April 2019 archive

Tarot Writing Prompt: Character Chess

AS CHESS PLAYERS KNOW, figuring out a strategy takes time. You need to contemplate all your options—and anticipate, as best you can, what will happen as a result of each.

In this way, the Two of Wands is a bit of a chess player. A successful merchant, he is sitting pretty in his villa by the sea, examining the opportunities available to him and evaluating their risks. Since he’s so comfortable, any move he makes must offer enough potential return to make gambling what he’s got worthwhile.

Will he? Make the move? Take the risk?

He doesn’t have to. After examining his alternatives, the Two of Wands could happily turn his back on the possibilities and just retire to his pleasant villa, where, no doubt, a wonderful breakfast has been spread for his enjoyment.

Which is why he’s not actually a chess player. An actual chess player doesn’t have a choice. She has to make her first move, and then another, and another—until checkmate (or stalemate) occurs. In professional chess, there’s even a timer to push the players along. But there’s no timer for the Two of Wands. No real urgency to make a move. Because of this, he’s only banked embers, only stored potential—unless he acts.

So, what will that delicious breakfast cost him? If he turns his back on his opportunities, he may simply never know.

Tarot writing prompt

Put your character in a hard-earned sweet spot. Her life is just right. Describe it. Have her revel in it. Then (because if we’re not growing we’re dying), offer her an option, one that’s almost irresistible, but would require her to move out of her comfort zone. Let her equivocate. Evaluate. Then dial up the pressure. Ratchet up the stakes.

Write about two alternative outcomes:

1) She holds. (What does she lose by not taking the risk? And what cascade of events occur predicated on that loss?)
2) She leaps. (What pushed her to take a chance? And what happens—next and next and next—because she did?)

Novel-writing inspiration

For further ideas on why a character might hesitate to act, check out this blog post on reluctant heroes.

And, even more to the Two-of-Wands point, there’s a fabulous scene in the film STRANGER THAN FICTION, in which the Will Ferrell character locks himself in his apartment trying to avoid his story—a story that finds him, nonetheless.

For an example of high-stakes choice-making, (re-)read the Frank R. Stockton short story “The Lady, or the Tiger.”

You might also enjoy checking out some of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories!

Finally, because the evergreen Lewis Carroll should always have the last word, when possible, I present, for your further inspiration when dealing with dithering characters, “The Mock Turtle’s Song,” from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!”
But the snail replied “Too far, too far!” and gave a look askance —
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France —
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

***

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Two of Wands from the RIDER WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

 

Writing Prompt: Move Your Chair

IS IT JUST ME? OR DOES WHERE WE WRITE AFFECT WHAT WE WRITE?

For instance, my novelist pal Margaret writes at home. Each morning at five she rises, lets the dogs out, puts on the kettle, boots up her laptop and settles onto her quiet porch, where she taps out lovely, quiet stories of single women, their dogs, and the porches where they sip tea.

Margaret’s kid, Sam, writes in night cafes. Scrawling long-hand, he records the frantic rattle of the twenty-something life that throngs around him. Sam’s work has sirens in it—flirtation, drugs, disaster—but no quiet stories. No dogs.

Certainly, writing doesn’t always reflect the spot where it’s produced. Just as certainly, writers—creatures of great habit—often have, in addition to a favorite pen or writing program, a favorite place to write. Like Baby Bear’s chair, the spot we’ve carved from a world of chaos can feel just right.

But once habit takes the short leap to superstition (I can only write in the bathtub? at my table at Starbucks? in the library? at the zoo?), we’ve given our creative power away.

Writing prompt

Where’s the last place you’d ever want to write? Where would you love to write but haven’t? Like Winter, try moving your writing chair.

If you’re a writer who needs absolute ear-plugged silence to get a word on the page (Hello, me!), take a trip to a local music hot-spot and write while guitars and synthesizers fuss and wail.

If you keep yourself “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” take yourself to a local mall one Saturday afternoon. Then, pen in hand, capture what most of America’s really like!

If you’re an out-and-about, hip sort of writer, settle yourself on a mossy seat in a forest or by a lake. Get your own heartbeat on paper. Write about the quiet in green ink.

It’s a big ol’ world out there. Take your laptop on a field trip. Grab some of that big ol’ energy for your writing. Who knows? Like Milo, you might find a new, just-right spot—and maybe even a new, just-right voice to go with it.

 

This post is a revision of a piece I wrote in 2008 for my then-blog, Workshop Porkchop. I was an adventuring writer at the time. Now, more of a stay-at-home writer, this is a good reminder for me. I hope it inspires your writing and my own!

Plotting Your Novel!

PENNING A PLOT IS A WILD RIDE—for both the writer and the character whose story is being told. Ups! Downs! Chills! Thrills! And then … that horrifying moment halfway through your draft when you, author, realize you don’t know what happens next!

For ten years, I’ve been helping writers extricate themselves from exactly that hairy spot—using a process called the Plot Clock. A virtual AAA road map of a narrative, the Plot Clock shows writers how to organize story events to get their characters to make the changes needed to fulfill their story’s purpose.

As Gail Shepherd, author of THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS (Penguin), says, If you want to nail story structure, there’s no better method than the Plot Clock—it gives you a visual map to represent the arc of your story and keep you on track.

Now, I and my co-authors Joyce Sweeney and Tia Levings have finally written the Plot Clock book. So, if your story is stuck and spinning its wheels, forget AAA. Just call Amazon! Tell ’em to send a literary tow truck—fully loaded with a copy of PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK!

Tarot Writing Prompt: Ace(s) Up Your Sleeve

TAROT ACES ARE CONCENTRATED UNITS OF PSYCHIC ROCKET FUEL! The Ace of Wands, for instance, blazes with a fire that impels action. The Ace of Cups drips with the sweet honey of love. The Ace of Swords slices swiftly to the truth, and the Ace of Pentacles fills our bags with the gold of family, health, and financial well being.

And then there’s flash fiction. This super-concentrated form of story-telling could easily be called the “Ace of Drama.” Typically between fifty and a thousand words (depending on your definition), flash fiction propels readers through dramatic situations at warp speed. To do so, it challenges its writers to create characters, setting, conflict, and some sort of resolution all within its super-tight framework.

Want to give this literary form of nitroglycerin a try? Check out the prompt below, inspired by my flash-fiction-writing tarot pal Bonnie Cehovet!

Tarot writing prompt

Pick a card, any card
First, choose your Ace.

If you chose the Ace of Wands, write a hundred-word action/adventure story.
If you chose the Ace of Cups, write a hundred-word romance.
If you chose the Ace of Swords, write a hundred-word story of double-dealing or deceit.
If you chose the Ace of Pentacles, write a hundred-word family drama (add an inheritance to the mix for extra credit!).

I’ll go first. I picked the Ace of Swords.

Thomas watched his brother’s fiancée from the perimeter of a dozen parties. Her gleaming hair. Her ridiculously long neck. The maw of her mouth issuing dark laughter. Whenever he got close enough, he wondered, was she laughing at him? He’d redden, unsure. Then his brother’s brakes failed. And his airbag. (Tragic, right?) When the fiancée was released, Thomas swooped in. Who better? She’d recover. They’d circle those same parties. They’d laugh. And, later, they would wrestle in sweaty pleasure, reviling their evening’s casualties. He woke from dreams of it, dark laughter in his mouth. If only she would stop crying.

My Swords-y idea was that Thomas tampered with his brother’s car. Is that clear? I dunno. Anyway, it’s a hundred words. So there’s that.

Flash fiction inspiration

Need more information or inspiration? Click on the links below for further guidelines and places to “flash” your short-short work.

FLASH FICTION ONLINE offers a ton of resources, from excellent examples, to how-to tips, to submission guidelines. Once you’ve tried this exercise, you might consider submitting the results to them!

NYC Midnight has an annual short story challenge that proceeds in heats: from a 2500-word story, to a 2000-word story, to a 1500-word story (aka, flash fiction!).

For more about writing flash fiction, check out this post: “Writing Short.” 

***

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems, Inc., for kind permission to use the image of the Ace of Rods (aka Wands) from the MORGAN GREER TAROT

Thanks also to book shepherd Tia Levings—who placed third in her first heat this year!—for the 4-1-1 on NYC Midnight.

Non-Writing Prompt: Spring Sabbath

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THREE DAYS, I wasn’t running late. Actually, I was ten minutes early. My periodontal cleaning was at 2:00, and it was only 1:50 when I pulled into the lot.

A couple of minutes before, headed down shady Capen Ave., I’d noticed the cacophony of azaleas—purple, fuschia, white—flaming up in front of the tiny, old, wood-framed houses that lined the street. I’d been thinking how soft the azaleas smell and about the sweet, green blossoming oaks.

And thinking too that, with ten minutes, I was at a mental crossroads. One finger sign pointed towards the periodontist’s waiting room, where I could catch up on back issues of PEOPLE magazine under fluorescent office lighting. The other sign pointed me back to the quiet, sweet-scented Wednesday afternoon neighborhood I’d just driven through.

A week earlier, my friend George and I were talking about sabbaths and how we miss them—mine on Saturdays, his on Sundays. “But I’ve been taking mini-sabbaths,” George told me, describing the moments of quiet he creates during his busy days.

“It could be just a pause to look up at the sky before heading back into the office, or sitting for just a few minutes on the cafeteria patio, closing my eyes and feeling the sun on my skin.” Seemingly inconsequential, these little breaks refresh him, he said, allow him to remember—in the middle of the furor of life—exactly who he is. That he is.

So, on that April Wednesday, with those ten precious minutes in hand, I let Jen and Lady Gaga and Dr. Oz continue their glossy lives without me. Instead, I wandered past old oaks, down cracked sidewalks, passing green- and yellow-painted houses that leaned just a little to one side or the other in their dirt-and-oak-leaf yards—and breathing in the blooming of spring.

The next day, though, I was caught back up in the whirl. Glancing around, Impatient for someone in the Lowes garden center to point me towards the decorative mulch, I noticed a tiny flicker over a flat of potted heather on the table beside me.

One flicker.

Then another.

And another.

It was bees. Tiny bees! It was the beat of filtered sunlight on tiny translucent wings. It was two … three … eight … twenty tiny bees humming from tiny purple heather-bell to tiny purple heather-bell. It was a whole garden’s worth of bees, glittering, hovering. A whole 21st century urban meadow of bees, humming, shimmering, buzzing around the three-inch plastic pots. Suspended in the middle of that ordinary Thursday afternoon, it was, in fact, an entire sabbath full of bees.

Non-writing prompt

I wrote this quite a few springs ago—but today’s April early afternoon smells just as sweet. Your prompt, if you choose to accept it, is to find ten minutes this week, in the midst of all the busy-ness, to take just a tiny detour, give yourself just a few blocks’ worth of breathing space. You don’t even have to pick up a pen to write about about what you find. Those sabbath moments will write themselves directly onto your spirit, I think, where you’ll be able to read them for many springs to come.

Non-writing inspiration

Emily Dickinson was a wonder for appreciating the small and quiet. She made a life of it. I visited her house once, and her grave, too, where people leave treasures to her gentle memory. Here’s a wonderful Poetry Foundation article about her: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson

And, to inspire your own personal, ten-minute sabbath, here’s an Emily poem:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee—
One clover and a bee,
And reverie.
The reverie alone will do
If bees are few.

May the reverie be with you.

***

The image of VIII Fortitude (Strength) is from the VICTORIAN FAIRY TAROT, written by Lunaea Weatherstone, art by Gary Lippincott, published by Llewellyn Worldwide and used with Llewellyn’s kind permission.

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