A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve taken hundreds of pictures during my time in Portugal and Spain. Below you will find a selection of these pictures, along with a suggested writing prompt. Choose one or more of these pictures, and using the suggested prompt or one of your own, write 1000 words based on it. It doesn’t need to be polished or finished, just do it!

 

vivian lawry picture worth thousand words
Who would have a table setting like this?
balcony divorce
This is called the balcony of the quick divorce. It overlooks a 500’ gorge.
make own juice portugal
How is this to be interpreted?
Bottom line: Draw on visual cues to trigger your creativity.

Check out this writing resource!

Someone recently forwarded this article about effective first-person writing to me. It’s a great resource for writers who are having trouble writing from different points of view. Here’s an excerpt:

A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience… What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.

This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.

Check it out and leave a comment on the article with your results!

Effective Travel Writing

effective travel writing
 
In my humble opinion, effective travel writing starts with excellent writing—but it needs more!
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to places never visited, activities only dreamed of. The destination could be almost anywhere, foreign or domestic. The activities could be anything not experienced by the masses: eating insects, zip-lining, parasailing, petting dolphins, helping sandbag a levy.
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to a familiar place, seen from a different perspective. For example, airport security from behind the scenes, apple picking from the perspective of a child, a blind person white water rafting with a guide, walking across all the bridges in New York City.

 

Right now, I’m traveling, not writing about it! For more—and better?—advice, just search online for “effective travel writing.”
 
effective travel writing ideas

Use and Abuse of Passive Voice

elements of style william strunk eb white
[Source: Pearson]
Basically, passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that could be the object of an action becomes the subject. Passive voice permits permits subjects to have something done to them by someone or something. For example, an active sentence would be “Our team won the trophy.” A passive one would be “The trophy was won by our team.”

 

In general, authorities urging good writing advise writers to use the active voice as often as possible. Among other things, in order to convey the same amount of information in the passive voice requires more words. In the example above, the passive voice required 7 words rather than 5. Using the passive voice is often labeled as flabbier, less direct, and wordier writing.
[Source: Andertoons]
But there are several reasons to use the passive voice. As writers, we should use all the tools at hand to achieve our ends.

 

[Source: Amazon]
Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.

 

—When the actor is unimportant or not worth mentioning (in the context). Cheering crowds were barricaded all along the race route.
—When the actor is unknown. Overnight, Thanksgiving food baskets were left on 205 doorsteps in low-income neighborhoods.

 

[Source: Almeida Theatre]
—When you want to hide the actor’s identify. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. When no agent is unidentified, no responsibility is claimed or allotted—passive voice can erase who or what performs an action.  On October 11, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon posted a powerful comment illustrating this aspect of the psychology of language. In part, he said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
 
—When you need to put the punch word or drama at the end of the sentence. In this instance, the agent is identified using a by-phrase. “Can you believe it? Earl was beaten up by his own son!”
 
 
—When the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted on. The abused child was starved nearly to death.

 

Passive voice is not necessarily limp. For example, “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, italics added)
 
—When the passive simply sounds better—often because of the modifiers creating long phrasesThe wedding was planned by Heavenly Options, event planners who specialize in weddings, birthdays, funerals, and anniversary dinners with a strong Christian theme.
 
use abuse passive voice
[Source: The Writing Rag]
Bottom line: If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice!

Quirks for Your Characters

quirks characters
This isn’t common wisdom for writers.  It’s my personal bias. But I always appreciate characters who, on some dimension or other, are a bit unusual. In other words, give them some habits that are, if not unique, at least uncommon.

 

I recently wrote about verbal tics. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond repeated words or phrases. I’m talking about behaviors your character consciously engages in repeatedly or ritualistically. Here are some possibilities to get you started.

 

quirks characters toothbrush toothpaste
Standing on one foot and then the other while brushing her/his teeth as a means of improving balance

 

Every time s/he goes into the bathroom, doing push-ups against the vanity as a means of building upper body strength

 

quirks characters bird flying
Taking two handfuls of birdseed to the front of the apartment building morning and night to encourage the pigeons and any other miscellaneous birds—even though neighbors bemoan the droppings

 

Setting aside personal possessions to send for birthdays and holidays because it’s easier than going shopping

 

Eating French fries and green salad with his/her fingers

 

quirks characters french fries ketchup
Wearing sweatpants and t-shirts as pajamas so that s/he can be seen at the mailbox or picking up the newspaper and look dressed for the day

 

Filling the entire patio with pots of herbs (such as basil, dill, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, parsley, tarragon) to support cooking from scratch, having bought local

 

Choosing to drink scotch/bourbon/whatever from a measuring glass marked in both ounces and milliliters

 

A character quirk is NOT the same thing as OCD. An obsessive/compulsive disorder compels the person to do it or suffer extreme anxiety, distress, and/or disability. While compulsions can make for interesting characters, creating an OCD for your protagonist can also produce unintended complications of plot and/or action.

 

Bottom line: Use all the means at your disposal to create interesting, believable characters.

Borrowing: Names, Characters, Ideas?

girl takes eye eye
My first thought upon seeing this ad was that I’ll check it out. I greatly enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s original series, despite the raw scenes—which in my opinion forwarded both the plot and the character development. When reading the trilogy, I often pondered how he could violate all the accepted no-nos of writing wisdom and still be a raging success. He started slow. He introduced seemingly unrelated people and events. Information known to the reader was frequently repeated almost verbatim as one character informed another of events, history, etc. Thus, we have a sterling example of success in spite of rule-breaking. Clearly, Larsson did something right!

 

My second thought was to suggest that my readers write something—scene, short story, whatever—based on an admired work. But before doing so, I wanted to determine whether I was suggesting something illegal—or at least unethical. But how could that be? What about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or any fan fiction published by the ton?

 

girl kicked hornets nest stieg larsson
[Source: Goodreads]
Here’s what I found. 1) Anyone can use a name for a character or a book. They can’t be copyrighted. However, as a general rule, you should ask yourself why you would want to name your character Scarlett O’Hara or Captain Blye. Why would you want to title your book Gone With the Wind when any online search would have you at the bottom of hundreds of links to the original?

 

2) No one can copyright a stock character. The moon-eyed teenager, the sadistic rapist, the strong but silent hero, beautiful and buxom arm candy, etc.

 

3) No one can copyright an idea. Anyone can safely write a book about a young boy who has magical powers that he uses to combat evil. Anyone can write a dapper super-sleuth enamored with a brainy, independent, vulnerable woman.

 

So when do we get into problems? When the characters are easily identifiable as Harry Potter, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet Vane—or any sufficiently distinctive character created by a copyrighted author.

 

late scholar dorothy sayers
[Source: Amazon]
When the original author is no longer producing, sometimes others take up the mantle. Jill Patton for Dorothy L. Sayers, Felix Francis for his father, and (presumably) David Lagercrantz for Steig Larsson. These authors have the permission of the copyright holders (presumably the estate) to go forth and use the fully defined and described characters, acting in characteristic ways in new situation.

 

So consider whether you want to take another’s creation and make it your own!
 
girl spiders web david lagercrantz
[Source: Collider]

Why Lie?

everybody lies seth stephens davidowitz
Actually, that’s a dumb question. People (and characters) lie when they want to make others believe something that isn’t true. Behind that generalization there can be all sorts of motives, both benign and malicious.

 

seven little white lies jabari osaze
Benign lies are often called white lies, or little white lies. These are presumably innocuous lies, perhaps to ease a social situation, e.g., “Don’t worry, Marcie, that dress makes you look ten pounds thinner.”

 

liane moriarty big little lies
For writers, benign lies are useful as character notes but also—and perhaps more interestingly—because they often go awry.

 

black lies alessandra torre
If you go by the book titles, lies come in two sizes and two colors: big or little, black or white. But as writers, we all know that lies are much more complex.
 
truths half truths little white lies nick frost
Consider the multiple ways that people can be led to believe something that isn’t true.
 
big fat enormous lie
First, there are lies of commission: the flat-out statement of an untruth. A character directly and intentionally says something that the reader knows or subsequently learns is untrue. “I already walked the dog.” “Jack ate the last cookie.” “I saw Mary with the gun still in her hand.”
kept secret half truth nonfiction
Then there are lies of omission: concealing all or part of the facts. In courtroom parlance, this is known as withholding evidence. The character reveals only as much truth as circumstances compel.
half truth is often a whole lie
One of the most useful ways for creating a wrong belief is what I call lies by false conclusions. These often begin with such phrases as I heard, I read somewhere, everyone’s saying, etc. Then the speaker says something like, “I don’t know if it’s true or not” and then ends by asserting the opening statement as fact. For example, “I was down at the Town Tavern last night and I overheard a guy saying he saw Mary Beth Jones and Joe Smith going into the Cadillac Motel. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But poor Bob Jones has no idea his wife is two-timing him.”
little book big lies tina lifford
Then there are lies by false labeling. An example of this would be referring to a 39-year-old as a “young man” or “my little sister” to create an image of someone more innocent or naive than his or her behavior suggests. Other examples would be calling a drunken soiree a cocktail party, labeling a fender-bender a car crash, etc. In short, it’s choosing language that either minimizes or enhancesan incident or person in order to mislead.

 

katie woo big lie
As a writer, it would serve you well to perfect the art of the lie!
 

Treasure Trash

treasure trash writing problems
We’ve all been there. I’d bet nearly everyone who’s written a book has edited out not just words, but paragraphs, scenes, or entire chapters. Don’t delete chunks of text. Something made you write that in the first place. It might be a neat characterization of someone who disappears from the plot. Maybe an atmospheric scene setting. Maybe a tangent that is entertaining but doesn’t move the plot forward. Maybe an interesting fact that isn’t necessary or even helpful here. Instead of deleting, move those chunks to a new file named something like “Out-takes from (name of work).”
 
There are two advantages to this. 1) It makes it easier to cut the flab (anything that doesn’t fit this piece of work), sometimes known as killing your darlings. 2) Those chunks may come in handy in the future, either as additions to as sparks for something totally new.

 

treasure trash
Save abandoned writing. Most of us have early works that were crap. (I considered titling this blog Keep the Crap.) These could be papers written as far back as high school or college, or maybe stories started but never finished well—i.e., put aside for whatever reason.  My story “Closet Bio” (which will be published in Adanna Literary Journal  in September) is such a resurrected piece. Taking a fresh look at old stuff sometimes sparks a fresh twist, or revisions to make the language zing. I’m currently submitting “Friends of the Heart”—which started as half of a piece about weird hobbies.
 
treasure trash
 
At the least, periodically rereading old writing is gratifying. You can either pat yourself on the back and say, “Damn! That’s pretty good,” or “Damn! I’ve come a long way.”

 

treasure trash

Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life