Coloring Within the Lines

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In the past year or so, adult coloring books have become very popular, with countless articles written about the trend in an attempt to understand it. Here are just a few:

Some are dismissive of the trend, viewing it as “Peter Pan” behavior by adults who don’t want to grow up, parallel to the rise in popularity of young adult fiction among adults. Others take a more generous perspective, seeing coloring as akin to meditation and other meditative activities such as knitting, a way to quiet one’s mind and be creative within boundaries.

Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in. … [T]he coloring … involve[s] repetitive motion and limited space in which to work, creating a locus point around which thoughts can revolve. [Julie Beck, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books”]

Like coloring books, writing contests, prompts, and challenges provide a frame to work within. Facing a blank page can be intimidating. Having a place to start can help assuage some of those fears.

This month’s exercise is to choose a frame and “color within in the lines.” Don’t think of the parameters as a limitation. Think of them as freeing your mind to be creative instead of staring at a blank page and stressing about what to write.

Some suggestions for your frame:

  • contest guidelines (even if you don’t actually plan to enter, give them a try)
  • writing prompts (try using more than one at a time) or challenges
  • formal poetry has built-in constraints—make your frame a sonnet or haiku
  • use an existing story (perhaps from another medium, such as a movie or TV series)
    • retell a story (e.g. a fairy tale) from a different character’s point-of-view or in a different time period or setting
    • write a prequel or sequel to an existing story
    • flesh out an existing story
  • make up your own rules, for example:
    • choose a theme (alphabet, seasons, cities…)
    • restrict word length
    • restrict genre
    • write all in dialogue
    • limit the number of characters
    • include a specific person (e.g. a celebrity or another famous person)

If you like, you can transform these pieces later, but first and foremost think of this exercise as a low-stakes warm-up, a way of getting past your blocks, stretching your writing muscles, and easing into your primary writing project (perhaps that one you’ve been avoiding). To make it more like a coloring book frame, have both short-term (equivalent to completing a page) and long-term (equivalent to completing a book) end-points.

Modify an Old Book

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the title character is an unidentified man whose only link to his past is an old book he used as a notebook / commonplace book:

She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed. It is the book he brought with him through the fire—a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus. (p. 16)

And in his commonplace book, his 1890 edition of Herodotus’ Histories, are other fragments—maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books. All that is missing is his own name. (p. 96)

This month’s exercise is to use the English patient’s book as inspiration.

Step One: Find an old book to repurpose. I suggest starting with a used book that already has some scuffs and scrapes so it doesn’t feel too precious to modify.

If you don’t want to use a book you already own, look for a suitable book at a used bookstore (check the discount bin out front) or charity book sale. Tip: library book sales often sell hardcover books for $1 or less.

While you can start with any book, a copy of a favorite novel, a nonfiction book whose subject is interesting to you, or one with aesthetic appeal (but perhaps less-than-interesting content) are good options.

Step Two: Modify your book! You can play with the existing text or treat it more like a blank journal.

Some suggestions:

  • create found poetry using the existing text
  • paste in photos, clippings, tickets, etc.
  • doodle or draw
  • add patterns or color
  • write notes in the margins
  • journal between the lines
  • fill in blank pages
  • write an alternate ending or add a “missing” chapter
  • add a character
  • modify illustrations/photographs
  • dry leaves or flowers between the pages

Step Three: Continue until your book feels finished. Use your book as a source of inspiration for your writing—both during the process of creating it and afterward.

[Page numbers from the 1992 Vintage edition.]

Fictional Fête: 15 Fantasy Guests

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

Do you remember that cool TV show from the 1970s—Fantasy Island? For some of you this may be a way-before-your-time era, but for the rest of you, you might recall a Mr. Roarke and his cute little friend, Tattoo, who entertained guests in their fantasy pursuits. They would wait at the Fantasy Island dock in their matching white tuxedos at the start of every episode. “The Plane! The Plane!” I imagined in my own kid-way what my fantasy would be should I pay the million-dollar guest ticket price for my fantasy to become real. I had many fantasies (which I won’t share!), but sadly I never could afford the million-dollar fee.

I’ve grown up since then and have discovered that there are other ways to a good fantasy that are “off-island.” Here’s one of mine: I’m having a small fête this month. I’ve decided to invite only the people I like: good and bad, famous and infamous alike. The thing is that the guests are fictitious characters from a few of my favorite novels. (I have many favorites!) The venue is my imagination.

Bon Appetite!
Harpspeed

P.S. In case you are curious, my character guest list follows:

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. Icy Sparks (from Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio)

Ten-year-old orphan Icy Sparks is from 1950s Kentucky who has an interesting trait: uncontrollable tics and some of the most outrageous cursing I have ever heard. She is someone who really says what she thinks. Icy doesn’t know it but she has Tourette Syndrome. I like her very much because she is a precocious, quirky character who changes the other characters in her story. I would vote for her if she ran for president.

  1. Mina Murray (from Dracula by Bram Stoker)

Wilhelmina ”Mina” Murray is a remarkable character and a marvel, she (I can’t recall if I’m remembering Winona Ryder from the 1990s film version) and that modern fancy-dancy typewriter that she uses to type personal letters to her fiancée, Jonathan, who’s under the impression that he’s the hero in Stoker’s horror story—when in fact it is Mina who is the real star. If you don’t believe me—ask Dracula. Mina’s character marks the rise of the modern female detective. If I go missing, please call Mina. Posthaste!

  1. Dustfinger (from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke)

Dustfinger is a supporting character that I followed in Funke’s three-volume story, Inkheart. He is a tragic and talented character who can breathe fire and curiously is also a reluctant hero. He has his own agenda but puts it aside to help the other protagonists. Still, Dustfinger can be unreliable and is sometimes a curmudgeon. Aren’t we all at some time? I enjoyed his dry wit and actor Paul Bettany’s very human portrayal of this complicated character in the film version, too. I think Dustfinger would amaze my guests with his special skills, but I won’t pay him until the show is over!

  1. Hig
  2. Bangley
  3. Jasper (from The Dog Stars by Peter Heller)

Hig is the main character in Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic story, The Dog Stars. Hig is optimistic, philosophical, and loves nature. He flies around in a small Cessna plane with his faithful dog, Jasper, looking for signs of life and renewal all the while quoting Whitman and Johnny Cash. I think I met my literary soulmate in Heller’s story, if that is possible. If I invite him to my dinner party he will probably bring Jasper and his cranky friend, Bangley, who balances Hig’s optimism with his self-righteous mistrust of everyone and everything and whom I also like very much. You can’t invite one without inviting the other. It wouldn’t be very kind with the lack of people in their lonely world and limited opportunity for socializing. There is plenty of room at my table, and besides, who doesn’t love a good argument with their dinner? Please pass the **** salt!

  1. Mary Beth Mayfair (from The Witching Hour by Ann Rice)

Remind me to warn my guests that Mary Beth is a witch. (Some people are squeamish about that kind of thing.) Not the pointed black hat kind but rather the modern-world kind of witch. She comes from a long line of witches. You could say that it is the family business. I don’t like everyone in her family, but I do like her. She is very kind to strangers and children and exceptionally talented in bilocation and managing money. (Did I mention that her family are millionaires?) In fact, if she ever gives you money, she’ll tell you to spend it quick because somehow coin or cash always return to their place of origin be it Mary Beth’s coat pocket or beaded purse. She’s the bee’s knees for sure! Wouldn’t she be fun to go shopping with?

  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder (from The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder)

I know what you are thinking—but how can I not invite Laura? She is one of my oldest character-friends. Laura is a protagonist in her own life story that is truly memoir. Heck, they even made a TV series about her life. There’s that, and the fact that she was a big influence on me both personally and professionally. I quite figuratively and literally grew up with her. Her stories kept me company and occupied me on many a rainy day, during the long, boring, sometimes tumultuous middle years up through my teens and beyond. I caught up with her again in my twenties and later again in the classroom. Laura was one of my icons in children’s literature and has earned her velvet chair at my table. Subject closed. Icy will be her dinner partner. Maybe I’ll seat Jasper between them just for fun. Dogs are people, too, you know.

  1. Kirby Mazrachi (from The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes)

When I think of this character, the word tenacious pops up into my head. It’s a perfect adjective for her and if you’ve met her already you will understand and perhaps agree. You see, Kirby, single-handedly went after a time-traveling serial killer who targeted his victims when they were children. It gives me chills just thinking about her adversary, a serial killer—very creepy bedtime reading—and his modus operandi of stalking little girls and then returning for them when they were older. Kirby was one of his victims, but she survived him and decided to end this creep’s career. It wasn’t easy because she had to navigate in a crime story that was also science fiction. How do you track someone through time? Kirby found a way. I’ll seat her next to Mina. They have much in common. Don’t you agree?

  1. Mr. Rochester (from Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte)

Oh my stars! Edmund Charles Fairfax Rochester is wonderful! Maybe you have met him already if you have read Jane Eyre? He is an amazing character. He is probably the best friend anyone could ever have next to Jasper, of course. He is so charming and witty and interesting and mysterious in a beguiling, romantic way, of course. He’s the quintessential Romantic Era hero. He always says what he means and even though he can be aloof and secretive, he never lies… well, except maybe once to Jane, but really who could blame him? I will have to warn my guests not to get too attached to him. He’s already taken.

  1. Scarlett O’Hara (from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Katy Scarlett O’Hara seems to have a dark cloud hanging over her all the time. But the thing about Scarlett is that no matter how bad things get—and they do get pretty bad by modern standards—she loses her baby, her husband, her friends, and her home to the Yankees. Yet despite it all, Scarlett is always so very optimistic. After all, “Tomorrow is another day.” She doesn’t stay down long. She is an also an opportunist. What I call an optimistic-opportunist because she always finds a way to get what she wants or what she needs, by default—if you can call Rhett Butler a default. I wouldn’t. Anyway, she’s coming and hopefully not dressed in the living room drapes and she will be sitting between Bangley and Dustfinger. Oh what fun!

  1. Ralph Truit (from A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick)

As you might have guessed, I’m a sucker for romance and the American West. Ralph is, too, even though he says he isn’t. He’s the worst kind of romantic—hopeless! Anyway, he placed an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper in 1907 for an “honest and reliable wife” and got more than he bargained for when a woman named Catherine Land answered his advertisement and, let’s say, stole his heart among other things. But don’t feel too badly for Ralph. He had a plan of his own and Catherine was quite surprised, as was I. Ralph will be sitting next to Hig; they are both pretty even-tempered individuals and I think would get on well.

  1. Jim Quick (from Darling Jim by Christian Moerk Holt)

Jim is a storyteller who travels around Ireland, going from pub to pub on his Harley like a bad-boy from the bygone beat generation, seducing young women, stealing from them, and maybe killing them, too. Nobody is perfect! Not even Jim. However, Jim is a wonderful antagonist who picked the wrong women to prey on: three feisty Irish sisters who I think got the better of him—or was it the other way around? I’m hoping Jim will have some stories to share. Don’t worry! I will turn out his pockets when he arrives and hide the butter and steak knives before and after dinner. He’ll be sitting with Mina and Kirby. Those two will keep him out of trouble, no doubt.

  1. Harpspeed

As for me, my story is still being written.

  1. Reader

I left an empty seat for you, dearest Toasted Cheese reader and writer. Come fraternize.

Who’s On Your Guest List?

A Pen In Each HandBy Harpspeed

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

It’s your turn. Imagine you could meet a favorite character from a work of fiction. Any character. Whom would you choose? A character from your own shelves? A character from your past? Or how about a character you haven’t met yet? Perhaps, someone who was once recommended to you? (For me it would be that astronaut from the book and the film, The Martian.) A stranger-character? How intriguing that would be!

Now imagine you could invite a dozen or more characters to your house for a party or a backyard barbecue or what-have-you? The trick is to know your characters well, to be select with your choices: Would they like each other? Would they share similar traits or politics? Would you break out the tequila or the sherry or make a grab for Chekov’s gun on the wall?

Please share this occasion with your friends at Toasted Cheese. Tell us who you plan to invite and do tell us why. Or tell us after the fact. Was it a “screaming” success or did you lose a few guests? Did any characters run off together? Any foul play? Just a sentence or two is fine. We can read between the lines. We’re pretty good at that.

Harpspeed
TC Reviews Editor

P.S. A few words to the wise: You may want to steer clear of the psychopaths and vampires. They can be so unpredictable! If you insist on inviting one or more, be sure to have a strong antagonist or protagonist with them to keep them in check. And be mindful: characters can change whether for good or for bad. Those are the best characters and the most interesting guests! They also stay with us long after their stories resolve.

Fan Fiction: Working With A Net

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I remember the first fan fiction I wrote. I was about 12, maybe 13. I was lonely and away from home, and had made new friends I wanted to impress. I wrote them into a Nancy Drew-like mystery that was just awful, but they loved it. I was in!

I’ve written a lot of stories based on stories, movies, television and novels that others created. Some were for friends who couldn’t let go of the romance of a character or actor, and some were for me. I can remember entangling Luke Skywalker in romance, or using pretty words to recapture the feeling I had when I first saw two of my soap opera characters kiss.

But it’s stealing!

True enough, it is stealing. But, as Mason Cooley said, “Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation.” The ideas going on paper, the situations, thoughts, style and form are all original to each individual author. It’s the same character, but they’re doing something new and different.

We just can’t let the characters or situation go. We honor and obey the rules of the universe as set down by the original author or screenwriter, we pay homage to the actor who brought it to life or to the writer who sold us the characters so fully. We pay them the biggest compliment we could. We write about it ourselves.

So, why do you do it?

Like most fan fiction writers, I don’t write fan fiction for anyone but myself. I know going in I’m not going to make money from it, that it won’t make me famous, and that it probably won’t leave my little circle of friends. When I write fan fiction, I write for fun, for love, and for the sheer joy of creating. In the process, I’m honing my skills, learning a little something about character and continuity, and bringing my creativity back from the dead.

Fan fiction gives my creativity an energy boost. Like all writers, I sometimes run into a block about plot or about a character’s motivation, or I just can’t seem to write that day. On those days, I can drop my lagging spirits into a world I know intimately and play around. I might take a random comment or idea and follow that path to its end. I might write about a favorite lead character, create a new and interesting character, or bring a background character up into a lead position. No matter what I choose to do, I’m writing again. I’ve defeated that ‘writers block’ monster.

But fan fiction isn’t “REAL” writing!

I couldn’t disagree more. Fan fiction has all of the attributes of “real” writing, even if the framework was done by someone else. I still have to think of characters and situations, formulate plot lines and possibly chapters, consider setting and timelines and historical facts, and keep my work as error free as possible so it’s easy to read. It’s real writing work.

There are also hundreds of novels published every year based on the characters, work, and situations of others. A whole new “Star Wars” universe sprouted from the ground as soon as George Lucas said he was taking a four-year vacation from making those movies. “Nancy Drew” novels have always been written by a variety of authors, and readers who became writers, working under the same pen name, Carolyn Keene. “Star Trek” universes dominate three or four shelves in the library and bookstores. If fan fiction weren’t real writing, it wouldn’t be getting on the shelves.

This is all interesting, but why are you telling me?

One of the things we do at Toasted Cheese is inspire others to write. Three things I hear a lot are: I have writer’s block, writing isn’t fun anymore, and my writing skills are really (behind, out of date, lacking, gone, non-existent). Fan fiction might be able to help you with all those things.

For example, I belong to a “Xena: Warrior Princess” fan group called the “Themiscrya Amazons”. This is a very small band of women who were impressed by the ideals, ideas, language, adventure and fun of one part of the “Xenaverse” and expanded on it. One of the activities we do is write in a role-playing forum.

In this forum, each of the members has a character based on the Amazons from the television show. We write a history, find a niche that needs filled, give ourselves interesting lives, and then write about them. Each one is unique and different, and each writer brings something new and fresh to the story line in the forum. We build and weave around and through each other’s style and ideas, creating complex plots and stories that never seem to end up where I had figured they would go.

To make the forum work, we are allowed to ‘move’ the other characters. I’ve learned how hard it can be to be true to the nature and personality of a character while attempting to push your character where you want it to go. And how frustrating it can be when someone has yours do something against his or her nature. But it’s teaching me how very different characters are motivated.

I’m learning about my own style and voice as well. It’s important to be unique in an online world and hard to have a character not sound like your online self.

I’m also teaching others by doing. I think the members of the forum are learning a lot about mystery and revelation, sensory details and description, dialog and grammar. Like my writing, I’m showing, not telling, and I think it’s making a difference. Our forum is a lot of fun to read and participate in, and it’s one of hundreds on the Internet.

You’ve sold me, now what?

The Internet is full of fan fiction sites. You can write about everything from “Frasier” to “X-Files” to “Young Hercules” and back again. Heck, if you can’t find one you like, start your own. You’ll probably get six other writers not only commenting, but also posting work of their own.

The easiest way to find fan fiction is to type the title or name of your topic of choice into a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, Hot Bot, etc. To narrow your search, try “fan fiction, <name here>”. The rest is up to you.

You should look at the terms of service and disclaimers for all fan-related internet sites. Be sure your work remains your own, of course. Be certain that credit is given to the original authors or creators of the work. Double-check that the site won’t sell or steal your idea or writing. It’s always best to comb the rules and then to lurk for at least a week or two. Make sure the overall tone is one you are comfortable with.

Why not try it? You can start with the exercise that goes along with this article, or you can visit one of the Internet sites listed below. Give yourself permission to “steal” and see where it can lead you.

Personally recommended fan fiction sites:

  • Themiscryan Amazon Nation: Must be female and join the tribe to participate. Should have a working knowledge of Xena: Warrior Princess Amazons.
  • Eunice’s Frasier Fan Fiction Archive: A personal collection that accepts new stories also includes links to other Frasier fan fiction websites.
  • Fan Fiction Net: This site encompasses a variety of fan fictions, including poetry, books, television and movies. Asks for registration, which is free. Offers readers the opportunity to respond to the author and review the work.

Sites from searches:

Final Poll Results