Friday, December 20th, 2013

Writing Prompt – The Personal Essay

dreamstimefree_63535-eI rarely explore prompts categorized as “personal essay.” I include them in a lot of suggested prompts, but they aren’t often the focus of my blog since I generally talk about fiction.

But personal experiences bolster fiction. It’s these experiences that allow authors to write what they “know.” They lend realism to an otherwise imaginative tale.

When you choose a suggested prompt below, spend some time remembering the details of what occurred or visualizing events or objects before you start to write. Have things clear in your mind so they can be clearly articulated in the writing.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write about an event in your life that you considered bad – but turned out to have a good impact. Use a chronological format to pinpoint when your negative feelings turned to positive ones. Spend some time exploring your state of mind and what brought about the change.
  • Write about one day in your life which is particularly memorable: something that is so burned into your memory, you’ll never forget. Tell what happened, but expound on the reasons it’s so meaningful.
  • Have you ever been involved in a discussion or argument where you thought of the most right or perfect thing to say after it was all over? Here’s your chance to change history: re-write the event as it should have gone, if you’d said the right thing at the right time.
  • Write about a time that weather impacted your life. In the essay, include details of the weather by using your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
  • Write about a family tradition or heirloom. Has something been handed down for generations – or is something celebrated in a distinct or unusual way? Visualize the artifact, or recount the details of the celebration in general, or one in particular. Write a letter as though you were explaining these things to a younger family member. What makes them so important?
  • Write about a day in your life when nothing went right from the moment you got up in the morning until you pulled the covers over yourself in the evening at bedtime. How did you feel? (Frustrated? Angry? Powerless?) Think about one thing which could turned the day around. What would that be? How would you do things differently?
  • Good luck!


    Cover of Sky Lit Bargains by Kelly A. Harmon depicts a woman dressed in armor, leaning against a stone wall.

    Have you read Sky Lit Bargains?

    Forced to leave home when her twin sister marries because her new brother-in-thinks he’s gotten a ‘two for one’ deal, Sigrid takes up arms to make her own way.

    Photo Copyright © Randall White | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

New Story Available: Lies

Lies by Kelly A. HarmonI wrote a story a while back called Lies. It shortlisted for the Aeon Award, but I never did anything with it.

Now, Lies has been published and is currently available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The wheels of distribution grind very slowly in some parts, but it should soon be available via Kobo, XinXii, iTunes and elsewhere very soon. I’ll let you know when that happens.

In the meantime, here are the links to:

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Writing Prompt – All in a Day’s Work

Backhoe digging dirt in a field.Most people work to earn a living.

So, unless you write about fabulously wealthy people all the time, I’m going to assume that your characters are working-class folk.

And even if you write fantasy, your character is going to have to make a living somehow–whether it be by herding sheep or in the castle guard–so I think you might find this useful.

For most people, work defines who they are. When you meet someone at a party, you’re inevitably asked, “What do you do?” We’re slotted into pigeonholes at first meet: he’s a computer programer, she’s a lawyer, he owns a plumbing and heating company…

This works for fabulously wealthy people who spend their time on good causes, too: She does books for a soup kitchen, he’s a doctor at a free clinic, she reads to the blind.

And like it or not, what we do for a living–or to fill the time–shapes us. We spend a huge amount of our time in pursuit of it: exposed to the politics, embroiled in projects, learning our pecking order, gaining experience both good and bad.

So knowing what your character does for a living is important–even if it’s never mentioned in the book. Because what he learned on the job is a takeaway to his life. Keep this in mind when creating new characters.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Write a scene or a story about an important event in a person’s life…but come at it from the perspective of work: you can only reveal things as they are happening on the job.
  • Write a story about a person who keeps making the right decisions at work, but keeps landing in deeper and deeper trouble for them.
  • Write the scene (or an entire story) about a bitter person who’s got the dream of a lifetime–her dream of a lifetime–and how it ruined her.
  • Go large on the work idea: write a story that takes place at a business. The characters can only be seen as how they act on the job – no scenes away from the workplace.
  • Write a story where your main character is having trouble keeping his job. This difficulty can be central to the story or not.
  • If you Journal…
    • Write about the loss of your job.
    • Write about all the summer jobs you’ve had, or about your favorite summer job.
    • Write about your Worst. Job. Ever. (Or worst boss!)
    • Have you ever been profoundly effected by someone else’s job — or job loss? Write it.

Good Luck!

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Latest Manuscript Takes a Surprising Turn

Bugs Bunny on MarsBugs Bunny fans will recognize the phrase, “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

I’m sitting here saying the same thing as my current manuscript is no longer recognizable: It’s taken a left turn into erotica.

You regulars will know that I write dark fantasy and science fiction. (Those of you who came here after googling “erotica” know that now, too.)

So, it’s as surprising to me (as you) that I’ve written three complete — and soon to be four — scenes in my current manuscript that are so steamy, I had to step outside in the cool air for a minute before I sat down again to finish them. (And nobody’s even had sex yet!)

I was reluctant to release them to my critique partners for their review. (But they enjoyed them — even the men — so that’ll show me to want to hide my work.)

What’s strange to me is that I think the male lead in the erotica section is going to become a major character. At first, he was a walk-on. In the second scene he tempts the book’s main character, not only with the promise of really good sex, but with heart’s desire: healing a demonic wound which will not heal.

I can’t decide if she’ll go all the way with him in this next scene. If she does, she damns her immortal soul. But she’ll be whole again, gain a huge amount of knowledge about something, and have incredible sex all night long.

She just might be tempted. After all, her immortal soul is only lost to her if she dies. There are ways to cleanse it before that happens, right?

Yeah, I’m still working out the sticky bits of the plot. This is what happens when the characters start talking to you and they refuse to play the roles you’ve cast them in.

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

But I’m curious: as a reader, would you be willing to pick up a book not quite like the last you read by an author, or would you bypass it in favor of something else?

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Writing Prompt – For When You’re Blocked

This idea will work if you’re blocked, or if you want to write, but don’t have any idea what you want to say.

It can work with a short story, a novel or a poem; anything, in fact.

I believe I first heard this method from author Bruce Holland Rogers, though I can’t be 100% certain. (Bruce, if you’re listening, please set me straight.)

What to do:

Take a book off your shelf and crack it open to the first page, or the first page of a chapter, or a poem at random.

Read the sentence, then write one very similar to it, changing the nouns and verbs and setting, etc. Then move on to the second and third, or as many will help you as a jumping off point. Then, continue on your own.

So, for example, from Chapter 2 of Anne Ursu’s book, Shadow Thieves, the second chapter begins:

Charlotte was one month into the school year at Hartnett Prepatory School, and thus far the year had proved to be just like all other years, except more so.

I might write something like this:

Mark had been in the sanitarium for eight weeks now. And it wasn’t quite living up to the standard of nuthouses he’d formed in his mind. It was worse.

We could go on…

Anne’s opening paragraph (in C2) continues:

Eight of the other girls in her class, whose names all begin with A, had left for the summer as brunettes and had come back as blonds.

So I write:

Three of the others in his “we see dead people” ward, had been treated to brain stimulation therapy that left them near comatose, until their bodies seemed to heal the damage. (And then, they didn’t see their dead relatives anymore.)

Mark sighed, glad he’d seen the first two come back looking like zombies after their treatment. He never would have known how to act otherwise. The treatment left him giddy, feeling free, and his Uncle Bob sounded even more clear than before. And if he wasn’t mistaken, his dead sister, Melissa, had something really important to tell to him.

He simply had to act like the others, so the docs wouldn’t catch on. Soon, he’d be out of here, too.

Didn’t take me long to go off on a tangent, eh? And I took an interesting YA sentence, and waltzed off into something supernatural. It doesn’t matter what you start with, your brain will engage with what you want to write.

Here’s Your Prompt:

Take a book off the shelf and open it to the beginning, the beginning of a random chapter, or anywhere, if it’s a poetry book.

Read the first few lines to see if the content is interesting to you. (If not, choose another spot.)

Write the first line exactly as written, skip a few lines on your page, and then start your own writing.

See where it leads you!

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Giving Up Hope – Or Faking It Until I Do

Image of painting called My Lost Hope by Freida.Wherein I whine just a little bit after having done a stupid thing…

Writing fiction is hard.

And starting over from scratch is even harder, I’ve found.

Except for some free writing in class the last few weeks, I haven’t written anything on my work in progress: not since I lost 25 pages of the manuscript.

I’ve been in a terrible funk. And hopeful.

Hope is a terrible thing sometimes…and crippling.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried to recreate my lost work, but the words just aren’t flowing.

In the back of my mind, I’ve constantly been thinking:

  • It’ll turn up.
  • It’s got my name on it. Some kind soul will drop me an email to let me know they found it.
  • It’s not really lost, it’s misplaced…
  • I just haven’t looked hard enough for it yet.

And as long as there’s been a smidgeon of hope in my mind that the dratted pages will turn up, I haven’t been able to write a word…because why should I re-write these chapters when I know they’ll appear at some point?

But the fact is, it hasn’t turned up. No one’s called me about it. And I’ve looked high and low, and called a lot of places and dropped in on several more (some more than once) and so I know it’s it’s worse than misplaced:

It’s lost and I’m never getting it back.

(Okay, I said the words. Maybe, if I say them enough times, I’ll believe it.)

Yeah. I’ve not quite given up hope. But I’ve got to fake it, or I won’t be able to move on.

It’s not like this writing should be hard. I know what happens. I know where the plot turns. I know about that secret reveal in Chapter 15.

And this version will likely be better since I’ve already written it once. It’ll be the second draft, for 25 pages, halfway through the novel.

I’ve written a few hundred words between yesterday and today. Not great progress, but it’s more than I’ve done in a month.

Have you ever been paralyzed by hope? How do get past it?

“My Lost Hope” image by Freida. Not used by permission, since I’ve been unable to contact the artist. See more of Freida’s work at RedBubble. Freida, if you see this, please drop me a line so we can talk about the use of your gorgeous painting. Thx!

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Nine Ways to Tighten Up Your Writing

Word count meant a lot more to me when I worked for the newspapers. I hated being assigned “20 inches” to write a story, and then having to cut it down to 15 when a fire broke out on Broadway and that story required some of my space.

But word counts are important in non-fiction, too (even if the advent of the ebook has us writing longer and longer works.)

I’m currently working my way through a finished manuscript that’s about 125,000 words long. Ideally, I’d like to cut it back to the 85,000 – 95,000 word range, but I’d be happy with 100k.

So, after debating about several scenes which I removed, I’m left with tightening up the manuscript’s wordiness to pull it together.

To tighten it up, I’m omitting:

  1. Adverbs, and replacing the modified verbs with more specific ones.
  2. “To be” constructions: sentences that start with “It is…” or “There are…” can usually be reworded in a shorter form.
  3. “To be” appositives. (An appositive is a noun that names another right beside it in the sentence.) For example: Reliable, Diane’s eleven-year-old beagle, chews holes in the living room carpeting as if he were still a puppy. Example (and more information available) from:
  4. Possessive Constructions. (Too much use of the word “of.”) Reword or turn phrases around to get rid of it.
  5. “Excessive” mood setting, scene setting, internal and external dialogue. (Chop! Chop! Chop!)

Here are some things you can do to tighten up non-fiction:

  1. Make contractions. (I used to feel this was cheating, but I don’t anymore.) 🙂
  2. Similarly, get rid of coordinating conjunctions between complete sentences. For example: I hate to waste a single drop of squid eyeball stew, for it is expensive and time-consuming to make. When every word counts, deleting these words works wonders. More about coordinating conjunctions here. (The cool example came from there, too.)
  3. Get rid of rhetorical comments, parenthetical statements, and/or your own editorial comments*.

* Unless it’s an opinion piece, of course!

What tricks do you have to tighten up your prose?

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Writing Prompt: What’s Happening Here?

I’ve hesitated to toss up a photo to use as a prompt because it’s just too easy to get into the habit of doing something lazy, but I just couldn’t pass this up.

The most recent edition of Imker Freunde Magazin (Bee Keeper’s Friend) from Germany wafted pass my day-job desk this week and the cover photo caught my eye.

The object on the right in the photo is some kind of beekeeper’s post, covered all over in bees. The swarm is so large, that the bees have even pooled on the ground around the post. The little girl on the left has attracted the bees’ attention, and some have come to investigate her. One looks like it’s trying to crawl into her pocket. A few are close to landing on her.

The second photo is from inside the magazine, taken from another point of view. The bees are closer, and the child looks…excited? Frightened?

Here’s your prompt: What’s happening in this picture? Write a poem, a song, an essay, a news story. Anything. Just tell us what’s happening.

Bee Keeper's Friend Magazine Cover
Bee Keeper's Friend Magazine  - Inside Photo
Friday, May 13th, 2011

Writing Prompt: Attack of the Phobias!

Calendar Page with Friday the 13th CircledIn honor of Friday the 13th, I think a writing prompt on phobia is in order.

Fear of this day is so large it’s got TWO Greek names. You may refer to it as either Friggatriskaidekaphobia or Paraskevidekatriaphobia.

A few of my favorites from the wikipedia list of phobias:

  • Halitophobia – fear of bad breath
  • Ablutophobia – fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning
  • Agyrophobia – fear of crossing roads

The wikipedia entry also contains a list of phobias related to animals (such as Ichthyophobia, the fear of fish) and biological instances (such as Hydrophobia, the fear of water, which is a a symptom of rabies). Very informative.

It’s fun to joke about phobias, but for some, they’re true fears which interfere with a way of life, often for the worse.

In college, I had a friend who developed a pervasive fear of social situations (Sociophobia), so bad, that by the end of the semester she could not leave her dorm room. She had to be medicated to be removed, and never completed her degree.

George Lucas’ famous character Indiana Jones has a near-paralyzing fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia) which often hinders his heroic exploits. It’s a great plot device: his fear has a tendency to get in the way of the action, causing tension and raising the stakes, as well as adding depth to the character.

Keep this in mind while you’re working through this exercise.

Here’s Your Prompt: Today’s prompt is an exercise in character building/story planning which is a large part of writing. Choose a plausible phobia from the wikipedia list (or any other resource, or even make up your own) and apply it to a character your currently writing about, or one you’re thinking of starring in your next story or novel.

Think of the possibilities that phobia has for influencing your character’s actions, both within the framework of a tale, and as backstory. Is it possible that an entire story can be created from the fear?

Make a list of how your chosen phobia can interfere with every day life, make is plausible, but stretch.

For example, what if your character, like Indiana, suffers from ophidiophobia, but she lives in New York City?

There aren’t many snakes to be found in the city, so how can her fear affect her? Maybe she walks to her job every day, but the zoo has erected a tremendous billboard on her route with the photo of a large, striking rattle snake. She can’t even look at it.

Her fear is so strong that she needs to find another route. And taking that route starts your story in motion. What happens when she has to find another way to work?

After you’ve made your list, determine which items or situations can be used as scenes. Then, get to work writing them!


* Photo by W.J.Pilsak found at Wikipedia.

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

A Goose on a Foggy Pond: Using Real-Life Settings in Fiction

Lone Goose on a Foggy Pond
Not the pond I talk about below.

It was 54 degrees outside when I left my house this morning: a 30-degree drop in temperature from the afternoon before. There was a bit of a chill in the air, and condensation covered a large expanse of the outdoors.

As I wound my way down the narrow, hilly, and curvy road, I kept my eye out for a view of the pond located at the edge of a nearby farmer’s property.

At 5:30 a.m., I often see wildlife making use of the pond, and today I was looking forward to what I might find.

Brought on by the cool morning, a thin layer of fog hovered over the slowly cooling pond. A single goose swam in the water, partially hidden in the rising tendrils of fog.


And great fodder for detail in my working — and future — novels.

I thought about this single goose all the way to work, and when I arrived, I jotted down a few of the more striking details:

– cool morning
– condensation on nearly everything outside
– wispy fog over the pond
– details of the pond lost in the fog
– a single goose
– very quiet
– sun hadn’t risen yet

The beauty of a scene like this is that the detail can be used over and over again in different stories and novels, and never has to be used the same way twice. It doesn’t even have to be used as it is!

For instance, why a goose? Why not a deer, if your story takes place in a wooded glade; or a bobcat, if the story takes place in a desert setting?

The same fog could rise in the evening after a warm day.

Perhaps the sun has risen in your story.

(And, by changing details among the details, you’ve not only grown the body of items you can choose from, you increase the possibilities of stories you could write.)

The key to using detail — especially striking detail — is not to overload the reader. Pick only one or two items that stand out, and save the others for another time.

This approach offers three advantages:

  1. using fewer details allows the reader to imagine the rest of the scene, giving them some “ownership” of the story, allowing them to be absorbed, rather than dictated to.
  2. it leaves you with several more details to mix and match in other stories you may write in the future, without suggesting to your astute readers that you’re taking shortcuts by writing the same thing over and over.
  3. the remaining details might be used as story-starters — rather than just scenes or details – for future works.

How have you used real-life incidents or settings in your stories? How do you note them or keep track of them? Do you find yourself using those details in multiple stories?