Archive for July, 2012

Writing About Unlikable Characters

July 30, 2012

My husband and I returned to our car after shopping when we discovered, adjacent to our car’s passenger door, a disheveled guy in shorts standing next to his rear view window, checking himself out. 

My husband pointed his keys at our car, and we heard the clicks.  We stood at the end of our car and waited a few moments.  I cleared my throat. 

The man picked his nose as he watched his reflection.

(Really.  Not kidding.  Or in Dave Barry’s style, I’m not making this up.) 

We waited some more.

I took in his physical looks; his belly extended beyond his tee-shirt and his plaid shorts.   As he adjusted his mirror and gazed at himself, his greasy hair flopped over his eyes.   Meanwhile, on the other side of his vehicle, his wife loaded their toddler into a stroller. 

Clearly, he wasn’t going to move an inch to let me in the car. 

Bob said,  “I’ll back out the car for you.” 

As I got in the car, I said, “He doesn’t have a clue.”

#@%!, ” said my husband. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Go to a public place with a notebook.  Jot down physical descriptions of people you see.  Be as specific as possible.  Start with general notes and then glance at small details – – the mole on a face, the brown spots on one’s hands.  How does the person walk?  Stand?  Sit?  Does the person have a way of talking that is unique?   Show emotion?

2.  Use some of those notes to create an unlikable fictional character.  Why is this person the way she or he is?  What kind of annoying habits or morals does she/he possess?  Write a backstory for the character which may show motivation for the character quirks.

3.  Write other characters who must deal with the unlikable character.  What will be the problem/conflict/plot of your story?  Is  your unlikable character the main character or a minor character?

4.  Write a personal experience piece about a person you have dealt with who would fit the description of an unlikable character.

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House on Fire! What Do You Take?

July 24, 2012

Joan Morris, a columnist from the Contra Costa Times, posted a good question in a recent article.  “Fire is moving toward your house, and emergency officials have given you 15 minutes to save what you can before evacuating.  What would you take?” 

Her question was based on the book, The Burning House: What Would You Take by Foster Huntington (It Books).

I think back to the Oakland fire in 1989, when Maxine Hong Kingston couldn’t get to her house to save her manuscript, and there were no online back-up systems available. 

A friend’s sister lived in the area and didn’t even have fifteen minutes.  They yelled for her to run, and she noticed her jewelry box, her photo album, and a coffee mug on her bedroom dresser. 

It wasn’t until she was at the bottom of the hill she noticed what was in her hand. 

The coffee mug.

Writing Prompts:

1.  What are your most prized possessions?  Why are they important to you?  Share the anecdotes or the backstories of these items.  Craft this into a personal essay if you can.

2.  In your most recent writing work, what is your protagonist’s most prized possessions? Write a scene about them.

3.  Create a poem about possessions and their importance, their weight, and the depth of their meaning or non-meaning to you.

Missed Opportunities

July 17, 2012

Several years ago, a friend had written a fiction manuscript which had an amazing voice.  I couldn’t wait for her to market it.  She sent the ms. out a few times to editors  and received standard rejections until finally she got a nibble. 

“You need to show more than tell in these chapters,” suggested the editor.  “But your writing is good.”  She went on to give more of a detailed critique of what the writer could do to improve the beginning of the story.

My friend, instead of being elated that she received A PERSONAL REJECTION (aka SUCCESS IS COMING!), she felt dejected.  How could the editor not love each and every word of her book?  This must mean she was a failure as a writer.  

She put the manuscript back into a drawer. 

“Why don’t you work on that book again?” I suggested to her recently. 

She lifted up her hands into the air,  helpless.  “It’s too late now.  The editor wouldn’t remember who I was, even if that editor was still at that publishing house.  The house might even have folded.” 

“So what?”  I said. 

“But I missed my chance.”

“It’s not too late,” I said.  “You still have the manuscript with the fabulous voice.  Rework it.   Even if the editor is now selling Tupperware, there are OTHER editors out there.  And you never even tried an agent.  Besides, maybe the editor still IS and editor after all.”

My friend nodded slowly; a light flickered in her eyes. 

Writing Prompts: 

1.  Write about a time you missed an opportunity or thought you had.

2.  Create a poem titled, Missed Opportunities.

3.  Sometimes we choose to say no to an opportunity that we think isn’t right for us.  This opens the door for something better.  Who knows?   My friend may have more maturity now to handle the rewrite and will come up with a better draft.   Write a piece (any form or genre) about another door opening to a more desirable turn of events.

Feel helpless in your writing?

July 9, 2012

A bird flew into our window the other morning.   He sat up after a few minutes and stared into space.  We set a plastic cap of water in front of him with some birdseed in case he needed refreshment.

Fortunately, after an hour of recovery he flew away.   

Writing prompt:

1.  When was the last time you suffered a shock; something that put you in a daze for awhile?  Write about this experience and how you reacted.  Did it change your behavior afterwards?

2.  Have you ever worried about someone or something that was totally out of your control?  Write about this situation. 

3.  Create a conflict for your protagonist making him feel helpless.  How does she/he reactThoughts?  Feelings?  When can he act to create a difference?

4.  Choose one of the bold printed words in this blog and write a story, poem, or personal experience based on it.

5.  Do you ever feel lost or helpless during your writing process?  Stuck when it comes to marketing your work?  Journal about your thoughts and feelings.  But recover as much as you can with positive thinking with support from your writing friends.  Thoughts create actions which promote good writing.  Remember, even the best, most successful writers have been lost in their process and have received many rejections.  Read Working Days; The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck .  It’s a fabulous look at how a remarkable writer wrote and viewed his process.   A couple of great quotes about writing:  

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult that it is for other people.”  Thomas Mann

“There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”   Red Smith

“Easy reading is hard writing.”  Anonymous

And remember,  Madeleine L’Engle’s  A WRINKLE IN TIME was turned down 29 times.

Line of Overheard Dialogue

July 2, 2012

Stepping outside my front door, I heard my neighbor say to her Poodle,  “Oh, Xena, I wish you weren’t a dog.” 

Although I laughed when I heard her say this, immediately characters in a story began performing in my mind based on this piece of dialogue. 

Talking with my neighbor, I discovered she, her husband and Xena were embarking on a trip.  Where could they eat that allowed Xena, too?   Many wouldn’t have outdoor seating so Xena would have to stay in the car. 

We writers have a rather impolite way of poking our noses into others’  lives.  I’ve been known to follow a couple around the block – – completely out of my way – – just so I could hear the rest of a conversation.  Snoopy?  You bet.  But for the right reason.  Sometimes you discover a line of dialogue or a character quirk that is just too good to pass up. 

Ever borrow traits from what you’ve heard and saw to plop into a character?   Of course you have.     Real people have appeared in my children’s books and sometimes unknown actors from old movies pop into my stories too.  At least they have physically.  It’s helpful to have a model of someone and then you can create the personality you need.  Like Franzen borrowing his brother’s family album hobby to add to one of his characters.  Learning about your characters are part of the fun of building a story.    Why not use a line of dialogue to help you start?

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write a story or poem that goes along with the line of dialogue I heard above.

2.  Hang out in a place where lots of people mill around.  A town square, mall, airport, or a park all are examples.  Lounge around with a notebook and overhear conversations.  Jot down dialogue for future inspiration. 

3.  Use one of the lines of dialogue you’ve heard recently to inspire a piece of writing or artwork. 

4.  Build a character from one flash of a real person.  It can be from a picture in a magazine, someone you barely know, or one trait from someone you know well.  (Just don’t use that whole person.)  Plop your character into scenes of conflict to see how your character will respond.