I often am asked what #inspired my #awardwinning #shortstory on #Writersdigest? It’s complicated, but the short answer is it was a neighbor from my childhood. Her son was mentally disabled: sometimes when he tried to play with us, he accidentally hurt us; a broken arm, a bruised rib cage, a bloodied nose. He was 16 with the mind of a 4 year old and the strength of a line-backer. We were all under 10 years old. It was the early 1960s, people used the ugly word “retard” and mocked and teased him. But he wanted so desperately to be friends, so we played with him. He reminded me of #BooRadley #tokillamockingbird…I’ve never forgotten him. You can #read my tragic #story here on #WritersDigest where it won a #fiction contest.
Sometimes inspiration comes from the littlest, most insignificant things, like an image or a smell. I saw a man sitting in a boat on a lake once, he was slumped, holding his hat in his hands. I knew instinctively he was grieving. I felt it in my bones. It inspired a scene in my novel, Return to Sender, where the protagonist, Theo, sees the father of a young girl who was found murdered, sitting in a boat in the middle of the river. I wrote him exactly as I saw that man in the boat.
Return to Sender was initially inspired by a box of letters, love letters from during the Korean War that I found in my attic sixty years after the war.
I take notes on everything that tugs at my heart, my curiosity, or my sense of justice, or injustice. I save them and use them as story world material. There’s something new everyday, either from my daily beach walk or something I saw on tv. I never know where inspiration will be found, but I do know where to go when in search of, and for me that’s an art museum—where one of my greatest joys in life is to sit on a bench in the presence of great art, and write, whether it’s the Portland Art Museum, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or the Louvre’ in Paris, that’s as good as it gets when seeking inspiration.
UGH! The emotions, stress and expectations surrounding Christmas, even a normal #Christmas, can be overwhelming. Add to that, Covid-19, and well, it’s a tough year for most.
We writers can use this time, those emotions and expectations as fodder for character building—our own, and our fictional characters—if we choose. So, I offer you this #writing exercise for our times.
Think about the characters in your #WIP (work in progress) and or a character you’re just dreaming up. AND remember that this exercise is only intended to deepen your characterization—get to know your character a little better—and not anything you will necessarily use in your WIP, unless you love it, of course.
There are no rules, only guidelines. So put your #writer’s thinkin’ cap on, here we go;
It’s a week before Christmas. We’re in the midst of a #pandemic. Many have lost their jobs, their spouses, or a loved one to covid. There are no office parties, no #holiday shopping extravaganzas, no church or school Christmas plays or fancy Nutcracker events. There’s no family get togethers, no hanging out at favorite restaurants, no seeing old friends, and absolutely no hugging, unless you’re wrapped in one of those clear plastic shower curtains, of course.
Guideline #1. Try to get those 5 senses (smell, taste, sound, touch, sight) in there.
Your character just woke early in the morning; to what sound or smell? Before their feet hit the floor (touch); what are they thinking, what are they feeling? What’s the first thing they do; brush teeth or make coffee, (taste) shower, look outside or turn on the news? (sight) And are they thinking that Christmas alone, and isolated sucks? Or is it uplifting, undaunting, and they’re thinking maybe from now on this is the way to go?
Guideline #2. Describe their setting and how it has been altered by the lack of holiday fanfare. Guideline #3. Due to this change in their life, identify how that may lead to conflict in the family, marriage, job, whatever.
Guideline #4. What’s the point? What have they learned, and how has it transformed them? Did they learn they valued something that they hadn’t really thought of before?
Did they learn they were afraid of something, like being alone? Guideline #5. How will they behave differently after quarantine, and lonely (or not) holidays?
Some people promise themselves they’ll visit grandma more often, or go to the neighborhood coffeeshop and actually talk to people instead of sit alone in the corner. And many promise themselves they’ll return to church, yoga, meditation, hiking, or whatever devotional practice they had once upon a time. How has your character transformed (in a small or big way) due to the pandemic?
At the very least, do they plan on doing more hugging? Use this time to write, to explore your emotions and those of your characters. And if you feel the need for help. please reach out.
Covidy #Christmas #Writing PromptsTweet
Hey #writers, if you’re like me this year, it’s a sucky Christmas. We’ve had two family members die during this #pandemic (not covid related) and are still not able to have funerals. Add to that, no getting together for the holidays. No hugs. No big dinners. No family nights with games and stockings. Nothing. It sucks. And for most of us it’s a tough holiday season this year for many other reasons as well.
We’re all feeling the loss of what should be, what used to be, and for some, what will never be again. But as writers we are blessed to have our craft to turn to in these times. The other day in my Zoom class, I asked my #writers to take 15 minutes and write (old school, pen and paper) the stages of their character’s hero’s journey. This little exercise helps me stay on track with #writing my #novel; see where there might be holes in my story, or steps I may have neglected all together.
Maybe during this difficult year, instead of focusing on our losses, we can concentrate our energies on our writing with a renewed effort, a plan for pandemic writing. So, how about giving yourself the gift of #writing; the 12 steps of the #herosjourney is no replacement for the 12 days of #Christmas, but it’s a start. Be kind to yourself, especially when times are tough. Here’s a little Hero’s Journey reminder. Keep writing. Cheers, Mindy Halleck
Words are powerful.
Bob Dylan, and other folk music prophets wrote/write what the eye of a seeker sees and what a hungry soul feels. Songs, poetry and all great stories are prophetic and deeply moving when they echo the past or are in tune with the times. It just feels like a great day to share Bob Dylan’s words in the midst of these changing times….
The Times They Are A Changing
Song by Bob Dylan & The Band Lyrics (you can read, and then listen below)
Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
Source: LyricFindSongwriters: Bob Dylan
I can feel my writing student’s collective eye roll as I write this; “Show don’t’ tell, do a run through for passive writing. Mind your ‘ing and ly’ words. Where’s the smell, there are no smells in this scene.” And so on….
No matter what kind of story you are writing, memoir, short story, or novel, it’s vital to engage a reader’s senses. Precise and concrete details are essential to effective storytelling. The best way to achieve this is by appealing to the reader’s FIVE senses—smell, sight, sound, touch and taste—to FULLY illustrate a scene.
Trust me, if your character walks into a bar, takes the garbage out, goes fishing, is out nightclubbing or stumbles upon a dead body at sunrise, there is a provocative smell. That smell will bring the scene to life (or death) whichever….
A dead body at sunrise might have a sight that would be more seductive than a smell; it’s up to you the author to decide which of the senses best suits the suggestive nature of your scene. Use the strongest description sense for your specific scene. In one scene, smell might be the most evocative sense to go with, in another, sound, or sight, or touch.
I have a heightened sense of smell, so for me smells are powerful. I still recall my pinched face when I read author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk’s description of someone’s breath, “smelled like a burp after you’ve ate pork sausage for breakfast.” That still grosses me out. Palahniuk’s common use of words that summon olfactory responses is a perfect example of showing and not telling.
And if you’re story takes place prior to modern sewer systems you have all the many stenches of humanity—before regular bathing and with piss buckets on every corner—from which to draw. If your story is in New York or Beverly Hills, the smell of perfume can help a character sum up the financial worth of a woman—or a man—or lack thereof.
And who can forget, Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Smells can be story gateways; the smell of coffee may take them back to a fond memory, or the taste of ice cream may take them back to a nightmare.
Revealing your story through the senses helps the reader to not just read, but to experience your story on multiple levels. Can you recall a particular story for it’s use of the senses?
Take a pen and paper and (if you’re not on quarantine) go sit in a coffee shop or café (wear a mask) and write down the smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste of that environment. No story, just details. Do any details, like the above-mentioned smell of coffee, take you back to a memory. Write that memory. Keep that list of details for when you write scenes that may need to be brought to life.
For a complete list of words to use to describe smell, visit this site, https://www.writerswrite.co.za/75-words-that-describe-smells/
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I’ve been stressed, overwhelmed and slightly (not clinically) depressed this last year. Life is overwhelming for us all right now with covid, toxic politics, finances and our daily lives—there’s no arguing that. And for me, add to those stressors my mother’s dementia and now her LONG goodbye. The doctor sent her home over a month ago, telling us death was imminent. I’ve been in emotional stasis, sleeplessness, stomach issues and overall just feeling CRAPPY in the face of her slow demise and my helplessness. Crappy. We think that now it will be only days until mom says her final farewell… Days…. Grieve, heavy as cement has anchored in my lungs.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Just this; sometimes life gets in the way of your writing goals. PERIOD. It’s life (and death) and you can’t beat yourself up (that’s me reminding myself to stop beating myself up)…sometimes you, I, just can’t focus on ANYTHING but what’s in front of me, and that takes ALL my energy. Lately, I’d forgotten why my writing mattered, why I did it, and if I should continue or just move on to something else, like that retirement I’m supposed to be enjoying.
But sometimes the universe gives me a gentle reminder of why I write. This morning I woke to an e-mail from a publisher for whom I wrote and narrated a Seattle TOP 25 Coffee Shops App (still available on iTunes) because he wanted to verify my payment address. When I verified the address for a check I get every 24 months (all based on iTunes sales) I remembered how much fun it was to put all my favorite #writing #coffeeshops and hangouts throughout Seattle, into this app. It reminded me how I love to explore, #write about what I learn, and then learn something new, like creating an app. And it reminded me that in creating that app, or teaching a class, or submitting my novels and short stories for publication, that sometimes, once in purple moon, the universe responds. Thanks universe. I needed that gentle reminder.
So, if you’re going through a tough time, go through it, you cant go around it. Then, when you’re ready, your writing will be there, your stories will be waiting. When you return to them, a little more broken, a little more empathetic, you will bring that to your work and it will be the better for it. That’s a round-about way of saying, all of life is material. Don’t give up, just be kind and patient with yourself. Your writing will wait for you.
“Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.”―
Writing first pages is hard work. PERIOD.
The expectations of you as a writer are huge, and the expectations of readers is even HUGER (is that a word? Maybe not, okay…) BIG, big reader expectations start on the first page.
Anyway, it takes a lot of work to get it right. One thing to remember, amongst the gazillion other things you need to remember about first pages, is to ground your reader in some details. Which details depend on your story, theme, and your super-powers as a creative genius?
Your first page should, in some way, set up the general question your novel is asking and answering. And hopefully by the last page you will convey an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, the reader should have some idea about the setting right away. For example, what season is it? Where are the characters? What is the time period/special world/era? What is the mood? The elements you convey quickly in the beginning set the stage for the story to follow. And that my writerly friend, is a lofty quest.
Last week in a writing class, I shared the opening to one of Lauren Groff’s stories, Delicate Edible Birds as an example of a great first page/paragraph. This is not only beautiful writing, but also tells us a great deal about; location (Paris) mood (dark), era and conflict (WWII) and weather (rain) all in an imagery filled (wings of dark water…street corners as elbows, etc.) poetic style that seduced me as a reader, to continue on. (buy her book or Read some of the pretty words in the image to the right. One of my favorite openings ever!)
A reader should not have to wonder about fundamental questions while trying to slide effortlessly into your story world. This means you’ll have to provide some answers pretty quickly, like on page one.
If you can capture your reader’s curiosity, tickle their emotions, and deliver a character that does the same, then you’ve created a winning first page — one that will engage and mesmerize your audience.
The perfect first page draws readers in from the beginning and tempts them to keep reading. This is your first impression, your chance to hook readers and get them enthusiastic about the story to come. So take the time, use all your creative senses and get it right on page one. It’s not impossible, I promise, and it’s a challenge that’s SO worth it.
Writer Unboxed has a section called “Flog a Pro” where they ask people to read first pages of works by famous authors and then comment on whether or not they were moved to continue. Many say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension. Reading pages like this is a great way to get some ideas for your own work.
In storytelling, the term, universal truth can often stop a writer in their tracks. Simply put, that truth creates a common frame of reference for the story. Like classic myths, this “truth” also rises above culture and language. We recognize it instantly—it resonates deeply.
Shakespeare was a master at theme and universal truth. And he’s the best example of a writer who mastered those aspects of the writing craft and remains relevant to this day. Among his MANY stories, Romeo and Juliet is still popular because of its universal and relatable themes. I remember balling my eyes out in the 7th grade when my sister and I went to the Rose Theater 4 weekends in a row to watch Romeo and Juliet.
Tattooed on my sappy teen-age soul is the last scene; both Romeo and Juliet die because they both believe the other is dead. SOB, SOB, SOB, went the pre-teen girls. They died for love, unable to bear living in a world without each other. We cried through our popcorn, we cried through our Dilly Bars, and we cried so loud that on weekend 5, the theater owner finally tossed us to the curb. Then in the 1980s when we had VCRs, (link added in case you’re too young to know what that is.) Anyway, we got the video. Then we locked everyone out of the house, curled up with popcorn on the couch on a Saturday morning and again, we cried.
WHY does a story capture our hearts in such a way? Generally, it’s the universal theme and truth; love, longing, desire, loss….
The Universal Truth can be anything that grounds the story along familiar lines; lost love, a dying parent, a betraying spouse, man’s (or woman’s) best friend (Dogs), a funeral, a wedding, or a family holiday dinner, to name just a few.
In literary writing a universal truth is an emotion or experience that the reader can relate to, no matter their language, upbringing, race, or life experiences. For example, when Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Most readers with a family immediately understood and agreed, making it a universal truth that transcends culture, privilege, time and space.
Additionally, a key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is a “universal truth,” also called “a life lesson.”
Life Lesson Examples:
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
You can’t always get what you want. (but you might get what you need)
Face your fears. (overcoming)
What goes around comes around (Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it). To survive is to live
A universal message is a message that resounds beyond the story—a message that has meaning even when you strip away the book’s details.
For example, the main theme in Gone with the Wind is survival during a time when traditions, ways of life and thinking, love and understanding are gone with the wind, like in the South during the Civil War, or any story during or post war. To submit that tradition, way of life, love and understanding can all be GONE WITH THE WIND, is a universal statement that was based on, or an extension of the universal theme of survival.
Why has Gone with the Wind been popular for so long? There are a lot of reasons (good and bad), but the strongest of which is the universal themes of the story. Survival and courage in a time of crisis, never giving up in the face of impossible odds, and of course the refrain “Tomorrow is another day” make the story timeless. Anyone, regardless of age, gender, orientation, religion, time or space, can hang on to. Readers and movie goers relate to the characters on some level or another. Because of this, it’s tough to pigeonhole Gone with the Wind as era-specific; it could be any era, any place, any time. Having said that, it certainly is a creation of its time, but the larger more universal themes and truths make it a timeless story.
Right now, sitting here at my computer, everyone under quarantine, my dog is bored, my husband is watching the tv on LOUD, and I’ve gained four pounds that I will call the quarantine four (like the college fifteen) anyway, I’m kinda liking that mantra, Tomorrow is another day.
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Did you know the first writer’s group was started in 400 BC. Yeppers, The Socrates School was a group of thinkers; Socrates and his students who pondered the weighty questions of life and contributed vastly to Western philosophy and ethics through their writings. It’s nice to know we writer’s groups have such deep, inspirational roots.
However, today’s writing groups need to rethink and reimagine how to function in the face of the CoronaVirus2020 outbreak. I‘ve had to re-examine why, and IF I want to continue to facilitate a writer’s group in a new format, online. I’ve never been a fan of online classes and workshops for myself, but necessity requires change; must move with the times, and all that.
Initially, I felt a loss for the social interaction of my weekly meeting. As I’m sure many do. I enjoyed seeing my group (20 plus writers) as they entered the classroom, talking about their projects, their personal journeys and just chatting with like minded creatives. I loved the energy in the room. I also observed on their faces that often, those two hours on Thursdays were a reprieve from everyday life. There is great power in being part of a group, finding your tribe so to speak, and I miss that. It’s hard to grasp that our safe place is now a potentially dangerous one, but it is what it is. Grandma always said, “This too shall pass” and it’s true. At some point we’ll meet in groups again. For now, and the next 60-90 days, we need to return to why we sought and or belong to a writing group in the first place.
Afterall, what is a writing group? A writing group is a tribe of like-minded people who come together in pursuit of the art or craft of writing. Or, in Socrates case, to provide the foundation of Western civilization.
In moving our group online (as I’m certain Socrates would have done) I’ve reexamined what I can provide, or not, in that new setting. For me, what I can bring to the table (or the microphone) is craft and critique. Those are my focuses, because these two subjects/practices have always improved my own writing. So, on with it then.
The first rule of a writer’s group is like that famous line author, Chuck Palahniuk introduced in his novel Fight Club, “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” That line is a wonderful chorus throughout the book, as well as a plot/structural device for the story. But no words in recent history have been parroted more often. That refrain was so powerful and ultimately popular that it’s now considered cliché. But clichés get a bad rap. Despite the golden rule in writing, of avoiding clichés (like the plague, HA!), it’s important to remember that popular phrases become cliché because they work. They are powerful, become popular, and are oft repeated. So, the challenge to writers is to create our own compelling phrases so we too, can write what ultimately becomes a cliché.
I know, I know, that was a writing lesson buried in a seemingly unrelated article. But hey, it’s all relative. Back to writing groups: EVERYTHING that is read, said, or critiqued in writing group, stays in writing group. TRUST is the first pillar of any successful joint endeavor.
Additionally a successful group starts with a shared vision. For example;
- To focus on the craft of writing, irrespective of genre.
- To offer one another thoughtful critiques and support.
- To encourage each other to share stories.
- To provide a weekly deadline so members will be inspired to put pen to paper (or fingers to pad) and write
- To become stronger writers through becoming better editors.
- To give feedback as we work on rough drafts of our memoirs, short stories, and novels.
While awaiting our live regrouping, we can do all these things online. And maybe right now, with all the stress we’re facing we can again provide a reprieve from everyday life.
However, if your reasons for being in a writing group are more social than educational–which is totally fine–online may not be satisfying for you as it is near impossible to have much socializing going on while reviewing work. So, in addition to what can be addressed in a writers’ group, it’s important to look at your reasons/goals for being there.
What are your writing goals? What do you hope to achieve? Given your objectives, reflect on why you want to participate in a writing group. Most people have several reasons for seeking a group. Here are some examples:
- Learn writing tips and enhance craft skills
- Get more feedback on work
- Desire for deadlines (forces them to write)
- Become a better writer/editor
- Belong to a group of writing contemporaries
- Share support, motivation, and encouragement to share stories
- Share a passion for writing
- And so on . . . .
If the online group you are considering has goals that are in alignment with yours, then go for it. If they do not, then take the next couple months to write. Who knows, you may birth a manuscript if you embrace this as a time of seclusion and self-reflection. What’s most important is that you keep your writing life alive during this challenging time and that you do that in whatever way suits you best. Just keep writing and look forward to the sunny days when we can get together in person and talk about writing and the writer’s life.