AS A CHILD READER, I hungered for the dishes fictional characters devoured. British kids in Noel Streatfeild’sSHOES books breakfasted on “fry ups” of sausage, eggs, sliced bread, and kippers, while Hansel and Gretel feasted famously on marzipan windows and cookie-dough sills.
Back then, fairy godmothers impressed me less than huge castle feasts, the treacle from Alice’s well, her little cakes and comfits, and the Snow Queen’s Turkish delight.
And then there was “Stone Soup.” A ravenous little girl, I salivated when clever Fox, after declaring to the other Animals that he could make soup with just a stone, enticed his guests to add herbs, lentils, carrots—a stalk of celery, here, a grand, round potato there—until, voilà! Boiling in Fox’s cauldron was a magnificent soup made (almost) from a single stone.
Now that I’m a still-peckish adult, the journal ALIMENTUM: The Literature of Food feeds my need for pages of pasta, potatoes, porridge. Publishing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction exclusively about food, ALIMENTUM delivers a tasty meal, complete with napkin, right to your inbox.
Dig into the cupboards of your imagination and the crisper drawers of your creativity and cook up the story of an unexpected soup. Metaphorical or actual, let whatever you dish up have unexpected benefits—or unexpected consequences!
YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS AWESOME! You’ve had it critiqued and beta-read—and you’ve revised, revised, revised! But if you’re not getting the interest from agents you feel your book deserves, check out the resources below. May you discover the golden key to your success amidst these pages and pixels!
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1) Among other topics, in her article “10 Steps to Getting a Literary Agent” for Writers & Artists, Gilly McAllister talks common sense about having a complete draft ready before querying [querying fiction and memoir, that is; see number 2 if you’re writing nonfiction], what your first three chapters need to do, and what happens when you get a nibble.
2) However, if you’re a nonfiction writer, the rule about completing a manuscript before querying doesn’t necessarily apply. Instead, you might be well-served to create a fabulous nonfiction book proposal to start your agent search. In that case, you’ll find THE WEEKEND BOOK PROPOSAL (Writer’s Digest), by Ryan Van Cleave, a comprehensive guide.
6) In addition, the ever-awesome POETS & WRITERS magazine has a free online literary agent database for your perusal. P&W says, The Literary Agents list includes agents and literary agencies that represent poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers, plus details about the kind of books they’re interested in representing, their clients, and the best way to contact them.
8) But wait! Do you really even need a literary agent? That’s a great question! Here’s a link to Claire Bradshaw’s Writers Edit article “Do You Need a Literary Agent?” which offers some of the pros and cons of being agented.
10) Finally, you might want to subscribe to former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. I’m pretty sure this will be the gift that keeps on giving, as Bransford consistently and reliably discusses writing for publication in helpful, bite-sized nuggets. Yum. (Thanks to writer pal Bonnie Cehovet for introducing me to Nathan’s blog!)
I MET PAULA JEFFERY SEVERAL YEARS AGO in an online art group. The other day, we had a chat about how investing time (consistently) and effort (persistently) in any art form will eventually bear fruit—and she pointed me to this post, which she wrote for her own blog, but is graciously allowing me to share in an edited-for-length version with you. (And, yes, it’s about drawing, but really it’s about anything to which you’d like to apply yourself!)
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I’ve Got No Talent
Not long ago, I read THE TALENT CODE by Daniel Coyle. In it, he tells about a group of children who were monitored before and during the time they took music lessons. After a couple of months, as you would expect, some were doing really well, some not so well, and most were in the middle of that bell curve. The researchers looked closely for common factors between those who were excelling. They looked at things like the amount of practice they did, home environment, anything they could think of that might influence the children’s musical ability. They could find nothing. None of the factors they anticipated had any effect at all.
Until … bingo! Before they started lessons, all the children were asked, “How long do you see yourself playing music?” Their answers ranged from “until the end of term” to “a couple of years” to “forever.” The researchers were amazed to find those answers sat perfectly aligned on the bell curve! The kids who saw themselves as musicians playing forever were head and shoulders above the rest, sometimes by as much as 400 percent—even if they practiced less! The kids who decided their music career would only last until the end of term were the same kids who were falling behind. The only common factor was their attitude to learning music before they even picked up an instrument.
This is not some mysterious, ethereal thing: It’s attitude!
Every now and again, someone on social media will say, “You’re so talented,” which is kind and lovely, but sometimes what’s unspoken is: “You’re lucky. You can just do this stuff. You were born with this ‘gift,’ and I wasn’t.” But I wasn’t a talented kid! I took art at school because I was lazy and it seemed an easy option. I wasn’t even allowed to take the art exams because my work was so bad. My adult life was spent happily stating I couldn’t draw a straight line.
Fast forward to 2014. I was 59 years old. Going off-piste one day on a visit to YouTube Land, I discovered art journaling. It looked like fun. You didn’t have to actually draw or paint anything recognizable, you could splash paint about and glue pictures from magazines. From there, I did a couple of courses (shoutouts to Tamara Laporte and Effy Wild), and I painted figures and faces. Then I did ICAD (the index card a day challenge: shoutout to Daisy Yellow). One of the daily prompts was “eye.” I hunted on YouTube for How to draw an eye and found a step-by-step tutorial. I followed along and, OMG, I drew a recognizable, not-bad-looking eye.
This was an aha moment. These techniques could be learned! Next, I drew an elephant, again from instructions! I was so excited. I thought, “I could learn to draw,” and there was no stopping me. I joined groups. Someone recommended Danny Gregory, and I joined Sketchbook Skool, founded by Danny and Koojse, and amazing tutors from all over the world opened my eyes and freed up my pen. I joined drawing memes and drew 100 faces, one each day, to see if it improved my technique. And guess what? It did! Now, I’m taking part in Imagining, the latest Sketchbook Skool Kourse (where our last tutor was the amazing Stefan G. Bucher).
For the last three years, I’ve drawn nearly every day. I’ve worked at it and studied hard. I try not to compare myself to others, and I absolutely LOVE what I’m doing.
Here are three sketches of my husband, Graham. I did the first in 2014 as part of my 100 Faces project. It was a massive improvement on previous portraits. The second I did in 2017, and I really pleased with it. The final portrait I just completed.
So, when someone tells me I’m talented, with an undertone that suggests they couldn’t do it, I am tempted to sit them down and gently tell them that “Yes, yes, really, you can.” Their next line is usually “I’m too busy.” So busy there is not time in the day to take five minutes to draw something, anything? I learnt a lot about “busy” when I studied for my Open University degree with women who had three kids under school age and wrote their essays at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning. And got their degrees. If you really want to do something, you will find the time.
Then the argument can shift to this: “Well, I’m too busy doing other things I prefer.” That’s fine. That’s an “I don’t want to,” rather than an “I can’t.” (Occasionally, I hear an “I’m too busy” that really means “What I do is so much more important than your little scribblings.” But, hey, for those, I just nod and smile, nod and smile.)
Apart from my immediate (and very lovely) family and friends, social media has been the biggest catalyst for my artistic achievements. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have continued without the support of Facebook friends and groups. Inspirational, supportive, and non-judgmental art groups are amazing and always offer the message Yes, you can!
Now, I’m not afraid to say, “I’m an artist,” with no apologies (and no “amateur” in the mix).
WE SAY JUSTICE IS BLIND, and we hope that’s true. We also hope justice is at play when we send our writing to an agent or contest or journal. But who the heck knows? The person who gets first crack at our query or short story may well be an intern, someone whose job it is to sort the wheat from the chaff—before passing along what they deem the good stuff to the editor in charge.
But even if our best work does make it to the editor’s desk (wheat! wheat! wheat!), there’s no telling what sort of mood she’ll be in when she sets eyes on it. Did she have coffee that morning? Is she worried about her kid’s stomach flu? Is her boss on her ass about readership numbers? Frustratingly, such things—things completely out of our control—can sway the delicate balance of the scales of editorial opinion.
But here’s a short list of things that are in our control which can tip the scales in our favor:
Do your research: Be sure you’re submitting work that matches what your potential agent, editor, or publisher is seeking.
Follow their guidelines to the letter.
Send squeaky-clean copy. Every writer needs a proofreader. Beg, borrow, barter or buy the services of a good one to make your work look its best!
Create a strong opening line, followed by a strong first paragraph, followed by the rest of a strong first page. Often that’s all you get to catch an editor’s interest.
Summer writing contests and other calls for submission
Once you’ve nailed the stuff in the list above, you’ll be all set to dig in to these resources:
New Pages is news, information, and guides to literary magazines, independent publishers, creative writing programs, alternative periodicals, indie bookstores, writing contests, and more. Visit their calls for submissions page.
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. A virtual AAA road map of a 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.
TAROT ACES ARE CONCENTRATED UNITS OF PSYCHIC ROCKET FUEL! The Ace of Wands, for instance, blazes with a fire that impels action. The Ace of Cups drips with the sweet honey of love. The Ace of Swords slices swiftly to the truth, and the Ace of Pentacles fills our bags with the gold of family, health, and financial well being.
And then there’s flash fiction. This super-concentrated form of story-telling could easily be called the “Ace of Drama.” Typically between fifty and a thousand words (depending on your definition), flash fiction propels readers through dramatic situations at warp speed. To do so, it challenges its writers to create characters, setting, conflict, and some sort of resolution all within its super-tight framework.
Want to give this literary form of nitroglycerin a try? Check out the prompt below, inspired by my flash-fiction-writing tarot pal Bonnie Cehovet!
Tarot writing prompt
Pick a card, any card
First, choose your Ace.
If you chose the Ace of Wands, write a hundred-word action/adventure story.
If you chose the Ace of Cups, write a hundred-word romance.
If you chose the Ace of Swords, write a hundred-word story of double-dealing or deceit.
If you chose the Ace of Pentacles, write a hundred-word family drama (add an inheritance to the mix for extra credit!).
I’ll go first. I picked the Ace of Swords.
Thomas watched his brother’s fiancée from the perimeter of a dozen parties. Her gleaming hair. Her ridiculously long neck. The maw of her mouth issuing dark laughter. Whenever he got close enough, he wondered, was she laughing at him? He’d redden, unsure. Then his brother’s brakes failed. And his airbag. (Tragic, right?) When the fiancée was released, Thomas swooped in. Who better? She’d recover. They’d circle those same parties. They’d laugh. And, later, they would wrestle in sweaty pleasure, reviling their evening’s casualties. He woke from dreams of it, dark laughter in his mouth. If only she would stop crying.
My Swords-y idea was that Thomas tampered with his brother’s car. Is that clear? I dunno. Anyway, it’s a hundred words. So there’s that.
Flash fiction inspiration
Need more information or inspiration? Click on the links below for further guidelines and places to “flash” your short-short work.
FLASH FICTION ONLINE offers a ton of resources, from excellent examples, to how-to tips, to submission guidelines. Once you’ve tried this exercise, you might consider submitting the results to them!
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.
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.”
The impulsive young hero at the center of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO, a historical novel by Karen Engelmann, is an eighteenth-century secretaire named Emil Larsson, who is also on a Fool’s journey of sorts. Emil’s journey starts when mysterious psychic (and Swedish Royalist) Mrs. Sparrow lays tarot cards for Emil in a pattern she calls “the Octavo.”
This layout consists of a central card, which represents Emil, surrounded by eight additional cards, that, Mrs. Sparrow explains, signify people and events Emil will encounter as he fulfills his destiny. Dealt randomly into their positions, these eight cards stand for what she calls a Companion, a Prisoner, a Teacher, a Courier, a Trickster, a Magpie, a Prize, and a Key. It’s up to Emil to distinguish who is whom and which is which!
Tarot writing prompt
As befits an idea that sustains a 400-page novel, this is a long-ish prompt. You might dive in and work through all the steps in one go (long weekend, anyone?). Or perhaps you’d prefer to proceed as Mrs. Sparrow did, when she doled out her reading for Emil, one card at a time, over eight consecutive nights.
Alternatively, of course, you can just dip in when you’re stuck mid-draft and need some literary fuel to get your story back on the road.
PICK AND CHOOSE: To start, you’ll need a pool of images to choose from. A tarot deck is ideal, but so is a stack of intriguing pictures torn from magazines. (If you’re going the magazine route, find at least twenty pictures to work with.) Sort through your images and find one to represent your main character, your Hero. Lay that image on a flat surface with room around it for the rest of its Octavo.
UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU’RE TURNING ME: Next, lay the rest of the images face down. Blindly, choose eight images from your upside-down deck or stack of magazine pics. (The point is to make yourself pick these eight images randomly.) For now, set these images aside without turning them over to peek.
ARTS AND CRAFTS TIME: Write the titles of the following eight story archetypes (which differ somewhat from those Mrs. Sparrow assigned to Emil’s cards) on eight small sticky notes:
Prize (what the Hero wants most; that for which he quests)
Herald (the character or event that reveals the quest to the Hero)
Antagonist (also, “Villain”; a person or force hostile to the Hero, which actively attempts to stop the Hero from completing his quest; does not need to be a person: for instance, might be a forest fire or a political situation)
Guardian (also, “Threshold Guardian”; ensures your Hero is worthy of crossing the threshold into their quest, proper; to do so, creates obstacles to the Hero early on that test the Hero’s mettle)
Sidekick (a best-friend archetype, who, notably, gets sidelined somewhere in the thick of the action)
Precious Child (a vulnerable story element; could be an animal, child, or family farm, for instance, which the Hero treasures and which the Antagonist threatens, raising the story stakes and tension)
Trickster (an unreliable, self-dealing character who creates story confusion; whose side is the Trickster really on? Maybe even the Trickster doesn’t know for sure.)
Mentor (a character whose story-relevant knowledge and skills are far more advanced than the Hero’s and who guides the Hero at pivotal points in his quest; notably, the Mentor must be absent at the story’s climax, so the Hero has to face the Antagonist in that final battle on his own)
Turn over your eight set-aside images, now, and randomly affix the archetype-stickies to them. (This randomness makes the story more true to our experience, as we seldom know what role a new acquaintance will play in our life or what effect an unforeseen event might have!)
RING AROUND THE ROSY (-CHEEKED HERO): Now, lay the stickied images around the one representing your Hero. Bravo! You’ve created your Hero’s Octavo!
READY, STEADY, GO! Write one scene for each archetype. Through your Hero’s eight in-scene interactions, be sure to show how his quest is affected by each of the people and/or situations represented by the image and archetype it’s been assigned.
Since these archetypes are present in most stories, once you’ve written your way through all eight interactions, you might find—voila!—you are well on your way to a draft of a novel or novella! Certainly, it’s a good weekend’s worth of work (because you and I both know the lawn—and the dishes and the bills and the litter box—can wait ’til next week).
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.