a letter. a what? never mind), an email, an owl or a smoke signal, rejections suck. But we all know rejections are part of the game and rejections tell you that you are doing what you are supposed to. You are in the game. You’re creating and sending your children out into the world like mischievous little goblins to tweak the literary ear of the world, to whisper your name to agents and editors while they sleep.

But sometimes, no matter how much armor we wear, rejections get to us. This is especially true for a larger project. Sometimes doubts creep in and while constructive feedback is certainly worth looking into (especially from professionals in the industry), it does not always mean that an entire overhaul is necessary.

After receiving a very constructive, very precise rejection letter on a story that I had every confidence in, I couldn’t help but be bummed. There may have been a bit of moping, some niggling self-doubt. There may have been (and I can neither confirm nor deny this) a momentarily lapse of reason in which I streaked through the neighborhood, singing Lady Gaga and eating tapioca pudding until my run became a bloated, melancholy shuffle and I was picked up by the police. But that’s not important right now.

What I discovered this morning, is that there is a band-aid. Put the piece away and work on something else. I’ve since started another project ( a couple really) and figured I’d come back to the rejected piece after I’d finished the new stuff. But this morning, while reading The Writer magazine and walking on the treadmill (sans pudding and WITH clothes), I started thinking about that first story. The one that had recently been rejected. I thought about the points discussed in the letter and the product I’d turned out. And I thought, I have a good story. And the rejection letter I received (for which I am extremely thankful, given the constructive advice offered) did not say it wasn’t. That thought was my own inner consciousness pouting. Some of the points discussed were minor and some were subjective but overall, it was not that far from going back out again. It needed to go back out again. It had just needed time.

Time separated from my expectation, reaction and attention. Time heals. Time applies a healing balm to that sting and allows us, as writers, to approach our projects with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. It’s like Yoda, riding on the Dalai Lama’s back while he’s water skiing on the backs of dolphins. Who doesn’t want that feeling?

So don’t get discouraged. Take some time and come back to it. Might be a few days, might be a week, might be a month. Focus elsewhere and listen, you’ll know when to come back. Unless you hear a screech-owl. Then I suggest staying the hell away. Time might heal owl wounds but they probably hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.

Tell Me a Story About Leprechaun Love

I’ve watched writers gripping their pen with what could only be construed as a focused debate on whether or not to drive said pencil through their eyeball, thus ending their misery. I mean come on, Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat in chapter three is an obvious metaphor for capitalist society infringing on the demands of children brought up bottle-fed instead of smothered against their mother’s breast. And what about a third person, omniscient narrator with occasional amnesia? I know, I’ll write a zombie prom story. Zombie’s are hot, right? No, not any more? What about leprechauns? A leprechaun love story? I’ll go all new media and write it as Facebook status updates. No, I’ll use Post-it notes. And it has to be perfect, NOW. That’s why I am editing the first page again. Yes, it’s the 684th time I’ve rewritten it.

To all of you who write, myself included, I say this: RELAX. Am I being facetious? Yes. But the idea isn’t that far off the mark. We writers are a worrisome lot. We have a lot of tools, dynamics and “moving parts” to contend with in order to produce a quality and entertaining product. However, it seems that the more we write and the more we immerse ourselves in the craft of writing (and don’t ever think for once that writing is not a craft), we forget the most basic and fundamental building block of all. Tell a story.

It’s that easy. Just tell a damn story. At its most basic level, at the core of everything we have learned and will learned, we must never forget the heart of it all: Tell a story.

Of course we need our writers’ tool box. We need to pay attention to technique and style, voice and fundamental dynamics. But these are the things applied to and over the heart of the idea, the story. We have nothing if we have no story. Well, maybe we have a grocery list or a collection of random thoughts about what’s actually buried in the very back of my pantry (and if you know, please tell me). But we need a story. It starts with a story and if you remember that, if you get excited about that, you’ll be alright.

Just…tell me a story.

Now grab that pen, hammer that keyboard, and write that leprechaun love story. Don’t forget Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat.

Hey, if you are so inclined (and damn crazy enough), write the story as a flash fiction. 500 words and post it on your blog or website. Put the title to your story and a link to it in a comment below so that we can all appreciate your craziness, I mean creativity. Let’s hear your stories!

Tell us a story!

Anthologies: The Whizzing Monkey of the Short Story World

Anthologies kick ass. There, I said it.

They’re like one of those cool beer samplers at the pub. You order up a tray of sample sizes and start throwing them back. Who the hell knows what you’ll find. What was that caramel colored stout? That was good! Whizzing monkey? And that third one we tried, the one with the long name? Too hoppy, no thanks. The cherry wheat was a surprise…

Yeah, yeah. I could have used a chocolate sampler but you know what? I like beer. You can have the chocolates. Besides, it would have been too Forrest Gumpy had I brought in the box of chocolates.

The point here is how cool anthologies are. Some of you may know this already and I may just be the lone weirdo finally appreciating their value. If not, well then, I suggest you read on. If you already know this…well then, I suggest you read on. What? Nothing. Just go with it.

So, I’ve been reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and being the obsessive, information order reader that I am, I had to do everything in precise sequence. Everything. This meant tracking down the side stories he wrote and reading them in turn. For example, “Something Borrowed” comes between books #7 and #8. This required the acquisition of My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding (edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34360-6).

The cool thing about anthologies is that you find one with a topic you are interested in, something that strikes your fancy, and you indulge. Zombies? No problem. Transgender circus clowns? Quite possibly. This particular anthology (My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding) contained nine short stories written about or around a wedding with each tale steeped in paranormal roots. So, you’re going into a place you’re already comfortable with. Besides that, you may have been drawn in by a “friend”. For example, I followed Jim Butcher in. If all hell broke loose and things got ugly, I knew he had my back. Point is, you might see a familiar author or two in the credits and trust them enough to spend the cash for a sampling.

Because that’s what it is, a sampling. I read this last anthology knowing only three of the nine authors. Of those three, I hadn’t been too thrilled with one of them. Charlaine Harris. Damn, why’d you make me name names? I started her first Sookie Stackhouse book and couldn’t finish it. But her short story, “Tacky”? Loved it. Loved it enough to give her another chance. In case you’re interested, it’s a story about a vampire/werewolf wedding and it was pretty cool. So there’s one plus, you get to see another side of a writer you may have written off.

But that’s not all you’ll get! Act now and you’ll also get……this set of inside information. That’s right, for the cost of reading the anthology, you’ll be privy to novel info nuggets that might otherwise have you scratching your head. Jim Butcher, in his short story “Something Borrowed”, spins a tale in which he not only propels information forward, but the guy kills a side character. IN A SERVICE ROAD SHORT STORY! And the info is not something that makes the following novel unreadable, or even confusing, but if you had read it, you’d have a whole different appreciation of the scene(s). Whew, that’s a lot to say. I need a Whizzing Monkey. No, not…damn it, take this thing away please. Now my shoes are wet.

But wait. There’s still more! You’ll also discover new authors that you’ll want to read. I’d never read any Susan Krinard, but was fascinated by her story “…Or Forever Hold Your Peace”. I’ve added her to my Nook wishlist. Now there are 9, 216, 542 books waiting to be read. By the same rationale, you’ll get a chance to discover writers that you may not be too fond of. It’s like test driving an author. Ok, maybe that sounds slightly invasive and perhaps not legal (except in Nevada).

So get out there and order up a sampler. Indulge in an anthology or two, you’re bound to find a few pleasant surprises. And if you order a Whizzing Monkey….don’t wear open-toed shoes.

Enjoy, friends!