July 2020 archive

5 Fun Ways to Use Lists to Enhance Your Writing: A Writing Prompt

IN FICTION, LISTS CAN INFLUENCE A READER’S experience in a million ways. Here are five to get you started.

1) A list of items can lend specific flavor to a scene:

On the table, a bowl of fruit – a mango, three ripe papayas, two tiny pineapples, and the kiwis

On the table, a bowl of fruit – two fading apples, one bruised pear, one shriveled tangerine

2) A list of possessions can distinguish between characters, providing insight into habits, faults, aspirations:

In Jen’s purse: one bottle “I’m Not Really a Waitress” crimson nail polish, an eyelash curler, two Trojan Extra Pleasure condoms, eighty-six cents, a baby’s teething ring.

In Wendy’s purse: a commuter-rail ticket, an empty, wadded sandwich bag, dental floss, a half-empty pack of Virginia Slims, a matchbook with Sam 555-227-3629 scribbled on it.*

3) A list of verbs can create action in a scene:

Chasing a lizard, the cat leapt from the kitchen counter, galloped over the sofa, banged against the window, ricocheted into the antique vase, and crashed with it to the floor.

4) A list can provide motivation for a character:

Jim’s hunger prods him. It aches his bones, creaks his stomach around its empty core. Jim’s hunger gurgles at Lori, munching a Beefy King, just a foot, a quick leap, a single grab away.

5) A list can create history for a character:

High school, John boxed pumps, loafers at the shoe factory. College, he delivered clogs to the outlet malls. Senior year, he measured feet. Grad school, he sketched for Jimmy Choo.

Writing prompt

Try this: as with the examples above …

  • flavor a scene by listing items in it,
  • distinguish between two characters by listing their respective possessions,
  • liven a scene with a list of verbs,
  •  illuminate a character’s history or motivations with a list.

What do you think? What other narrative heavy-lifting could a list perform? Create an example!

*Bonus tip! Always be as specific as possible when adding items to a list.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Swords from THE DRUIDCRAFT TAROT, by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, art by Will Worthington.

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YOU Are a Collector’s Item: A Really Excellent Writing Prompt!

POET ELLEN DORÉ WATSON starts her poem “The Body Speaks” from her collection WE LIVE IN BODIES, like this:

So? I’m a collection of oversized bones, blind in so much
casing, I’m a pair of lonely shoulders and a snip of a nose
turned up at the word cute. 

This made me wonder: What am I a collection of? Cats? Years of memos jotted on sticky notes? My father’s anger? My mother’s early orphan-hood? The fairy tales I read by the faint light let in by the narrow crack in the door when I was supposed to be asleep? College courses? Jobs? Friends? My paternal grandmother’s heavy breasts? My maternal grandmother’s shapely calves?

Writing prompt

And what are you a collection of—for better or worse? Family stories? Genes? Body parts? Or are you made up of memories? Books you’ve read? Relationships? Write about the collection that is you—or use this question to explore a fictional character.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Seven of Cups from the GOLDEN TAROT by Kat Black.

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Writer’s Block? A Sure Cure from a Writing Coach Who’s Been There!

IF TAROT’S FOUR OF CUPS WERE YOUR WRITING COACH, it would definitely want to have a little chit-chat with you about “writer’s block.” You see, the fellow in the Four of Cups is a faultfinder. Nothing is good enough for this guy. Hand him a golden cup of magical possibilities, and he’ll just turn away. Whatever is on offer—even if it comes from his own imagination—he’ll refuse it every time.

And this, exactly this refusal of our own thoughts and imaginative impulses, is an attitude that brings us crashing back into writer’s block. I believe that a case of writer’s block boils down to this: We’re being overly critical about the words our brain offers us. Rather than taking what comes on good faith, rather than trusting we’ll be able to work literary magic with the words and ideas that first occur to us, we cast them aside, claiming they’re not good enough. But if we do this too often, believe me, our brains will get the message and stop producing any words at all.

In his June 30th blog post titled “The simple cure for writer’s block.” Seth Godin writes, “People with writer’s block don’t have a problem typing. They have a problem living with bad writing, imperfect writing …”

But that bad, imperfect writing is exactly where we have to start! We must use whatever clumsy, terrible, boring words arise when we first attempt to pin our beautiful, still-nebulous ideas to the page. If we’re not willing to write badly, we won’t ever get the chance to rework our terrible words into the exquisite, precise language we hope will deliver our best stories to our readers. In other words, we must first fetch the pumpkin—then we can wave our wand, transforming that mundane squash into a golden carriage that will carry us all the way to the prince’s ball.

Don’t believe me? Then believe Anne Lamott! In her classic book on writing, BIRD BY BIRD: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott includes a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.”

In it she says, For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts…. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If [you] get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory…. just get it all
down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that
you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.

Because Anne Lamott is both funny and whip-smart about writing, I suggest you get a copy of BIRD, read the shitty-drafts chapter, then stow the book away in your writer’s emergency kit for the next time writer’s block looms. Then harness up the mice and ride that shitty-draft pumpkin all the way to whatever ball you desire.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for kind permission to use the image of the Four of Cups from the RIDER-WAITE (SMITH) TAROT.

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