Craft: Writing Prompts

Writing prompts for specificity.

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Exercises in specificity:

Use a simple sentence,  eg. Ken was angry.

Ask HOW SO? Write with more details, eg. Ken snapped at the cashier.

Ask WHY? Discover why he’s so angry, eg. Ken snapped at the cashier in the cashmere sweater that looked like the one his wife had dropped off at the Goodwill last month.

The goal is to get more specific for each emotion, show it in action and the cause. Be more detailed. Find the unique story behind your intial statement. Find the strangeness, idiosyncracy, empathy and troubles.Let that one sentence take you somewhere unexpected.

Writing Prompts: For each of the following sentences, expand until a story comes out that feels complete and full of such details.

– Kendra was angry.

– Mick was disturbed.

– Rodney saw no way out.

– Tarik felt alive.

Start with one of the above examples and rewrite for 10 minutes.

If doing this at home alone, pick one line that lingers from your rewrite. Come back to it another day and add another three sentences.

If in a classroom, everyone writes up a sentence of theirs onto a scrap of paper, scrunch it up and put it in a hat, container.

Pick one out, read it aloud, then all freewrite three sentences from same first line. Share.

Why do we do this? It’s a great lesson in developing characters and scenes. So, freewriting is playful, generative, and amazing to see how we all imagine and explore in our own ways. The best part for me was seeing how in class we all took the line given and how our imaginations took such unique and individual paths.

 

 

 

Craft: Writing Prompt

How to find the themes that you are drawn to writing about.

Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

I did.

It’s funny how the same things repeat in my work that I’d not consciously chosen. Obvious to some but I’m only just being aware of myself as a writer and this is the incredible benefit of my time in the MFA program, being a conscious writer.

Well, there you go, try it, free write this morning with your coffee and the sunshine.

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

Don’t analyse but write. It’s a fun little game for your own pleasure in word associations.

 

 

 

Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

 

There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

stevie

  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.

Shorts

What if I told you

What if I told you that some days I’m scared to write? And others I’d cry if I didn’t? What if I told you that attention makes me want to walk the hills with notebooks and pens stuck in the truck at the bottom of the trail. What if I told you that I love to write but when I don’t, my world wobbles, days drag out, and a damp depression creeps in like a mold? What if I told you that even when I’m listening to you, making great eye contact, smiling, making jokes with you, I’m also wondering how Ernest would talk to you, and what would Janice say right now? Where would she sit? Would she want to chat to us or would she stay away, distracted by someone behind us? What if I told you that my head hollows out when you tell me the same old story of what you ate for breakfast, watched on TV, saw on the drive over, blah blah blah. What if I told you that I don’t get it, the usual conversational flow of back and forth, yet some times it feeds me a spark, an idea, and then imagination takes it out by the hand and sets it as free as a kite in a breeze tethered lightly by my attention. What if I told you that when a tropical storm slams that kite into the air and if I blink or nod or respond to you in any way, I’ll lose sight of that flash of color in my mundane life of eat, sleep, walk and write. What if that kite flies in a sky and no one looks up?

Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France

Book Review: Wonderfully absurd and weird stories fill this collection by Bryan Hurt.

His characters range from astronaut-artists, a British aristocrat with his adopted girls, a goat and seagull questioning the after life on the edge of a cliff, and a run-down American writer panicking about the demands of his agents.

The opening lines are often so succinct and direct that Hurt pulls you in immediately: “Thomas Day was rich but very ugly.” Oh really? I wanted to know more, would he be an interesting man to know? I kept reading.

The simplicity of language is compelling, it’s concise and precise as short stories need to be, there are no wasted words. There is a great rhythm and Hurt comes across as a narrator to trust. We know where we are immediately upon starting a new story, he grounds us as readers yet there are such great turns and unexpected digressions and drifts that demand you pay attention. I did.

Panic Attack is one of the more touching stories for me with a great moment of tenderness. That’s all I’m saying. Look for it.

Hurt plays with the form of these short stories, more so in the second half of the collection, as if he’s trusting us to come along with him however it now looks. The Contract follows a CEO’s own contract with life and relationships, and yes, form follows content. There are more pieces in the remainder of the book where form changes to suit each story, such as lists in some places, or when some paragraphs have their own titles and other paragraphs are seperated with numbers. Titles are evocative although mostly in hindsight, you read the chapter and then the title will pop out at you again, such as the last chapter, Good With Words. Here is our struggling writer overcome with the demands of an agent hungry for more words. He turns to his toddler once back home. There he is reminded of the power of language. He asks his child, “tell me something about love.”

“Mama.”

Red Hen

978-59709-077-0

168 pp $15.95

Tentative pub date: 6/28/2018

DETOX 101 for this grad student on spring break

Detoxing is never easy. This is what happened to me.

Essay: What am I doing? Why does anyone really choose to limit themselves in the name of detoxing? No different from most, I don’t like my body. I’m stressed at graduate school, and getting cranky with my dogs, self, and cohort. Something has to change. I reckon it starts with me. Doesn’t it always?

Food is energy. Funnily enough it was when I was a twenty year old at undergrad this concept really took hold. Food is energy. If I ate something that made me sluggish, tired, sleepy, then it wasn’t energy. It was taking my energy. No no no.

My energy at grad school is flagging right now. Too much sitting around on the computer, too many grey days in Vermont. I’m not doing well. I’m hoping this will help.
DAY ONE:

This morning, I took the dogs for a walk around Montpelier. Saturdays are quiet here, the traffic is light, and I can count the cars passing on one hand. Three of them. I know the driver of one, Stef; she stopped to set up a coffee date for later this week. I let the dogs off leash in the kid’s schoolyard, a big no-no probably, but they need to run. I need to hike open mountaintops, away from the sound of voices and vehicles. There are limited options here, nothing we, the dogs and I, can hike outside our back door. And so, we walk less.
Combine that with the educational pressures, a winter of sub zero temperatures, and a heavier diet of snacks and carbs, I’m not feeling great. I don’t like my body. I don’t like my low energy or the beer belly.
Stacy and I chatted on the phone earlier this week, one of my closest friends in New Mexico. She’s just finished a ten-day detox. The focus was on cutting out all sugars, grains, caffeine, dairy, caffeine, and alcohol. Blah blah blah. No, seriously, I get it. Veggies and proteins. Simple as that. It really is simple, buy fresh food, cook it yourself and avoid all those addictive extras. Can I do a week though? Ten days?

“By following my scientifically proven diet and lifestyle practices, we can reset your metabolism to function as it was designed to. You’ll lose weight without going hungry. It’s not how much you eat, it’s what you eat.”

Sounds easy, right? It’s spring break. If not now, then when?

I have no external pressures on me, no other students to be nice to, no co-workers to snap at as the caffeine withdrawals hit. I’m game. I haven’t told Stacy yet. I probably should to keep myself accountable to someone.
I make a cup of coffee. With cream.

Walk dogs.

For breakfast, I had sautéed veggies and salmon. A bottle of water. Okay, I’ve started now. I need to go to the store and buy a bunch of veggies, fish, organic chicken, and nuts. Okay, I’m doing this. I’ll let you know how it goes. Ten days. Ten days. I can do it. Well, apart from all ready messing up, improvising I like to call it, the first cup of coffee was with cream it’s true, the second black. I’m going to buy some decaf coffee and teas this morning, honest.

Knowing I’m on detox diet: I’m hungry constantly. Sheesh.

DAY TWO:

Headache. Slight cough. Low energy, but I blame that on yet another grey day in Vermont. Winter here is dull. I’d thought of snow and sunshine as in the Southwest, no, it’s snow, freezing rain, grey days, long nights, dirty sidewalks, and well, you get the idea. It’s not the best place for me. So, yes, back to the detox. Apart from the headache, I feel pretty good. It might be just that I went a whole day without gluten, dairy, or alcohol. As simple and as huge as that.

My usual daily fodder would be coffee, eggs, cheese, tortillas or crackers or sandwiches, veggies, tea, beer, snacks, stuff like that.
Yesterday was a bit of a stressful day too. The dogs ran after a doe and Bambi. I lost them in the woods. For over an hour, I walked, calling, yelling, and whistling. Finally Rosie, a normally white dog, came back pink. Ten minutes later Harold turned up, shaking with adrenelin, and his white snout was covered in blood.
I wasn’t happy.

Still, I didn’t turn to a malty beverage, no, I brought them home and fed myself a bowl of green chile stew, followed by a cup of peppermint tea.

Today’s challenge will be that I get bored in the afternoons, I do. And Sundays for some reason are the worst and usually I head out to the local pub for a beer and a burger. Big no-no on the detox. What will I do? A movie?

I’m making egg and veggie frittatas for breakfast. I stocked up on raw nuts, dates, bananas and Satsuma’s for the sweet tooth. Decaf coffee, no cream. Humus and snap peas. Stew. Carrots. Oh, yes, I baked carrots yesterday for a snack, drizzled in olive oil, a sprinkle of pepper, and a little salt, perfect treat.

My head hurts.

DAY THREE:

Did I mention the headaches? It’s a killer. I went to bed at three pm yesterday and only got back up to take the dogs out for a pee break. I couldn’t read or write or look at anything on screen or paper. Throbbing headaches, muscles aching, low energy, this is not fun.

I ate well, no cheating, more water drunk, and feel like shit. Everything shrank in the wash. My clothes don’t fit right. My head doesn’t fit right. My skin is tight. Ugh. My head still hurts. I’m glad I’m doing this now on spring break, as I’d be a shitty student if we were in class. Oh, and yes, I’m doubting myself as a writer, seeing all that’s missing in my novels, can’t face the short stories, and yes, well, one of those days. Ah shit.

The mechanic needs me to leave the truck there. I head over to a cafe to sit and read for an hour. There are pastries. I eat a croissant. I hardly notice it though. Isn’t that sad? I break the detox and didn’t even appreciate it. Oh one of those days. I did only have decaf coffee though.

Back to bed, headaches, impatient, bloated, knackered, cranky. This is great. Why am I doing this again?

The mechanic found a broken radiator. The taxes went through. The same amount, close enough, but I was up $55 and so I went to the pub for a pint and bumped into a friend and had two pints.
Ah sheesh, so much for detox. I tell myself it’s still worth carrying on. Cut the carbs, the sugar, caffeine, alcohol (hiccup) and I’m doing better than I was, right? Right.

DAY FOUR:

Useless, I’m useless. I gave up today. Or my rationale is that I’m adjusting it to suit my lifestyle because I just can’t do it. Headaches, leg muscle cramps, all of the signs that I’m seriously crashing too hard and too fast. So, the plan is to not so much De-tox and Less-tox. The next week will then be caffeine less, dairy less, and gluten less. That’s enough for now. So what have I been eating? Well, I had another croissant this morning. See, I’d had to drive to Burlington for an interview, me interviewing them, and so I stopped for a decaf coffee and snack for the drive in the snow. It made me happier. Then work went well, good profile written now, and I came home to make a beef and veggie chile stew with corn chips on the side. Humus and snap peas. Bananas. A salad each lunchtime for the last week. Satsumas. Almonds. Not bad, right?
The headaches have lessened but still there a bit. The muscle cramps linger so I’m going to stretch after a good hot shower. Then read and write and go to bed early again, because I can. And it’s snowing.

A glass of malbec sounds darned tempting.

DAY FIVE:

Well, that helped, taking off the pressure. So what did I eat? Have been eating? Breakfasts are made of eggs and sauteed veggies, such as onion, zuke, kale, mushrooms and a topping of green chile. Lunches are salads. Snacks are nuts and fruit. Dinners are veggie and chicken or beef stews. It’s simple food but it’s working, full enough to keep going.
But. Something is lacking in my diet. Last night I had such bad muscle cramps, in my feet mostly. The arches to be precise. Agony, the kind that throws your whole body into a tense needle of pain. Waves on and off and on again during the night. I didn’t sleep so well. I’m trying not to be a crankshaft with the pups. It’s hard work. They see me sitting down and figure, if she’s sitting, she could be walking. The static non-smelly metal thing in front of me can’t be as fun as another walk in the snow.

I’m trying to be nice. I’m glad I’m not in class this week. My natural sarcasm would have free reign. Instead, I’m on the computer, writing and revising work.

Another observation from this week of changing diet and no school or outside responsibilities, mid-afternoons are such a time of crashing. Emotionally hard on me. It’s been an issue for a long time, most of my life, but I had other things I had to do and it’s only when I’m completely self-employed does it become an issue. I’m not sure what to do when I’m in a town that isn’t where I want to be. There are no public lands for us to hike free of leashes with big views and no people. I hadn’t realised how spoilt I was in New Mexico for that freedom and headroom.

DAY SIX:

Well, the headaches are lessening finally. Caffeine is a bitch to get over. Pounding tight headaches all day long. Muscle cramps at night. Something has to change. Bananas will help the muscles, kale too as apparently it’s a lack of potassium. I need to do more research to find out what else could help. But coffee, even though I’m on decaf, and soy milk, it’s tempting to walk down the hill and buy a ‘real’ coffee. Mind games, strong stuff these addictions. Talking of which, beer, wine. Yes. I am giving myself a beer at the pub, cabin fever demands I talk to someone and the bartender’s a good fella, chatty and open and interesting. Pubs are community centres for me, the place to meet and decompress. That then is where I’ve gone to find conversation that I can leave at any point. Somethings don’t change, it’s a habit of a lifetime. I’m okay with that.

More snow. More grey days.

The atlas demands my attention. Perhaps planning a trip away would help? I did. It does. In April, I’m heading out to Cape Cod for a few nights. I’ll have to take in the truck before as the check engine light is on. In May, what can I do in May? Where can I go? Hmm. I’m not sure. Let’s see what I can do. I have to get out of here though. It’s driving me nuts.

DAY SEVEN:

Eating well. Sleeping lots. Writing. Revising. Editing. Reading. Walking. And super fucking depressed.

Is this part of detoxing? Less-toxing? It’s not nice. Let me tell you that, it is not very nice.

My emotions are wrecked. When I broke down at home with head in hands, Harold started whining and crying on the sofa and Rosie sprang up and got her favourite toy and gave it to me. Even Cat Stephen strolled over and sat nearby.

It’s rough. They are good. That’s about all I have to say.

IN CONCLUSION then, there is no conclusion. At least I know I’m eating well. I’m walking the dogs repeatedly each day, but even that’s not great as they have to walk on leashes everywhere here. It’s not like in NM where they could run free for miles at a time and not bump into, let alone see anyone the whole time we’re out and about. No, this is a small town in a wooded state full of people and their own dogs. It’s not the same. My energy is still flagging it’s true, and I didn’t really detox it’s true, but I tried. I’m eating better which means I’m not beating myself up for eating filler only. I’m watching and waiting for better weather to go out and camp somewhere. In the meantime, I’m home, still on the computer, less addicted to caffeine, missing my cheddar cheese, and wondering what’s next.

Some would say I’d failed. And yes, they’d be right.

Has it helped, to change up my diet? Yes and no. Would I do it again? Sure, why not? Maybe if the rest of my life is smoother, the detox will help even more? I don’t know. I’ll have a cup of ginger tea though and get back to work.

 

What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.

Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.