January 2019 archive

Tarot Writing Prompt: The Active Hero Rides Again

AT SOME POINT EARLY IN YOUR NOVEL, your main character will declare herself: She’ll either enter the action as a reluctant hero or an active one. Reluctant heroes are a pain in the tuchus. They require all sorts of cajoling and stakes-raising to get them into action.*

But if you have an active hero on your hands, she’s going to do half the work for you. In her eagerness to save the day (or the world), she’ll happily get herself in loads of trouble! Like the Knight of Wands, she’ll routinely jump off a cliff, chase the bad guys, storm the castle, and just generally splash around in all the hot water she can find—all in the name of adventure.

* Here’s a link to a writing prompt that can help you push your reluctant hero where she’s loathe to go: A Horse to Water.

Tarot writing prompt

Pick your hero: Do you want to write about a time you yourself boldly tromped in where angels feared to tread? Or is there a figure from history whose fierce exploits you’d like to explore? Or do you have a fictional hero jittering about in the gate already, just itching for you to pull the trigger on the starting gun?

Let ’em leap: What situation does your real or fictional hero face? Be sure to give her something to dig her well-sharpened teeth into—something no reluctant hero would touch with the longest pole ever made!

For instance,

  • is she taking on a tough court battle, representing a client her older/wiser colleagues see as a really bad bet—and risking her reputation to do so?
  • or is she on a quest to retrieve a painting the Nazis stole from her family almost a century before—and facing a lot of (dangerous) political blow-back as she does?
  • or, having learned to fly a plane, has she decided that if an around-the-world solo flight was good enough for Amelia Earhart, it’s good enough for her, as well?

Don’t stop now!: Like that ol’ Knight of Wands, take it from here: Leap into action with your character and ride your new story at a flat-out gallop to the very end!

Novel-writing inspiration

If you’d like some tales of fiery heroines to fuel your own protagonist’s flame, here are three to get you started.

DREAMING THE EAGLE (Boudica Trilogy), by Manda Scott

Dreaming the Eagle is the first part of the gloriously imagined epic trilogy of the life of Boudica. She is the last defender of the Celtic culture in Britain: the only woman openly to lead her warriors into battle, she stands successfully against the might of Imperial Rome—and triumphs. Also known as Boudicea, her name gives us the word bodacious!

JANE EYRE, by Charlotte Bronte

No. Seriously. If you haven’t read JANE EYRE, it’s so freakin’ good. And Jane herself is simply a mid-19th-century bad-ass.

JOAN JETT, by Todd Oldham

Rock-and-roll goddess Joan Jett started her first band, The Runaways, at fifteen and blazed a trail that inspired and thrilled her fans.This book chronicles her career—from forming The Runaways to her years with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. With an introduction by Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna.

Rock on! And keep these knight-esses in your heart and mind as you send your own heroine boldly into battle.

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for their kind permission to use the image of the Knight of Wands from the RIDER WAITE SMITH TAROT.

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Tarot Writing Prompt: The Nine of Friends

TODAY, MY WEBSITE IS BROKEN. Well. Cracked. It’s a thing I just discovered. And I feel as helpless about it as the little guy in this card feels about his broken purple cup. Fortunately, like that little guy, I am not alone in my predicament. My website creator, the fabulous card reader Melissa Jo Hill, is ON IT!! Which, thank God. Because, I’m just not.

Nor am I on the SEO/marketing part of my business. But excellent-writer-in-many-genres (and also publisher) pal Tia Levings is. And brilliant, cat-loving, speculative-fiction-writing Mary K Swanson (no period after the “K”) has my techno-helpless butt covered when it comes to computer software and hardware. Thank GOD!!

And this list of good and helpful friendliness doesn’t even include Mr. After Fifty Adventureman, Hugh Holborn, who came down yesterday for a confab about his adventurous memoir-in-progress—and brought a can of WD 40, a metal brush, and a bucketful of tools to fix my garage door.

With friends and colleagues like these, my various broken cups and garage doors and computers don’t stay so for long. So I wasn’t all that surprised when I turned over the strange Nine of Cups (above) last night.

You see, the tarot Nine of Cups is usually associated with the sense of well-being that comes with having enough (as illustrated by this traditional—slightly smug—image from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot), not with the comfort of friendship.

But the card from the PHANTASMAGORIC THEATER TAROT (top) goes its own way, and depicts a community gathered in support of one of its members, rather than a single person self-satisfied with his cups.

That first image reminds me that neither my wealth nor my well-being lie in the material or technological or cyber-ish things I lean so heavily on, but in my friendships. As an old pal used to say, “Our most reliable ‘social security’ is actually our community, not what (we hope!) the government has tucked away on our behalf.”

Tarot writing prompt

Your character (or you!) has gotten into a jam (always good for story-telling, right?). Something’s broken. Irrevocably. Something in which she (you?) is very much invested. Is it a precious object? A part of her anatomy? A relationship? Decide … and then write the following:

1) A scene in which you show us exactly how deeply your character is invested in the object/anatomical part/relationship—and why! (What’s at stake?)

2) A scene in which we witness the object (or ???) breaking.

3) A final scene in which your character’s community rallies to help her (you?) mourn the irrevocable brokeness—and helps her take steps to move beyond the loss.

Novel-writing inspiration

Want some literary inspiration? Check out the novel THE BOWL IS ALREADY BROKEN, by Mary Kay Zuravleff.

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for their kind permission to use the images of the Nine of Cups from the PHANTASMAGORIC THEATER TAROT and THE RIDER WAITE SMITH TAROT. 

Tarot Prompts You to Submit Your Writing: Contests and Calls for Submission

SWIFTNESS, CHANGE, OPPORTUNITY, MESSAGES ON THE WIND. Tarot’s Eight of Wands speaks to all of these. It’s a communicative card. It can signal the sudden appearance of new connections, information, or direction.

If you got the Eight of Wands in a tarot reading, the turbaned, hoop-earringed Gypsy turning your cards might say, “Favorable circumstances are flying toward you! Avail yourself of them, and positive changes are likely to occur.”

I’m not (currently) wearing a turban—or even my hoop earrings—but accept this message as if I were. Because, with this post, the Eight of Wands is delivering a quiverful of opportunities: It’s time to send your writing soaring out on the winds of literary chance!

Writing contests

Forthwith, in the spirit of the Eight of Wands, I present to you eight (and a half) writing contests—in order of deadline.

1) The Roswell Award, presented by the Light Bringer Project

The Roswell Award for short science fiction is an international competition. Finalists are read by celebrity guests at LitFest Pasadena. Submission closes January 28, 2019.

2) The Masters Review Winter Short Story Award for New Writers

This prize recognizes the best fiction from today’s emerging writers. In addition to cash prizes, winning stories and any notable Honorable Mentions will receive agency review. Submissions close January 31, 2019.

3) New Beginnings Short Story Competition

Accepting short stories in English from anywhere in the world in any genre. 2500 word maximum. Submissions close January 31, 2019.

4a) FanStory 100 Word Writing Contest

Write a flash fiction story on any topic that uses exactly 100 words. $100 first-place prize. Feedback on all stories. Submissions close February 12, 2019.

4b) FanStory 20 Syllable Poetry Contest

Write a poem—any structure, any word count—with exactly 20 syllables. $100 first-place prize. Feedback on all poems. Submissions close February 17, 2019.

5) Snowbound Chapbook Award, presented by Tupelo Press

Includes a cash award of $1,000, publication by Tupelo Press, a book launch, and national distribution. Submissions close February 28, 2019.

6) 2019 Screenwriting Contest, presented by Script Pipeline

Now in its seventeenth year, the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition seeks talented writers. They focus on finding writers representation, supporting diverse voices, championing unique storytelling, and pushing more original projects into production. Early submissions close March 1, 2019.

7) Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, presented by Aesthetica Magazine

The award celebrates excellence in poetry and short fiction, supporting new writing talent and presenting writers with a fantastic opportunity to further their involvement in the literary world. Submissions close August 2019.

8) Poets and Writers

And if that weren’t enough, the P&W writing contests, grants, and awards database has details about the creative writing contests—including poetry contests, short story competitions, essay contests, awards for novels, and more—that have been published in the magazine during the past year. They carefully review each contest before including it. Theirs is the most trusted resource for legitimate writing contests available anywhere.


Consider this a literary public service announcement from the Eight of Wands: Submit your poetry, short stories, flash fiction, chap books, screenplays, personal essays, and novels, now!

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for their kind permission to use the image of the Eight of Wands from the RIDER WAITE SMITH TAROT.

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Tarot Writing Prompt: One Plus One Equals Story!

REMEMBER THE TIME YOUR BEST FRIEND WAS DROWNING IN HER LONG-HELD SADNESS? And you called and said, “Hey, let’s go for a walk”? But her sadness told her she couldn’t even get out of bed? But then she did get out of bed and you guys did go for a walk? And on that walk you asked her to talk about the sad things? And she did? And then you said, “Well, what if you just …?” And she said, “Yeah, I could just …!” Then suddenly, the clouds hanging over her head parted and the sun reappeared?

Well, that’s the story I saw when I looked at these side-by-side images from the enchanting SASURAIBITO TAROT: I saw the clear-eyed Page of Swords disrupting the entrenched sorrow of the girl in the Five of Cups; I saw her slicing right through the mood that’s been holding that girl captive.

Tarot Writing Prompt

What story do you see in these cards? Do you think the Page is helping the other character shift her perspective? Or is the Page acting aggressively towards her? Or maybe something entirely different is happening here!

Write a quick scene that tells the story these images evoke from you.

Did you notice the tension between the two images creating a dynamic pull? One that almost writes a story for you—or at least gives you a very good start? Tarot images are ideal to use in this way because tarot is intended to be dynamic, evocative, powerful—especially when the cards are viewed in combination.

(In my experience, however, “oracle decks” or “angel decks,” which may be great for personal inspiration, are often not as creatively provocative as actual tarot cards. Read this Biddy Tarot post to learn more about the difference.)

Now, grab two of your own tarot cards and start a new story. (If you don’t have a tarot deck, you can find a boatload of tarot images online or, alternatively, tear a couple of interesting pictures from a magazine and use those.)

Once your new story is started, you can keep it going by adding another card … and another … and another—writing scene after scene fueled by the tension(s) created by the juxtaposition of each card to the one before it. Because, as Noah figured out while herding the creatures up the gangway to his ark, magic—energy! spark! procreation!!—happens two, by two, by two, by two.

Thanks to Stasia Burrington for her gracious permission to use images from her SASURAIBITO TAROT. 

Tarot and Writing and Dragons: Deep Work

MY FRIEND TIA LEVINGS WAS JUST INTERVIEWED FOR A NOT NOSY PODCASTAmong wide-ranging topics, Tia talked about DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport (find your way to 47:21 to hear that part of the conversation) and how applying Newport’s principles to her writing process has helped her, well, get a lot of freakin’ writing done!

Listening to Tia, I took away a key message—and not a new one: To get the writing done, we have to prioritize the writing.

It may seem that prioritizing simply means allocating sufficient time. But I’ve found there’s another aspect of the getting-writing-done equation that is as important to me as the number of hours I devote: It’s the creative energy I bring to my writing, my magical inner fire. If I’ve burned all of my creative fuel for the day—used it up on intense conversations with friends or the focused critique of another writer’s work—by 7:00 p.m., although there are seemingly two or three usable hours left in the day, I’ll have no heat left to create within those hours.

And I’m in good company! Author Ann Beattie, having just published her short-story collection PARK CITY, told a writerly audience that she has to be very careful about talking deeply with someone else about their writing when she is working on a manuscript, herself. “The part of me that writes doesn’t care whose writing gets attended to,” she said. “Once someone’s writing has been addressed, my inner writer packs it in. It’s finished for the day.”

Tarot on writing

For me, the Two of Wands from the CRYSTAL VISIONS TAROT nicely illustrates the choice we writers have to make about where to place our creative energy, our fire, every day. In it, we find a young knight astride his dragon, holding a crystal-topped wand in either hand. These wands represent two options, the two places to which he could direct his fiery steed.

Like the knight, each day we get the chance (maybe several chances) to choose where we will commit the dragon of our energy. The more conscious we are of these moments of choice, the better able we are to choose to do the deep work.

Tonight, I was reminded—by Tia, by Ann Beattie, and by this young CRYSTAL VISION’s knight—that I had a choice. So, instead of tuning into THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW and devoting what was left of my energy to fueling my righteous indignation, I chose to invest my evening’s dragon in writing this post.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems for permission to use this image from the CRYSTAL VISIONS TAROT by Jennifer Galasso.

Writing a Novel? Tarot’s Two Cents

BE IN NO RUSH TO REVEAL ALL AT ONCE! Be free and let life find its own pace. I am patience, and I am fruition’s reward. In me you will find the fertile ground in which to plant your seed and the patience to watch it grow to abundance. 

So says The Empress, in Emily Carding’s TAROT OF THE SIDHE—expressing sentiments with which no first-time novelist has ever agreed. Not once.

I sympathize. The fact that things take time can be infuriating. But, as the King of Prussia says (over and over) in AMADEUS, “There it is.”

This makes me think of my friend Mel, who is healing from hip surgery. She’s young, so she’s healing relatively quickly. But evidently not quickly enough. “I didn’t know it was going to take so much time,” she cried plaintively last week, after the drugs—and the novelty—wore off.

Like Mel to her repaired hip, new writers often come to a novel-writing coach astride a straight-ahead steamroller called Let’s get ‘er done. But (like Mel!) when they begin to understand that, as with most big endeavors, chances are good it won’t be quick—that they won’t be writing their book just once, from beginning to end—they ask, understandably, “Well, how long? Like, a few months? Six months? A year?!?”

And that’s when I have to share the awful truth, the thing none of us—not me, not Mel, not a new novelist—wants to hear: Things take the time they take.

We can stamp our feet (not you, Mel) and declare whatever ultimatum we want to our creative (or healing) process: “Well, I’m going to have it done by June.” Or Christmas. Or the family reunion (so I have something to show after all these years!). And if it’s not finished by then? “I’m going to _________.” (Fill in the blank: “Quit?” “Throw the laptop out the window?” “Get a job at Walmart?”)

But none of that sways the process. It will take the time it takes.

What does help, as I’ve learned by painful trial and error, is staying the course. Riding that darned steamroller to the end of the tarmac—no matter how seemingly endless the runway. Because, while art (or healing) may require more patience from us than we feel we can muster, the rewards of both are great.

And if that is not consolation enough, maybe this is: Our above-quoted Empress also says, You are safe in my hands as you grow and journey towards completeness. I will support you and bring you all sustenance, that you may bring the same to others.

Thanks to Emily Carding for her permission to share The Empress from her TAROT OF THE SIDHE (Schiffer Publishing) and to quote from the text. 

Tarot Writing Prompt: If the Wheel of Fortune Were Your Writing Coach

IF THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE WERE YOUR WRITING COACH, it would remind you (perhaps a little smugly) that for every up—in your mood, your writing fortunes, in your book’s acceptance by the public or by agents—there will be a down. The Wheel would mention that all fame is temporary, all luck a roll of the dice. The only constant is change, the Wheel of Fortune would assure you. It’s the way of the world. And depending where you found yourself at that particular moment, that assurance might encourage you—or it might make you feel a little anxious about what the next turn of the wheel could bring.

Fortunately, we have w-a-y more control over our characters’ lives than we seem to have  (at least some days) over our own. This prompt will give you a chance to spin the wheel wildly in one character’s favor … but not so much in another’s. Enjoy wielding your power!

Tarot Writing Prompt

Imagine the view one character has from the “top” of a situation. Is she an elected official? Is he the boss? Or just a bossy older brother? Write a quick scene that gives us a feeling of his or her top-dog perspective.

Now, imagine a second character who is experiencing the same situation from the “bottom.” The personal assistant? The beleaguered younger brother? The stay-at-home spouse who has to smile too widely for too long at public rallies? Write the same scene, but from that character’s perspective.

Finally, write a scene in which the two characters’ relative fortunes spin, leaving their status exchanged, so the original top dog is face down on the bottom of the heap, while the underdog is enjoying his or her (temporary) cat-bird seat.

Novel-writing inspiration

Need a couple of examples for inspiration? Check out THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, by Mark Twain, and the absolutely golden chapter on status and character relationships in IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre, by Keith Johnstone. 

The image above is from THE WISDOM SEEKER’S TAROT, by David Fontana, published by Watkins Publishing.

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Writing Short

I’M A SHORT-FORM WRITER, MYSELF: blog posts, personal essays, flash fiction … and, for publication, writing about tarot. Even when I’m embarked on a book-length project, I tend to think about it as being composed of a series of short pieces. It keeps me from being overwhelmed. You know: forest, trees. Or, as Anne Lamott puts it in her book of the same name, “bird by bird.”

This approach can work for folks who are writing novels or memoirs, too. In that case, creating a list of scenes—short forms in themselves—based on a well-considered outline can break down a book-length narrative into bite-sized pieces.

And then there are the super-short forms of fiction, from flash fiction (typically under 1000 words) to those variously named forms (well-described in an article in The Writer Mag: Expert Tips for Writing the Best Flash Fiction) that require a writer to get their story-telling job done within 100 or even 25 words!

While writing shorter forms is less daunting than, say, embarking on a 100,000-word novel, to do so successfully, it helps to know rules that make these forms work.

I found Susan Doran’s discussion of flash fiction and other micro fiction in her article “Lean Mean Writing Machine: Flash Fiction and Other Short Fiction Formshelpful. But, as I reviewed her tips, and those on Creative Writing Now’s short-short stories page, I was struck by how applicable the guidelines for writing short-shorts are to longer forms of narrative writing.

Which sort of brings me full circle. Even for longer projects, breaking things down into micro units can make what seems an elephantine task digestible. And if you have some rules for those micro units? All the better to eat you with, my dear!

Tarot Writing Prompt: How Writing Coaching is like the Knight of Cups

Today’s writing prompt is Tarot

SO, HOW IS WRITING COACHING LIKE THE KNIGHT OF CUPS? In tarot, the Knight of Cups is driven by dreams, ideals, imagination. Like your book-writing coach, he just falls in love with your story. Like the Knight, your coach has big dreams for you. She keeps her imaginative inner eye focused on your completed book and holds that vision in her writing-coaching heart. It’s the light by which she guides you.

Also, like the Knight of Cups, writing coaching coaxes you into magical-but-hidden spots in your own heart, reassuring you that, yes, you can travel there, and, yes, you will discover something worth its weight in gold along the way! And like that idealistic Knight, writing coaching cares about your story almost as much as you do. But most of all? Writing coaching offers you her overflowing cup of inspiration to drink from, whenever you have a mighty writing thirst upon you.

Tarot Writing Prompt

But coach or no, you can be a knight in shining service to your own writing project! Try one of these exercises the next time your cup of inspiration is empty.

  1. Remember why you fell in love with your main character in the first place (even if you’re writing a memoir and your main character is you!). Make a list of the ten most charming and/or endearing attributes your character possesses.
  2. Write about your story as if it were a dream. Interpret your main plot points, looking for hidden meanings in the mundane details as you’ve imagined them.
  3. See yourself as your story’s champion—the only one who can save your story from falling off the Cliff of Despair and dashing to pieces on the deadly Shoals of Uncertainty. Write a tongue-in-cheek fairy-tale scene in which you do just that.

The Knight of Cups and I hope one of these exercises will feed your writerly imagination. Because that, after all, is this Knight’s highest quest.

Thanks to U.S. Games Systems for permission to use the Knight of Cups from the out-of-print ARCUS ARCANUM TAROT DECK.

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A Book Can Be Your Writing Coach!

ARGH! THE DAYS OF A STUCK WRITER CAN BE FILLED WITH DRAMA. Unfortunately, that drama is generally not the kind that reads well on the page. Nope. All too often, when we’re stuck, our days (and heads) are filled with the kind of internal drama that keeps us from even getting to the page. Or is that just me?

If not, if that might, sometimes, be you, too, I have a shortlist of get-the-drama-out-of-my-head-and-onto-the-page books to share. Time and again, whether I’m making things overly complicated or doubting the direction of my work-in-progress, I reach for one of these five books to unstick me. I hope they serve you as well as they’ve served me!

My “let’s get back to writing” coach

I turn to JULIA CAMERON’S THE ARTIST’S WAY when I’ve been creatively sidelined for too long, Like nothing else, the basic tools of the Artist’s Way—morning pages and artist dates—bring my imagination back to life! After just a few days with Julia, I reliably find myself writing (and cooking and art-making) again.

My “find my writing voice” coach

NATALIE GOLDBERG’S authentic voice sings out from the essays that comprise WRITING DOWN THE BONESHer exercises and advice remind me it’s my authentic voice that makes my own writing sing.

My memoir-writing coach

Although I think PAT SCHNEIDER would characterize herself as a poet, I always seem to write memoir in response to the writing prompts in her WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. They take me back and elicit sweet, deep writing about my past.

My novel-writing coach

In YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOUELIZABETH SIMS’S friendly, no-nonsense approach helps when I need to make a freakin’ plan for a longer writing project. I’m not writing a novel at the moment. But, boy, when I am, I’ll be turning to page 1 of Ez’s book, pronto!

My writing business coach

When I just need to laugh, just need to remember that most writers are crazy—not just me—yet they still get published, still deal with the demanding world of the writing business as well as their sometimes-treacherous inner worlds, I pick up ANNE LAMOTT’S BIRD BY BIRD. Invariably, it restores both my sense of humor and of proportion.

As JUDITH GUEST says in her foreword to WRITING DOWN THE BONES: It would be wonderfully efficient and clever for us writers to have learned our lessons only once; failing that, a copy of Writing Down the Bones on a table nearby could save a lot of grief.

I agree, Judith. And I’m piling all these other books right on top of Bones.


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