February 2019 archive

Tarot Writing Prompt: Writing Scenes from “Both Sides Now” (Thanks, Joni!)

IN TAROT, AS IN LIFE, the “meanings” we assign to people and situations affect our feelings about them. Those feelings, in turn, influence our actions … and our actions impact our outcomes. So it makes sense that we take a minute to re-consider our first-impression interpretations before acting on them.

Tarot, smarty-pants that it is, keeps an ace up its sleeve. When it would benefit us to look beyond the face value of a person, place, or thing, tarot simply hands us a card upside down! These upturned cards, called “reversals,” invite us to explore alternative interpretations of the upright card meanings.

For example, upright, the King of Pentacles signifies a mature, affluent person, one who has earned his current position and who, like the CEO of a corporation, is likely in charge of others’ financial well-being. He’s typically seen as generous but conservative—a guy who will carefully consider your request for an investment, and then perform his due diligence before committing a penny to the project.

Turn him on his head, however, and he may be barely keeping up appearances! For instance, the reversed King of Pentacles could signify someone who’s had a big loss in the stock market and is just managing to tread water. Alternatively, he might run squarely against the grain of his cautious-but-generous reputation, being instead miserly or cold-hearted or even rash. Perhaps he’s malicious and domineering—or, on the other hand, totally lacking in the sort of confidence you’d expect from someone in his position.

All this to say that, while upright tarot cards are relatively straightforward, reversals tend to be trickier and more complex. Which is fine, because life is pretty tricky, too. And since what’s true in life is often even more true in fiction, let’s pay heed to tarot and Joni Mitchell and make sure our characters take the time to look at “both sides now.”

Tarot writing prompt

Write scenes based on the following bold-faced suggestions (ignoring my examples, unless they seem like fun!).

1. Give your character a challenge to face. For example, maybe that King of Pentacles is your character’s boss, and he’s just turned her down for a raise—after hiking her male office mate’s salary.

2. Let your character have a face-value opinion of the situation. Since her coworker got his raise, your character concludes her boss is biased against women in the workplace.

3. Assign your character an emotion or attitude based on her interpretation of the situation. She’s resentful her misogynistic boss won’t cough up the raise she’s requested.

4. Put your character into action based on her belief-driven emotion or attitude (more fun, of course if this action is going to get her in trouble!). She goes to HR and files a complaint of discriminatory treatment.

5. Fast forward to the outcome of the action. After an escalating legal battle, her boss ends up suing her for defamation of character!

But what if, way back at step one, you turned the situation upside down? What if you shook the abundant possibilities from it like long-saved silver dollars from a piggy bank?

In that case, your character might consider her boss’s reluctance to grant her a raise a signal that the company isn’t doing well. And maybe her research proves that’s true. And maybe she discovers that her boss favors her coworker because that young man was her boss’s deceased son’s best friend. (Hello, subplot!) And maybe her sympathy for her boss fuels her determination to save the company—and maybe she fails, but her efforts catch the eye of the CEO of a rival company, who offers her a VP position, making twice what she’d asked her boss for in the first place!

I dunno. It’s worth exploring. Because, like Robert Frost (sort of) tells us in “The Road Not Taken,” the meaning your character assigns a situation can make all the difference—to deepening her own experience and perhaps that of her eventual reader, as well.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the King of Pentacles from the DREAMING WAY TAROT.

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A Novel That’s a Tarot Writing Prompt: Story Archetypes

LIKE THE YOUNGEST SON OF FAIRY-TALE FAME, the tarot Fool leaps into whatever wild undertaking has captured his imagination—and thus begins his journey. Similar to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, or Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, the quest the Fool embarks upon is called “the Fool’s Journey.” On his path, he meets—and is schooled by—the other cards in tarot’s major arcana, figures like the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Hermit.

The impulsive young hero at the center of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO, a historical novel by Karen Engelmann, is an eighteenth-century secretaire named Emil Larsson, who is also on a Fool’s journey of sorts. Emil’s journey starts when mysterious psychic (and Swedish Royalist) Mrs. Sparrow lays tarot cards for Emil in a pattern she calls “the Octavo.”

This layout consists of a central card, which represents Emil, surrounded by eight additional cards, that, Mrs. Sparrow explains, signify people and events Emil will encounter as he fulfills his destiny. Dealt randomly into their positions, these eight cards stand for what she calls a Companion, a Prisoner, a Teacher, a Courier, a Trickster, a Magpie, a Prize, and a Key. It’s up to Emil to distinguish who is whom and which is which!

Tarot writing prompt

As befits an idea that sustains a 400-page novel, this is a long-ish prompt. You might dive in and work through all the steps in one go (long weekend, anyone?). Or perhaps you’d prefer to proceed as Mrs. Sparrow did, when she doled out her reading for Emil, one card at a time, over eight consecutive nights.

Alternatively, of course, you can just dip in when you’re stuck mid-draft and need some literary fuel to get your story back on the road.

PICK AND CHOOSE: To start, you’ll need a pool of images to choose from. A tarot deck is ideal, but so is a stack of intriguing pictures torn from magazines. (If you’re going the magazine route, find at least twenty pictures to work with.) Sort through your images and find one to represent your main character, your Hero. Lay that image on a flat surface with room around it for the rest of its Octavo.

UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU’RE TURNING ME: Next, lay the rest of the images face down. Blindly, choose eight images from your upside-down deck or stack of magazine pics. (The point is to make yourself pick these eight images randomly.) For now, set these images aside without turning them over to peek.

ARTS AND CRAFTS TIME: Write the titles of the following eight story archetypes (which differ somewhat from those Mrs. Sparrow assigned to Emil’s cards) on eight small sticky notes:

  • Prize (what the Hero wants most; that for which he quests)
  • Herald (the character or event that reveals the quest to the Hero)
  • Antagonist (also, “Villain”; a person or force hostile to the Hero, which actively attempts to stop the Hero from completing his quest; does not need to be a person: for instance, might be a forest fire or a political situation)
  • Guardian (also, “Threshold Guardian”; ensures your Hero is worthy of crossing the threshold into their quest, proper; to do so, creates obstacles to the Hero early on that test the Hero’s mettle)
  • Sidekick (a best-friend archetype, who, notably, gets sidelined somewhere in the thick of the action)
  • Precious Child (a vulnerable story element; could be an animal, child, or family farm, for instance, which the Hero treasures and which the Antagonist threatens, raising the story stakes and tension)
  • Trickster (an unreliable, self-dealing character who creates story confusion; whose side is the Trickster really on? Maybe even the Trickster doesn’t know for sure.)
  • Mentor (a character whose story-relevant knowledge and skills are far more advanced than the Hero’s and who guides the Hero at pivotal points in his quest; notably, the Mentor must be absent at the story’s climax, so the Hero has to face the Antagonist in that final battle on his own)

Turn over your eight set-aside images, now, and randomly affix the archetype-stickies to them. (This randomness makes the story more true to our experience, as we seldom know what role a new acquaintance will play in our life or what effect an unforeseen event might have!)

RING AROUND THE ROSY (-CHEEKED HERO): Now, lay the stickied images around the one representing your Hero. Bravo! You’ve created your Hero’s Octavo!

READY, STEADY, GO! Write one scene for each archetype. Through your Hero’s eight in-scene interactions, be sure to show how his quest is affected by each of the people and/or situations represented by the image and archetype it’s been assigned.

Since these archetypes are present in most stories, once you’ve written your way through all eight interactions, you might find—voila!—you are well on your way to a draft of a novel or novella! Certainly, it’s a good weekend’s worth of work (because you and I both know the lawn—and the dishes and the bills and the litter box—can wait ’til next week).

Novel-writing inspiration (and blog-posting appreciation!)

If you’re new to the idea of story archetypes, a quick digest of a few of them is available at Graeme Shimmin’s site. You’ll find a more in-depth consideration in this Hillsborough Community College PDF.

Or dive deep into Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. (You won’t be sorry. Tired, maybe. But not sorry!)

There’s a lovely NEW YORK TIMES book review of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO by Susann Cokal.

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for their kind permission to use images from the RIDER WAITE SMITH TAROT for my Octavo example. I’m also grateful to Illustrator Dylan Meconis, whose image of Luther as the Fool accompanies this post.

Finally, thanks to George and Sal, who knew I wouldn’t be able to resist a story based on a tarot spread.

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Naming Characters: A Novel-Writing Game for Memoirists

THERE’S A FERAL KITTEN living in my back yard. She’s one of a small community of cats I feed. They’ve all been neutered, and a handful of kittens have been adopted out, too. For the most part, the cats that have returned come and go—and I remain unattached.

But not so with little Button. I named her on the way back from a vet appointment, where it was determined she was too young for a rabies shot and would need to live in my bathroom for a month before she could be spayed and inoculated. I called a friend to report this—and that the kitten now had a name: Button.

Once Button returned to the yard, I told the same friend I was particularly concerned about this kitten’s well-being. My friend said, “Of course you are. You named her Button.”

Right. I named her—and adorably—and now she lives both physically, in my yard, and vividly, in my imagination. This is the power of naming.

This same friend is named “Mary Katherine,” a moniker about which she is not thrilled. She’d be happy as a “Kate,” but her family has always called her “Mary.” Now, at fifty, she’s stuck with it, and perhaps in the role her family imagines for her, too.

If naming something makes it ours, naming something correctly gives it a life of its own.

Memoir to novel: “A” my name is …

When we’re fictionalizing our lives, using them for novel-writing fodder, the first thing we might do is find a name for our main character that differentiates her from us. This gives her some breathing room, lets her live out her story on her own terms. It creates the possibility that the story we’re telling—even though based in our own experience—could come to surprise us.

Maybe we give our fictionalized self a name that reflects a trait we wish we had. If I were to write a novel using my life as a starting point, I’d likely name my main character “Claire.” I’d do this in hopes she would understand the roads I’ve traveled more “clearly” than I do. That facing at least some of the crossroads I’ve faced, she’d make clearer-eyed choices than I did—choices that would take her down different paths than those I followed. I’d be fascinated to see where such clarity might have led me.

Writer friend Jill Louise, after working on what she believed to be a non-autobiographical novel for ten years, suddenly realized (after ten years!) she’d actually named her main character for the small Midwestern town in which she herself was raised. Oops.

Jill says she now sees this character as representative of her entire life growing up—“the thing that I left,” as she put it. From this, she learned: “You can’t get away from it. You can’t actually write something that’s not about you.”

And then there’s Sarah (not her real name, but a true story). Sarah is a client of mine who is writing a wonderful, wildly fictionalized version of her life—and who has recently changed her main character’s name to one more distinct from “Sarah” than that which she first bestowed on the character.

I’m not sure if changing her main character from “Shari” to “Consuelo” was what turned the tide, but it’s a fact that, recently, Sarah sent Consuelo to face a fictional challenge similar to one in Sarah’s actual life. It’s also a fact that, after writing the scene in which Consuelo meets her antagonist head on and triumphs, Sarah did the same in real life.

Go, Consuelo. Go, Sarah!!

Button

Natalie Goldberg says, “Writers live twice.” With that in mind, name your characters (and your kittens) well. Then, in your second life on the page, let them go forth and do what may have seemed impossible to you the first time around, when you were committed to being the person who carried the name with which you were born.

Novel-writing inspiration

WRITER’S DIGEST article “The 7 Rules for Picking Names for Fictional Characters,” by my pal Elizabeth Sims, is a great starting place for thinking through some character-naming strategies.

Need more? With over 25,000 character names, THE CHARACTER NAMING SOURCEBOOK, by Sherrilyn Kenyon, might put its figurative finger on the handle that best suits your character.

And if you’re turning your life into a medieval tale? Check out NAME YOUR MEDIEVAL CHARACTER, by Joyce DiPastena.

Finally, when I told After Fifty Adventureman, Hugh Holborn, about this post, he steered me toward Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND because of the number of significantly-named characters the story includes. If you’re interested in learning about some of these names, you’ll find a discussion in Anjelica Mantikas’s article in Shadows of Light: Exploring the Tradition of Utopian and Dystopian Thought. Scroll down to the second paragraph of section III, Historical context and religious references.

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Invisible Ink: Writing Practice, Journaling, and Morning Pages

WHEN WE WRITE WORDS NO ONE ELSE WILL EVER READ—during our writing practice, in our journals, or as part of our morning pages—we might as well be using invisible ink. Yet, despite not having an audience, those words do have an effect. On us.

With no imaginary reader peering over our shoulder, we may dig into deeper truths than if we think someone will judge what we say. With no one to frown at our antics, we can be wild, exaggerated, unbound on the page—free to scrawl out first thoughts and leap to extravagant associations, rather than just dishing up what’s expected of us.

Writing practice

Maybe we use our invisible ink for writing practice, setting a timer, writing as fast as we can about a topic we want to explore, and not stopping until the bell dings.

What’s the hurry? We need to outrun the censor, scribble right past the spots our inner critic wants to stop us. Once we’re beyond his reach, chances are we’ll stumble onto something crisp and new, something that belongs just to us—something the censor considers dangerous, but which we know carries a vital charge.

Then we can bring this dynamic material back to a piece for our readers, where it will liven the same-old/same-old with the citrus-y tang of a fresh idea!

Keeping a journal

We might also keep a journal to record events of our lives. A daily digest of what we’ve done and how we feel about it can generate great trust within us. And a journal can also be both a record to look back on and a foundation for any other writing we want to do. Because once we’re in the habit of writing at all, all writing becomes easier to tackle.

Morning pages

At first glance, committing to morning pages—three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing—looks a lot like writing practice or journaling. But different from either, morning pages are meant to be written and then forgotten.

Personally, I just dump the contents of my brain on the page every morning for about thirty minutes and toss out my spiral-bound morning-pages notebooks as I fill them. I never mine them for ideas for articles or books. Still, reliably (as I mention in A Book Can Be Your Writing Coach), morning pages free me up for other writing tasks.

Tarot writing prompt

In this Eight of Pentacles, a journeyman works solo, laying one brick at a time to create the structure shown in his blueprint. He is diligent, focused, and committed. No one watches or praises him. Yet he is dedicated to his task—and will learn from it whatever it has to teach him.

Your mission, if you accept it, is to commit to making personal writing a priority for eight consecutive days. Then, assess your experience. What, if anything, has it taught you? Did you receive benefits you didn’t expect?

Like the steady-going figure in the Eight of Pentacles builds his wall brick by brick, a regular personal writing practice builds our literary confidence—not just in invisible ink, but in the words we write for others, as well.

Journal-writing inspiration

Check out these three diaries which, originally private, have been published (turning the idea of “invisible ink” on its head). A peek at these writers’ intimate thoughts may offer you inspiration to continue with your own private writing practice.

Thanks to Cassandra at QuickTarotReading for kind permission to use the image of the Eight of Pentacles from her wonderful EVOLUTIONARY OPTIONS TAROT.

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