This week, my creative writing students listened to the accordion. Many had never heard an accordion before. They didn't know what it would sound like, and they had no idea what it looked like.
It was a new sensory experience.
To my surprise, several students enjoyed the chaotic old world hum and breath of this most unusual style of music. Of course, there were a few who shot daggers at me with their eyes. So I did what any writing teacher might, I told them to use what they were feeling and experiencing and put it in their story.
It's one thing to try to bring anger into a scene; it's quite another to feel it as you are writing it.
Music allows us to tap into our emotions on many levels.
Try this experiment. As you listen to each musical clip below, pause to write about what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, and imagining. See where the music takes you, your story, or your characters.
Polka Dots remix
Masego x Medasin
The Ballet Edition
Please share your experience with these tracks. I'd love to hear how they impacted your writing.
That's my story. What's yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
Sitting in front of my laptop, day in and day out, tunneling inside my head to find the very last bread crumbs of creativity, I often wonder what I'm doing.
The short answer is: writing.
The long answer is much more complicated.
Telling a story is not easy. It's more than having an idea and some characters and a setting. There are layers. The idea needs to be complex, a conflict that branches off onto another path. The characters must be rich and flawed but believable. The setting requires details--but not too many--and imagery. It must all come alive before the reader's eyes and live within the reader's imagination.
Storytelling calls for all of this plus heart and movement.
Read all of the books you can on writing; study great writers; practice, practice, practice. It will still be hard.
No one said it would be easy.
Don't give up. Give in, and write. Every. Day. Every. Moment.
You are never not a writer. Even when you are doing the other mundane chores that humans must do, even then you are a writer. Writers must take out the trash, wash dishes, pee, buy eggs, carpool the soccer team, shop for new underwear.
You are human. Live your life, but always live it as a writer. Everything you do requires you to be on the alert for the next great line, quirky character, unusual plot, or brilliant setting.
This is not a pep talk, this is a shoulder hug, a you-can-do-it-stop-complaining self-talk, a remember-why talk. Don't write because you want to, write because if you don't, you would die, life would evaporate before your eyes, and you would disintegrate into a pile of dust to be swept under a rug.
Writing is the fire that burns inside me. I write for me. I write because I must.
That is my story. What's yours?
Every night before I sleep, I pray to the grammar gods to grant me one more inch of knowledge. No matter how many times I look up a rule in STRUNK & WHITE or THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, I can't retain it.
Even though I call myself a writer, I sit and wait for someone to knock on my door and say, "The gig's up, lady. If you don't know the difference between lie and lay, get out of the game!"
So far, no one has shown up. This leads me to the conclusion that writers don't need to be lords or ladies of the Oxford comma or champions of the ellipsis.
Hi, my name is Ellen and I misuse grammar.
Lucky for me--and the rest of you!--there is the internet.
Today, we will practice with my favorites: homonyms.
First, it helps to know this:
The prefix homo- means "one and the same."
The root graph means "word or story."
The root nym means "name or word."
The root phone means "sound."
HOMOGRAPH: each of two or more words having the same spelling but different meanings (lead the parade/lead pipe; fly away fly).
HOMOPHONE: each of two or more words pronounced the same but having different spellings or meanings (new/knew; red/read).
Both of these types of words are known as homonyms because they share something the same--spelling or pronunciation.
Fun with homographs:
You can bank on me putting this money in the bank.
He refused to back the horse with the broken back.
A tear rolled down her cheek after seeing the tear in her wedding gown.
Have your own fun with these: digest, type, match
Fun with homophones:
John won one rose for his sweetheart.
She stared into the sun as her son flew his kite.
"Wait!" she cried. "I don't want to see my weight today."
Try your fun with these: cell/sell; tea/tee; bare/bear
It's pretty near impossible to know how to use every word in the English language. Give yourself a break. Write because you love to write and let the Internet and grammar gods help you with the rest.
You are a fantastic writer because you can tell a story, not because you know the proper use of bare .
What are your grammar gripes? Let's talk.
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!
I dare not say these words out loud, but... shhh... come closer, and I'll whisper them to you.
I think my story is finished.
Don't tell anyone. Not yet. First, I need to make sure I've satisfied the questions with which the story began.
I have worked on my young adult contemporary manuscript for more than a year. I'm not talking the writing part. The writing began in 2013. I'm talking editing and revising. A year. To be precise, fifteen months.
ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY has seen changes in characters, point of view, and plot. It is an entirely different story than the one I began three years ago. It is also an entirely better story.
First, let me tell you why it's better then I'll show you how I know it's finished.
One. I have addressed every concern an agent or editor brought to my attention during contests and querying.
Two. I have examined and corrected every detail my amazing critique partners raised a red flag to.
Three. I like it. It's a story. The characters are authentic. The MC is fallible.
Now let me show you how I know it's finished using the following five questions.
One. Is the main plot resolved?
I don't want to promise a premise that doesn't pan out. Readers need resolution to the protagonist's problem. Resolution does not necessarily mean a happy or satisfying ending. It just needs to be plausible.
Two. Did the protagonist solve it (YA needs this)?
In YA, the protagonist needs to be the one to solve her problem. Adolescents seek empowerment; adults screw with their destinies enough in the real world.
Three. Has the character grown or changed from the opening scene?
Consider Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey narrative. When the reader meets the MC, there must be something the reader asks or observes, something he expects to change.
Four. Have all the minor plots resolved?
Your A story and B story and all minor journeys that arose along the way must each come to a close.
Five. Have all the "teasers" been dealt with or resolved?
In Act I, you've no doubt introduced red herrings or secondary characters with their own story. These all need closure. If Mom has been looking for a job throughout the story, and you keep referring to it, she either needs to land one or make a comment about going back to school. Something. Don't leave teasers teasing (unless you're writing a sequel... but that's another story...).
If you think you're story is over, answer the five questions. What other questions do you think writers need to ask?
Share with us here.
Word choice matters.
If you are a writer, choosing the wrong word at the wrong time could land you in a mess.
When Alice tells the Mad Hatter that she has said what she's meant because she meant to say it, he scolds her: "You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see.""
Words matter, and so does the order in which we use them.
Today is Leap Day, a perfect time to review the use of verbs. Let's start with leap.
Synonyms include: hop, jump, spring, vault, bound, hurdle.
However, those words refer to the act of leaping, such as: I leapt over the boulder. An equivalent sentence could be written using any of the aforementioned synonyms. Not true if you wrote this sentence: The company leaped at the opportunity to raise production. You wouldn't say The company vaulted or hurdled at the opportunity. You could say they jumped or sprang.
Say what you mean.
My esteemed critique partner, Gwynne Jackson, reminds me often that the best word to use is the simplest. If the frog hopped onto the lily pad, say so. Don't get fancy by saying it vaulted onto the lily pad. Do frogs vault?
Varying words and sentence helps your writing flow, but don't get overzealous. If the shoe fits...
When your vocabulary needs a boost or the word you've written doesn't sound right, take time to research the right word. For that, there are many resources.
Scrivener If you use this amazing writing app, you know all about its dictionary and thesaurus. Double tap the word in your document and bring forward a dictionary page to examine.
Etymolonline I use this in the classroom with my students. Type in a word and learn the word origin, common usage, synonyms, antonyms, or more.
OneLookDictionary Another creative site that offers up loads of suggestions to help you find the right word.
Whatever you are working on right now, take the time to choose the right words.
Every writer working on a story can tell you about the time she woke at 3AM with the key to fixing a failing plot. Or maybe it was a brand new story idea that interrupted a peaceful slumber. Perhaps, it was just before sleep took over, and he was distracted with that scene in chapter whatever about the guy and that situation...
Whatever it may be, a writer's mind thrives when it's quiet, and it's no quieter than the middle of the night.
If you want to tap into the midnight creative juice pool, take the time to quiet your mind.
As we are sensory input and output machines, there are a variety of ways to discover your inner peace. Here are my two favorites.
Tune Out. Do your best to create a silent world around you. Buy some inexpensive squishy earplugs used to drown out snoring partners or spend more money on sound-reducing headphones. If they sound of your own breathing is too much. Plug yourself into the music of someone like LIQUID MIND.
Black Out. I'm not suggesting typing with a blindfold--but if you can do that, try it! At the very least, place yourself in a space with no art work, no windows to the outside world, and no Internet. Rid your outer mind of external visuals and fall deep within your own imagination. Remember when you were little, and you would hide under your bedcovers to read or draw? Recreate that child's world if you can.
Try both of these suggestions for a week or more and share your results. Is your writing any better? Any easier? Any different at all?
Sometimes, we need sensory input. If you are seeking that help, try these previous blogs:
Employing the senses
Oscar Wilde said: Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.
It's true, and that's why writers could gain much from reading the newspaper. You can't make up some of the real stories that happen every day outside our windows.
How about the tourist who took her Uber driver sightseeing because she had no one else? Fortunately, it's a heartwarming story, but imagine how it might have come to a ghastly end? Or perhaps they'd fall in love. So many possibilities.
Whether you want some writing practice or you need to infuse your story with new energy, the newspaper will not let you down.
Even ads can offer unique plot twists. Take the old one to the right. What if your MC stumbled across this vintage car at a salvage lot, bought it for a couple hundred dollars with the intention of restoring it but discovered something in the trunk: a body, a fortune, a bundle of letters, a map...
If you're looking for fresh ideas, consider these three ways the news can brighten your story.
1. Discover a new character. Flip to a random page and read the top story. Who's it about? What makes them interesting? What might they not be telling us? If there's a photo, even better. There's no better place to find real characters than in real life.
2. Create a plot twist. Take a story from the front page, add a weather forecast that would have created a real disaster. Maybe it's a presidential debate amidst a snowstorm. What happens when no one shows? Perhaps it's a fast food chain that shuts its doors for a safety training, but it's a heatwave, and people are thirsty. Will they open doors?
3. Update your setting. Turn to the Style section for inspiration on homes, landscapes, or modern neighborhoods. Then flip to the home sale pages and mash up a neighborhood with million dollar homes that can't sell.
What's happening to your MC right now? Look up tomorrow's weather forecast in Minnesota or take a quote from Peyton Manning after today's victory. How can use these news events to liven up your story?
I hope these ideas help. Please share your experiences or other creative uses of the news.