Craft: Writing Prompt

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

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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?

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

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.

Craft: Finding your characters

I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE

  • Date of birth: when and where were they born?
  • Astrology! Why not, eh?
  • What do they like to eat, drink?
  • Favorite clothes
  • Favorite music
  • What do they do on their time off?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Who was a best friend and why?
  • What mischief did they get upto?
  • How far did they get in school?
  • What are the priorities? The goals?
  • What are they scared of doing?
  • Being?
  • What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
  • To others?
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • A memory from pre-teens
  • A memory from teens
  • From twenties
  • What will they sacrifice for dreams?

Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?

Writer’s Craft: On writing essays

On Essays – Notes from a class by Alexander Chee

From an afternoon spent talking about writing fiction and essays, these are some of the thoughts that held with me. There are many ways to write essays, many forms, and as such there is no right or wrong way. In my opinion that is. Here then are some questions and suggestions to help you as you write your own.

  • Research your home town, when was it founded? Why? Famous for? Population? Changes in demographic? Architecture?
  • Your life in that town was within the life of that town, they affect each other
  • Context, know the context of each essay, story
  • Place your experiences within the historical context of place and time
  • Treat yourself as a subject, step outside and look from that perspective
  • Forensics of self: dig deep, ask others, interview people from that time or event
  • Memory is shaped by words so look for emails and letters you wrote at the time
  • How much do you want to open up and risk in the essay?
  • What are your obsessions?
  • Are you writing about what you read about? Are passionate about?
  • Examine your verb choices, circle them, make them dynamic, specific, detailed
  • Write in response to what you search online
  • Write in response to your dreams
  • What moves you? Angers you? Delights?
  • You will unconsciously know what form it will take on the page, trust the essay and subject
  • Read things that will explode your sense of possibility
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Dialogue, sit in a café and write down verbatim random conversations to notice the variety of rhythms, cadences, syntax unique to each person
  • Face your inner critic, deal with it, and carry on.
  • Trust yourself. Write.

 

Writer’s Craft: A Credo for Creativity

A manifesto, a mission statement, a credo, they all help to focus us on why we do what we do as writers and artists.

1. Say it with a Punch and a Tickle.

2. Provocative Pratfalls: Please don’t take anything for granted. Challenge those assumptions and let us see you fall into the puddle. We’ll love you all the more.

3. Time Capsules: When was that? Are you sure? Take us with you. We want to eat from the same plate so feed us the right snacks and pour us a drink of the day.

4. Backdrops No More: Locations claim a place as characters. They affect everything from the weather, speech patterns, coats and hats, and how we walk through the world, so yes, your environments speak to all of it. Make us shiver.

5. Sink Into The Muck: Immerse yourself. Take a breath. Jump in. Hold on tight. Swim with all your might. We’re hanging onto your swim trunks.

6. Mirrorless in the Mainstream: Give those outsiders someone to mimic, to care about, someone like them, a story that resonates with them. The rest of the world can watch Fox News and Friends.

7. Constraints by Underwear: Show the absurdity of gender roles and stereotypes.

8. Passion, Kiss them with Kindness. If you don’t care about what you’re writing and creating, why should we? Exactly. Give us a decent smacker on the lips and make us wet and needy for more. That’s all I ask of anyone.

9. Grab Life. If you want to write, then write, don’t wait. You might be dead when you wake up in the morning.

10. Stay Human. We write to connect, to find meaning, and by telling a good story. It’s that simple.

Why do you write? Create? It was a great challenge to think about the whys and wherefores of doing what I do. Take the idea and run with it. Make it yours. Claim your own process.

And thanks for reading!

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.