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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5 Fabulous Tips for Plotting Your Novel

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL CAN BE CONFUSING. If you don’t have a guidance system to help you navigate, you might find yourself asking questions like these: Where do I start my story for greatest impact? What events will force my main character to undergo the change they so desperately need to make? How do I construct stakes that are high enough to keep my main character engaged with their quest all the way to the end?

If you, like me, need some help to deal effectively with these and other pressing plot questions, read on. I’ve compiled a short list of tips, approaches, and resources that demonstrate ways to successfully traverse the rough terrain you and your main character must travel to create a compelling tale.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #1: Explore a myriad of plotting methods.

Fortunately, for those of us who are writing novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, or memoirs—basically, anything that tells a story and develops a character arc—many writers have gone before us and have generously blazed a trail through the wild woods of plot for us to follow.

So which of these many plotting methods is the best? I think that depends on your learning style.

When I immersed myself in the mysteries of plot, I read book after book on the subject. But I always felt I was missing something. Then Joyce Sweeney and I started developing the plot clock—and everything fell into place! The plot clock’s approach made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, I saw how exactly how plot can create a character arc—and what steps to take to make that happen.

For years, Joyce and I taught the plot clock at workshops, writing conferences, and to our clients one-on-one (which I still do).

But now, we’ve also written the book! As you’re browsing Amazon looking for good books on plot, check out our PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK. It’s short—just seventy pages! And yet it explains how to accomplish the two most important tasks you face when writing a novel or memoir: 1) relating a dynamic set of story events and 2) making your character changes in response to those events.

Of course, as I said, this is just the method that works best for my brain. You might love any one of a number of other more linear takes on plot, like SAVE THE CAT  WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Or you might enjoy diving really deep in story theory with a book like THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.

This choice is personal. Take the time to find what plotting approach works best for you—even if you have to experiment with several styles to do so. It will be worth it. Because once you find what fits, that method will be your trusted guide through the rest of your story-writing journey.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #2: Start with the basics.

Here are five quick, handy reference points to help you think about how to get your story started and where you’re going to take it. Considering your plot in these simple terms allows you to see if your basic idea has enough oomph to carry the story to the finish line.

Once upon a time there was … (Describe your main character.)

Every day … (This is a glimpse at your main character’s “ordinary world,” before the inciting incident changes their life.)

One day … (Aha! Inciting incident!!)

Because of that … (Here, we see how the main character responds to the inciting incident—and we establish stakes [see Fabulous Novel-Plotting Tip #5, below] that propel them forward into the main events of their story.)

Until finally … (This actually takes you past most of what happens after your character commits to their story—their trials and challenges; their low point; their lessons learned—and brings them to the climax, the battle to end all battles, the inevitable high point of your tale!)

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #3: Let the three C’s catapult your plot.

Raindance, an independent film festival and film school that operates in major cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Budapest, Berlin and Brussels, offers up a helpful article on the “The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II).”

The “three C’s” of this approach are conflict, choice, and consequence. Having a handle on these major story drivers will assure that your plot has the traction it needs to keep readers deeply engaged.

Further, in the above-mentioned article, writer Jurgen Wolff says, “{While] you can use these [the three C’s] to develop your main plot … they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story-–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle, or Act II.”

Learn about this concept at the Raindance site.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #4: “Yes, and …”

This improv acting tenet offers an easy-peasy way to allow your character to engage dynamically with the events of their plot. Every time the plot makes your character an “offer,” be sure she “accepts” that offer (says “Yes” to it), and then adds to the situation (or, better still, complicates it!) by adding an “and …”

For example, let’s say your character is walking down a crowded street and notices someone running from a store, having just robbed it. In improv, we’d call this an “offer.” In other words, the story has brought something to your character’s attention that she can act upon. Taking action in response to the “offer” is your character’s way of saying “Yes, and …”

Rather than allowing your character to just ignore the commotion—which can slow the story and make plotting more difficult—consistently require she make a “Yes, and” response to whatever happens in her story. In this case, she might give chase (the “Yes” being her acknowledgement of the thief escaping and the “and,” her taking off after the person). Alternatively, she could rush into the store to try to help anyone who was injured in the incident—or she could rush into the store to take advantage of the confusion and steal something herself!

In any one of these examples, your character’s active response to a situation raised by the story allows more and increasingly complex interactions with other characters to unfold. These interactions will drive her character arc and her plot forward.

This technique is particularly useful when you’re writing your first draft, as it keeps you from stalling out in the shallow waters of character ennui and unwillingness. Once you’ve “Yes, and-ed” your way through the entire plot, you can always revise to rein in or eliminate any excessive reactions on the part of your main character.

To learn more about improv and how “Yes-and” creates lively story-telling and a lively life, I suggest YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City.

To learn more about how to apply this improv precept to life off the stage, take a look at this MEDIUM article titled “Saying ‘Yes, and’—A principle for improv, business and life” by Mary Elisabeth.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #5: Create compelling stakes.

Stakes. They’re what gets your character off her duff and involved with a plot that, let’s face it, is likely to end up being a pain in her butt!

According to the Institute for Literature, “One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is ‘What is going to be at stake for my main character?’ By this, we mean, ‘What is the cost of quitting?'”

These are great questions!

If your character can quit the demands of your plot with few or no consequences, you’re likely to lose your reader early on. You see, we readers like to see a character struggle with conflict. It helps us understand better how to do so in our own lives!

So, how do you make sure you’re getting your character into a situation that has sink-or-swim urgency? Consider my four-question “stakes squared” approach.

Jamie’s Stakes Square: Your character is faced with a significant choice. You’ve backed her into a corner. She MUST say yes or no, not delay the decision—because her decision will set a significant plot point into motion! To establish the stakes inherent in the choice, ask yourself these four questions:

Question 1: What might your character GAIN if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 2: What might your character LOSE if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 3: What might your character GAIN if she says NO to the choice on offer?
Question 4: What might your character LOSE if she says NO to the choice on offer?

If you make sure that all of these potential outcomes create problems for your character—problems that are in proportion to the overall intensity of your story—you’ll be well on your way to creating plot-driving stakes that will hook a reader and not let them go!

(Be sure to consider how this stakes-setting technique impacts the perhaps-impulsive choices your character makes when you require that she say “Yes, and …” to everything the story offers her!)

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.

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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