Month: October 2014

The Power Of A Mask

Minesota leaves-bannerAutumn is my favorite season. Fat pumpkins sit on the front steps of the neighborhood houses. Farms in my rural community open their gates to the public, welcoming them with horse or tractor-drawn hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, face painting, and stands with tummy-tempting, hot, spiced, apple cider and applesauce doughnuts.  This outing is the highlight of October for my family.  (That, and the chocolate chip pumpkin bread we bake together.)

And what has this got to do with writing?

This year at the farm we visit, I decided to conduct an experiment in altering one’s personality.

As writers, this is exactly what we do when we create a character.

My unsuspecting volunteer… none other than my daughter.

maze-4034The three of us wandered around the farm, petting goats, jumping in piles of corn, climbing enormous, rubber spider webs, and then, as the wind pulled up, and the sky darkened… we entered the seven acre corn maze. (Actually, it was a warm and sunny day, but didn’t that make it more seasonally dramatic?)

Families were charging around the rows, walking into dead ends, retracing their steps, laughing and asking everyone they passed if they knew their way out. (We got there early enough to make sure we’d have plenty of daylight to get ourselves ‘un lost.’) As a large group was following us, I stopped and asked my daughter, who is nine, to pretend she was a cat.

“Go ahead, honey,” I said, “meow, paw at the air, pounce on something.”

She looked at me with that  you-have-got-to-be-from-another-planet  look and started walking away from me a little faster.

“Oh, come on,” I coaxed.

She hid in the cornfield.cat-4038

This is where the experiment began… “Well!” I said, “Would you look at the strange thing I found in my purse?”

That got her attention. She peered from behind the dried corn leaves, eyes widening as she saw the paper, cat mask I pulled from my purse.

“Wow! You brought that for me?”

cat-2-4034She put the mask on and instantly lost her shyness. She couldn’t care less what the families around her thought or said. Behind that mask she could be anyone. And at that moment, she transformed into an amazing cat. She hissed, she pawed the air, she pounced, and she couldn’t stop posing for the camera.cat-4041

Isn’t this, to some degree, what we do when creating characters? Aren’t we giving them masks to try on as we write and rewrite their personalities?

 

 

Here’s a character making example:

We give our character a name.

We give them an appearance.

We add some quirks or habits.

We sometimes  add a phrase or comment the character says.

We give them history/background info.

We give them a family.

Eventually, we have created a character we can move through the pages of our novel.

But what happens when a personality trait doesn’t mesh with a twist in our plot?

I’ve created a fairly confident character. He’s accustomed to winning. A big annual competition is coming up at work, and he’s already won five years in a row. When the scene comes up, will my reader perch on the edge of their recliner with streams of sweat streaming from their brow, wondering, hoping (knowing) he’ll win. Nope.

We switch gears and change our gallant hero to the underdog. He’s quiet, a tad on the shy side. This poor guy has been teased by his older brothers since he could talk. He’s never had enough money to buy any stylish clothes. Girls don’t notice him. He always gives his best, but always falls short of winning. This likable guy needs this win if only to give him a taste of success.

So, we find that changing the personality of one of our characters is similar to trying on different masks. Except as writers we exchange paper masks for words.

It's Wednesday! Writer's Prompts and Inspirations Day.

chalkboard-3-AWe all have favorite books–books that open naturally to our favorite passages, books we read annually, books we have purchased because they have deeply touched a part of us. We love these books for their characters. We also love  these books for their true-to-life locations. What a gift it is when a writer has researched a location well enough to transport us there. When written well enough, we can stroll beside the ocean, feeling the massage beneath our feet of stones washed smooth and slippery. We can move from room to room in an abandoned mansion, nearly tasting the musty smell of mildew as the foul air stains our breath. We can walk down the squeaky, paint-worn steps of an old farmhouse and hear the sizzle of bacon, crisping in a skillet. We can relax in a black gondola in Venice and breathe in the smell of… (never mind.)  We can hear the hush of snow sifting around us on a still, Winter’s evening. 

This Wednesday, I’d like you to consider the many locations available to us in our writing. Think about why you chose a particular location for one of your projects. Does that location add to the tension? Does it seem the most natural and obvious choice? Could the story work as well or better in a different setting?

Suppose in the book, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg that Claudia didn’t run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Suppose she ran away with her younger brother, Jamie, to New York with no plans. Two children alone in a dangerous city where anything can happen. A city where evil can lurk in shadows, where the darkness of night offers no protection. That would make for a different story.

How about Charlotte’s Web by E.B White. Suppose Fern lives in a little apartment with her parents. One day, while on a school field trip to a pig farm in the country, she spots a tiny runt of a litter. Fern, being the caring girl she is, packs this pink bundle of squirmy cuteness in her backpack (when the teacher isn’t looking) and brings him home.

Location/Setting is very important to the story. First we need a central location. For this example I’ll choose a farmhouse.

Next we need to broaden out. What lies beyond the farmhouse? An abandoned house? An office building?  What lies beyond the farmhouse is important as our MC will be moving around the area during the telling of the story. For this example, let’s suppose our main character is a little girl named Betsy. One day Betsy’s dog runs away (Not a complex story example, but one that will suffice.)  The chase begins! Now if Betsy’s best friend’s house is in the direction she’s running, will the tension increase? But what if Betsy lives next to a rocky stream, a forest, a cemetery, or…that abandoned house?

Sights and sounds play a part in location, too. Let’s pretend Betsy puts her fears behind her and dashes in the abandoned house after her dog. She might feel chilly breezes along her neck, hear the wind whistle eerie tunes through cracks in the windows, see cobwebs flutter. Tension climbs.

The weather and time of day add another level and must be appropriate for the location. Of course we’ll have the dog run away as the sun is setting. We might even add the threat of a severe storm. And what if it isn’t June 1st? What if the day is October 31st? HALLOWEEN!!!

Time to switch gears.

What if we decide that a little girl chasing her runaway dog in the country sounds boring? What if we really change-up that location? Suppose Betsy is on vacation with her family in Cairo. While there, Betsy befriend’s a child. One day while the two girls are playing near a street market, the little girl’s dog runs away.

* How does the location change the story?

*How do the actions of the characters change in this new place?

*Important items available to your characters are no longer present. What new things are present in this location to add challenges?

*By making this change you have introduced drastic cultural differences. The people’s attitudes and ways will be quite foreign to your main character, the landscape is now unfamiliar, and the language will pose a problem. The list goes on.

Are you ready for your Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration?

Take a short story you’ve written or the first pages of one of your novels, and see what happens when you give the location a major jolt.

I’d love to hear from you. To comment, scroll to the top of the post and click Comment below the title.

The Not So Lonely Life Of This Writer

My parents were what I would call organized, tidy, hoarders. Definitely not the clinical hoarders you might have seen on TV. You know the ones… they scramble over a precarious stack of broken electronic devices balanced at the back door. Empty boxes of macaroni and cheese stuffed between piles of worn-out shoes sit beside garbage bags filled with dated clothes ready to cushion the impact should someone stumble.

No. This does not describe my parents…

Organized, tidy hoarders are people who keep everything of importance (not immediate importance, mind you, but eventual or possible importance.) These individuals know where everything is months and years after filing them away.

It was after my father passed away that the family had to go through the household items, making piles labeled donate, garbage, and keep. My keep stack grew to a ridiculous height in a clinical attempt to preserve my memories of my parents. I have since returned to my senses and donated some of the items.

Back to my parent’s home…

My mother kept a box filled with every Valentine card she ever received next to a box of every birthday card she ever received. (Continue filling the virtual shelf with one box per card-giving holiday.)  My father kept magazines of interest filed with correspondences to editors, asking for more particulars. (About one and a half tons according to the haul-away man’s scale.)

SO WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH WRITING? I’m getting to that…

So it didn’t surprise me to find a box filled with my old report cards, starting with kindergarten through high school.  What did surprise me was a comment which appeared year after year by different teachers.

Leslie doesn’t play with other children. She prefers to be by herself.

Can anyone say writer?

Some people use the word, lonely, to describe the life of a writer. And from the repeating comment on those old report cards, it sure sounds like I was lonely, but I’m one of those writers who doesn’t feel that way. Okay, okay…you’ve got me. Yes, I’m here at my computer, sharing my thoughts with you while my husband is at work and my daughter is at school. And no, besides my needy dog, a chatty parakeet, a baby Cockatiel, 5 croaking tree frogs, a bucket of chirping crickets to feed the croaking frogs, and a tank of quiet (and sometimes dead) fish, I am alone.

Alone but not lonely. (Seriously NOT LONELY.)

When I’m writing, I’m closest to my inner voice. I’m free to tap into myself for ideas, inspirations, childhood memories, and moments I want to explore through words.

When I’m working on a story, I’m spending time with my friends. Sure, they’re my imaginary human and animal companions, but as they are characters I brought to life, let life happen to, and spent months or years with, they’re real to me.

How many of you have created a character, brought him/her to life, had to make something happen to him/her (throw rocks but don’t kill) and found yourself aching over his/her pain?

And now… a brilliant quote from Robert Frost:Robert Frost

It isn’t the location that brings tears or surprises to the writer or reader, those tears and surprises come from our characters actions, reactions, and decisions to situations we place in their path.

Sure, we are alone when we’re writing, but I’d guess that there are many writers who feel as I do.

Do you have a favorite character you created? Why do you like that character so much? Are they like you? Are they similar to a close family member or friend? Or are they one of those villainous sorts so addicting to include in our writing?

I’d love to hear from you!

It's Wednesday! Writer's Prompts and Inspiration Day.

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How often does the opener of a new writing project have you staring at a blank computer screen for an unacceptable amount of time? Some of us become nearly paralyzed over those first words. Why isn’t sentence number two, three, or four this darned hard? It seems once sentence number one is written, the next words flow freely! Probably because the pressure is off, our brains unclamp, and the story takes form.

Here is a typical scenario of my writing process…

An idea comes. I feel a rush, typing that first brilliant sentence. Then I read those earth-moving words and…delete it, retype it, and delete it again. “I’ll bet agents have seen this kind of opening line before.” delete, delete, delete. “This isn’t even original!” delete, delete. “Billions of words in the world, and all I have to do is choose a handful of them, group them in the right order, and I’ll have it!”

Today being Wednesday, it’s time for another installment of Prompts and Inspirations to get your creativity flowing. And speaking of first sentences, here are the first sentences from some of my all time favorite books.

1. You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.  — Richard Peck, A Long Way From Chicago

2. Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.  — E.L. Konigsburg, From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

3. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  — Louis Sachar, Holes

4. It seems there should have been some warning, but I felt none. — Marlo Morgan, Mutant Message Down Under

5. Until almost the very end, Han van Meegeren thought he had committed the perfect crime.  — Edward Dolnick, The Forger’s Spell

6. There’s something frightening, and magical, about being on the ocean, moving between the heavens and the earth, knowing that you can encounter anything on your journey.  — Lynne Cox, Grayson

7. I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.  — R.J. Palacio, Wonder

Now it’s your turn. The pressure is off. After all, this is a writing game to loosen up your thinking, open yourself to crazy ideas, hilarious ideas, or darned serious ones. And what if one of these “just for fun” sentences spurs on your next novel?

A friend of mine lent me his/her favorite book, and the first line took me by surprise. Chapter one began…

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Want to share a first sentence from one of your favorite books (current or classic, it doesn’t matter here.)

What The Piano Teacher Said

During my daughter’s piano lesson, her teacher, Jan Burns, made this statement which is true not only in the world of music, but also in other areas of art and, of course, writing. quote-1

Welcome To The First Wednesday Writer's Prompt!

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WELCOME TO MY NEWEST BLOG ADDITION.

As writers, we hope something we overhear will ignite that bestseller, lurking deep inside us.

We listen with fine-tuned ears.

We observe our surroundings with sharpened eyes.

We touch and breathe with heightened senses.

Sometimes we need a little push.

When answering, think outside the box… WAY OUTSIDE THE BOX.

I thought this was my suitcase until I got home from the airport, opened it, and found…

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What could happen because of what was found? Might this spur a comedic picture book, a thriller, a middle grade mystery, a limerick? When answering, consider the many different kinds of people you’ve seen at the airport: young, old, student, retired, athletic, introverted, extroverted… Think about the countless occupations and pastimes people have: banker, circus performer, photographer, baker, ice cream taster, scientist, stamp collector, seamstress, journalist, etc…  The lists you could make are endless.

Open yourself to new possibilities. Let your answers take your writing in completely different directions from your norm.

Feel like sharing something from your list? I’d love to hear from you!

 

Follow this blog to receive your Wednesday Prompt and Inspiration.

POCKET NOTEBOOKS

Yellow notebookI have low shopping resistance to little notebooks. You know the ones…they’re about 4×6 inches big (small) or smaller, fit into a pocket or purse, can sit perfectly on a nightstand, wait patiently in the glove compartment of a car, and could be tucked inside a file folder for in-progress stories.

I learned the hard way that my memory isn’t programmed for instant recall. After I experience an event, I hold a jotted blurb of it in my head, and when time permits, I sit at my computer and try to hammer out a flawless, detail-packed recollection. While I’m typing, I believe what I’m writing is moment to moment perfect, but in actuality, the finer details and impressions the event made on me weigh in at a fraction.  I wouldn’t have believed this if it weren’t for one event in my life.

In the few days before my father’s death at 93, I wrote an extensive list of the countless ways he touched my life, helped shape my life, boosted me up, patiently listened, and cheered me on. My father was my mentor, my hero, my teacher, and my best friend. I wished I could stop time. I couldn’t stand the thought of facing a day without him. Each night, although we lived only 20 minutes apart, we hung on the phone for an hour or so, sharing our day with each other, telling jokes, laughing and remembering old times. And then he was gone.

During his last days, I couldn’t be moved from his side. My left hand held his hand while my right hand never stopped writing in a little, yellow, 4×6 notebook on my lap. I wrote a letter to my dad. I recalled memories as they rushed back to me, and I wrote of the heart-breaking experience of losing him. And then a month later I misplaced the notebook.

Time passed. I sat at my computer, trying to type the events as I remembered them happening. I tried to remember the thoughts and feeling I had…. Then I read what I had written, satisfied I captured my father’s last days perfectly.

Yesterday while straightening out my notes for a story, I found a little, yellow notebook. I almost didn’t want to open it. I found a quiet place to sit while I turned the pages and returned to three of the hardest days of my life. What I read touched my heart. My own words made me cry. I read—stunned—at the critical pieces time had taken away from my memory. What I had recreated on my computer was a fraction of the event.

Since that day, I have purchased and made many more pocket-size notebooks. Important moments can happen at any time of the day, and I never want to risk leaving the details to memory for later when they have softened.

If we are going to tap into our lives for emotional events to bring into our writing, those events must be faithfully recorded—in the moment or as close to it if possible.

What I learned from what I had written in my yellow notebook and what I captured later on my computer is this: The pages I filled while sitting beside my father were a perfect example of showing, and the pages I typed later were nearly 100% telling. Showing vs. telling. Emotional vs. distant. Three dimensional vs. flat.

Do you keep notebooks everywhere you go? Do you write your thoughts on anything handy from backs of receipts to napkins? Is there an event in your life you are glad you were able to write about in the moment?