Thursday, September 29, 2011

6 Keys to Opening Up New Possibilities in Your Story

"What makes familiar things worth writing about is that we are able to find a way to see them new, both for us and the people we write for." --Bruce Ballenger

Some years ago we had a mail-delivery problem when a bird built its nest in our mailbox. A problem with a simple solution, it would seem. Just pull the nest out and discard. But when, the next day, we observed how the bird flew down, perched on the box, opened the lid with its beak and subsequently made several trips to deposit more nest-building straw inside, we knew we had to do something. After all, how many times could we pull out the bird's work only to see it come back and start all over? We didn't have the heart for that.

Thankfully, at about the same time, we happened to hear a park naturalist speak at the local library. During the Q&A session, I asked for advice.

"The key," the naturalist said, "is to put a brick in the mailbox. It will change the space so that the bird will want to look for a new home. Hopefully a place that's a better fit for him--and you."

A brick? It was worth a try. And, happy ending, the bird soon disappeared, never again to take up residence in our box.

Remembering the incident prompted me to wonder what keys we writers might use in dealing with some of our writing problems--problems like bogging middles, lackluster writing, stories that seem to go nowhere--or that elusive, "something just ain't working" feeling. How can we change the "space" of the piece so that we look at it differently, see new possibilities? Some ideas:

1. Experiment with point of view.  This is a suggestion made by Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books. "Rewrite the opening paragraph in your story," she says, "in different forms." In other words, switch things around. If you're writing in first person, change to third--or even second. Single POV? Try multiple. Change your POV character. "While you’re writing these different opening paragraphs," she adds, "be playful. Let your imagination run wild. See how your experiments will take your story in new and surprising directions."

2. "Go Topsy-Turvey." This is how Jane Yolen puts it in Take Joy, A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft. “Writers know that if they turn a picture upside down, the central shapes are better exposed. No longer concerned with the drawing...what comes through is the composition itself." She acknowledges that you cannot very well read a book upside down, but you can look at its composition differently. For example, "Take one of your chapters, and reread what you've written with all the modifiers blocked out. Declare war on adverbs. Change your main character's gender. Turn a prose paragraph into lines of poetry to see how you've overwritten it...When we force ourselves to go topsy-turvy, we can see anew what is on the page."

3. Play "How Many Endings?". This is a personal favorite--an exercise I did that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities in my writing. In How to Write with the Skill of a Master and the Genius of a Child, Marshall J. Cook says this: "Select a finished story—your own or somebody else’s—and play the ‘How Many Endings?’ game. How many different ways could you end that story? Don’t judge, analyze, or otherwise evaluate your endings as you jot them down. And don’t bother polishing the prose. Just capture the idea. When you think you can’t think of any more endings, think of one more." At this point I was sweating, but I did it--one more idea--and it was by far the best.

4. Vary your writing tools. This idea came from the March/April 2011 SCBWI Bulletin, in an  article titled, "Rhythm and Flow in a Writer’s Life" by Pedro De Alcantara: “Writing by hand has a different rhythm and feel from typing at a manual typewriter or at a computer. And writing by hand on unlined pages is different from writing by hand on lined paper. Alternate using pens, pencils, various notebooks, computers, Post-its, and other media. Each writing tool triggers your creativity in distinctive ways."

5. Grab your camera. Bruce Ballenger, in Discovering the Writer Within, proposes taking a series of pictures of an object of choice--making each shot different by varying the angle, distance, lighting. Print the pictures, spread them out, and ask yourself, "Do any of the images help me to see my familiar object in a new way?"

6. Change your space. Again, from Ballenger: "Go for walks, swim, run, go to a movie, read. Do anything but write for a day or so...(and) don't allow yourself to indulge in negativity."

Experiment. Turn things topsy-turvey. Go a step deeper when you think you've given it all you've got. Vary your approach. Play with images. Change your own space to make room in your head for solutions. Just a handful of ideas. When troublesome birds build nests in your head and hamper your writerly deliveries, what are some of the keys you turn to?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Messy Desk Debate

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?" 
                                                                                                     --(attributed to) Albert Einstein

This is a true story, I'm not making it up. I found myself drowning at my desk this week, it was so cluttered with papers, folders, research notes, old photos, writing books--you name it, it was piled up. I told myself I knew where everything was, and could find it when needed. But I knew the truth. The messies had gotten out of hand. And so I began a process to clear off my desk--filing, determining what to keep, what to throw away, reordering, prioritizing. (Do I get credit for the fact that my office is very, very small?)

Can you belive what I found at the bottom of the basket? Really, I did not stage this. This is what lay there, staring up at me:

Ummm, should I be embarrassed? I do not know how long this little book has been buried...

There are different thoughts on the subject of a cluttered desk. Some say it's a sign of creativity. Some say it hampers the creativity process. Some say it's a matter of balance. You can check out some of the discussion at:

Time Management Success: "Have You Got a Messy Desk?" Management: "What's Wrong with a Messy Desk?"
Career "Is a Messy Desk a Good Thing?"
Ian McKenzie: "10 Tips to Help Keep Your Desk Clean"

So, what do you say? Can you tolerate a messy desk or do you have to have it cleared off by the end of the day? Me? I'm thinking I'd better study Everything in Its Place. Creeping clutter, at least over this way, has interfered with the creative process--and a new week, a new approach, is calling my name.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Day of Rare Finds

"To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations - such is a pleasure beyond compare."  ~Kenko Yoshida

Photo: City Beat
We started here on a recent day out, at this Indie bookstore for children. I'd heard of The Blue Manatee before, it's in our city of Cincinnati, but it took daughter and two grandkids to prompt us to take a field trip there. A fun, energetic place--as are most Indie book stores!--where not only children can get lost in books, but adults-disguised-as-children can, too.

Imagine our delight when we discovered a picture book author was scheduled to speak: Loren Long, author and illustrator of the Otis the Tractor books.  Great fun, great inspiration, great mix of people to stand in the crowd with, and a great author to draw encouragement from.

Can't forget the Blue Marble's DeCafe, a snack bar serving smooties and such, where we were introduced to the "Nutella and Banana" bagel, ordered by hubby--and shared with little Angelica. Can anyone say chocolate fingers and chocolate smiles?

Then a dash across the street, and up a looooong flight of stairs (with two little ones in tow, mind you), to Significant Books, a shop dealing in rare, out-of-print, and "antiquarian" books. A hidden gem was waiting for me: Howe's Historical Collections of Ohio, Volume 1 of 2. Through the years I've actually dipped into the pages of this book, copyrighted 1888, on the internet, but never believed I'd hold it in my hands. On the inside flyleaf of this rare find is an inscription, presenting the book to a W.T. Davies, Esq., dated 1903. Wow. A quick run-through of the almost 1000 pages shows a wealth of history, anecdotes, and details of the years 1846-1886 in Ohio. If only I can someday get my hands on Volume 2!

Finally, dear daughter was the one to spy this gem: Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico, a book on a subject I have a special interest in, "Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers: Clustering...Image and Metaphor...Creative Tension... Language Rhythm" (copyrighted 1983). It has risen to the top of the must-read pile, bumping a few other writing books off  the stack for the time being.

Ahhh, and since the store was holding a 60% off sale, we got both books for only $8.50. A rare find indeed!

Any rare finds--books or otherwise--you've encountered recently?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

September Morning Snapshot

"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." --Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Dropping in to share a September snapshot, taken along the neighborhood walking route this morning--along with wishes for a happy rest-of-the weekend. Hope it's filled with song, poetry, beauty and a few good words!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

7 Writing Tips from The Princess and the Pea

"Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch." --Hans Christian Andersen

"Ouch!" I was almost out the door for a morning walk when I was forced to take off a shoe. "There you are," I said as I pulled out a tiny piece of grit. "I knew I felt something." The rock was so small it could hardly be seen, but big enough to cause a lot of grief--sort of like the princess and the pea.

Remember that story, The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen? Paraphrased it goes something like this: Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess, but she'd have to be a real princess. He travelled all over to find her, with no success. Then one stormy night, there was a knock on the castle door. When the King went to find out who made such racket he discovered a wet, bedraggled girl seeking shelter--and who claimed to be a princess. Though the Queen doubted the girl's story, she ushered her in. She had a plan of course. She would put a tiny pea in the girl's bed that night--a bed made of a stack of twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. After all, a real princess would surely feel the pea because everyone knows princesses have delicate skin. The next morning the girl proclaimed she hadn't slept all night. Something somewhere under the mattresses had kept her awake. See, she had bruises to prove it. The prince was overjoyed--here was a real princess! They married and lived happily ever after. And the pea? They put in in the Royal Museum where it is to this day, unless someone has stolen it. (You may read Hans' original story here at Childhood Reading.)

Hans Christian Andersen's story lives on. And, since one thing leads to another, I gave thought to this story, and how we writers might draw tips from it to aid us in our storytelling lives. I came up with the following seven:

1. Books are like princesses--the writing of them is a goal worth searching for, and pursuing.

2. Don't give up hope in your efforts to write that princess, no matter the storms that threaten to stop the progress. A King may open the door when you least expect it.

3. Squelch the Queen's doubts that say the idea will probably come up empty anyway, so why even try?

4. Let any irritating "peas" (you know, like rejections, less-than-perfect critiques, yet another late night session to make the words flow just right) only spur you on to doing better.

5. Trust through the bruises that your real jewel of a story will one day see the light.

6. Take it all the way to the altar--commmit to it, and do what it takes to make it work.

7. Preserve the memory of those irritating peas that helped get you where you are, so that you don't have to lose sleep over the same problems the next time!

Now I'm thinking of checking into some of HCA's other stories to see what I can glean (a list of his 168 titles can be found here)--like Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Match Girl, and The Ugly Duckling. He was quite the storyteller (1802-1875)--a Danish author, fairy tale writer, and poet noted for his children's stories.

Just goes to show, writers help other writers no matter the genre, era, or number of years apart.

Got a favorite HCA story? Any writer's analogy that has struck a cord with you this week? 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On Writing Prompts

"I don't know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I'm not there, they go away again." --Philip Pullman

Sometimes I need a kick start. It's like I need to throw ideas, words, letters in a big bowl and pull them out at random--or string them together like beads--to see what happens. I need something to stimulate the creative side and silence the editor. When this happens, I might pick up a book on writing and do an exercise the author suggests. I might borrow an idea I've read about in a blog. Or I might play a word association game. Often I start my day with a prompt, just to loosen up.

Recently I turned to Monica Wood's The Pocket Muse.

One idea Woods presents is this: Choose ten random letters of the alphabet, and write them at the top of a blank page. Example: C W I T S N E M B R. "Using words that begin with these letters, in the same order, write an opening sentence...

Woods gives a sampling from one of her writing workshops: "Cindy's winning?" Ian teased, suddenly nervous. "Everett may be right."

Here's what happened when I gave it a try:
(I closed my eyes and typed randomly at the keyboard to get these letters, BTW)
And? "Instinct suggested Louie fling vegetables but quiet empathy zilched lobs."

Silly, maybe, but fun. How about you? Want to give it a try? I'd love to see what you come up with. Who knows, maybe it will be the start of something new and unexpected...

Do you use writing prompts? What are some of your favorites?

(In case you want more ideas, another fun place for writing prompts is found here at Squidoo.)

*photo courtesy:

Monday, September 5, 2011

8 Ideas for Getting to Know Your Character

"My characters write my stories for me. They tell me what they want, then I tell them to get to it, and I follow as they run. Working at my typing as they rush to their destiny." --Ray Bradbury

 I know this girl. Her name is Blanche. But I wouldn't come to know her until she was all grown up and much older.

We recently came across this picture when an aunt deposited a bag of old photos and letters with my dad and told him he could do what he wanted with them. In the stack was this picture of the little girl who would later become my step-grandmother.

And I love this picture.

Of course, I loved my grandmother first. But, growing up, I knew her at a different age, in a different stage. I'm not sure, had I thought about it, that I'd have been able to imagine her as a little girl. No, she was Grandma, busy taking care of my grandfather, the stout woman in the kitchen canning beans or freezing corn. She could drive a tractor, slop hogs, clean out barns.

But who was she as a little girl?

Another photo shows Blanche with her parents and six siblings. She's a young adult, and I get a glimpse of the woman she would become. Here I'm better able to travel along in her journey because I know my dad's story and the circumstances under which she became his stepmother. But the child? I still want to know who she was. What did she like--food, friends, books? What were her hopes and dreams? Disappointments, challenges? What's her childhood story?

If she were the protagonist in my next book, how would I find out these things about her?

Ah, suggestions abound. For example, in an article titled Changing Character in a past SCBWI Bulletin (March/April 2008), Kathryn Lay suggests (1) writing your character's biography, starting with the week before your story begins. She also suggests (2) writing a newpaper article about your character, reporting how she accomplished your story's resolution. Or (3) have your main character write you a letter. What news is she anxious to share?

(4) Interview your character. For a great list of interview questions, check out this article at Gotham Writer's Workshop. A sample question I would never have thought of: "Where does your character go when he is angry?"

(5) Go Deeper. Additional sources for finding out more about your character include the questionaires at the Character Building Workshopcharacter worksheets at Adventures in Children's Publishing (links in the left sidebar), and Catherine Ensley's series on the Enneagram, a personality typing system that can help in creating characters. You'll find this over at Words, World and Wings.

(6) Keep a voice journal. This suggestion comes from James Scott Bell, author of The Art of War for Writers. "A voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode. You prompt the character by asking the occasional question, and then just let your fingers record the words in the page."

(7) Dip into your character's diary. You say she didn't keep one? Well, let's pretend she did. What secrets might she have recorded there?

(8) Write "a-day-in-the-life-of..." From Creating the Story, Guides for Writers (Rule and Wheeler): "What time does she get up? What does she eat for breakfast? How does she take her coffee? By writing a detailed account, you may discover a story."

Blanche as a child is not my MG protagonist, but she is my inspiration. As I look at her picture, I imagine the questions I'd want to ask, contents of letters she might have written me, revelations in the pages of her diary. And so I want to play with these prompts, run with them, explore--and discover--all I can about my character as we start out on this adventure together.

What techniques, tools, approaches do you use to get to know your character?