Posts Tagged ‘craft’

Lucky Number 7: Seven Flash Fiction Contests for Fall!

FLASH FICTION IS FUN! Requiring the snap of poetry and the arc of narrative, it challenges us to home in on elements of voice and story that will benefit even longer-form writers’ work.

To learn a bit more about flash fiction, check out my Writing Short post, where you’ll find links to some excellent flash resources. Otherwise, just fly your crafty little stories off to the following contests. May the micro force be with you!

Flash fiction contests (with deadlines)

1. October 1st: Stories Out of School Flash Fiction Contest, presented by the Academy for Teachers
This annual contest was created to inspire unsentimental stories about teachers and the complex world of schools. The story’s protagonist or narrator must be a K-12 teacher. Max 749 words. First-prize winner will receive $1000 and publication. The second-prize winner will receive $500.

2. October 15th: SMOKELONG QUARTERLY‘s Flash Fellowship

The SMOKELONG Flash Fellowship for Emerging Writers is an award and year-long virtual residency for new and emerging writers. The winner of the 2020 Fellowship will be considered a virtual “writer in residence” at SMOKELONG for four quarterly issues. The winner will also receive $1000.00.

3. October 31st: CRAFT‘s flash fiction contest
Judged by Benjamin Percy, three winners will be awarded $1000 each. (That’s a buck a word, since CRAFT’s word limit is 1000.)

4. November 2nd: Weird Christmas Flash Fiction Contest
350 word max. $50 first prize, $25 second prize. Stories should be weird or strange or odd: They can be “Haha!” weird or “Oh, Jesus, no!” weird. They can be genre weird or just off-kilter. They  must be related to any winter holiday (Christmas, Hannukha, Kwanza, solstice celebrations, etc.).

5. September 30th and December 31st: FLASH 500 Flash Fiction Competition
This quarterly open-themed competition has closing dates of September 30th and December 31st. The results will be announced within six weeks of each closing date and the three winning entries each quarter will be published on this website. Entry fee: £5 for one story, £8 for two stories. Prizes: £300, £200, £100

6. December 31st: FICTION SOUTHEAST‘s Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize
Though many writers have helped to shape the history of flash fiction, Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, IN OUR TIME, easily makes him one of the form’s primary pioneers. For this reason, FICTION SOUTHEAST has chosen to honor his accomplishments through the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize. Entries should be 1500 words or less. Entry fee is $10. All entries will be considered for publication in FICTION SOUTHEAST. Winner: $200 and publication.

Lucky Number 7. December 31st: RIVER STYX‘s Microfiction contest
500 words maximum. First, second, and third place winners will be published in Issue 104.

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The image of the Eight of Wands is from the ANNA.K TAROT, published by Llewellyn Worldwide and used with Llewellyn’s kind permission.

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A Short (Enough) Story with a Literary Moral (and Horses)

ONCE, AT A HORSE SHOW, I watched a pair of judges assess the relative merits of a ring full of huge, glossy Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and other warm-blood hunter-types in a conformation class. Unlike most skill-based horse-show events, conformation ribbons are awarded to those animals who best meet the standards of excellence for the physical characteristics of their breed. (More like the Westminster Dog Show than a canine agility event, in other words.)

On that afternoon, almost hidden in the forest of sixteen- and seventeen-hand-high bay- and chestnut-colored hunters, a tiny, black-and-white Shetland pony arched its short, chunky pony neck. “How cute,” the spectator closest to me murmured, “but how disappointed its little owner will be. There’s no chance for her to get even a look-in with that sort of competition.”

And yet, twenty minutes later, it was exactly that “little owner,” a six-year old girl dressed in black and white to match her pony, who paraded her Shetland around the perimeter of the ring, blue ribbon oh-so-proudly affixed to its bridle.

No sentimental decision, the judges had weighed the equine contestants’ attributes fairly. The Shetland pony, small and unassuming as it seemed amidst the tall, regal company, was in fact a perfect specimen of its type and well-deserving of the win.

So … what about writing?

Recently, I judged a short story contest. In four days, I read fifty-one stories that spanned a myriad of genres. Not Thoroughbreds and Shetlands, but fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, romance, and contemporary/realistic—as well as a single picture-book entry.

As a whole, the stories were competently constructed and smooth-surfaced. No doubt, these were writers who had studied their craft.

Yet, as I read through the three-thousand-words-or-less stories, I noticed some failed to engage my interest because they lacked a distinctive voice. Some delivered a strong voice, but the stories were so predictable I could tell where they were headed before they’d even left the barn. And those that did find a fresh approach did not, for the most part, make it all the way around the course to create a satisfying narrative arc.

But the picture book?!

In a quick, bright voice, the PB writer created an engaging pair of characters—a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter—who found themselves in an exciting and unexpected muddle over the destruction of the grandmother’s Sunday-best real-human-hair wig. Together, the characters struggled, they lost, they struggled some more—and then they triumphed!

In less than five hundred words, the lone PB writer managed to incorporate three elements vital for the success of even the shortest of narrative forms: a distinctive voice, a fresh, unexpected story element, and a complete narrative arc.

While the other competitors’ stories—like those big, beautiful Thoroughbreds I admired so many years ago—might have had size on their side, might have boasted weightier topics or more sophisticated story structures than the unassuming little picture book, not one of them made it to the finish line with all of three of those important elements in place.

If this were a horse show, make no mistake, Grandma’s real-hair wig would be sporting a brand-new, bright blue, First Place ribbon the next time she hoisted it atop her head and tottered up the aisle to her favorite pew.

* * *

This post was first published on a former blog, THOSE DARNED RUBY SLIPPERS, in which I wrote about the magic I saw around me—and about writing, a magical craft of its own.

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Backstory: Writing from the Rear View Mirror

YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR? A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.

WHAT IS BACKSTORY?
A definition
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.

For example
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.

However
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.

HOW CAN WE USE BACKSTORY MOST EFFECTIVELY?
Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.

Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)

It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.

Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.

Breadcrumbs
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.

Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via

  • flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
  • dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
  • or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).

Light touch
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.

Novel-writing resources

Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?

I’ve already cited Robert McKee’s STORY, but it bears repeating—and reading.

Tom Farr of The Writing Cooperative has some good pointers in his “The Art of Revealing Backstory,” up on the TWC site.

You might also like this WRITER’S DIGEST article: “How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly,” by Brian Klems

Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.

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Thanks to Caleb Whiting on Unsplash for Creative Commons photo.

Tarot Writing Prompt: A “Hero” and a “Villain” Walk into a Novel

LIKE THE SET-UP FOR A BARROOM JOKE, we begin our novels by collecting players: the hero, a good guy, aka protagonist; and the villain, a bad guy, aka antagonist, the one whose job it is to make things tough for our hero … just so she can outwit him and end up, well, a hero, at the end of the day. At least that’s how she sees it. But I’d bet good money our villain sees things quite differently!

“History,” they say, “is written by the victors.” Likewise, most novels are written if not by heroes, at least in sympathy with them. But what about the bad guy? Because, turn a story inside out, and we can see that the hero thwarts the villain’s aims just as surely as the villain thwarts the hero’s. Yet, where’s the sympathy for that?

For example, in this illustration, it’s clear the retreating figure in the red cape has done the good-looking guy in the blue cape wrong—ten-swords-in-the-back’s-worth of wrong! But what if there’s more to the story? What if, in his eagerness to forward his own goals, young Mr. Blue Cloak neglected to take Red Cloak’s rights into account?

What if, before things came to this terrible pass, Red Cloak had tried to assert her claims, but that darned Blue Cloak guy just ignored her and kept tromping towards his own goal, with no thought for how it was undermining hers? Sure, it’s a shame she had to stab handsome Mr. Blue Cloak in the back ten times. But from Red Cloak’s perspective, it may be she just did what she needed to do to protect her interests.

So, why, she wonders, won’t anyone else see it from her point of view?

Well, what if we did? What if we agreed there are two sides to every story: the hero’s and the villain’s? And which is which depends entirely on our point of view?

Tarot writing prompt

Scene 1: Give a character a goal. That’s your protagonist, your hero. Give a second character a goal diametrically opposed to that of the first character. That’s your antagonist, your villain. Her job is to actively counter your protagonist’s efforts. Write a scene in which their competing goals force them head to head. This time, do so from your protagonist’s point of view, creating as much sympathy as possible for her.

Scene 2: Now, reverse their roles, writing about the same situation from the antagonist’s point of view. Show exactly how the former hero’s actions towards her goal undermine the former antagonist’s progress towards her goal. Make us sympathize with the former villain as much as we did with the hero when we were reading the previous scene.

This exercise could be good practice for writing, say, a psychological thriller, perhaps a story in which you want to keep your characters’ respective good-guy/bad-guy roles a mystery at first. In that case, you might want your reader to start by sympathizing with one character, only to realize that she is actually a freakin’ psychopath, who has been playing not only the other characters in the story, but your reader, as well. Then, maybe, the character who was wrongly perceived steps forward into protagonist-hood and heroically saves her own bacon!

Or vice-versa. Because, as I might have mentioned, “History is written by the victors.”

Novel-writing inspiration

Want to check out a couple of novels that turn the antagonist/protagonist dynamic on its conventional head? Try Gregory Maguire’s WICKED and his CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER.

You might also find this Wikipedia article about The Rolling Stones song “Sympathy with the Devil” interesting. Dark and challenging, perhaps, but interesting.

The image of the Ten of Swords, above, is from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT deck, written by Deborah Blake and published by Llewellyn Worldwide, and is used here with kind permission by EWT deck artist, Elisabeth Alba.

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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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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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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. 

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: A Horse to Water

SOMETIMES, A CHARACTER NEEDS A SWIFT KICK in the “but” to get going. Maybe he wants to quit his soul-sucking corporate job and study journalism, but the golden handcuffs of his benefits hold him back. Or maybe she wants to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, but her family’s conservative values give her pause.

A main character who hears—but ignores—the call of their story is known as a “reluctant hero.” Their motto? “I know I should, but …” Whatever their road to adventure, they’ll find a “but” to avoid it. When you have a character like that to manage, Dear Writer, you just have to take matters into your own hands.

Tarot writing prompt

Find a reluctant hero. Perhaps you have one waiting in the wings! Give them a concrete goal (to adopt a child? run a marathon? start a cat rescue?)—but not enough motivation to act on it.

Now, write a scene in which they demonstrate (and justify) their reluctance.

It’s late. Jenna passes the feral cat colony on her way to the mailbox. Wary eyes shine out at her from the bushes. Recently, she has noticed the cats seem thinner. She would love to help, she really would, but … There are so many animals in need, so many cats, and she’s just one person. Exhausted by the mere thought of yet another responsibility—on top of the kids, the overtime, the house that needs painted—Jenna grabs her mail and heads back, making sure not to glance at the bushes.

Next, create circumstances that kick your hero right in their “but.”

Jenna’s foot clunks against something. A plastic bowl. She picks it up and sees it’s filled with kibble. Someone must be feeding the cats, she thinks, relieved. And then she smells it. A chemically, garlicky odor. Stepping under the streetlight, she looks again. The kibble has been sprinkled with white powder. Rat poison, unless she misses her guess. And with that, Jenna feels the soft, heavy weight of the lives of dozens of cats descend upon her shoulders. Like it or not, it seems it’s up to her to save them.

THE PRECIOUS CHILD: Like Jenna, even the most reluctant of heroes is likely to jump into action if something they value—something that can’t fight back—is threatened. The literary term for that “something” is “precious child.” This might be an actual child, or it might be an adult whose spiritual or political beliefs make them vulnerable. It could also be a family home under risk of foreclosure, an imperiled natural environment, or a member of an endangered species, to name just a few possibilities.

As writers, we manipulate our characters however we must to get them fully committed to their story—even if that means putting out a bowl of fictional poison or dropping a lit cigarette in the dry brush at the edge of a fictional old-growth forest. But once they’re committed? We can only hope our heroes outgrow their reluctance and learn to meet the challenges of their story head on!

This post was inspired by The Chariot card of the tarot, which advises us to focus on our goals and harness our will to achieve them. In this version of The Chariot (cleverly combined with the Seven of Spades/Swords), from THE ILLUMINATED TAROT, by Caitlin Keegan, published by Penguin Random House, two horses, representing the “horsepower” of focused will, have left the confines and comforts of the barn and are joining dynamic forces to achieve new aims. (Image used by kind permission of Caitlin Keegan.)

Tarot Writing Prompt: Better Than 1000 Days

BETTER THAN A THOUSAND DAYS OF DILIGENT STUDY is one day with a great teacher. So says an old Japanese proverb. But you won’t even need a whole day for this exercise! You might, however, want to set aside an hour or two … perhaps with a cup of tea at your side. You’ll also want to gather some supplies: paper, a pen, and something to bookmark passages—highlighter? sticky notes? We’re going old-school, here!

Tarot writing prompt

First, choose your “teacher.” This would be a writer whose style you really admire. Grab several examples of her work—articles, books, essays, stories, poems, depending on her genre—to have at hand. Next, take your time browsing through the pieces you’ve chosen. Be on the lookout for passages (lines? paragraphs? scenes?) that are particularly pleasing to you, and bookmark them in some way.

After you’ve made it through your stack, revisit the passages you’ve marked. Now, grab that pen and a piece of paper and, simply, but with Zen-like attention, copy one (or more) of the passages exactly. This will give you almost a literal feel for the way the author puts together a paragraph (or composes a stanza or delivers a punchline). As you write, notice which parts of the passage give you particular pleasure to copy.

Once you’ve completed your copy-catting, take a few moments to name (in writing—bullet list, anybody?) what you think the writer is doing particularly well in that passage. Then, imagine how you might benefit from (further) developing the skill(s) the author demonstrates there.

FOR EXAMPLE
I picked a passage from the first chapter of Julie Compton’s Rescuing Olivia (used with permission) which I particularly admire.

“Mr. Mayfield?”

[Olivia’s] father looked up over the top of the reading glasses as if he was surprised to see Anders still in the room.

“Did I do something to offend you, sir? Is there a reason you don’t want me to see her?”

The man leaned back into his chair and sighed. “Olivia’s mother and I think that you have done quite enough for her, Andy. I’m sure the two of you have had a hell of a time together—God knows I cringe to think of the details—but it’s time for her to come home and be with family. If she’s lucky, that is.”

For a moment, Anders stood speechless, staring at him and trying to process the meaning of what he’d just said. What he’d just accused him of. If Anders had been a different sort of man, more like Lenny, he would have considered taking a swing at the guy. But if he’d been more like Lenny, he would never have been standing there discussing Olivia with her father. Olivia would never have been in his life.

“Are you saying you think I caused the accident? That it was my fault?”

Her father had turned his attention back to his damn papers, and he answered this time without even looking up. “You were driving the motorcycle, weren’t you?”

As I was copying out this passage (long hand!), I noticed how much I enjoyed the “For a moment …” paragraph. As internal narration, it both adds depth and meaning to the immediacy of the back-and-forth of the dialogue and balances it well. Also, I love the way it takes me winging out of the present of the scene with Olivia’s father into consideration of Lenny, a character I’ve yet to meet, but now am eager to—implying backstory, as it does so.

Not only does Compton’s use of internal narration and back story not slow the forward motion of the scene, but, somehow, she uses them in a way that creates suspense and builds tension. I’d like learn from this piece how to make internal narration do triple-duty in my own work—and tuck it in as seamlessly as Compton does!

UM … AND THEN?
Once I’ve completed this exercise, I trust my inner writer to take what it likes and leave the rest. At times, I find that I assimilate something of an author’s technique into my own work with little further attention. Evidently, in the words of my pal Kathleen (quoting a Zen master!), “The work will teach you how to do it.”

This post was inspired by the Hierophant, the teacher of the tarot deck. The Hierophant, who knows what’s worked in the past, suggests you learn from those who have been successful. In this way, you stand on a sturdy foundation as you prepare to make your own creative mark. Or, as my friend Daily Tarot Girl Kate said about the Hierophant, recently, “There’s something to be said for learning from people who have walked the path before you and using their way of doing things to save yourself time and energy.”

Here, the Hierophant is represented by Hermione, as “The Scholar,” from nasubionna’s Harry Potter Tarot (used with permission). Hermione is a character who studies conventional ways and wisdom—before putting her own brilliant spin on what she’s learned.

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