Category Archives: Prompts & Writing Ideas

It’s the Time of the Season: How Weather Affects Our Stories

I can remember a lazy afternoon a few years back in my old apartment; I had just finished watching The Sex and the City movie (part I) when I did something I don’t normally do—clicked on the DVD’s bonus features. For whatever reason, I decided to watch the entire movie again while listening to the director’s, Michael Patrick King, commentary. What really struck me was his use of the changing seasons to move the plot along. I’ll paraphrase here, and you don’t have to be a regular SATC viewer to understand the point.

In the beginning, when Mr. Big leaves Carrie on the proverbial altar it is autumn. I remember the characters discussing a September wedding. Simultaneously, we discover that Steve committed adultery, and while it’s obvious that he is deeply sorry, Miranda stubbornly refuses to make amends and begins to plan her new life as a single woman.

Throughout the cold, blistery winter that follows it is clear that Carrie has fallen into a deep depression. The director even shows how she dyes her black—as if to reflect her emotional state. Miranda too, seems to be barely pulling by, and the tensions lead to a big blow out between the two women on Valentine’s Day.

Then spring comes. Carrie has pulled herself up from her own fiery depths and changes her hair back to its normal, lighter color. Miranda and Steve make plans to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge to attempt reconciliation. I can remember the scene where Carrie and Miranda are walking through Central Park—spring has exploded. The trees are full of plump blossoms, petals float through air, and the grass is green with the vitality. Carrie and Miranda have a new way about them—the fog has lifted. The hard times are over.

When I look back at my life, I see that my wildest, craziest memories were during summer. My darkest periods were during winter. My sense of hope was strongest during spring, and my most prevalent transitioning periods were during autumn.

So I got to thinking…how does the use of the four seasons enhance or reflect plot, setting, and characterization in fiction? As a literature major in college I learned that the seasons often stand as metaphors for the following concepts:

The Four Seasons. From questgarden.com

Spring: Conception

Summer: Life

Autumn: Old Age

Winter: Death

That being said, how can we utilize this in our writing?

Spring: This is classically a season of new beginnings, of hope. Perhaps, for one of your characters it is the end of a depressing period (like old Carrie Bradshaw’s). It is a good time for decision making—a good time to fall in love. The mood of spring is renewed energy. What kinds of situations might your characters go through in the springtime? Spring may also be the perfect season for a happy ending—sort of like a restored sense of faith that all is well.

Then again, it might be fun to try and contrast the growing beauty of a spring setting with a struggling character, or an overblown conflict.

Summer: The season of heated romances, vacations, and an overall sense of freedom. While we’re all adults now and often work through summers, but the notion of June through August being a carefree period will never completely fade—it’s morphed into our psyches and it will certainly come across in literature. This is a great season to use if your main characters are teenagers or college students. Summer is an archetypal time for experimenting, doing crazy things, falling in love, and finding ourselves.

On the other hand, summer can come with a good dose of dread. I always think of The Secret Life of Bees where Lily Owens fears what will come with summer’s end, as she may be forced to leave the home of the Boatwright sisters. The truth is, we all wonder how things will change when summer is over Hey, even Don Henley wonders. “Boys of Summer” anyone?

Autumn: This is a beautiful, but often melancholy season. It’s a time where we cling to the past, (again, shut up Don Henley!) or a more favorable time. Vacation is over; reality has returned. In that way, it is a very practical season. Perhaps in a work of a fiction autumn is where certain events unfold that will lead to a period of mourning. A character grows ill, and his deteriorating body juxtaposes the changing, falling leaves.

On brighter, happier note, autumn is a great time to “turn over a new leaf,” and in some cases, it takes on characteristics of spring in the sense that something new is beginning such as, school, college, etc. Plus, you could always milk that whole concept of the harvest.

Winter: For anyone suffering from SAD, this one is obvious. Winter is a phase of harder times. It’s more difficult for the weak, weary, hungry, and war torn. It is fitting to portray a character going through a depressive state in winter (after all, he can always rise up come spring). Perhaps a character who has been jilted, become unemployed, lost a family member, or finalized a divorce could suffer a tormenting winter. He could be on a post-holiday crisis, a period of uncertainly, stagnancy, and hopelessness. Having a winter season in the background for something like this will always be fitting.

Winter is also a hibernation period. Maybe  a mad-scientist type character works on his experiment like crazy during the winter, all holed up in his study only to reveal his masterpiece when the weather begins to turn. Which by the way I believe was the exact scenario in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I do remember a lot of vivid winter imagery in that novel.

This is not to say that a writer MUST make use of the seasons to accurately reflect plot, setting, and characterization. Sometimes it will happen naturally—I’ve noticed that a lot of what I described above indirectly occurs in my own novel. However, I do think seasonal consideration should be applied. As writers we can certainly mindful of this technique. What’s happening in the background at any given time is important. And hey, so is weather. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk about it so much!

Do the four seasons play a role in your writing?

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Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Description, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Four Current TV Shows that Influence My Writing Life

Despite the mudslide that is reality television, rest assured that there are some high quality programs for your viewing pleasure.

But before you tell me to turn off the TV and start writing, hear me out.

These four shows are magnificently written, superbly portrayed, wonderfully directed, finely detailed, and case in point, remarkably thematic.Like literature, these four ongoing series leaves room for debate, discussion, and analysis. They reveal a small piece of the world. They are allegories for a larger purpose, representing a larger idea. Plus, they’re wildly entertaining.

Here are four of my favorite shows on television today, and why they’ve made me a more insightful person, and as a result, a more insightful writer.

Mad Men (AMC)

Set in Manhattan and surrounding suburbs during the 1960s, this show exemplifies America’s (so-called) “Golden Era.” Sleek fashion and  flowing  libations are common motifs. At the center of the show is Don Draper, the greatest “Ad Man” on Madison Avenue (hence, “Mad Man”) there ever was. Don plays other roles of course: Husband.Father. Philander. All the other characters seem to filter in and around Mr. Draper (if that’s really his name!)

Why I love it: As a country we sacrificed—hard—for prosperity. After the war we had the world at our fingertips. Our homes were manicured, our cars were enormous, and our families were flourishing. Yet we still wanted more. Mad Men reflects this notion. The life we  fought for became stifling, stagnant. Spiritless housewives. Cheating husbands. Alcoholic bosses. Despite the wealth and power there’s an undercurrent of desperation that exudes from each character.  They’re  enmeshed in their own making. Stuck in their own traps. Perfection is desired, but it’s a long way off. And none of them will be the first to admit it.

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Set in current day New Mexico, this is a dark world; the powerfully efficient, yet overwhelmingly private underbelly of meth ‘cooking.’ Protagonist Walter White (aka “Heisenberg”) is a brilliant chemist, and former high school teacher. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, he fears leaving his family  in financial crisis. So he teams up with a former student and spawns one of the biggest, most coveted, ‘blue meth’ operations in the area. The fact that his brother-in-law is a high-level DEA agent is just part of the fun.

Why I love it: To go from a mild-mannered high school teacher to an elusive, murderous drug dealer may not seem plausible. Or does it? The show captures the notion of the stranger (Billy Joel song here) that lives inside us all. It begs the question: what we are truly capable of? How deep is our ability to surprise ourselves? In some ways it turns into a question of nature vs. nurture. What lies beneath us verses what the world has led us to believe.

The Walking Dead (AMC)

Based on the comic book and set in Georgia during a post-apocalyptic world full of “walkers” or “biters” or for the non-viewer, “zombies,” the show portrays Rick Grimes and his band of followers. Rick, who was in a coma during the onslaught, woke to find his world in disarray. Finding his way back to his wife, son, friend, and a group of surviving strangers, Rick leads the gang in an odyssey of terror, fighting off walkers and other violent types along the way.

Why I love it: You don’t have to be a comic book fanatic to appreciate the human will to survive. In times of turmoil, people ban together. We become both afraid of and tender towards the existing human race. The Walking Dead represents a world in horrific conditions. Death is an everyday occurrence. Modern luxuries have all but disappeared. People betray one another. No one—except those you’ve invested in—are to be trusted. And yet, amazingly, it’s simply fear of the unknown that keeps us anxious to stay alive, despite the circumstances or situations.

Speaking of comic books…

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Set in modern day California, super nerds Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, Rajesh, and their sprightly neighbor, Penny, keep the canned sitcom laughter rolling. All four guys are scientists employed at a local university. They struggle with girls, friendship, and family. They favor Star Trek, Star Wars, Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs, and various video games. But in the end, their hearts are as big as their brains (except for Sheldon, perhaps).

Why I love it: It is 2012, going on 2013. Face it. Nerd culture has exploded. There’s no longer a stigma. We all love the internet, we all love cell phones, iPads, etc.  The more special effects, the better the movie.  The nerds are the new heroes. What’s sexier than a guy who can fix your computer? In truth, if the future continues to unfold the way it has (who am I kidding, of course it will) the nerdy guy will forever perpetuate the scape of land.

Related video & article:

Amber Case on TED Talks: We Are All Cyborgs Now

Lev Grossman’s Time Magazine article:  The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

How about you? Any television shows make you think a bit harder once the credits have rolled?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

It’s worth noting who your characters “hang out” with. One of my favorite sayings, and I’ll paraphrase, goes something like this: You are who you attract.

Your protagonist’s choice of buddies can—surprise!—aid in the characterization process.

Friends
Merelize → in People

Some questions to consider when creating your character’s “Bestie”:

  1. Is the friend a secondary character? If so, how should he or she be developed throughout the story?
  2. Does the story have more than one main character, and are the characters friends? In other words, is the friendship the focus of the story?
  3. Is the friendship already established at the beginning, or do the characters meet sometime during the course of the story?
  4. What purpose does the friend serve? A helpful hand? Comic relief? Is he/she a drinking buddy? Partner in crime?
  5. Here’s the big one: What’s the dynamic like? Do the two (or more) personalities mesh well? Is a realistic pairing? Do they connect on some level? A hardened biker and a self-involved metrosexual can be friends…so long as there is some common ground. It’s the writer’s job to make it work.

Here are some common story friendship dynamics that you can bend, blend, and harmonize:

1. The Colorful Sidekick:  The goof off. The king’s fool. Think Kimmy Gibbler from Full House. This is a friend who adds some ‘flavor.’ He is audacious, brazen, comical, and flamboyant.

Important: Never underestimate the colorful sidekick. I’ve found in my own writing as well as the writing of others, that despite the personal flaws, these types often prove to be extraordinary friends in the end.

Favorite literary example: Dominick Birdsey’s cheeky, foolhardy friend Leo Blood from Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True.

 2. The Charismatic Crony: Your character both loves and hates her. Best friends, yes, but in most cases, the charismatic crony comes out on top. This is the prettier friend, the skinnier friend, the smarter friend, the more popular friend, etc. We all know the type. And we’re all jealous.

Important: It is possible for this friend to be innocent—she may not be fully aware of her prowess. In other cases, however, she is simply one backbiting buddy.

Favorite literary example: I have two. Gene Forrester’s larger-than-life friend Phineas from John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Rachel’s alluring childhood chum Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed.

3. The Caring Cohort: Quite simply, this is the friend who picks up your character when he or she falls. In fact, in some cases, this is the friend who sacrifices. Donates a kidney. Kills another. Gives up his own pleasure…all in the name of his friend.

Important: Any “friend” type that I’ve described here can lend a helping hand. The caring cohort goes a bit further.

Favorite literary example: George, who cares for mentally-handicapped Lennie Small during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (See my most recent “Old School Sunday” post). Also, although this isn’t literature, in West Side Story Tony kills the love of his life’s brother for stabbing his friend, Riff, to death. Now that’s the kind of friend I’m talking about here. Not to mention good old Romeo, who slain Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt for slaughtering his own friend, Mercutio.

4. The Best Friend: They say if you fall down, a good friend will help you up; your best friend will laugh at you. It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction. These are two characters who are practically one. Often, they will go through various life changes, and may struggle with their relationship; but in the end, they usually find their way back to each other.

Important: Generally speaking, this kind of friendship will require two main characters. They will have separate lives, but be forever tied to one another. Often the foundation of the story is the friendship itself.

Favorite literary example: Kate and Tully, whose lives (both separately and together) go through many transitions, and face many obstacles in Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. Actually, the book reminded me a lot of the movie Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

I’d like to leave you with some links from Writer’s Digest, particularly if your protagonist’s friend falls within the ‘minor character’ category:

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What are you favorite friendship dynamics in literature? Film?Television? How do your characters relate to each other? Can’t wait for the comments!

 

 

 

 

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Into the Depths: Characters and Their Dreams

“Sleeping Cat”
2happy → in Cats and dogs

Each night before I fall asleep I will myself to dream. If I’m lucky the next morning, I’ll remember them and record the details in a journal. Then, I’ll dissect what I wrote and analyze each symbol separately. Dreammoods.com is my savior. It’s more complex than that of course; dream interpretation remains a mystery, even today.  Nonetheless, I love dreaming. I love talking about my dreams. And I’m probably alone in this, but I love hearing about other people’s dreams.

That being said, in literature, when characters dream, it’s a sublime reading experience.

Not surprisingly my main character dreams throughout my novel-in-progress.  I don’t overdo it; he only has maybe two or three noteworthy dreams in the story. These nightly visions aren’t longwinded three page descriptions of unconscious rigmarole. A good dream sequence should probably last five to seven sentences at the most. And, let me say, the weirder the better.

After examining both my own writing and that of others, I can relate three simple rules-of-thumb when it comes to a character’s REM cycle:

1. Like I mentioned before, keep it short. The general public tends to get bored while listening to a friend, relative, or co-worker’s nighttime adventures (I’m the exception), so assume that they’ll get “sleepy” while reading about a protagonist’s overactive subconscious.

2. It should reflect what real dreams are like: ethereal, nonsensical, and at times, jarring. Taking this a step further, it works best when the underlying meaning of the dream is more obvious to the reader than the character him or herself.

3. It can’t be random. It must, in some ways, reflect the bigger picture of the story.

Expanding on number three, I’ve broken the concept down into the three categories:

1. Distorted Foreshadowing:A character dreams of walking through an unfamiliar rose garden. All flowers are flourishing, except for one brownish, wilting bush at the perimeter’s edge. Two weeks later a phone call comes: the character’s estranged mother has passed. At the wake, the funeral home is decked out in roses—the once vibrant mother’s favorite flower.

2. Jumbled Reflection of a Character’s True Feelings: A female protagonist has a recurring dream where she is stuck inside an old haunted hotel. There are ghosts in each room, and she fears they will come out and get her. There seems to be no exit to the terrifying building, each door she tries is jammed, the phones don’t work, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because when she tries to speak, no words come out.

In this character’s real life situation, she is invested in an abusive marriage, and despite the warnings she receives from her friends and family members, she feels too weak to break free. There are many, many truths she has not acknowledged about her life and situation. However, at least in the early parts of the story, she is utterly confused as to the meaning of the ominous dream.

3. Mish-mashed Symbolism:A wronged male character dreams he is on the beach when a giant wave crashed over him. Later, when he finds shelter in an abandoned house, he can barely step inside because the entire place is flooded. In dreams, water is reflective of emotions, particularly emotions which have gotten out of control; hence, the man’s anger over his past is actually “leaking out” and “overwhelming” him. The water symbolizes his torrid emotional state.

Each story will lend itself to a different kind of dreamer.  As the sole creators of our stories, we understand our characters better than they understand themselves. Their dreams are simply attempting to clue them in.

Some tips? Check out dreammoods.com here. It has a comprehensive dream dictionary, as well as simplified theories from renowned theorists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Understanding the basic nature of dreams will aid you in your writing.

How about you? Do your characters dream? Excited to hear your comments!

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Ideas for Writing: Five plot-centered prompts to get started!

Be kind, please. I’ve never actually done something like this before. Well, OK, that’s not 100% accurate. Once in a grad class, a professor asked us each to create our own writing prompts. Then he read them (anonymously, thank goodness) out loud and we all picked one for a free writing exercise. He didn’t withhold his opinions, however, on which prompts were worthy and which ones were crappy. I remember when he read mine, he raised his eyebrows and blinked three times in row, a facial expression that could only be construed as: Whoa, this one’s out there. I still believe very much in my prompt! In fact, I included it below–see if you can figure out which one received the ‘look.’

Anyhow, these are some original writing prompt ideas. In this segment, they relate to the plot points of a novel, story, poem, etc. If you’ve seen any of them before, it’s pure coincidence. As far as I’m concerned, they all come from my intrinsic writing brain:

1. A woman is standing at her kitchen sink washing dishes, when she notices, from out the window, a solitary, red (or any color, really) balloon floating in the vast sky. This reminds her of a significant childhood experience. Write about it.  OR A solitary, red balloon is floating in the vast sky. Tell the story of how it got there.

2. Four teenage friends are trying to get into (any concert) back in (any year). Write about their adventure.
For example, it’s 1978, and four high school sophomores from New Jersey are just dying to get access into CBGB’s. How does the night unravel? This may or may not require some research.

3. An old man from the World War II era is taking a long train ride to visit his grandson. When a  strange woman takes a seat across the aisle from him, he is suddenly taken by a distant memory–the day he lost his virginity to a prostitute while in the service. This also may require research.

4. A little boy (or girl) gets separated from his mother at a carnival, and witnesses something that terrifies him. Tell the story from the child’s point-of-view.

5.  A young man sees a young woman in a movie theater, and swears he knows her from someplace. He barely watches the film, because he is trying in vain to figure out why she seems so familiar. After the credits, he follows her outside and approaches her. Who is she? What happens?

This is a fun exercise because it not only gives my readers potential ideas, but it gives me ideas too. Any of these prompts can twist and turn in directions a writer never expected. That’s really the beauty of it all, isn’t it?

Anyone else want to contribute? Pen your own writing prompt below!

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What are your writing obsessions?

I’ll admit, I’m ripping this one off an old college professor. In a poetry writing course some years back, she asked us to consider our “poetic obsessions.” She even brought in some of her own compulsions from her office within the same building. Vintage advertisements from a younger America, books with brown, image-less hard covers and yellowing pages, china cat figurines with chipped ears. She spread it all out on the long conference table. Told us to sift through it, get inspired, write a poem. “We all have our own obsessions,” she said, “obsessions which fuel our writing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Go home and scan your bedrooms, work rooms, or other places you may sanctify. Examine your bookshelves, closets, dresser drawers. What seems to come up over and over again? These are your obsessions. And I’ll bet you anything that from time to time, they inexplicably show up in your writing.”

I was eager to come home and observe my space for my obsessions. I went straight to my office, and just as my professor said, I noticed some patterns. Flowers, for one thing. Fake flowers. Feather flowers, glass flowers, plastic flowers, wooden flowers. On my desk, shelves, end tables, etc. Then there was my lighthearted fixation on the occult: astrology books, psychic books, palm reading cards. I also have a greeting card with a painted fairy balancing the scales of justice on her shoulders. LIBRA it says in fancy font across the bottom. I have posters, calendars, and books on Elvis Presley. Numerous more books on rock ‘n roll, and Rolling Stone compilations, etc.  I was surprised to find I had more than one book on England–some simply images of the countryside, some tour guides, and some chronicled histories, including an anthology on the kings and queens.

My photo albums are chock full of pictures of myself as a child. On an antique step ladder that I use for decorative purposes are photographs of my grandparents as children. I have another framed picture of my father and uncle as young boys. Then there are the lighthouses–tiny knick knack versions of course. My grandfather–formerly of the Coast Guard–was an avid collector. I also have an image of a lighthouse I took with my digital camera on the background of my computer. And cats…paintings, books, and a humorous tapestry that says, “The more I get to some people, the more I like the cat.” Plus two real live ones that like to rub against my face as I write.

I could go on (Thomas Kinkade desk calendar, prints, and collectors’ coffee table books), but I’ll stop and say this: At one point or another, all of these things have turned up in my work. We all write for various reasons, and sometimes we get too caught up in the ‘business’ side of it–publications, queries, conferences, platform building, etc. and while these elements of living the writing life are both important and thrilling, I think sometimes we forget that writing is a subliminal, unconscious process that can help us connect to our hidden depths, those things that make us who we are. Writing is channeling, it’s drudging up the dirt, and these ‘obsessions’ of ours are symbols, or keys have you, that unlock what we consider to be important.

So I’m interested…what are YOUR obsessions, and do they, perhaps inadvertently or not, reveal themselves in your writing?

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If you look closely…

“We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. If we can’t make up stories about ordinary people, who can we make them up about? … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.”
—John Updike

Tonight I had dinner at my grandfather’s house. I’ve worked many hours in the past two days, and taught various classes. Before heading to Grandpa’s I decided to stop at a county park near his house and relish in twenty to thirty minutes of down time. I think it’s crucial for intrinsic writers–or your everyday introvert– to do this occasionally. I’m both. A writer, an introvert. It’s crucial. Reflection periods. I used to think that more people ought to do this. But today it occurred to me that if everyone did it, then parks like mine would be swamped with run-of-mill thinkers and philosophers like myself. And that would just kill my vibe.

Either way, I’m always surprised to find that others do the same. Today, a kooky woman parked her car next to me and proceeded to empty out the contents of her trunk and back seat into the mesh wire garbage bin planted in front of the man-made pond. Afterwords, she just…chilled…in her back seat, retrieving pieces of paper off her car floor and reading aloud to herself (I could tell; her lips were moving). My first thought? Are she and I the same breed?

Speaking of backseats. When I initially pulled into said park, an Acura SUV had been trailing behind me. Get off my ass, I’m thinking. You’re really staring to irritate me, Lady (introverted philosopher or not, I’m still from Northern Jersey). She kept moving her vehicle to the side, like she wanted to blast past me, but kept herself from doing it. She pulled into the same parking lot I did–naturally– and by this point my ‘Zen Zone’ was wavering. She breaks next to a black Mercedes. An older man steps out from the Benz, and leans into the talk to the aggressive Acura driver. Meanwhile, I kill my ignition and wait. I’m just dying to see what the bitch who was trailing me looks like. When she gets out of the car–I’d say mid-forties, long reddish hair, in shape–and she and the old man slip into the back seat, which by the way is clandestinely hidden by oh-so-illegal tinted windows. Valentine’s Day affair? I kept waiting for the car start rocking back and forth.

A little while later, a man in mid-fifties parks to the other side of me. The second he shifts gears he rubs his face with his hands. I hear you, Man, I thinking. I need it too. When a flock of geese take off in a V-Shaped flight, beckoning loudly enough for the world to hear, his eyes follow them as mine do, and again…I’m surprised. I’m surprised to find there are others like me.

I think as intrinsic writers, if we pay attention, there are cues and stories all over the place. Parks and sanctuaries, though they seem uneventful, are a haven for those who want to shut down. Who want to watch the simplistic lives of wildfowl. Who think they can be themselves because no one else is watching…

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The Particulars

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. … This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
—Natalie Goldberg

As an intrinsic writer, in my daily life I pay attention to the ‘particulars,’ or the details surrounding me. This began as a concentrated effort, probably some time during my undergraduate years when I first became immersed in literature. I read a ton as a kid, of course, any intrinsic will tell that he or she did. But back then I read countless R.L. Stine books, and The Babysitter’s Club series, plus other child classics like the Polk Street School tales, and Ramona, etc. Back then I read for the stories, the images that showed up in my mind, the characters that toyed with my imagination.

As I got older, I discovered that literature could have a rippling effect. Freshman year in high school I read A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (still one of my all time favorite books–I don’t care what the feminists say about it having no female characters. I used to love teaching it, too.) and for the first time discovered that fiction went beyond my favorite childhood narratives. I saw the complexity, the raw emotion, the parallels to real life.

These days, as a writer myself, I’m convinced that the complicated mesh and intricate web that makes up the anatomy of a story is all in the particulars. Any good novel, short story, screenplay, or even poem should be difficult to summarize. Even my own novel, when someone asks me what it is about, there is no way to explain it in a linear fashion. I can describe the plot, but I’ll always have to stop, backtrack, lay down the foundation of who is who, and what is what. Eventually the person gets tired of listening. You have to read it, I’ll say. Two years ago, I wrote a short story in a fiction writing class as part of my graduate program. The story was about a man who was having an affair with his mother-in-law. Of course it’s not that simple, see? There’s a background story, there’s various threads that weave together to make the whole. A classmate told me that I had “built [the story] like a house.” In any good writing, there has to be a recipe. Main ingredients, lesser ingredients, and those ingredients that make it just right.

Then there is filler. I search for filler everyday. The one stark red cardinal among a cluster of sparrows amidst a snowy backdrop. The visible veins in my cat’s ear when she sits next to a lamp. In spring, when the cherry blossoms along the main avenue shed their petals in the wind, lining up collectively along the curb lines. The leftover stench of onions hiding the pore of my forefinger after a night of chopping and mincing. A story is both big and small. Life is both big and small. The details are there for everyone. It’s up to the intrinsic types to point them out.

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Sensory details

“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed quickly, to trap them before they escape.”
—Ray Bradbury

Bradbury’s right on with this one. We intrinsic writers need to tickle our senses. I’m learning that in order to grow and flourish as a writer, I need to surround myself with “things.” All things. At any given moment, I am reading a new book, listening to new songs, delving into a new magazine, cooking a new recipe…it’s imperative. Ideas, if we let them, run rampant in the sensory details.

It’s important to mix it up, too. If I read nothing but literary fiction (my personal taste) I will dry out. If I depend solely on FM radio to provide me with music, I’m frankly, screwed. That’s what itunes is for, that’s what Rolling Stone is for, that’s what Pandora is for. Even Sirius radio. See? Exploration. Different sources, different sounds. And while I’m a writer who reads lots of writing magazines, I’m not ashamed of my subscription to O (Oprah). Know why? Ideas are in there. Lots of them. Handfuls of fun and chunky ideas.

I’m currently reading a novel that would likely be dubbed as “Chick Lit.” Not my personal style, but I got to put Jane Eyre down once in a while. I’ll sneeze from all the dust. I’ve read trashy romances, rock ‘n roll biographies, astrology books out the wazoo, and atlases…yes, atlases. I love atlases. I had a child’s atlas as a kid. It’s the number one reason my geographical/cultural knowledge is broader than most. As for music, I’ve taken a liking to sixties soul. Sam and Dave, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Coasters, Three Dog Night (actually, they are mostly considered ‘rock’ but I feel there is some soul-influence in there). But again, I’m scouting.

I find reality television empty and unbearable, but some new TV dramas–Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter–are fabulous for stimulation. They’ve got all the right ingredients: complex characterization, crafted plot lines, superb dialogue, thematic undercurrents. I think television series are more closely related to the novel. TV shows expand and develop over time, they run deeper. Film are like short stories. Clean, one shot. Not as much time for evolution.

Ideas come from garnering information, as much as possible. But if you’re intrinsic, you know that already.

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Have you ‘scene’ it?

“If I’m at a dull party I’ll invent some kind of game for myself and then pick someone to play it with so that I am, in effect, writing a scene. I’m supplying my half of the dialogue and hoping the other half comes up to standards. If it doesn’t, I try to direct it that way.”
—Evan Hunter

I think as an intrinsic writer, I’m often looking for scenes. Let me explain: I often examine my surroundings looking for a story to tell. Generally though, a given situation will only supply a scene. A story is more involved; for example, stories involve finely-tuned characters with flaws and backgrounds, and well-structured plot that weaves, riffs, and undulates until all the loose ends are connected, until all the kinks are unwoven.

Scenes, on the other hand, can happen anytime, anyplace. So can ‘concepts,’ or ‘themes,’ if you will. I attended a wake tonight. The deceased was the elderly mother of a cousin. I scanned over the old black and white family photographs glued to the poster board, and reveled a little in her ‘golden era’ shots and poses. Bobbed hair, church hat, porcelain visage, simultaneously carefree and classy. From here a ‘concept’ developed: ten to fifteen years from now, these types of snapshots won’t be occupying the empty spaces of funeral homes. The youthful pictures will depict long hair, sideburns, and bell bottoms. Abracadabra. A theme is born.

This is how I think these days. This notion–however fleeting–could find itself in the pages of my novel one day. I didn’t always know it, or at least I couldn’t always put into words, but I’ve always, without a doubt, for most of my life, been creating scenes. Is that what makes me an intrinsic writer?

I became aware of it in my early twenties. Oddly, at bars. Who’d of thought? While most kids my age were focusing on getting drunk and hooking up, I’d plant myself at a bar stool and observe. I’d look around for a scene to create. For a lifelike moment to imitate in my stories. I’d give strangers identities, and I’d do gut checks…how are you feeling, Katie? Here you are alive in this moment. What do you got? What can you carry forth? I labeled myself a ‘philosophical partier.’

I guess in order to write, one must look to write. It’s a sacrifice in a way. To live on the outer most circle. But to us intrinsic types, it’s not just worth it, it’s second nature.

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