See, this is what I'm talking about. Those writing prompts that will never produce anything I'll ever use in a book . . . Ever.
I found this in the Writer's Digest newsletter. It's this week's prompt:
Using as much alliteration as you can (Annie always ate apples) tell a story about your meeting with a group of alien ambassadors.
Most of the time, I enjoy the prompts from Writer's Digest. Even if I was writing a sci fi, I still can't imagine using the writing from this prompt. What is this prompt teaching me to do? What skill or technique is this building in my writing? Seriously, what am I missing?
The first serious writing prompt I encountered was one I heard from Terry McMillian. She was the featured speaker at writers conference I was attending (just before her mega bestseller Waiting to Exhale was published). Anyway, the writing prompt she uses with her students is:
Write about the worst thing that's ever happened to you. Write in-depth. Write until you cry.
Write about the best thing that's ever happened to you. Write in-depth. Write until you laugh.
The revelations, emotions, details, events that come out of that brave writing are things that transcend all writing. This exercise will give you touchpoints and references you can use again and again. If you don't chose to use the writing in that way, maybe it will cleanse you and open you so that you can write the novel you were born to write.
Anyone have a favorite writing prompt? Please share.
Right now I'm reading The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass and Broken by Megan Hart.
As usual, Donald Maass has put together a book that explores the elements of fiction writing that bestselling fiction has in common. He gives explanations, examples, and then exercises to help you incorporate these elements into your fiction.
Megan Hart's book is an erotic novel a woman who explores her sexuality (or lack thereof) vicariously through others. I'm enjoying the fact that it is erotic fiction with an actual solid and well-layered story and plot. The sexuality heightens the drama of a great tale.
When I conduct writing workshops (see Writing From Scratch), writers often ask about social media. They want to know how much time should they invest in social media and the impact social media has on sales. Although a writer’s participation in Web 2.0 outreach to readers and followers is essential, my inclination is toward the old school perspective that says focus on your work . . . always on the work. Without a finished product (i.e. a novel or two) none of these other things matter much.
What I find is that all too often, writers who haven’t even crossed the threshold of “the sagging middle” (more on the sagging middle in a future post) are caught up in thoughts about promotion (including websites and business cards) before they have something to promote. The energy you spend fretting over which social media you want to use--and how much time you’re going to spend doing it as well as how to balance social media time with writing time--to me is moot until you’ve proven to yourself that you can actually finish a book.
Now, I’m well aware that an online presence is vital these days. Publishers want to make deals with writers who come with a ready-made readership. But what good is that ready-made readership if this readership has nothing to read?
My suggestion in this area is always work on your book. Finish your book. Make it the best book you can possibly write. If you’ve finished one book, start another (as you wait for responses from agents and editors). Have a solid and engaging idea of where you want your writing career to go. Have a plan to get there. When you have a product and a plan, the way in which social media supports your book and fits into your plan becomes evident. Then, you can focus on your viral presence and make it as magnificent as the work you’ve produced.
Like the proverbial chicken and egg, we’re entering a era where writers are asking “What comes first, the book or the blog?” Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as you have both.
Okay, maybe it’s not the trouble with GMC, just my trouble with GMC. As many of you know, in the mass market fiction world, goal, motivation, and conflict (lovingly adored as GMC) rules with an essential hand. If you want to write a good story, it is said, your main characters must have goals, motivations, and conflicts. And these GMCs must have internal and external aspects. Just the thought of this conjures visions of Left Eye from TLC (Jesus rest) when she was on Behind the Music and said, “Get ready to do you math!”
If you’re writing romance as I do and you have a hero and a heroine, and you have an internal and external GMC for each . . . uh, that’s twelve things to keep track of in your story.
I like the “idea” of GMC. For years I completed character boards with Post-it notes working out each of those twelve aspects like a dutiful romance author. All the while, that process didn’t sit quite right with me. I mean seriously . . . 12 things!
If I give my character a white poodle on page 17, I have to make sure that the damned thing isn’t a black cocker spaniel by page 234. It’s just the way my mind works, or rather, doesn’t work. Keeping track of my main character’s internal conflict, while balancing her external goal, all the while amplifying his internal motivation—I mean, just boil me in oil now.
It wasn’t until I read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook that I found something that works for me. Mr. Maass suggested having characters want two things at the same time. This may simply be an alternate route to get to the internal and external goal as well as the internal and external conflict, but to me, it makes more sense. No, not more sense, better sense. Making those two things are mutually-exclusive is an even better way to put it. Use this technique and you’ve eliminated potentially six things from your GMC plotting. And wouldn’t we all love that? Less to worry about when we’re creating our stories.
To those for whom Internal/External GMC works, I salute you. I have plenty of friends who wouldn’t dare write word-one without completing their GMC boards. (The bedrock of my writing principles is: do whatever works.) For others like me, it took a while to find a concept that I can actually use to write better stories. Now that I’ve found what drives me toward my best writing, I’m sticking to it.
When I conduct research, my goal isn’t just facts, figures, and information. I also want to get enough realism so I don’t get slammed by readers who say, “Girl, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” What I seek is experiential research.
I don’t do this with every story, but some of them just talk to me and call out for more than internet searches, a trip to the library, and a SME interview.
In True Devotion, my character Marti is an artist. She does lettering arts and she paints. My characters tend to have occupations that I have some curiosity about. That way, if I take a class—or as in the case of True Devotion—I purchase some paints and a canvas and some brushes, I’ll be stepping into my character’s life as well as expanding my own.
I wrote an historical novel that takes place during slavery. I spent a week in Williamsburg, VA and took a plantation tour. In my book, Ever Wonderful, my character owns a ranch. I spent the weekend at a working ranch, got dirty, and had a ball!
I can often tell when I’m reading a book whether the author has given the MC (main character) an occupation or hobby he/she knows nothing about. If I have a character who is a cop, for me, watching a whole season of Cops would not do it. I’d have to go on at least one community ride along.
Like I said, I don’t do this kind of immersion for every story. There are some stories where this kind of thing might not be feasible. In those cases, I sometimes ask myself why I’m writing the story then—if I can’t authenticate it.
I’ve been working on and off a short story in which the main character draws portraits. At some point, I will take up graphite and canvas and ask my friends to let me draw them. Now, am I an artist? No, at least not in that way. When I’m finished with the portraits, I’ll post pictures of the drawings here for your amusement. They will probably look like the scribbles of a four-year-old. But I will have direct knowledge of how that pencil feels in my hand. The conversation that takes place as I draw. Whether I want the person to just shut up so I can get the mouth right. And a compendium of thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m drawing—probably about light and shadow and the way people’s imperfections have a way of showing up on their faces.
I was in a workshop once and the suggestion came up to dress up like your character . . . then go about your day. I haven’t done that one yet, but knowing me . . . I will.
What do you do to get into your characters, who they are, and what they do?
This is not about how to take a scene you're currently struggling with and make it sing. Although that is certainly a noble pursuit--one to which most fiction writers are aspiring at this very moment. No, this blog post is about your step-children. The babies you've forsaken for the bigger and better scene. This is about the passage you cut away like an extra thumb vowing some day to return and use it elsewhere.
This writing activity is a seance. A reanimation.
Most of us have scenes that we've cut out of a previous work with hopes of visiting later for other works. Go back to one of those scenes--the further back, the better.
(If you aren't saving your scenes, shame on you! Start right now. Create a document called "Cut Scenes." Don't delete your words permanently.--> remember I said I was lazy<--Save them. They come in handy when you hit character resistance or need some inspiration.)
So, revisit your family. Take a word, a sentence, a sentiment, a name, a description, or a conflict and incorporate it into your current WIP.
When I start a new a new novel, I go to Office Depot or Office Max (whichever is having the best sale at the time) and I buy three things:
• 2-inch, D-ring binder with pockets
• Paper portfolio that’s 3-hole punched
• Notebook (spiral or non) that’s 3-hole punched
When I start working on a story, I write all my ideas, bits of dialogue, plot points, and random character thoughts in my notebook. I keep the notebook with me at all times. Concerts, business meetings, crop parties. Yes, I’ve even taken it to the bathroom with me—hey, I get some of my best ideas in there!
Anyway, I don’t write anything on any extraneous pieces of paper. Those things: post-its, receipts, deposit slips, and the like can get easily lost, and then there goes my brilliant idea. So, I write everything in one place. Now, you can get notebooks with dividers. So if you want to separate you ideas by subject, such as backstory, plot, subplot, you could. I’m organized, but I’m not that organized. That kind of fine tuning is counter intuitive to my creative process—which is best described as . . . free flowing (read messy).
I use the portfolio to keep track of any loose papers. Photos from magazines of people that represent my characters. Pamphlets, booklets, from research I’ve done on the topic. News articles of events that I might talk about in my story. Things people send me. It’s amazing how when I tell people what my story’s about, sometimes I get things from friends and colleagues on that topic. And because I forget my notebook sometimes and I’m forced to write on the backs of napkins and weird slips of paper, the portfolio gives me a place to put them. If my portfolio gets too fat, I use the pockets in the binder as overflow.
Finally, I printout a copy of my manuscript when it’s ready to edit. (Yes, I do old school edits on paper.) I three-hole punch it and work on the edits. It’s also nice to have my manuscript printed out for those times when I’m writing about a character with ties to a previous book. I can quickly flip to whatever section I need to review from the previous novel and get the information I need to make the new story that I’m working on consistent.
would definitely not write as sweetly!
I've had a thing for pens for about 15 years. Ten years ago I put my dollars where my fascination was and bought my first "nice" pen. Levenger True Writer. Since then, I've fed my pen jones, My friends and family have been good to me on birthdays and special occasions.
I've discovered that when I write with them, something wonderful happens . . . I write better. My handwriting, my poems, short stories, and fiction. My muse knows there's something special in my hand and does not disappoint. If I'm working on my computer and get stuck on a scene, I take out one of my pens, grab and pad of paper and push through it.
Some of the pens in my collection aren't that expensive (like the $16 tan and black one or the $10 black and white one that lights up). Some of them just have fantastic weight and feel so damned good in my hand, I can't help but write something I'm proud of.
When I was on tour with my novel The Glory of Love, I was using my orange pen. Since I bought it, I've forgotten the make of it. However, a guy that came up to purchase a book for his wife knew exactly what type it was. Make, model, type of ink cartridge. It's always cool to meet a fellow pen aficionado!
I bought my red True Writer when I sighed my first book contract. I bought the Sheaffer Balance fountain pen when my first book Destiny's Song came out. For raw creativity, there's nothing, nothing like a good pen.
I’m revising a short story right now. The story is about the aftermath of a shooting that takes place on a college campus. I wrote the story during a weekend workshop titled SUDDENLY FICTION during the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.
http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/iswfest/ I attend the festival almost every year, and it’s the best writing I do every 365 days or so. With choices of over 200 workshops every summer, I’ve had my share of workshops that were less than great.
However, this year I chose wisely. As a self-defined writing exercise junkie, I revel in the opportunity to enhance my writing skills and use my pen in new ways by doing exercises designed to hone specific skills. The one I enjoyed most from the Suddenly Fiction workshop was where our instructor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, suggested that we write from a perspective different/opposite from our own. For example: imagine being pro-life and being chosen to lead a discussion on the merits of pro-choice. I can’t describe how liberating this was. Suddenly (as the workshop title implied) I wrote freely in a way that allowed me to create a character I’m utterly fascinated with.
And now, the contrast. I’m a lazy writer. If I’m producing creative writing . . . pages or scenens in the 1,000s of words, those pages better fit somehow into my WIP (work in progress). I’m not at all into the "stare at the orange and describe it in minute detail” kind of writing exercises unless I’m writing about a character who is obsessed with oranges and that description will become part of my manuscript.
So for those of you with a similar mind, I’m writing this blog. My goal is to share my ventures into creative writing that have enhance my writing and make me excited about all those words. In doing so, my hope is that you stumble across something you can use to stay excited about your writing.
I’m going to say what my pen would say if it could talk. I hope you’ll join me here often and do the same.