Friday, May 17th, 2013

Writing Prompt – Unexpected Discoveries

So the Husband-of-Awesome™ and I set about to grill chicken for dinner the other night.

Mr. Awesome went out to the grill and opened it up to find this:

Five Little Birdies in the Grill

Here’s a close-up. Turns out there were five little birdies plus mama nesting in the grill.

Five Little Birdies in the Grill

The really fortunate thing about the matter is that Mr. Awesome broke with habit when he found the birds. Usually, he fires up the grill willy-nilly without peeking inside, so that it’s pleasantly pre-heated before we cook.

(Don’t blame him, I do it, too.)

Imagine if he hadn’t broken his normal habit. Those birds don’t know how lucky they had it.

And us, too.

And so this unexpected discovery put paid to the grilling endeavor, not just for Wednesday night, but until the little guys decide to vacate the grill.

Here’s Your Prompt

  • Write a scene in which either your protagonist or antagonist is unexpectedly surprised by something nice and cheerful which messes up their plans. Note: it’s got to cause your characters some consternation, because a story isn’t a good story without some drama!
  • It could be argued that Mr. Awesome’s break with habit was due to ‘divine intervention’ of some sort*. Write a scene in which a similar serendipitous event wreaks havoc with your characters’ plans.
  • Journal about a time when something strange happened (divine intervention?) — in the nick of time — to save you or a family member from peril.

Good Luck!

* Or maybe he just saw some straw sticking out of the bottom of the grill.

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Writing Prompt – Characters Who Die

I finished reading three stories this week in which the main character died. I didn’t plan it, it just happened.

In case you’re interested, the characters are:

  • Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. She accidentally committed suicide by overdosing on a “sleeping aid,” conveniently tying up the unraveling strands of her life.
  • Delilah in Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Singer. Tragic and abrupt, it probably couldn’t have been handled in any other way. (Spoiler Alert: Okay, she really doesn’t die. But Roberson leaves you hanging like she does: The sword fight ends with Tiger lamenting that Del paid a very high price…and the final chapter sees him in the graveyard riding off alone. Well, what are you supposed to think?)
  • Benjamin Button in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (I’m interpreting this as death, but Button’s unmaking could probably be described better in scientific terms. Maybe he was simply un-born.)

Frankly, I call bullshit on principal characters who die.

(Especially when the story is first person, and the person telling it dies. But that’s a topic for another day…)

That being said, there are a lot of reasons to kill off main characters: they deserve it, they’ve lost their usefulness as a story tool, or – the best reason, in my opinion– to yank the reader’s chain. There’s nothing better than building up an awesome character and cutting short his life. It just tugs at the heartstrings of readers.

(Hello Ms. Roberson? Brava!)

Still, a character shouldn’t be killed off without good reason. And when there’s not a good reason, I call bullshit.

Benjamin and Delilah’s ‘death’ are well-justified, but I feel Wharton took the easy way out by killing off Lily. It’s convenient for her, because the story was really dragging on, and double convenient for Lily who had been cut off socially by friends and faced a woeful future of penury.

(I couldn’t wait to finish the book. If poor Lily would have defended her social position – she had the means – and discarded a bit of her pride, she would have fared much better. I don’t mind when a character makes stupid mistakes, but I can’t stand it when they make them over and over and over again. Makes me spitting mad.)

Here’s Your Prompt

  • Write the death of your main character. You don’t have to include it in the book or story you’re writing. Consider this a character-interview of sorts. (And don’t let your character know what you’ve planned: it puts them in the position of doing all kinds of things they might not do if they didn’t know the end was coming.)

    Some of you think I’m kidding. But, I’m not. Trust me on this.

  • If you’re a poet: write a poem about death….but not tragic death. Write about heroic death.
  • Memoirists: write about a death in the family over which some cloud hangs. Do some research to clarify details if you can.

Good luck!

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Writing Prompt – When the Wall Came Down

Photo of the Berlin Wall Being Built in 1961On November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall came down – figuratively. Officials opened it and allowed citizens to travel from East Berlin to West Berlin.

It wasn’t until a day later when citizens rushed to the wall and started breaking it down and chipping off pieces for souvenirs. In the weeks that followed — though the walls were still guarded in many places — it finally toppled.

During its existence, officials did permit some travel from East to West — with the necessary permits — and usually to anyone but those trapped behind the wall. Some families were cut off from contact for decades. East Germans who worked in West Germany immediately lost the jobs they could no longer travel to. The erected wall cut railway stations in half, closing stations and orphaning lines. Economic outcome grew dim.

Here’s Your Prompt

  1. Imagine your local government erects a wall in the middle of your home town, separating you from friends, family and employment. What happens? Write a journal entry, poem or essay about the event.
  2. As above, only interview friends and family for their reaction. Write a fictitious news story detailing the event.
  3. The same scenario as the first item, only the event happens to a character in one of your short stories or novels. Write the scene for your main character when all these liberties have been taken away. Or, write the scene for the villain who made the decision to build the wall.
  4. Walls are often used as metaphors for something else. What walls are you surrounded by? What wall is your character surrounded by? Write about these walls.
  5. Along the same line, why do people build walls around themselves? What can this lead to? Imagine how a the main character in your book has built a wall around himself. How can this back story cause conflict in the story you’re writing? Write a scene where the character acknowledges those walls. Does she tear them down, or keep them up? How does this move your story? Write it.
  6. Write a poem about a metaphoric wall.

Good Luck!

Photo Credit: The National Archives

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Writing Prompt – Memorable Characters

Lucille BallI was getting ready for work this morning and the TV was playing an old I Love Lucy re-run. It reminded me that a book I’ve recently finished reading (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos – I didn’t like it, BTW) mentioned that Lucille Ball spoke Spanish.

Apparently, when Lucy visited with Desi Arnaz’s friends, she spoke fluently with them.

That one fact created a depth in Lucille Ball’s character that changed irrevocably how I feel about her.

I’m currently reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (This book is a tortuous read which will not end!) in which I’ve met the unlikable (yet memorable) character of Uriah Heep.

According to David Copperfield:

He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly; and which diverted my attention from the compliment he had paid my relation, to the snaky twistings of his throat and body.

Ew! But how memorable.

Today’s prompt deals with character quirks: gestures, mannerisms, or even distinct physical attributes which make your character stand out. The quirk could be good or bad, depending on how you want to portray your character.

Whatever you do: don’t over do it. Choose one memorable quirk per character — and don’t riddle all the characters in your book with memorable traits, else how will the important ones stand out?

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Create a character quirk for a someone in your work in progress. Write a character sketch to flesh it out before using it in your work. Decide how this quirk affects your character.
  • Create a physical quirk for one of your characters which influences the character’s choice of religion.
  • Create a quirk based on someone’s eating habits. (Does this character eat only blue foods? Mash his food together? Must keep all foods (and all their juices) separate? Etc.)
  • Create a quick based on someone’s hygiene habits. (Does this character wear too much perfume? Wear too much make-up? Dye his hair a different color every week? Wear two-different colored contact lenses, doesn’t bathe, picks her scabs until they bleed? Picks her nose all the time?)
  • Create a long list of attributes, quirks or mannerisms and write them on little slips of paper. Fold them up and stir, then randomly choose two options for a new character. Here’s a short list to begin with:

    freckles, lisp, nail biting, body odor, wears the same clothes every day, wears too much perfume, whispers instead of talks, only eats sweet foods, doesn’t comb hair, hiccups when nervous, noisily stirs tea or coffee, a full beard, a limp, an irritating laugh, chews food with mouth open, allergies, gets seasick, paranoia, knows it all, argumentative, class clown, morbid, dresses only in one color

  • If you journal, consider writing about a family member or close friend with a memorable quirk. Think of a time that quirk caused an argument, created laughter, or instilled love. Write a ‘character sketch’ about this person or the incident.

Good luck!

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Writing Prompt – National Write to a Friend Month

Old LettersDecember is “National Write to a Friend Month,” so I thought I’d do a prompt on writing letters.

With the advent of email, it seems that the “art” of letter writing has gone by the wayside, but it doesn’t have to. I like receiving personalized letters via snail mail (so I make sure to write some, so that people write me back).

Writing to a friend differs from writing to a business, but both include a salutation, a body, a closing and a signature. A friendly letter doesn’t need to have a date on it, but I’m partial to that method.

The facts:

  • Salutation – The opening of the letter, for example, “Dear Mom”
  • Body – The text of the letter. The body contains everything you say up to the closing.
  • Closing – How you “sign off” from the body. It brings closure to what’s been said, and alerts the reader that the letter is ending. An example: Until next time…
  • Signature – Your name (so that the recipient knows who the letter is from).
  • Date – The date can go at the top of the page or the bottom. Your choice.

Letter writing is useful, even if you never mail it out. They can be cathartic — allowing you to get all your feelings down on paper. You can say all those things you want to say to someone, and then burn it up before anyone reads it.

You can write a letter to your children and tuck it away for them to find after you pass on.

You can write letters instead of diary entries.

Letters make a great memoir in place of a narrative.

Letters can be used in novels and stories to move the plot along. (Also very useful for figuring out what your characters want. If you don’t know where the story is going, have your main characters write letters to each other. Don’t censor your writing: just see what comes out of your brain as you’re writing.)

Here’s Your Prompt:

Write a letter!

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

What Would Alice Do?

Alice CooperEvery writer does it: bases a character’s persona on the attributes of friends, neighbors and relatives. They steal their sister’s eyes, a co-workers meticulous habit, and a teacher’s grating personality to create a character. These little pieces make up the whole of someone new.

Yet, it’s not enough. An example:

If you know me, then you know I’m a fan of Alice Cooper. I’ve been with Alice through the good, the bad and the WTF?

Through it all, he’s an interesting character, clever and witty, and sometimes very surprising in lyrics and attitude.

I often think about Alice when I need a really creepy character. He’d make an awesome mad scientist – or evil sorcerer. No haircut necessary. He could even keep the make up.

As a writer, I could stop there and consider only the most hyped facets of his stage persona, just the parts that people see:

  • He keeps boa constrictors for pets.
  • His most-used stage props are: an electric chair, a guillotine, a straight-jacket, and
  • (well, there’s no getting around it) a corpse named Cold Ethyl. Alice keeps Ethyl in the refrigerator until he’s feeling particularly amorous.

I’ve got enough material right there to write a trilogy about the Mad Scientist Alice.

This is the easy part: I know what my character looks like, his mannerisms, maybe even what he sounds like. I can see that he’s got an abnormal (perhaps) fixation on death…and that he’s so hard up he keeps his woman handy in the Frigidaire: always ready for a date. (Not much conversation there, but at least Alice doesn’t have to set himself up for failure and heartache at every turn.)
Alice Cooper
It’s not too hard to see where this story could go. But, oh, how cardboard!

This two-dimensional embodiment might only resonate with other mad scientists. Are you feeling anything for him?

I’m not.

Even if Alice is the antagonist in this story, we need him to be more than black and white to be interesting. In fact, if he were more white than black, if we could understand him, relate to him…even, sympathize with him, the story will be more satisfying.

If you learn anything about Alice Cooper here (and that’s not a requirement), know that he’s an eternal ephemeral: reinventing himself for each album. It keeps the music fresh, allows him to try some new things, and yet, at the core, remain Alice. Despite his darkness, he’s ever-evolving: learning, changing and growing. Just like almost everyone else you meet.

And if you dig deeper into his experiences, you might find that one facet that shaped him into the man he is.

Was it the time he spent in the hospital where he nearly died?

I was gone for fourteen days, I coulda been gone for more
Held up in the intensive care ward, lyin’ on the floor

Or was it all that time he spent in the looney-bin, drying out from alcoholism?

Paint on my cruel or happy face and hide me behind it
It takes me inside another place where no one can find it
Escape: I get out when I can. I escape anytime I can
It’s all escape, I’m crying in my beer. Come on, let’s escape. Just get me out of here

Was it high school, when he didn’t live up to his teacher’s expectations?

Hey Mrs. Cranston, where are you takin’ me?
I feel like a lifer in the state penitentiary
She wanted an Einstein, but she got a Frankenstein…

Was it the time he got raped?

Finally got a ride, some old broad down from Santa Fe, she was a real go-getter
She drawled so sweetly, “I think, child, that things’ll get better.”
“Yes, I read the Bible”, she said, “I wanna know of you.”
We pulled off the highway… I opened the back door, she was greedy
I ran through the desert…alone raped and freezing, alone down in Mexico

(Now, this next example is a total over-simplification of the lyrics and the entire concept album, but work with me, okay?)

Was it about the death of a child Alice knew very well?

I don’t want to see you go, I don’t even want to be there
I will cover up my eyes and pray it goes away
You’ve only lived a minute of your life
I must be dreaming please stop screaming
I don’t like to hear you cry– you just don’t know how deep that cuts me
I don’t want to feel you die

Maybe it’s a simple “love gone wrong” story, we can all relate to that:

Somebody saw you at the station
You had your suitcase in your hand
You didn’t give no information, You walked off with another man
I’m always standing in the shadows, baby,
I watched you give yourself away
You take them home into your bedroom
You had another busy day

Experience after experience sees Alice sucking it up and moving on:

If there is a tear on my face, It makes me shiver to the bones
It shakes me, Babe, It’s just a heartache that got in my eye
And you know I never cry ,I never cry

Through it all, Alice seems to remain a man who walks on the dark side: a bit demented, a lot sick-o.

But underneath, Alice is vulnerable: he nearly died after spending weeks in the hospital, he couldn’t live up to a teacher’s expectations, he was raped by an older woman. He spent weeks in an insane asylum trying to dry out. He’s experienced the death of a child. His woman sleeps with other men. He keeps it all bottled up inside.

I’m stuck analyzing Alice Cooper’s lyrics to determine what shaped him.

You can use the everyday experiences of the people you meet on the subway, in bars, where you work (be careful with this one!). Listen to them talk and jot down their feelings about things that have happened.

Or, use my old stand-by: the newspaper and the evening news. Those quotes or sound-bytes the reporters pull out to emphasize the story can reveal a lot about what people are thinking when the event happened.

Experiences shape people. Thoughts and feelings of that experience becomes the meat of a character. They shape a person’s motivations and impel them to act in certain ways. They make a character real.

Reveal these experiences to your reader, build on them, show how they affect your character, and you’ve got something someone will relate to. If we show the reader just how bad Alice’s personal baggage is, Alice the Mad Scientist might actually be the person they root for in the story.

Write your characters real and your readers will keep coming back for more.