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.

Mix & Match

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Go to random.org and use the Random Calendar Date Generator to pick five dates between January 2002 and the present (leave the Sunday box unchecked).
  2. Go to the Calendar and find the prompts that fell on the dates generated in step one.
  3. Use all 5 prompts in the same story.

Example (5 random dates and their corresponding prompts):

  1. February 5, 2002: Write about a surprise meeting.
  2. July 2, 2003: Write about a remedy.
  3. April 30, 2004: Write about magic.
  4. February 16, 2008: They had a way of walking together.
  5. December 23, 2015: “He lied about being a scientist!”

A Creative Go-To

A Pen In Each Hand

By Harpspeed

I remember on one occasion back in my undergrad days in a creative writing classroom I was expected to complete a writing exercise on the spot. I felt tired from a long day already spent at my day job and overwhelmed—being at my lowest creative moment of the day. Regardless, I had to write something. So while my peers were scratching and tapping away in their notebooks and keyboards, I was zeroing on a single topic along with some describing words, and whatever literary mechanisms my tired brain could muster up.

In the end, I broke down the assignment from paragraphs and pages to consonants and syllables. I was much like that stereotypical driver driving on empty fumes and magically making it to the gas station before the engine finally conked out for good. In fact, I surprised myself with having wellspring of creativity inspired from my lack of it. Thirty minutes later, I shared a free verse poem about an evening walk with my dog. I borrowed this technique at a similar venue years later. I wrote about the juicy clementine I had consumed minutes before. Success had made free verse my official go-to for creativity-tapping.

So, here’s the thing, if you are ever in creative trouble, don’t get upset or overwhelmed. Instead, think different. Think smaller. Think poetry. You might even consider trying a tanka poem. Here’s the skinny: Tanka poetry originated in Japan and is over 1200 years old. It is similar to haiku poetry but contain more syllables as well as metaphor, personification, and simile. Tanka poems contain five lines. Subjects of tankas include nature, seasons, and emotion.

These are examples I found on the web: [1] [2] [3] [4].

Excerpts from My Commonplace Book: On Doubt, Fear, and Failure

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I prefaced the first article in this series by saying “By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is ‘Keeping a Commonplace Book’ (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!).” and it’s still true. When I get a Pinterest notification, nine times out of ten, it’s someone liking or repinning that article. (The other 10% consists mainly of people liking something I pinned as a joke, ha.)

For this month’s article, I chose the theme of “doubt, fear, and failure” because I think all writers have experienced feeling like they have no idea what they’re doing, like everyone around them is more talented, like they’re writing and writing and writing and getting nowhere. If you’re feeling like an imposter, rest assured, you’re not alone. Every writer has been there at some point. Remember, everyone has their gameface on, and what they allow you to see does not reflect their own internal struggles.

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.Neil Gaiman {+}

What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t give a shit. Don’t care. Books, until recently, were dangerous: banned, burned, watched. Write something dangerous. Say something you shouldn’t. Blow something up. But well.Shalom Auslander {+}

Anyway, do we really want consistency in an artist? What does this pressure to please the market have to do with art? Originality involves risk, and risk implies the possibility of failure. That’s how greatness is born.Robert McCrum {+}

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. —Katherine Mansfield {+}

I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one’s career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept.Rebecca Brown {+}

I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.Jessa Crispin {+}

I was talking to my graduate class a bit … about how career writers—career anything, I suppose—are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it. It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth. All the awards you didn’t get, all the amazing journals your work wasn’t good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but—oops!—didn’t actually win. Sigh. All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably. And so on. How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, “What’s the point?,” embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away. Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an “I’m nobody, who are you?” opportunity. —Joy Castro {+}

It’s painful to write. It’s painful to take a clear look at your finances, at your health, at your relationships. At least it’s painful when you have no confidence that you can actually improve in those areas. I would not speak for anyone else, but most of my distractions … are traceable to a deep-seated fear that I may not ultimately prevail.Ta-Nehisi Coates {+}

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t writeW. S. Merwin {+}

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer”—I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing—“I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” … It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better.Sonya Chung {+}

[M]y internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.Dani Shapiro {+}

“[T]hat kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it.Michelle Huneven {+}

[I]n my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.Junot Díaz {+}

What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent. … Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down. And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer. —Chris Guillebeau {+}

[Writing a book is] very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon … While it’s tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it’s just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.Mary McNamara {+}

I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. —Michelle Huneven {+}

“A novel is a work of a certain length that is somehow flawed,” a wise critic once said—and as I was told during the first few weeks of my MFA program. To write a novel, and see to it through from the first word to the 150,000th, you have to be willing to embrace the idea that every once in a while your prose is going to be, for lack of a better word, more prosaic than it would be otherwise. Why? Because to get a reader to make it through 150,000 words (the length of my last, and about the length of your average robust novel), you need this clunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot. —Hector Tobar {+}

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. —Richard Rhodes {+}

I worry about rejection, but not too much. The real fear isn’t rejection, but that there won’t be enough time in your life to write all the stories you have in you. So every time I put a new one in the mail, I know I’ve beaten death again. —Ray Bradbury {+}

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” [Joan] Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” … Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.Adrienne LaFrance {+}

Organize Your Story Online

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

This time last year I was writing a story for Wicked Women Writers, a horror fiction contest sponsored by Horror Addicts. In addition to time parameters, which translate to word count) and the need to record my story for the podcast, I had to make use of elements that were assigned to me: setting, a beast (from the Chinese zodiac), a blessing, and a curse. I was lucky enough to have a story set in New Orleans, complete with a voodoo potion and a gris-gris bag, during Mardi Gras. I wasn’t so sure about the goat.

ab_15-05_pinterest

I began working through ideas without writing much. In a paper notebook, I jotted ideas for the plot but nothing was coming together except for character sketches. I made a playlist of old Southern spirituals, live Dixieland performances, and early blues recordings and played it while I learned more about voodoo and studied maps of the French Quarter. I spoke to friends who’d lived in New Orleans; the only time I’ve spent in Louisiana was a childhood visit to family in Baton Rouge.

As I browsed online, I was inspired by Chagall paintings that featured goats, the architecture of New Orleans (including the tombs in St. Louis cemetery #1 and Metairie Cemetery), and stories of the community following Hurricane Katrina. I bookmarked the links I found but many of my inspirations were just images so I hit upon the idea of creating a private Pinterest board for what I’d found so far. The board helped me organize, picture my setting, and narrow my many ideas into a workable story. After the story came up for voting, I made the Pinterest board public and included a link to it.

Stephanie’s “The Gray Girl” Pinboard

Creating a Pinterest board as a modern “idea book” worked so well for me that I’ve done it again and am currently gathering ideas for a new project. If you’re a visual person, if you like to organize online, or if you get a story idea on the go and you’d like to have an app for that, you might like to create boards like these.

What’s all this Pinterest stuff?

I think of Pinterest as a big corkboard. Some people think of it like a scrapbook or notebook. Early adopters used Pinterest to gather and save recipes, knitting patterns, or ideas for weddings. It’s basically a visual blog that lets you link to content via images. Whereas platforms like Tumblr allow you to use text only, you must use images or videos on Pinterest. If the page you want to pin to doesn’t have an image, you can add an image of your choosing and then link it as you choose.

Creating pins is simple. If there’s an image or video on a page, you can almost always pin it (even gifs). You can create your own images and upload them to your board. Don’t be surprised to see your own created image come back to you (mine did).

If you want to pin a page and there’s no image, you can upload any image and put the URL of the page you want to pin into the link box (use your computer to do this instead of the Pinterest app).

How can I use it?

There are a lot of ways, none being right or wrong. Your board(s) may be public or private, maintained by individuals or groups. You can have one board or many (sub-boards aren’t yet available).

The question becomes: “What do I pin?” Here are some basic ideas for writing-specific boards, which could be used generally or for a specific project:

  •         Story (plot ideas, research)
  •         Character (inspiring images, clothing, traits)
  •         Setting (architecture, landscapes, rooms)
  •         Theme
  •         How-to graphics (plotting, character creation)
  •         Prompts (these are one of the most prolific types of pin)
  •         Favorite books and journals
  •         Writing advice
  •         Exercises
  •         Worksheets
  •         Generators (character names, traits, prompts)
  •         Articles
  •         Challenges
  •         Quotations & sayings (writing. books, character, jokes)

Does this look familiar? It should if you have a “writing” folder among your bookmarks. Clearing out your bookmarks is a great way to get started using Pinterest as your central writing resource.

Stephanie’s Writing Pinboard

I’m not into Pinterest but I read this far

You can use other apps in the same way, taking advantage of their particular features. Tumblr might be less visual (depending on the template you use) but if you like searching your own collection via tags or recycling and repurposing ideas from other users, it might be more to your taste. Whereas Pinterest limits you to 500 characters on a pin, Tumblr will let you write and post an entire story (without the need for images). You’re not going to find explicit adult content at Pinterest. Meanwhile it’s plentiful at Tumblr, which can be useful if you’re writing erotica or using other adult inspiration for your story. Tumblr has settings that can keep adult content off your dashboard if you choose.

I keep Evernote on my devices because I never know when I’ll overhear a conversation I want to save or a name I want to use. It’s replaced the old memo pad I carried since high school, as well as the “I’ll jot this on my arm” method of notetaking.

I like Pinterest because I’m visual and I like having everything on a single page with small images that catch my eye differently every time I visit said page. Someone else might have an established system for story creation but needs help with organizing writing time.

Give me some options other than Pinterest

Other platforms you can use to create your online idea book include:

  • Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, and other traditional blogging applications
  • Evernote and OneNote (these are similar programs. Like Pinterest, Evernote clips online content and works best as an app. OneNote is better on PC and is an organizational junkie’s dream)
  • Instapaper (syncs across devices; use with friends)
  • Thoughtboxes (think Post-Its in folders)
  • Licorize (you can transfer your Delicious links; has an “add” button for browsers)
  • Bundlr (has a paid “ad-free” version)

Check these out and see which works for your purposes. When browsing apps like these, think of how, when, and where you’ll use them. Many are listed as “productivity” apps, designed for balancing work and personal life. As a creative person, you’ll discover new ways to use them to organize not just your writing life but also your writing projects.

 

Writing Inspiration Boards

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Create a “writing” Pinterest board (a.k.a. “pinboard”). Use it for inspiring/funny quotes, links to favorite books or authors, jokes, comics, prompts, worksheets, and articles (like our May 2015 AB).
    1. Instead of Pinterest, try Tumblr or one of the other platforms suggested in the article
  2. Create a Pinterest board for a project you’re working on or one you have an idea for. If the idea is all you have, find an image to represent your idea and work from there. If someone else has previously pinned your image, you’ll get a notice about it when you pin. Follow the links and find further inspiration.
  3. Begin to create a character by imagining her pinboard and making it. What do her pins say about her? What do her pins reveal that she doesn’t want people to know? What does she try to say with the things that she pins? Make notes right in the description of the pin.
  4. Pinterest prompt: in the search bar, type something you ate or drank as part of last night’s meal. Click on the name of the pinner of the first result; doing that will take you to the pinboard where you can find the pin. From that pinboard, click on the board owner to see her other boards. Use her board titles as a basis to create a character, story, or poem. If there aren’t enough boards to work with, go back to the recipe results and try a different pinner.

Stephanie’s Writing Pinboard

 

Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

So You’re in a Writing Drought

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

What to do until the words return? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Go for a walk (or something else that’ll get you outside). Writers spend far too much time indoors hunched over a keyboard. If you think about your writing, great. If not, that’s ok, too. The fresh air will be good for your brain regardless.
  2. Read! Instead of beating yourself up over not-writing frustration, put it aside and pick up a book. If it’s a good book, it’ll inspire you. If it’s a bad book, well, rage is a powerful motivator. 😉 If you’re in a long-term writing drought, create a reading project (a book a week, an author from each letter of the alphabet, bestsellers from the year you were born…) to keep yourself occupied.
  3. Stop pinning ‘how to create a commonplace book’ articles on your Pinterest and start your own commonplace book already! It can be as simple as starting a fresh board and pinning a few writing quotes on it. Here’s a search to get you started.

What Dr. John H. Watson
Can Teach About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

Final Poll Results

Mentor March:
Writers Who Inspire Us

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the spirit of popular Twitter hashtags #FollowFriday (#FF) and #WriterWednesday (#WW), we bring you #MentorMarch, in which the Toasted Cheese editors share some of the working writers who are currently inspiring us. Not confined to any one genre, the list spans the spectrum of writing, including novelists, non-fiction writers, children’s authors, screenwriters, journalists, critics, bloggers, poets, and essayists, many of whom are multihyphenates.

Add your own inspirations on Twitter using the #MentorMarch hashtag.

Ana George (Broker)

Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), of course. He blogs and tweets. He’s also on Facebook. And he seems to enjoy engaging his public.

Justine Larbalestier (@justinelavaworm), author of How to Ditch your Fairy and Liar among others. She’s mostly a young-adult writer, but I’ve enjoyed her rich plots and interesting fantasy writing for myself. She blogged quite extensively, but then developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and now she pours most of her limited supply of keystrokes into her next book. The blog archives include quite a lot of excellent advice to up and coming writers.

Chad Orzel (@orzelc) has written a delightful popular science book called How to Teach Physics to your Dog and blogs at Uncertain Principles. He also tweets. It’s nice to see somebody who can actually explain the subtleties of modern physics (quantum mechanics, with a second book on relativity in the works) to people, doing just that.

Lisa Olson (Boots)

Wil Wheaton (@wilw). Besides being the King of the Geeks, he is actually an author. I find his blog amusing, right on track, and entertaining. His three novels (Dancing Barefoot, Sunken Treasure, Just a Geek) are on my “to-read” list.

Felicia Day (@feliciaday). Not an author, but a writer of scripts. She was kind of the front runner of internet serials (The Guild) and a total success at it. She’s also an actor. I love her blog and her tweets.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). A children’s book author, but full of sage advice, awesome cartoons and all kinds of wonderful. She does online cartoons such as Will Write For Chocolate, and she is illustrating a book (I’m Bored) written by Michael Ian Black due out in 2012.

Jayne Ann Krentz (@JayneAnnKrentz) (aka Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle). A romance writer, I went through most of her Amanda Quick books. I loved The Third Circle and see that Wicked Widow is on my shelf. She had a blog in conjunction with some other romance writers, but it’s since gone defunct. Her website is still going—as is she.

And last, I follow all of the Toasted Cheese editors. Beaver‘s tweets are usually really awesome for writers or just for a good belly laugh. Baker is always hysterical—you can’t make up the shit she writes down. Billiard is always sweet and full of life.

Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

John Scalzi (@scalzi) makes me laugh on a regular basis, but he’s also been known to make me cry. He gives great advice about writing, and he once famously taped bacon to his cat. Need I say more?

Meg Cabot (@megcabot) is endlessly entertaining. I love her sense of humor, her interaction with fans, and I am in awe of her productivity.

Laurie Halse Anderson (@halseanderson), author of Speak, is quite simply one of my favorite authors writing today. I especially appreciate all of the resources she offers for teachers.

Seanan McGuire (@seananmcguire). Full disclosure—Seanan is a good friend, but I’d follow her even if she wasn’t. Her dedication and work ethic are inspiring, and she frequently posts fantastic insight and advice. The fourth book in her October Daye series, Late Eclipses, came out earlier this month.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). Debbie is also a friend, and she never fails to inspire me. It’s not exaggerating to say that she is one of my favorite people, and her optimism and joy are contagious.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Lois McMaster Bujold is a huge inspiration in my writing life. Her characters are incredibly well-rounded, and so very, very human. She has set the characterization bar high, but it’s a goal worth striving for.

On Twitter, I follow the awesome writers of the TV show Castle, including the creator Andrew Marlowe (@AndrewWMarlowe and full disclosure, yes, we are related) and his wife and fellow Castle writer Terri Miller (@TerriEdda). And of course I follow Richard Castle as well, but I will let Baker say more about him.

Judy Blume (@judyblume) was one of my favorite writers growing up. May my child characters carry the same authenticity that hers do.

I also find a lot of inspiration and good advice from the various editing and query-critiquing blogs. My two current favorites are Evil Editor and Query Shark.

I follow quite a few other writers, many of whom are already mentioned elsewhere in this article, and all of whom inspire me in one way or another.

And I would be remiss not to mention the influence that Shakespeare has been on me both as a person and as a writer. I haven’t been able to figure out which of the many accounts attributed to him on Twitter are actually his, however, as none have yet been verified…

Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Roxane Gay (@rgay) writes short fiction, teaches English, and edits PANK amongst other things. Last year she had six (six!) stories make the Million Writers Award Notable Stories list. All of that is amazing, but she makes my list because of her blog: a brilliant mix of writerly angst, personal confession, breathtaking storytelling—and reviews of terrible (so bad they’re good) movies.

Tayari Jones (@tayari) is a novelist (her third novel Silver Sparrow comes out this spring), a creative writing professor, and a mentor to fledgling writers. That she finds the time to do all these things is an inspiration in itself. Of all the writers on my list, I’ve followed Tayari the longest, and having read her blog throughout the entire process of writing Silver Sparrow, I cannot wait to read it.

William Zinsser (born 1922) is the author of On Writing Well. You may have heard of him. What you may not know is that he blogs every Friday about “writing, the arts, and popular culture” at The American Scholar. He’s a fantastic storyteller and brings a unique perspective to a genre dominated by Gen-X and Millennial voices.

Kerry Clare (@kcpicklemethis) writes short fiction, essays, and book reviews. She’s also a long-time blogger (October 2000!) whose blog focuses mostly on books, reading and writing. A critic in the original sense of the word, she’s able to point out flaws without being mean and offer praise without being sycophantic. Her reviews have a double-goodness: they not only generate interest in reading the reviewed books, but are engaging reading in themselves.

Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) is a poet and blogger. She’s written two books of poetry, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (with Kathleen Rooney) and The French Exit. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of her poetry, but I really like her blogging voice. In this interview, she says that she considers blogging as much of a form/genre as poetry—and it shows.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Susie Bright (@susiebright). I’ve followed Susie personally and professionally for at least ten years, after getting my hands on the early Herotica anthologies. Her passions so closely follow my own, I can’t not follow Susie everywhere I find her. I have an autographed copy of a collection she edited (squee!), several unautographed collections as well, and a naughty phrased pro-women button sent by Susie herself. I find her her “How To Write A Dirty Story” inspiring not just for writing erotica but for writing short fiction in general. I find her frequent Twitter and Facebook updates informative and inspiring as well. She can also be found regularly on HuffPo; her most recent column is “How to Get Your Favorite Author to Visit Your Home Town.”

Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading Roger Ebert every day. I’ve always read him and it never fails to surprise me how many people don’t think of Ebert primarily as a writer. His books are among my favorites, from his The Great Movies collections (also available in column format online) to Your Movie Sucks, his way with words has jived with my sensibilities (not to mention that we have similar taste, political opinions, etc.). Since losing his ability to speak, I’ve found Ebert’s ever-increasing proliferation of online writing still not enough to sate my thirst for his work. He tweets throughout the day, writes regular blog entries, and reviews current and classic films. He’s also on Facebook. I’ve subscribed to The Ebert Club (currently only $5 to subscribe, about to go up to $10 so get in while you can for $5) since the beginning and it’s so informative and fun that it takes me at least a day to savor everything in the weekly issue. I also own a rice cooker because of this.

Richard Castle (@WriteRCastle) is not only a fun writer, he’s quite a character. I follow him mostly on Twitter because he’s not on Facebook much. I hope that’s because he’s working on another Nikki Heat book. I was a little late reading Heat Wave but once I started, I could barely put it down. I don’t read many modern mysteries because it seems there’s a lot of clutter and “trying too hard” from the author (and not nearly enough female MCs). Castle’s laid back attitude (and extensive research) carries from his Twitter feed right into his fiction and it makes his writing a pleasure to read. Plus he’s 100% adorable so I tend to store his books face-down on tables.

Favorite writers/inspirations I follow include the already mentioned Neil Gaiman, Debbie Ridpath Ohi and TC editors & contributors. Feel free to follow my writing list.

Final Poll Results