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. Like a AAA road map of their 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.
SOMETIMES, I JUST WANT to give a tarot archetype a good shake! The Knight of Pentacles, for example. Sure, he’s got plenty of good qualities: He’s hard working, loyal, and reliable. You can trust him with your last dollar, which he’ll prudently invest for you.
But he’s so freakin’ cautious! Before taking any action, he’ll weigh every possible pro and con—leading you to ask, “How much research is really necessary before you just go to Best Buy and replace the microwave that blew up TWO MONTHS AGO?” (Did I mention I was married to this guy?)
His caution extends to writing, too. Under his influence, we might believe we should know exactly what we’re going to say before we commit so much as a word to the page. Which, for sure, will stop us dead in our writing tracks. For this reason, the Knight of Pentacles might well be the Patron Saint of Writer’s Block.
Tarot writing prompt
Making a list, checking it twice: Simple as it sounds, list-making is a stealth move that will help you slip beyond this knight’s too-careful sway. Put aside ten minutes and pick a topic. You might decide to create a shopping list for yourself or a character, or a list of your favorite girls’ names, or of a frenemy’s worst traits. How about a list of places you’ve lived? Or places you’d like to visit? Cats in your life? Street names in your subdivision? Super heroes? Planets (actual or fictional) most likely to support life?
Whatever you choose, the trick to truly inspired list-making is to push your brain past the obvious (hello, Mr. Knight?), which is what it will dole out at first. Do this by committing to a larger-than-reasonable number of items. So, once you’ve picked a topic, number your page from 1-50 and go! Then, when you’ve got your fifty, choose the most intriguing item from your list. Set a timer for five minutes and take off from that idea, writing as fast as you can. When the timer dings, pick another item and begin again.
Believe me, when you look up from this exercise, that stodgy Knight of Pentacles will be nowhere in sight. (Who knows? Maybe he’ll have finally ambled off to Best Buy!)
The Poetry Foundation has a great little article by Michael McGriffon using list-making to rev your writing engine. It includes a two-part writing exercise that can help you dig deep while you’re moving fast!
IT WAS SO FREAKIN’ COLD that day in the tiny Central Florida town of Oviedo that the anachronistic Oviedo chickens had huddled under the frost-bitten azaleas bordering the Ace Hardware parking lot and hunched in feathery clumps between oak tree roots.
A week before, I’d run a creativity workshop based on Julia Cameron’s ideas. Inspired by my own facilitation, I took myself on a combination Weekly Walk and Artist Date—to do just what I’d asked my workshop participants to do: walk, then jot down what I saw.
So, first there were the chickens.
After leaving them behind, I turned up Central Ave. and crossed a small bit of bridge (an asphalt hump, really, covering a concrete pipe through which a thread of brown water passed). There, I shared cold-weather pleasantries with a young black man on a bicycle, who paused—gloved, parka-ed, and balaclava-ed—to watch the trickle of rusty water lap against the rocks lining its narrow bed.
Bidding the young man goodbye, I wandered across North Central and through the sparse grove of oaks that separates Central from Geneva Drive. There, I came upon the white block Fountainhead Missionary Church with its thick panes of stained glass. How would the light inside the sanctuary appear after traveling through those windows? I wondered. Would it be purple, like sacramental wine? Bottle green, like old hope? Deep sapphire, like a promise placed on a loved one’s hand?
Since there was no one around to let me in to see, I crossed Broadway to Blue Moon Antiques and Consignments. There, I overheard a nicely-suited, middle-aged guy telling the owner that his nineteen-year-old son, newly released from prison, had stolen, then hocked or sold, three boxes of his prized 1960s-1970s record albums, and that he was now touring Oviedo-area pawn shops, antique malls, and thrift stores trying to recover them. But, the store owner told him, shaking her head, none had made their way to the Blue Moon.
I stepped out of the shop just as the man eased his Taurus wagon slowly down the Blue Moon driveway and headed east for Chuluota.
From the wooden stoop, I waved at his rear-view … just in case he looked back.
Tarot writing prompts
The Eight of Cups is a wanderer. Seeking emotional fulfillment, she leave her past behind. She is guided on her quest by her imagination, by the possibilities that beckon from around the next curve in the road. And if she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, there? Welp, she’ll just keep on walking.
Here are three writing prompts inspired by the Eight of Cups.
PROMPT ONE: Write a series of three scenes about a character who sets off seeking something to fill an emotional gap in her life.
Scene 1: Demonstrate your character’s dissatisfaction with a specific situation—then show her walking out the (perhaps metaphorical) door in pursuit of something better.
Scene 2: Make sure to let the reader see what guides your character’s feet along her path. How does she decide where to go?
Scene 3: She’s discovered something! What is it? How did she stumble upon it? And does it really fulfill her unmet needs?
PROMPT TWO: If, on the other hand, like the “record salesman’s” father, your character is missing something specific—due to theft or carelessness—write a scene in which she traverses her neighborhood, trying to find what she’s lost.
PROMPT THREE: Or, perhaps, like me that day, she’s just wandering hoping something interesting will turn up. If so, what does turn up? And how does it change her life?
AS WRITERS, WE MAY FIND we want to access our inner depths. Perhaps we need to discover what it is we truly want to say. Or maybe we find our work sounding stale, predictable, even clichéd. At such times, if tarot’s Moon were your writing coach, she’d counsel quiet and self-reflection. She’d suggest you allow your dreams to arise—as she does—in both the sky of your mind and in the quiet pond of your imagination. She’d ask you to contemplate your dreams and your writing by candlelight … or by her own white moth light.
While the Moon knows our inward travels may be fraught with misdirection and mystery, she trusts us to find our way through the dark, face what we discover there, and interpret our nighttime experiences in ways that will illuminate our waking lives and bring deeper wisdom to our creative work. If we explore our depths, rather than fretting about how to monetize our writing dreams too soon, she believes that what we bring forth under her gentle glow will emerge a-shimmer with the magic of our own inner light.
Tarot writing prompts
Taking a page from the Moon’s pillow book, try any of these exercises to dive deep into a character’s dreams … our your own.
1) Keep a dream journal for a month, a “moon.” (Take a look at this PSYCHOLOGY TODAY article for suggestions on how to do so.) At the end of the month, review your journal and see if any silvery, moonlit story ideas emerge.
2) Delve into a character’s psyche by keeping a dream journal for her! Let her reveal her hidden self to you through her dreams.
3) Moon-mapping: Write about an incident, fictional or otherwise, according to the phases of the moon.
New moon: the incident’s inception, its seed, how it starts
First quarter: how the incident gains traction, its early developments
Full moon: how the incident fulfills its initial promise (or threat)
Last quarter: how the incident and its effects wane
Dark of the moon: like the tide pulling back the ocean to reveal an altered shore, write about what’s left after it’s all over.
4) Write a scene that takes place in broad daylight. Rewrite the scene so it takes place by the barest gleam of the new crescent moon. What’s different?
5) Write a scene in which your character dreams about a situation from her waking life. Of course, dream-fashion, her sleeping self distorts the situation—but in a way that reveals a truth she hasn’t permitted herself to see till now. She wakes, journals about her dream—or tells it to someone—and then acts on the realization her dream has delivered to her. You, writer, take it from there.
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 followingbold-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.
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!!
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.
WHEN WE WRITE WORDS NO ONE ELSE WILL EVER READ—during our writing practice, in our journals, or as part of our morning pages—we might as well be using invisible ink. Yet, despite not having an audience, those words do have an effect. On us.
With no imaginary reader peering over our shoulder, we may dig into deeper truths than if we think someone will judge what we say. With no one to frown at our antics, we can be wild, exaggerated, unbound on the page—free to scrawl out first thoughts and leap to extravagant associations, rather than just dishing up what’s expected of us.
Maybe we use our invisible ink for writing practice, setting a timer, writing as fast as we can about a topic we want to explore, and not stopping until the bell dings.
What’s the hurry? We need to outrun the censor, scribble right past the spots our inner critic wants to stop us. Once we’re beyond his reach, chances are we’ll stumble onto something crisp and new, something that belongs just to us—something the censor considers dangerous, but which we know carries a vital charge.
Then we can bring this dynamic material back to a piece for our readers, where it will liven the same-old/same-old with the citrus-y tang of a fresh idea!
Keeping a journal
We might also keep a journal to record events of our lives. A daily digest of what we’ve done and how we feel about it can generate great trust within us. And a journal can also be both a record to look back on and a foundation for any other writing we want to do. Because once we’re in the habit of writing at all, all writing becomes easier to tackle.
At first glance, committing to morning pages—three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing—looks a lot like writing practice or journaling. But different from either, morning pages are meant to be written and then forgotten.
Personally, I just dump the contents of my brain on the page every morning for about thirty minutes and toss out my spiral-bound morning-pages notebooks as I fill them. I never mine them for ideas for articles or books. Still, reliably (as I mention in A Book Can Be Your Writing Coach), morning pages free me up for other writing tasks.
Tarot writing prompt
In this Eight of Pentacles, a journeyman works solo, laying one brick at a time to create the structure shown in his blueprint. He is diligent, focused, and committed. No one watches or praises him. Yet he is dedicated to his task—and will learn from it whatever it has to teach him.
Your mission, if you accept it, is to commit to making personal writing a priority for eight consecutive days. Then, assess your experience. What, if anything, has it taught you? Did you receive benefits you didn’t expect?
Like the steady-going figure in the Eight of Pentacles builds his wall brick by brick, a regular personal writing practice builds our literary confidence—not just in invisible ink, but in the words we write for others, as well.
Check out these three diaries which, originally private, have been published (turning the idea of “invisible ink” on its head). A peek at these writers’ intimate thoughts may offer you inspiration to continue with your own private writing practice.
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.
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.
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.
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.