Category Archives: Writing Prompt

Join Wordsmith’s Live Writing Sprints on Twitter: #wssprint

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

Do you use word counts, hourly goals or other motivators to reach your writing goals? April is a great month for joining in any of a variety of writing challenges. Wordsmith Studio brings them all together with weekly writing sprints, every Friday in April.

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Join Hourly Writing Sprints Every Friday in April

Along with a fabulous group of writers, Elissa Field is a Founding Member at Wordsmith StudioYou may know I am a founding member of Wordsmith Studio, an awesome group of writers and artists who share craft resources and support each other throughout the year. We celebrate each other’s writing, keep each other going, and laugh a lot. This month, we are celebrating our 4th anniversary.

My part of our month-long celebration has been planning and serving as a moderator for all day writing sprints, live on Twitter every Friday in April. Look for camaraderie, motivation and some seriously smoking keyboards with hourly writing sprints, each Friday from 11am-11pm EST.

How #wssprint Works

The live sprints take place on Twitter. Follow #wssprint , or find via @WordsmithStudio  or @elissafield. (If you’re a Wordsmith member, we repeat some tweets in Facebook, as well.)

Beginning at 11 am EST, sprints start with a kick-off tweet on the hour. Write or edit for 45 minutes, then share your success — word count, page count, plotting solution, a favorite line, whatever — using #wssprint at :45. We take a break for 15 minutes (time to chat, share, ask questions, invite a friend, cheer each other on), then start again at :00, up until 11 pm EST.

Optional Prompts

Every hour, there is an optional writing prompt.

The prompts are great — more than 13 a day. I am a huge fan of novel prompts shared by Donald Maass in 21st Century Fiction (highly recommended for building depth, power and tension, when building or revising a novel), so we share some from him. Here is a favorite – you can see why I think he’s awesome.

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Sarah Turnbull (@thesaturnbull) and I wrote the prompts that aren’t credited to Maass, based on writing advice that has impacted our work. There are also photo prompts and ones coordinated with challenges our members are working on (see below).

But there are no rules. No prompts required. Lots of our writers are editing, rather than writing. Use the time however gets you going. Most say it’s just nice to feel like someone else is writing or editing with you.

Do take time to say hello, while you’re there.

What Goals Are Writers Working On?

Some of our participants are using the sprints for organized writing challenges, such as Camp NaNoWriMo, Poem a Day Challenge, A to Z Blog Challenge, or the monthly 500-word-a-day challenge (#AprWritingChallenge this month).

But most — including our Wordsmith Studio Goals Group or visitors from Writer Unboxed and Binder subgroups — are using sprints to keep going with existing goals.

I am using sprints to keep moving from draft 9 to draft 10 of my novel, Never Said. The first week, I finished transcribing handwritten scenes, incorporating new work and changes into the draft. Some writing sprints are chance to anchor scenes with more developed setting, now that I’ve fully developed character and plot. Sometimes I’m working on nonfiction, writing for education or editing for clients.

We’re all jumping in to inspire each other.

Oh, No. I Missed It!

Not all of our participants write along with us “live” — jump in to use the sprints whenever it works for you. You can scan #wssprint to find the prompts and share your success any time. Or, visit previous #wssprint days via Storify. And, considering the success this month and when we ran Fridays Are for (Spooky) Writing last October, be sure to follow @WordsmithStudio for sprints we run in the future.

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How About You?

What challenges are you working on in your writing this week, or what strategies help you reach your goals? We’d love to hear from you — share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

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Filed under Motivation to Write, Novel Writing, Writers on Twitter, Writing Life, Writing Process & Routine, Writing Prompt

Wordsmith Studio Blog Hop: Writing Challenges, Successes & Strategies – Part 1

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I’m joining in Wordsmith Studio’s 3rd Anniversary Blog Hop, today — responding to a great Q & A about my (recent) writing challenges or successes, and the tools, strategies or resources that help me succeed.10634351_10100112304388454_1141723537_n

Being a little funny, there, calling it a “great” prompt, as I was actually the one to write it. This is the third week I’ve hosted the WSS blog hop for writers, for our anniversary month.

I encourage you to go over and check out the hop. You don’t have to be a member of the writing group to join in. Do jump around and read the various posts. Particularly this week — it would be great if you shared a post with your own writing challenges and your tools or strategies for success. I’ll post links to the hop down below.

But not yet. First, here’s the interview.

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Q & A: My Writing Challenges (or Successes) and the Tools, Strategies or Resources That Help Me Succeed – Part 1

1) What are you currently working on?

My work is split between my business (freelance nonfiction, writing & editing), my Masters (writing and research related to curriculum & learning) and fiction. I occasionally write short stories (have a had a few published, a couple awards — small fry), but spend most of my time on novels. I work toward literary fiction, or what is referred to as crossover or book club fiction — literary fiction with commercial appeal.

I am working on a novel called Never Said (it was nicknamed Wake elsewhere on the blog). It trines between the U.S., Ireland and the Middle East, with one couple’s love affair unraveling a tension of what it is to live “without war” in an era when war touches everything.

As tools go: I use Outlook to block out time for business, masters and fiction, and to keep to do lists with weekly steps that help keep me moving forward in all 3 goals. I share goals with friends and with a life coach, to organize my goals and keep me accountable.

2) In recent past, what was your greatest joy or greatest challenge?

I have been impatient to complete this novel — but it was challenging, as it was the first one I attempted where the idea wasn’t that clear when I started writing. I knew the main characters and understood an essential tension, but had to go deep into research to understand the international context, and then deeper into character to develop the motivation and parallel stories that drive each.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

It’s easy to get impatient when you feel like you should be able to have finished by now (twice, I thought I was revising a final draft), but as I work on this 8th draft, it is obvious that I had to work this long to understand the story that I had only sensed in the earlier versions. A fast version would have “worked,” but wasn’t compelling. Being willing to pull up and start over let me find the real story. And, of course, hard work teaches valuable lessons.

The greatest joy is that I love the newer material.

As resources go: 2 books on writing offered some good tools for targeting and addressing weak areas in my narrative or characters: Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions, and Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling

3) What challenge are you working through now?

Time is always an issue — especially right now, as I restarted my business and am busy with my kids — so any time delays are aggravating. I had a tree fall across my windshield 2 weeks ago, so groaned over the time spent getting it fixed. Same goes for lags in technology, or time spent marketing for work.

It’s not just about having time to write every day, but wanting those writing hours to be end-zone-level productive.

Transitioning between drafts means that I am pulling successful scenes from several documents in Word to build the new draft. Last summer, on the last draft, I did this simultaneously in Word and Scrivener; Scrivener has won me over, so I may be assembling this draft just in Scrivener. Although it sometimes slows me down to have to set up all the preferences, I like the ability to see each scene as a discreet piece in Scriv. Much of my writing in recent months involved re-envisioning existing scenes — the ‘notecard’ view helps me locate, compare or replace previous versions, and to readily sort scenes that will be re-ordered in the final draft. The challenge, though, when working from multiple drafts is staying organized.

As tools go: I believe in Scrivener enough that I’ve include a link to their site in my sidebar. If you don’t know much about the software, click the picture here to check it out (if it takes you to a “buy” page, click the banner for the homepage for more about…). They are generous in offering a 30 nonconsecutive-day free trial, which allows you a lot of time to play with it before having to pay.

Buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence)

4) For work you are just planning or starting, what challenges or growth are you expecting or hoping to encounter?

I’ve drafted novels and met with agents face-to-face before, but this will be my first foray into blind querying. I’ve practiced pitching and spitballing at conferences and workshops in the last year, and gotten an agent’s feedback on a query draft.

As for strategies: It’s worth noting that attempting to draft a query or plan pitches and log lines during different face-to-face activities with peers and agents is part of what helped me know when I didn’t have a clear sense of the story. Writing pitches and queries ended up being a great strategy for understanding my narrative structure.

5) What have successes or challenges in your work (recently) taught you?

Well, the thing I just mentioned. Having come from a literary background where these things aren’t brooded on as much as word choice and such, I was surprised how important plot structure, narrative arc, suspense and other elements more typically suited to screenwriting have been, as tools in my revisions.

As resources go: the sign at the top of this post was from a workshop I participated in last January (Blue Flower Writers Workshop at Atlantic Center for the Arts), where Ben Percy was the clearest I’ve heard in talking about structure and suspense, even in literary writing.

6) What obstacles or challenges have you not been able to overcome, or still frustrate you? Is there a “magic wand” you would invent to solve this problem?

Yes, I want Hermione’s time turner — to be able to use the same hour to address multiple priorities. It’s not that I don’t have the time. Keeping time to write (fiction) every week is a nonnegotiable for me — I am stubborn in crafting the rest of my life around it, even while running a business or when I teach full time. But I still get frustrated to not be done yet.

As tools go: A magic wand that pulls the story straight out of my head would be great. As strategies go: here are other posts I’ve written on time management strategies for writers.

To Be Continued…

There are 2 more questions to the Q & A, asking how I would define a great writing week and what specific tools and strategies help me succeed. Those answers are long enough that I’m going to let them be a second post.

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How About You? Join in the Blog Hop!

What successes or challenges are you working through, and what tools, resources or strategies help you succeed?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.  Better yet, if you are reading this 4/29-5/4, join in the blog hop by using the linky tool below.  Visit the initial prompt, with all 8 questions and more explanation of “how to hop,” on Wordsmith Studio’s site: Writers’ Homecoming Blog Hop – Week 3.

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

If you like the idea of more blog hops, let me know, as I may host them in the future on this site.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or subscribe via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar if you don’t have a WordPress account. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook. I love to connect with readers and writers.

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Writers’ Homecoming: Participating in Wordsmith Studio’s 3rd Anniversary Blog Hop

Persistence. Stole some writing time in an empty science lab while at a school today. With a limping keyboard no less. What is community? The coffee brought to me by a neighbor.

Persistence. Stole some writing time in an empty science lab while at a school today. With a limping keyboard no less. What is community? The coffee brought to me by a neighbor.

If you’re a regular reader here, you may know how much I value my writing community. I am way overdue sharing some of the great interactions I’ve had with new writing friends at writers’ conferences and workshops over the winter, but today is all about jumping in to participate in a Writers’ Homecoming Blog Hop to celebrate the 3 year anniversary of my fabulous group of writing friends, Wordsmith Studio.

What is Wordsmith Studio?

10634351_10100112304388454_1141723537_nWordsmith Studio came together 3 years ago on the heels of one of the best challenges I’ve ever seen online: poet Robert Lee Brewer’s April Platform Building Challenge. Every day for 30 days, each of us learned about how to make the most out of a different social media tool in building platform (that is, readership and genuine connection). We learned not just how to blog, but how to create authentic interaction with readers and other writers. How to participate in comments on others’ posts and encourage comments on your own, to create authentic dialogue. Likewise, how to understand the formats of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and more to, again, create authentic connection through each of those venues.

Since then, the group has created a formal affiliation. We have a website with weekly posts and member bios. We have a Facebook page with numerous smaller offshoots (there’s an events page for this month’s anniversary activities, and subgroups — my favorite is the Goals group, where we trade our monthly goals and cheerlead each other through successes and pitfalls). Wordsmith Studio is on Twitter, hosting 2 weekly chat sessions (#wschat), as well as other periodic activities, like wordsprints or live events. These are where I participate most, but we have members who are more active in other venues, like Google+ or Pinterest.

The group is formal enough to have a process for joining, and is administered by a 6-member Advisory Group (I am one of the 6 members; we each serve for 2 years).

We have been glad to add in new members over the years, whose writing interests have broadened us well beyond our initial platform building challenge. Our group has seen several book releases, through traditional and self-publishing routes. Our writers share expertise on drafting, revision, conferences, querying, signing contracts, readings, publication, promotion… and blogging, photography, graphic arts, crafts, fine arts, music and much more.

That said, we are above all supportive of each other. We have diehard founding members who have been active the whole 3 years, and many more who we have seen come and go as other life’s priorities take them away and bring them back to us again. Someone is always apologizing for having been absent, but we’re just glad to see them again and to catch up on what they’ve been working on.

Which is what our “homecoming” theme is about, this month.

What is Homecoming? And What is the Blog Hop?

We celebrate each anniversary with events that help us rekindle any skills we want to work on and renew any connections that have drifted apart over the past year. We get to know each other’s work and current goals again… And we get to know new members, who may wonder how to get involved (it’s easy — just jump in).

As part of our Homecoming events, I agreed to lead the kickoff of our group’s first official blog hop. To participate, read the instructions here at the Wordsmith Studio site.  Or use the Linky Tool at the bottom of the post.

Worry you missed it? The Homecoming Blog Hop takes place every Wednesday this month. Look for a kickoff post each Wednesday, then you can participate anytime through that Sunday.

My Homecoming Interview

Running manHere are my answers to this week’s optional interview questions:

1) Are you a WSSer (a member of Wordsmith)? I already answered this one above: yes, I’m a founding member of Wordsmith Studio. I really value some great friends I’ve made through the group… and really miss a few members who are no longer active!

2) What medium/genre do you work in? I make a living writing nonfiction (freelance writer/editor, and a teacher), but my focus is fiction. I occasionally write short stories (have a had a few published, a couple awards — small fry), but spend most of my time on novels. I work toward literary fiction, and am also inspired by the intensity of young adult and the intrigue of mysteries, and that kind of energy seeps into my work.

3) What’s the name of your current project (ok multitaskers, give us your main one)?  I am working on a novel called Never Said (it was nicknamed Wake elsewhere on the blog). It trines between the U.S., Ireland and the Middle East, with one couple’s love affair unraveling a tension of what it is to live “without war” in an era when war touches everything.

4) What is your favorite detail, sentence or other bit you’ve written lately? My main character was grabbed from behind as she dashed away down a street in a scene I wrote this week. At the time, her mind was unraveling, it was late at night, and the street was full of carousers, so you assume she’s being attacked. There is this awesome, immediate tension when she realizes it is actually the taciturn, armed man protecting her lover, who she does not realize followed her out into the night. I didn’t mean to write it that way, but the physicality of the scene managed to increase suspense and bridge an emotional storyline. All this year, writing has been like that. If you’ve read any of my prior posts on revising this novel, you know that there have been at least 2 drafts where I thought I was almost done… but each time, I am so grateful that I pushed myself further, knowing I did not yet fully understand the story. I feel the texture and layers in scenes now, in ways I did not in those earlier drafts. One of the biggest a-ha moments that steered me in the right direction was when I started to distance myself from the main character and let her get down and gritty, as I wrote about in Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say.

My current challenge... or threat.

My current challenge… or threat.

5) Any obstacles or I-hate-this-chapter moments? I would roar like a T-rex to say this adequately: I hate that I work so slowly. I met with Ben Percy in January at Blue Flower Arts Conference and finally spilled out my frustration: I’ve had a novel almost done before, with agents who had asked to read a full… and never made it that last 10% to cross the finish line. His advice was to just set a 30 day deadline, break it into words/day and threaten that I’d have to eat a dirty sock if I don’t make it. I have legit excuses (just finished 3 classes for my masters, plus client work & am a single parent), but that’s not it. I write 10-40 hrs a week, even with that workload. And I write fast. So I don’t know if I am too much of a perfectionist, or just slow in fitting the whole thing together, but I am routinely irritable about wanting it done, now.

6) What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned lately from your writing?  Interestingly, as a ‘literary’ reader and writer, the biggest things I’ve learned lately have to do with plot structure, screenplays and suspense.

7) In what ways do you hope to grow in the next 6 months/year?  I’m moving on to stages of how to market. I’ve been drafting queries and gotten feedback from an agent. I want to have a full draft done soon, and then on to beta readers or I may find a private coach or mentor to work one-on-one. Then time to query.

8) In what ways do writing friends and communities help you do that? I am as much of an introvert as any writer, but I have learned more and grown more by interacting with other writers than I would have alone. It can be lonely work, so it’s powerful to be able to shout out, “I hit my word count goal for the day,” and have someone cheer you on. Time is always limited, but it’s worth stoking those friendships and building these communities, because you can’t wait for the day you wish you had a writing group or friend to share work with — it takes time to find people and build connections. While I talk about Wordsmith here, some of the writers in my network are people I first met in Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy forum 10 or more years ago. It’s worth the time it takes.

How About You?

Please do click through to the Wordsmith Studio 3rd Anniversary Homecoming Blog Hop. Jump in and connect — write your own answers to the questions above or otherwise let us know what you are working on. You do not have to be a Wordsmith member to participate. Here are some options:

  • From 4/8-4/12, you can join this week’s Blog Hop using the linky tool.
  • If you are reading this later, just share the link to your post in the comments beneath the kickoff post.
  • There will be new blog hops each Wednesday this month. Follow Wordsmith Studio or me to see links when those posts go live.
  • To find out about more Wordsmith Studio activities, follow the group website, Twitter or Facebook using any of the links above (you can ask to join the group via the Facebook site – mention you heard about it here).

Linky Tool for the Blog Hop


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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or subscribe via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar if you don’t have a WordPress account. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook. I love to connect with readers and writers.

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Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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Friday Links for Writers: 06.28.13

air-show-snow-conesSome weeks have a person singing “TGIF” loudly. My earlier posts this week (on the hard work of revision Monday and revising a flat character Tuesday) have confessed how intense writing and novel revision have been on my end. Yesterday’s challenge was the bleary work of comparing prior drafts, line by line. Still not fun, yet.

On the other hand… the kids and I are out of school for the summer. Today we’re off to the pool. Nights, we’ve been repeating my favorite childhood memory of reading mysteries falling asleep, as we’ve been buddy-reading my 11 year-old’s summer reading, And Then There Were None.

Before heading out to swim, it’s time for Friday Links. When writing is intense, I especially appreciate great reading to escape into, and I’ve stumbled across some great pieces this week. I hope you enjoy them – as always, let me know in the comments which links resonate for you, what you’d want more of, or share links to your own posts or links. Enjoy!

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This is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I’m sure lots of you will agree that literary agent Rachelle Gardner shares some of the best advice on her blog.  As I said, I’m in the hard part of writing, and this article is just the right pep talk. Rachelle says to tell yourself, “This is where patience comes in. I can do this.” You knew it was going to be hard; tell yourself, so this is what hard feels like. If you don’t need this inspiration, click to follow her anyway, as her blog is always great.

Are Children’s Books Darker Than They Used to Be?

If you read or write YA, this title probably called to you as much as it did to me. My spontaneous answer to the question was, “No” — have you ever read original fairy tales? They’re dark. In her article, writer Julia Eccleshare at the Guardian evaluates the darkness of current kid lit, and also the thematic needs of young readers that compels that darkness. (But a parent/teacher request to YA writers: not too dark folks. Recent experience with cable-channel movies has me aware of how much we’re desensitizing ourselves from violence. Don’t be dark just to get attention.)

Teachers Write!

If you are a teacher or librarian, this is a really high-energy writing “camp” hosted by 4 young adult authors online. I wrote about Teachers Write! on my teaching blog here, and shared response to a morning prompt here — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are daily prompts, advice, Q & A with authors and feedback — plus the positive camaraderie and feedback from participants. Use the link above for official info and sign-up… or see what’s going on at this Facebook page: Teachers Write! Facebook page. One can jump in to participate at any time.

Is the Key to Becoming a Great Writer Having a Day Job?

On the heels of link for teachers who write is this link, on that perpetual debate: the value or conflict of a day job to earn a living while writing a novel. This piece by Mason Currey in Slate won’t give you modern advice but may reassure of the value of day job as he examines several famous writers from throughout history and evaluates the impact of day jobs on their success.

Querying Agents? Check hashtag #MSWL

Want to find agents who would love to read a manuscript just like yours? Search tweets using the hashtag #MSWL which stands for manuscript wish list. Writers, don’t post your wishes — look for agents to list the kind of manuscript they’d love to get.

A Dozen Reasons Books Are Rejected by Agents, Editors (& Readers)

What’s interesting about this post by Mike Wells on his The Green Water blog is that his examples address that gap between writing a good enough query to interest an agent… but then the manuscript doesn’t follow through on the expectations set.

13 Inspirational TED Talks for Writers

Have you discovered TED Talks yet? I used to roll my eyes a little, they came up so often in “let’s rock the world” conversations — and then I got hooked myself. This is a second great link I’m sharing from Aerogramme, with a range of authors talking about creativity and more.

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Want to Join a Book Discussion on Writing Craft?

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

With fellow writers at Wordsmith Studio, I shared my love of novel writing prompts that literary agent Donald Maass used to tweet. I included 23 of those prompts, plus link to Maass’s site, in this post last March:

Want more? As one of our community resources, Wordsmith Studio hosts quarterly discussion groups including books on writing craft. Starting Monday July 1, we’ll be reading Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel. My copy arrives today. Find discussions on Twitter on Mondays at 9 pm EST July-September — using the hashtag #wschat (this tag is also used for Tuesday discussions of various aspects of writing).

Links for more info:

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Just for Fun: Responding to a Prompt from Teachers Write

One of my favorite family photos. We'd all converged in Virginia and I took this as we stopped in a specialty bike store so my brother could look for a part for his vintage BMW. None of the bikes Roonan would race, but a great moment. c. Elissa FieldMy posts on the last two days were pretty intense… So today’s is a chance to just play around with sensory detail.

Inspiration for today comes from a writing challenge — no, “challenge” is too intense for summer — a virtual writing camp for teachers called Teachers Write!.  (I wrote about it on my teaching blog hereTeachers Write via Mrs. T’s Middle Grades. Go back to that later — right now, read on and I’ll give more links below.)

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonWhether you’re a teacher or one of my YA-writing friends, you’d be interested to know the camp is hosted by four kid-lit authors: Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles and Jen Vincent. They share daily writing activities every day except Saturday, and the hosts and participants get together in blog comments, Facebook and twitter updates.

With all the revision I’m doing, I wasn’t sure I’d get involved — but, wow, with such excitement amongst the hosts and participants (over 1,111 last count I heard), it’s been a fun opportunity to connect with others.

Tuesday Quick Write Prompt

On her blog, kid-lit author Kate Messner  got everyone started today with Tuesday Quick Write (<click to read the prompt).  As a warm-up, her prompt was really interesting: it’s a single word but — whether from her examples and encouragement, or merely the suggestion of the word — it was amazing the range of sensory details it helped rouse.

My Morning Warm Up

So, just for fun here is my morning warm-up. It may seem random without the context of the story, and it’s just an unrevised rush of ideas, but I liked that the prompt provoked details of setting that brought out my character Roonan’s childhood fear about his motorcycle-racing father on race days.

        Sometimes night left vapor rising off the fields, waving hands across the laneways in warning. Stared you straight in the eye from the place where darkness started at the edges of fields and crept its way through the trees overhanging the roads. Smelling of earth, of damp, of rocks uncovered by cloven hooves in the night, of the sour, live alarm of dung beneath the cows, jaws cranking out the sane pace one should travel. Ch-omp, ch-omp, ch-omp… Pausing. Heaving out a breath. Stomping. Looking away to where a kite split the white haze of morning, where crows hid somnambulant in the trees, faces hid beneath a wing. Slow. Sl-o-o-ow. Slow. Sometimes rain would come. Barely falling, merely a dew floating in the air. Sometimes heavy sheets, rushing rivers impromptu along the lanes, drawing rivulets of mud, strings of grass, ripened berries knocked loose in the night by greedy maws, pebbles, spilled oil, sprung gears popped loose, a bit of chain, spit hocked out in yesterday’s trials, bit of tape. Men walked in the rain. Their boots mucked a neat path from trailer to trailer. Mechanics continued methodically adjusting spanners, polishing visors, low voices saying, “I’ve not heard shite,” of whether it would dry or the meet be canceled. Roonan was still young enough to squat beneath the trailer’s overhang, hearing but unseen, his eyes fixed on the rivulets creeping  closer to him beneath the trailer, eyes widening at the chance there might be no race today. He heard the familiar rasp of his father’s voice, the disappointment in it, saw what he knew to be his father’s hand extend out the door to feel how hard the rain still fell. Sometimes it stopped. Sometimes Roonan’s heart would race the hour or more after rain stopped falling, anxious knowing how badly the men wanted to ride, how the crowds were clamouring, “The roads are fairly dry…” Sometimes it would rain all day and he’d lie in his bunk, coffinlike, in the caravan, forcing his gaze to stay fixed on the near distance, tuning out all other voices – the complaints, the cursing, the calculating of costs paid to come this far and not race – and press down, like holding down sick, the guilt that rose in him. To be afraid, as he never saw his father or Stephen: scared by the thought of his father flung 160 miles an hour between the hedgerows.

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What Else is On Teachers Write?

Wednesday’s feature is Q & A — participants post any questions to be answered by guest writers. If you’re reading this on Wed morning the 26th, hop to this link, where writers  Laurel Snyder and Joanne Levy are on deck.

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What About You?

If you are a teacher/librarian and want to participate in Teachers Write, here is the post on Kate’s site announcing the program and how to sign up. Here is the recent writing prompt: Teachers Write 6/25 Tuesday Quick-Write Sometimes

If you’re not a teacher, I am in love with the handful of prompts to spur thoughts about setting halfway down this article by Donald Maass: The Map and the Trail.

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Friday Links for Writers 06.14.13

fl beach

Welcome back to Friday Links for Writers, which has been on a 3-month hiatus while I focused on other work. Today happens to be Flag Day which is also my birthday. I am celebrating on a gorgeous South Florida day with a little writing spree — and a short break to visit with you!

As writing friends here may know, my fiction competed for time with a new teaching role from February to May (remember my post: Writer Day Jobs: the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta? Street cred & money have been winning out, while time-to-revise… not so much) — so the idea of uninterrupted time to “make neat” of the frantic writing done in 15 or 30 minute chunks in the past several months is a fabulous luxury.

Luckily, there is never too little time for reading, and below are some great links I’ve come across in the past week or so. As always, let me know what you find useful, what you’d like more of… or let us know what writing goals you’ve been up to lately. Great to see you here.

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The Map and the Trail

Truth: I have yet to read any advice from literary agent Donald Maass that wasn’t immediately useful. As this essay opens with a rambling piece on a family hike, I thought maybe this was the one. But no. He pulled off great insight into the power of setting, including a great series of prompts to provoke thinking about how to make setting more powerful in your own WIP. Yup, I’ll be considering these in today’s work.

Book Editing

This post, featured on K. M. Weiland’s blog, Wordplay, features advice from ghostwriter Karen Cole on what to expect from the book editing process. In particular, her definitions of 5 types of editing give interesting terminology and clarity for discussing the possible processes during book edits with an editor or agent.

What to Write in the “Bio” Section of Your Query Letter

Working on getting queries out to agents this month?  This is a great article from Chuck Sambuchino at Writer Unboxed, breaking down the finer points of what to include (or leave out) of the bio paragraph of your query letter.

Race, Identity & Writing

As someone who has written outside culture and in foreign settings, I’ve often weighed the different challenges (and permission?) writing faces when an author writes outside their own race or identity — a topic taken on in this article by Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins.

Forging Words

I read this in a week that my former hometown, Detroit, has been declared bankrupt. What poet would be more fitting to profile than Philip Levine, a former Rouge Plant auto worker turned Poet Laureate of the United States? There is something humbling and inspiring to hear of work and decay spoken of in the same breath as creation of art.

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air-show-snow-cones

Where Else You’ll Find Me

One of the projects I’ve been up to has been writing about resources for educators. You’ll find the beginnings of that project, including Twitter 101 for Teachers: Steps for Getting Started on Twitter, at Mrs. T’s Middle Grades.

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

Thanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow — I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome — whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? I’ve previously shared these two:

But Tuesday I came across another blog with a challenge near to my goals this year: character motivation.

In her 10/14 post, “Making Motivation Matter,” Writerlious blogger E. B. Pike shares insights and an exercise she gained from a Writers Block conference she attended in Louisville. Follow link to her post to read her full explanation of the challenge as presented to her in a workshop. I can’t resist trying it here.

The challenge (quoted from the Writerlious blog):

1.) Write down your character’s name

2.) Write down what your character wants, as succinctly as possible

3.) Ask yourself: If your character doesn’t get what he/she wants, what will happen?

4.) Now, write down three ways describing how you could make this matter even more.

5.) Again. Think of three ways you could make this matter even more. Write them down.

6.) You guessed it.  Look back at what you’ve written and ask yourself if there’s any way you could make it matter even more.

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Of all my characters, Michael Roonan is most likely to meet the bar of high stakes motivation. Let’s see:

  1. Michael Roonan.
  2. Roonan wants: the happiness his parents had.
  3. He cannot get what his parents had because of a tragedy he witnessed that caused him to take a life in self-defense, as a boy.  If he did not get over the tragedy, he would just grow up in isolation. Not yet a big stake.
  4. That violent act caused him to become alienated in fear.  He isolated himself to protect those around him but a loyal friend tried to rescue him.. Once the friend is involved, stakes are raised, as he is now focused on extricating the friend from guilt, beyond any hope of extricating himself.
  5. In an effort to correct the problem, he upheld his father’s paranoia about needing to protect the family and avoid violence. But the more he sought to avoid violence, the more he escalated it, and two members of his family are killed. Stakes raised twice: believing in his father’s integrity and lives lost.
  6. His involvement in violence is exonerated as “self-defense” — yet he becomes increasingly aware of his own flawed perceptions, so that his innocence or damnation hinges on whether his father’s values and paranoia were accurate. Stakes raised: loss of innocence, loss of faith, damnation. Against these, Roonan sees death as easy.
  7. At the moment Roonan judges himself damned, resigned to death, he is confronted by the unexpected birth of his own son — now faced once again with his original wish: for the simple happiness of family.

I’m not surprised to have full stakes for Roonan, but am curious to run the same test on the female protagonist, Carinne, as development of her character has been my focus in recent revisions:

  1. Carinne
  2. (Should I be honest and say I stalled out to even say what she wants?) Initially, for herself: love, acceptance.
  3. If she did not get love or acceptance for herself, she might just withdraw into herself. No big deal. She’s in company with half the planet, perhaps. Not yet a story.
  4. She then meets Michael Roonan. They are kindred in resignation to their individual isolation. Seeing it in each other, they fight to keep the other afloat. She begins to rebel against her own resignation, at the same time she becomes accomplice in his escape from the man pursuing him. She becomes a part of a mission to keep the man safe, which essentially parallels her own need to fight for herself. Story spark.
  5. She has fallen in love. There is the moment when things could turn and go well, but then Roonan is killed.  She believes he survived, but is told he died and she is sent out of the country.  At this point, it is interesting, but as far as her motivation, it’s still kind of “so what?” – she could move on with a new love, I suppose. He could be the exciting bad boy that got away – but not necessarily high stakes.
  6. She is pregnant and has a child (the first pages open with that child digging in her garden). She had been willing to give up on finding Roonan for herself, but won’t give up once it’s a matter of finding her son’s father. Stakes are raised the day he comes home asking who he’s supposed to take to the daddy party at nursery school. Ding!
  7. Once Roonan is found, the son’s need for his father to survive and be part of his life provokes the resolution, as living happily is at odds with the father’s need for atonement.

What a great exercise for identifying where motivation is clear and where it is still pedestrian.  I love romantic motivation, but am suspicious of it as the sole motivator, so had been questioning Carinne for some time. She is compelling, but not if her only motivation is loving Roonan.

What’s interesting in breaking it down is it pinpoints a truth I caught last spring: Carinne is not the real protagonist; the son is.  Carinne is essentially a stand-in for the son for much of the story.  While we might be moved by a love story, the son’s need for a father trumps the mother’s romantic motivation.  It is the son’s desire (and mother’s desire for his well being) that drives the story.  Once I hone in on that, how easy are the questions to answer.  What does the son want? A father. What will happen if he doesn’t get it? Parallel to the tragedy already modeled by the dad: questions of his manhood, his integrity, his identity, his worth. Resolution of that one desire addresses the needs and desires of his parents, as well.

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I applied Writerlious’s list to a finished draft, but a key point as it was presented to her in workshop is to take the time to define your characters and their motivation before starting to write.  For all those of you contemplating NaNoWriMo next month, this is perfect time to do just that!

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October is only halfway done! Jump in on one of these challenges, or share your own questions for developing story.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like minded bloggers!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche — but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Setting Place Roots, Writing Character, Writing Prompt

October Writing Challenges: Week 1

Need a challenge to keep your writing moving in October? Here are two:

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Get Your Work Out the Door!

Khara House is a fabulously elegant writer whom I have gotten to know as a fellow Founding Member of the writing group, Wordsmith Studio. She’s generously offering us all opportunity to participate in a kick-in-the-pants challenge with her October Submit-O-Rama.  That link takes you to her blog (Our Lost Jungle) for explanation; or find it on Facebook: October Submit-O-Rama on Facebook.

Whether you are a fiction writer, poet or journalist, it’s a great opportunity to push yourself to get your work out the door, among the camaraderie of other writers who won’t give you the blank stare your spouse, cat or friend-on-the-treadmill give when you brag, “I just sent out three submissions!”

My participation this week? I’m busy reading manuscripts by others and working on novel revisions, so will not be submitting this week, but I did take time to update my submission target lists.

How do I manage information about magazines I submit to?  I use contact cards in Outlook to maintain my own data on hundreds of literary magazines (and agents).  I use this and Duotrope to actively research the magazines I submit to, updating guidelines, reviewing their latest publications, tracking their interests, keeping track of my communication with editors, and otherwise doing my best to connect with like-minded publications.

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Herding Your Inspirational Dragon

On her blog, Herding the Dragon (can we pause and appreciate what a fabulous title that is for a blog about writing?), Samantha Holloway shares a 30 Day Writing Meme that is perfect palate cleanser for writers hard at work on a novel draft or nose to the grindstone in revisions. Yeah, that includes me.  You, too?  Read my note below on joining in, so we can write together.

My participation this week? Here is my answer for day 1:

How many characters do you have? Do you prefer males or females?

In my current WIP, there is a female protagonist (Carinne), a male protagonist (Michael Roonan) and their son. In early chapters, there is vibrant interaction with people around them while traveling (the family Carinne travels with, the lively couple who manage a hotel). As Carinne and Roonan flee through several chapters, they are isolated, accompanied only by Roonan’s childhood best friend, Aidan, and pursued by an unseen antagonist. They are pointedly isolated until the resolution, where Roonan again meets Aidan as well as members of his mother’s family.  That makes three main characters, three important side characters, and less than a dozen other named characters.  This work is about isolation, so feels spare as compared to another draft, Breathing Water, which has half a dozen main characters.  Prefer male or female characters? I write each just as readily and enjoy getting to experience the story from multiple perspectives, so no preference.

Read my Reflections on Writing Character & Place (Days 2-4) on 10/10.

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Want to Participate in Either Challenge?

Here are links to both :

  • Submit-O-Rama on Our Lost Jungle: on the blog or on Facebook
  • 30 Day Writing Meme on Herding the Dragon: begin here with Day 1

Are you going to participate in either challenge, or are you at work on another challenge (how many of you have NaNoWriMo on your horizon)?  Let us know in the comments below and keep us posted on your progress.  If you’re doing the Dragon challenge, copy the questions and post your answers on your site, but feel free to share a link to your blog in the comments here.

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Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.'”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like minded bloggers!

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Filed under Inspiration, Novel Writing, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop