Who Are You?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This one’s for those of you who find yourself falling down internet rabbit holes when you should be doing something else.

Set a timer. ⏱ How long is up to you—adapt it to the time you have available. For example, if you have a half-hour of free time, set your timer for 15 minutes.

Pick any real person, dead or alive, and find out everything you can about them. Type their name into your favorite search engine… and go! Click from link to link, but with purpose. In the course of your research, if you find someone (or something) more interesting than your original subject, don’t hesitate to make a detour. You’re looking for a story idea—an intriguing character, an unsolved mystery, a fantastic setting.

Time’s up! Stop researching, set your timer for the remainder of your time, and write, using your research as inspiration.

This exercise can be done any time, anywhere, as long as you have your phone with you, and is a great way to make productive use of time you might otherwise spend aimlessly surfing.

Word Association Story

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Create a grab bag of words. Write random words on slips of paper or clip them from old magazines and place them in a container to draw from. This would be a good writing group or classroom activity, as each person would contribute different words to the grab bag and no one would know what to expect when the draw was made.

Alternatively, use one of these random word generators:

  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; include/exclude duplicate words)
  • random word generator (options: generate 1-8 random words; click/drag to rearrange words; double-click to swap out a word for a new one)
  • random word generator (options: generate 2-10 random words; temporarily save words you like to a list)
  • random word generator (options: generate one word at at time)
  • random word generator (options: generate unlimited number of words; choose first and/or last letter; choose number of syllables or letters)

Draw one word and write the first sentence that comes to mind using that word. (Like a word association game, but word ➡️ sentence instead of word ➡️ word.) Repeat nine more times, so you have a total of ten sentences.

Write a story using all ten sentences. These sentences can be rearranged (used in any order) but must be used as-is. The ten original sentences are just a starting point—add as much as you need to fill in and complete the story.

If you do this exercise as a group, read the stories aloud once they’re complete.

Alternative group story exercise: After everyone has completed their 10 sentences, have one person start by choosing one of their sentences as the first sentence of the story. Go around the room in turn. Each person can either add a sentence to the story or pass when it comes to their turn. Stop when someone runs out of sentences. Read the completed story out loud.

Choose Your Own Adventure!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

Write a “choose your own adventure”-style story. That is, start writing your story, but when you get to a point where your main character has to make a decision, first continue the story with the character making one choice (up to the point where another decision has to be made), then go back to the fork in the road and write the story with the character making a different choice.

Pick at least three points in your story where it could go in two or more directions and write each of the versions.

A simple version of this exercise would go something like this, and result in eight different versions of the story:

  • Original story 📝 at the first fork, choose A or B.
    • A story 📝 at the second fork, choose C or D.
      • C story 📝 at the third fork, choose G or H.
        • G story 📝 continue to the end.
        • H story 📝 continue to the end.
      • D story 📝 at the third fork, choose I or J.
        • I story 📝 continue to the end.
        • J story 📝 continue to the end.
    • B story 📝 at the second fork, choose E or F.
      • E story 📝 at the third fork, choose K or L.
        • K story 📝 continue to the end.
        • L story 📝 continue to the end.
      • F story 📝 at the third fork, choose M or N.
        • M story 📝 continue to the end.
        • N story 📝 continue to the end.

Of course, stories can get more complicated than this, with more options and storylines backtracking and crisscrossing on each other. Play around and have fun with it.

While a choose-your-own-adventure story can be meant to be read as-is, this is also a good exercise for exploring your options when working through the plot of a longer story or novel.

It’s also a great way to complete a challenge like NaNoWriMo if you “run out of story” before reaching your word goal. Go back through your story and look for points where it could have gone in a different direction and write those versions. You might find you like one of the alternate stories better than the original.

Mashup

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Pull any four novels off your shelves.
  2. Flip through the first book randomly. Write down the first name you see. This will be your main character‘s name. Repeat at least one more time (so you have a minimum of two characters) but as many times as you like. (Remember you’ll have to incorporate them into your story, though, so don’t get too carried away.)
  3. Open the second book randomly. The first place name or description you see (e.g. London, bedroom, mountains) will be your primary setting.
  4. Flip through the third book randomly. Write down the first five events you see. These will form the backbone of your plot.
  5. Open the fourth book randomly. Base the theme of your story on the first emotion you see (envy, fear, guilt, grief, happiness, jealousy, love, pride, shame, trust, etc.).
  6. Make the story your own by using your own style to combine these elements.

 

Writing Diverse Characters

A Pen In Each Hand

By Billiard

Create a character with a distinctly different gender/ethnicity/sexuality than yourself.

Looking for resources to help you write authentic characters?

What Sets You Apart: On Valuing Your Own Experience

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When you can’t find someone to follow,
you have to find a way to lead by example.

—Roxane Gay

A few years ago, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TEDtalk called The Danger of a Single Story. In it, she recounts how all the books she read as a child growing up in Nigeria were either British or American. Because of this, when she started writing, she imitated the stories in those books—her characters were white, blue-eyed, played in the snow, ate apples, talked about the weather, and drank a lot of ginger beer—rather than writing stories that reflected her own experience. Her perception of who and what books could be about only changed when she discovered African writers and realized books could be about people who looked like her and shared her experiences.

The danger of a single story is it distorts your perception of what stories can or should be about. If your experiences don’t match up to the narratives you see around you, you may question their validity or even fail to recognize their value at all.

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

Background Photo: Niccolò Caranti (CC-by-nc)

When you spend your days online, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re perpetually lagging several steps behind everyone else. Something happens and hours later think-pieces on the subject flood your social media timelines as writers rush to get their two cents in before the news cycle moves on to something else.

“How much thinking could anyone have done in the past hour?” you grumble, as you simultaneously try to process whatever grim news has taken center stage that day and attempt to keep focused on whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing (cough work cough). You wonder how people manage to churn out coherent words in minutes on events you haven’t even begun to comprehend. (Obviously, they are better at this writing thing than you are. I mean, clearly, that’s the only explanation. –xo, your insomniac brain.) Perhaps a week, a month, a year or longer passes with the topic rolling around in the back of your mind before something clicks and you know what you want to write about it. You open a new document—and then you second-guess yourself.

Hasn’t too much time passed?

What if everything has already been said?

What authority do I have to speak on this subject anyway?

Who’s going to want to read what I have to say?

Why bother?

We’re all familiar with the saying “there are two sides to every story” but two is not even scratching the surface. In reality, there are infinite versions. The versions of the people actually involved in the event. The versions of those who witnessed or observed it. The countless versions of those who heard about it later, passed along via the grapevine or filtered through the media. And layered over those are the versions that percolate over time and are refined through experience. The story you tell in the moment, stuffed with details, is not the same one you tell twenty years later when you can see the big picture.

So you’re a few steps behind the few hundred (or thousand) people you follow on social media. So what? These are the early adopters, the overachievers, the workaholics, the people who only need four hours sleep a night. I mean, that’s why you’re following them, right? Because they’re in some way exceptional. But there are approximately seven billion other people in the world who you aren’t following and who aren’t dashing off essays in the time it takes you to reply to a few emails. Social media gives you a skewed perspective. You start to feel like those few people you follow are “everyone” when they’re really not. They’re not even representative of everyone.

When you actually pause and pay attention to what’s being said, you realize how much of it is a variation on the same theme—a single story told multiple times. This isn’t surprising. We’re often drawn to follow groups of interconnected people. As a writer, for example, you probably follow writers, editors, and other bookish types, many of whom come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences. The result is that you end up in a kind of bubble where people are saying the same kinds of things, reinforcing and validating each other, consciously or unconsciously. If your perspective is different, your first instinct might be to hide or downplay that difference to fit in. Don’t. That difference is your strength; it’s what makes your story worth telling.

Why bother writing about something when myriad words have already been written? Because your story has not yet been told.

It’s never too late. Everything has not been said. You may write about anything that matters to you. You just have to find a way in. The key? To figure out what sets your story apart from the ones already out there, and to focus on those points of difference. Even the most clichéd of stories can be given new life when told from a point of view that subverts stereotypes.

Recently I read an essay about the lack of female road narratives in literature. The premise was that the road trip is essentially a quest narrative, and men have an abundance of these to choose from. (True.) Women, on the other hand, have The One Where You End Up Murdered by a Serial Killer. This narrative is so pervasive in our culture that it functions as a single story, drowning out the few exceptions. I’m well aware of that particular single story, being something of a police procedural / crime drama / mystery / thriller junkie, but I hadn’t made an explicit connection between that narrative and my own experience until I started reading this essay.

Years ago, I went on a cross-continent road trip by myself and lived to tell about it. In fact, the trip was completely uneventful. I filled a notebook that summer, one I can honestly say I haven’t looked at since. Since nothing (dramatic) happened, I never saw the value in writing about the experience. I also didn’t give the trip a whole lot of forethought and I didn’t see what I’d done as anything special. I’d gone on plenty of road trips with other people; going by myself wasn’t a big stretch.

But, as I read about how rare alternatives to the prevailing narrative are, I realized maybe it’s precisely because nothing traumatic happened that my experience is worth writing about. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear that story.

Click.

I made a couple obvious mistakes in devaluing my own experience.

I assumed because it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to me at the time, it wasn’t a big deal in general. Wrong. Your life is only ordinary to you. To someone else, it may be extraordinary. We live in a society obsessed with safety and increasingly-ridiculous fears. To step outside a comfort zone is to do something out of the ordinary.

I assumed because nothing negative happened, my story wasn’t significant. Also wrong. Sure, tragedy is a shortcut to drama, but that doesn’t mean every story has to have a sensational event to propel it forward. A “nothing happens” story is more of a challenge to write than one with a built-in plot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. And for this particular narrative, “nothing happened” is actually a powerful message.

Because of those assumptions, I never took the time to think about why my perspective was different from the norm—or even to notice that it was. Why did I not hesitate to go on this trip when every cultural message says no, don’t do it, you’ll die? Why wasn’t I afraid? Why didn’t I succumb to the single story despite being a fan of ripped-from-the-headlines crime dramas? These are the types of questions I should have been asking but wasn’t because I viewed my story as unimportant.

Some differences are visible or immediately apparent. Others are buried more deeply within us and take longer to recognize. But regardless, it’s the stories that start from a different perspective than we’re used to that we need more of. These stories can be challenging to write because there is no defined path to follow, but that’s precisely why they are necessary. When you write your own story, you’re giving someone else a map.


Variations on a Theme

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What Is Theme?

There are about as many ways to describe what a theme is as there are themes. The moral of the story. The premise the story is trying to prove. The one sentence snapshot of the story. The greater truth that the author is trying to convey through the story. Most of these descriptions boil down to “What is the story really about?” Plot is what happens in the story. Theme is what the reader takes away from the story.

Generally a theme is presented as a statement. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the classic story of those two star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy because their families cannot stop feuding. While there are probably as many different descriptions of the theme as there are English teachers, the theme is generally presented as a sentence. Some commonly presented themes for Romeo and Juliet are:

  • “Hate destroys love.”
  • “A great love defies even death.”
  • “Love conquers hatred.”
Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Views on Themes

When it comes to the theme of a story, writers tend to fall into two camps.

There is the “my theme will naturally happen without my needing to worry about it while I am writing” camp.

I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.

—Michael Ondaatje

Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it.

—Richard Russo

A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.

—Diane Johnson

And then there is the “without a clear theme at the start, the story will be aimless” camp.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

—Herman Melville

You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.

—Robert Wise

So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.

The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialog—even action—and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.

—Lajos Egri

Which camp do you fall into? Do you think about the theme of your stories at all? Do you start with a theme, or discover it when you are finished?

But… but… The THEME!

Many writers worry that if they have a clear theme, their story will feel artificially moralistic. We’ve all read those stories where the theme batters us over the head until we put down the book, saying “Enough already!” and we don’t want to be those writers.

If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.

—Elizabeth Bowen

So are the choices here between wandering aimlessly through a forest hoping we make a clear path, or clear-cutting a path so wide that destroys the forest?

That’s a very simplistic view, the either/or view. The fun and interesting stuff comes about when you look at all the grey areas in between two simplistic views. Theme actually has another component to it—the reader has a say in what the story is about.

I get thousands of letters, and they give me a feeling of how each book is perceived. Often I think I have written about a certain theme, but by reading the letters or reviews, I realise that everybody sees the book differently.

—Isabel Allende

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

—Pablo Picasso

Look at the variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Most people agree love has a lot to do with the story. But what love accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) can depend very much on the reader. A young teenager can read it and think that the theme is “Love is worth sacrificing everything.” A jaded adult can read it and think “The impetuousness of young love leads to destruction.” A pacifist can read it and think “Hatred destroys everything, including love.” A fatalist can read it and think “Love cannot overcome fate.”

What’s It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?*

We’re currently in a messy spot with themes. Should you have a theme before you write, or not? Can you have a strong theme that isn’t an “in your face” thing? Does your theme even matter if the reader is going to find their own theme anyway?

The answer to those questions is… ask another question.

Earlier, I said that most themes are written as statements. They are presented as “the moral of the story.” I’d like to twist the idea of theme and pose it as a question.

Let’s start with one of the themes we presented for Romeo and Juliet. “Great love defies even death.” How can we make that theme into a question? Well, there is the obvious one: “Can a great love defy even death?”

I contend, however, that “Can a great love defy even death?” is not that interesting a question. Because there are only two answers to it: Yes, or No. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation, you generally don’t get a lot of response from a yes or no question. “Did you have a good time at the party?” “Yes.” “Did you like school?” “No.” If you want dialog, you need to ask open-ended questions. “What was the party like?” “What did you do in school today?”

What happens to the idea of theme if we phrase it as an open-ended question? What if, instead of our original question, we ask, “How far would lovers go to be with each other?”

If we think of Romeo and Juliet as an exploration into the answer to this question, the story becomes a lot more interesting. What is Romeo willing to do to be with Juliet? What is Juliet willing to do to be with Romeo? Both are ready to defy their families. So let’s escalate that. Are they ready to defy the feud between their families? Defy the law? And defy even death to be together? Those two characters are willing to go all the way. If they were not, it would be a different story. Same question, but a different answer.

Asking an open-ended question about your story is a good way to circumvent all the theme angst, but still give yourself that theme dimension that makes a good story a great one. By asking an open-ended question, your writing becomes an exploration. You don’t need to know the answer ahead of time—you can find out the answer for your particular set of characters in their particular circumstances as you go along. But your story has the theme built into it. And with a good open-ended question, it can still have Melville’s mighty theme.

The question exploration approach to theme also allows your readers the room to draw their own conclusions. You don’t end up accidentally trying to prove your point with a sledgehammer when your goal is not to prove a point, but to push the boundaries of a messy question to its limits and see where it takes your characters.

So start your story by asking yourself a messy question.

  • How far would someone go for revenge?
  • What price would someone pay for their heart’s desire?
  • How much would someone endure for their faith?

Then push your characters as far down their paths as they can go in your pursuit of an answer.

When you have your answer, you have your theme.

 

*”One minute I’m just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I’m thinking. That’s a major drawback if you’re looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like ‘What’s it all about, when you get right down to it?'” —Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures


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An Open-Ended Question

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

Consider a favorite book you have read. What question do you think the writer was exploring? Is it an open-ended question?

Now consider a story you are working on. What are you exploring? How would you phrase that theme or premise as an open-ended question? How does phrasing it as a question affect the way you look at your story?

Sex and Setting

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Set a story or poem in the town you’re in right now.
  2. Set a story or a poem in a real place you’ve spent a week or less visiting.
  3. Vanessa Blakeslee said that she doesn’t do a lot of backstory or biography for characters in her short fiction. Start writing the story of a character named Lee who is riding public transportation or driving a car. You know nothing about Lee. Just write and see where you both go.
  4. In a few days, go back to Lee and fill in any necessary biographical information you created while working. How does it change your story, if at all?
  5. Vanessa said that the absence of love and sex in fiction is “as noticeable as an elephant in the room.” Go back to a stalled or abandoned story or poem and add a previous or current sexual relationship or encounter to the action. How does it change the story? How does it change your characters? As an extra challenge, push your scene or backstory out of your character’s (or your) personal comfort level.

What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”

 

Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


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