Tag Archives: creative writing prompts

4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?

 

Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?

 

Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.

 

Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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How to Save Your Darlings, Not Kill Them

26 Feb

Everyone who has taken a writing workshop has, at some point, heard the advice, “Kill your darlings.” A lot of very confident writers have said or supposedly said it: Hemingway, Faulkner and Welty are just a few. Through repetition, the maxim has acquired the solidity of one thing that young writers often desire most: a rule to follow. Sometimes it’s even true. But even more often, you pick up a book you love and see example after example of lines that must have been precious to the author.

–Read the entire essay—with exercises based on work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Gibson, and J. D. Salinger—at the Austin American Statesman.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How I Learned to Love (and Learn From) My Kids’ Favorite Books

23 Feb

When my wife and I decided to have kids, we felt pretty sure that they would grow to love reading as much as we did. Even before our oldest son was born, he was getting a taste for literature. In bed at night, I read Tom McCarthy’s weird, avant-garde novel REMAINDER aloud to my wife’s pregnant belly. It was our version of playing Mozart. We didn’t expect that it would make our baby a literary genius, but it was a way to talk to him in a language we loved. Sure enough, when the nurses were drying and weighing, the nurse said, “Say something, Dad,” and so I spoke. Xavier turned his head toward me. The nurse nodded. “He recognizes your voice.”

–Read the entire essay about what I’ve learned from my kids’ favorite audiobooks at the wonderful writer Samantha M. Clark’s blog.

 

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

My Book Has a Cover!

30 Jan

One of the things I’ve always admired A Strange Object (beyond the inventive, smart story collections they have published) is the beautiful covers they create for their books. I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. Now it’s official:

The cover was created by Austin-based artist and set designer Lisa Laratta. She actually built the topographical feature in the image. On the back of the book, the image wraps around and continues. It’s a cover that speaks to the explorative nature of the book, investigating the types of fiction that can be written. It also reminds me of the maps my wife and I have used when hiking in New Mexico and the maps I used to pore over when my father went to the local federal office to register his CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) ground; the acres withdrawn from crop production and reserved for grassland had been shaded in by hand with colored pencil by my father. Even though I knew every part of the farm, seeing those same fields from a different perspective made me realize how much there was to discover about it. It’s the same way I feel about reading great fiction in order to expand my skill as a writer.

To learn more about The Writer’s Field Guide and to pre-order the book, click here.

 

 

4 Strategies for Creating Compelling Characters

23 Jan

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” Buy the book here.

Last week, Austin experienced two days of real winter, which meant my 6 and 8-year-olds had no school. Because it was cold and icy, playing outside wasn’t any fun, so we did what anyone would do: watched movies and built medieval siege equipment out of pencils. They both really wanted to watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of the sex jokes, so instead I introduced them to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, and so I was surprised at how corny it is. It wasn’t just the special effects (skeletons that look like Halloween decorations); the plot is pretty silly as well. But that didn’t matter. The movie holds up, and my kids loved it, because Harrison Ford creates a captivating character. We would have watched him in any movie—and throughout the 80s and 90s, American audiences did.

The movie was a reminder that if you can create a great character, the rest of the story often falls into place. Or, at the very least, the story gets easier to tell.

You can find four exercises designed to create captivating characters in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They exercises are inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: the novels The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales and Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and the stories “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus and “Proving Up” by Karen Russell.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Create Characters with a Single, Definitive Trait, inspired by The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A DEFINING TRAIT. It can be something physical like size, hair color, or an odd body part; in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops, as everyone remembers, has one eye. You can make the trait behavioral: a tic or disorder (as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a pattern of behavior (laughing at the worst moments), or a temperament (rage, kindness). You can also use a piece of clothing or accessory; everyone knows that the Monopoly man has a cane and top hat.

 

Make Your Characters Into Something New, inspired by Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

  1. IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF CHARACTER. It’s no secret that characters fall into types: heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, detectives/ criminals, butt-kickers/butt-kickees, and lovers/love interests. Think about the role your character plays. Is she the one going on a trip? The stranger coming to town? For just a moment, think about your story in terms of those outlines we’re all familiar with. Which one are you writing?

 

Define Your Character’s Emotional Response to Conflict, inspired by “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus

  1. SKETCH THE OUTLINES OF THE CHARACTER’S CONFLICT. Marcus’s story uses the genre of apocalypse. People on earth are dying in seemingly large numbers. Not much else is revealed—and we don’t need much else. People are dying, and the living are searching for ways to survive. That’s the conflict. So, begin by stating your story’s own conflict in a sentence or two: _____ is happening, and this causes ____ to happen. This structure works for intimate conflicts as well as apocalyptic ones:

X had an affair, so Y ____.
X got sick, so Y ____.
X owed me money, so I ____.
X fell in love with Y, and Y _____.
X did ___, and so her best friend Y ____.

 

Generate Tension by Giving Characters Unequal Access to an Object of Desire, inspired by “Proving Up” by Karen Russell

  1. IDENTIFY THE OBJECT OF DESIRE. The object is often named in the title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lord of the Rings, The Goldfinch. Or the object is implied by the genre: love, vengeance, the solution of a mystery. In most cases, the object is set before a character as a prize, but it’s only over time that the object gains personal importance to the character. This is especially true in mysteries: someone gives the detective a job, and at some point, that job becomes personal. (Sometimes there’s even a line: “Now it’s personal!”). So, even if the object seems a bit dry at the start, you’re at least giving yourself something to work with, a direction to point your character in.

 

Put these strategies to use, and you may have the next Indiana Jones at your fingertips.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

How to Keep Readers From Skimming Over Your Passages about Setting

11 Jan

Pre-orders available now.

I’ve always felt conflicted about the term “page turner.” I love thrilling novels as much as the next person and remember lying on the mattress on the floor of my bare-walled college apartment one summer, reading the latest Harry Potter novel until about four in the morning. But as much as I love dying to know what will happen, I just as equally loathe when I’m so compelled to reach the end that I start flipping ahead. That’s the wrong sort of page-turner. At the very least, the prose ought to hold your eye to every word.

The passages most likely to get skimmed by readers are descriptions of setting—and for good reason. Done badly, they are mere lists of adjectives and florid metaphors. Readers skim them because they don’t do anything. “Yes,” we think, “we get it: the mountains are tall and pretty. Now, move it along.”

The best writers can make descriptions of setting as interesting and compelling as the drama that follows. The trick is learning how to do it yourself.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from one novel and three stories: “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are is step one for each exercise:

Take a Tour, inspired by “Pomp and Circumstances” by Nina McConigley

  1. IDENTIFY THE MOTIVE FOR THE TOUR. The character leading the tour may have a destination in mind. Or the tour might be a way to kill time until some scheduled or expected moment. In McConigley’s case, the tour leads to both: a destination where Larson will make his request. This intention, or motive, is crucial. Without it, the characters are simply wandering around.

 

 

Break Setting into Neighborhoods, inspired by “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A NEIGHBORHOOD TO INHABIT. To start, choose a common term (downtown, suburbs, etc.) that broadly applies to the neighborhood where your character lives, works, or spends time. Imagine that the character (or someone else) is explaining the location of this neighborhood. What phrase or term would be used? Not every character will necessarily use the same term. People who live downtown often view anything beyond their borders as the suburban hinterland, but people living outside of downtown will say things like, “I’m only 10 minutes from downtown,” suggesting that the suburbs are farther out. What does your character (and others) call your character’s neighborhood?

Give Setting a Human Geography, inspired by Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER BEHAVIOR TO OBSERVE. Just as people who buy cars or have babies tend to pay close attention to other cars and other parents with babies, all people/characters tend to notice certain behaviors more than others. The question is this: What concerns are on your character’s mind? Someone who just bought a car, for example, is worried about buying the best/cheapest/safest one. What decision has your character made or what decisions must the character make on a daily basis? The rationale for those decisions will likely cause the character to notice people with the same rationale or, perhaps, who make different choices.

Manipulate Characters with Setting, inspired by “Waiting for Takeoff” by Lydia Davis

  1. START WITH A PRONOUN. Davis’ story begins with we. It’s impersonal; we could be anyone. By the end of the sentence, it’s clear that the identity of we is wholly contingent on the setting. We are the people on the airplane. Nothing else about them matters. So, give yourself a pronoun: we, he, she, us, they, it. Don’t use a name. Avoid nailing down details for now. The point is to give your story a warm body, nothing more.

 

Setting should be more than a backdrop. The best writers find ways to bring setting and drama together, forcing them to interact.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

How to Start and Keep Writing After a Long Break

5 Jan

Publication Date: February 27, 2018. Pre-orders available now by clicking here.

It’s the start of a new year, a time when dormant writing projects are taken out of drawers and dusted off and new projects are finally started. You feel as though you only need to reach out and grab the book out of the ether. Then, of course, reality sets in. You stare at the void of the blank page, and it stares back. Soon, you remember an errand that needs to be run, some housework that has been put off, a work email that needs to be answered, and before long the book has returned to the drawer.

Starting a project and continuing to write often requires a set of exercises designed to get words on the page. Give yourself enough of those words, enough images and interesting situations, and eventually your writing brain will take over.

You can find four exercises designed to do just that in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They’re inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: “The Heart” by Amelia Gray, “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton, Jam on the Vine by Lashonda Katrice Barnett, and Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett. These stories and novels are as different from one another as night and day, which means they offer very different but highly accessible approaches to setting up a situation and giving it the opportunity to grow into story.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Drop an Elephant into the Room, inspired by “The Heart” by Amelia Gray

  1. FIND YOUR ELEPHANT. Because there are in nite possibilities for a story’s elephant, there are likely in nite ways to nd them. Let’s try two. First, dig into obsessions. Here’s a good way to identify them: imagine…you’re a guest on your favorite podcast. What are you talking about? If it’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross (not really a podcast, I know, but it’s where I fantasize myself being interviewed), then you’re probably talking about your life and childhood and where you come from. But the podcast could center on some aspect of pop culture—like Back to the Future Minute, the daily podcast that discusses the lm Back to the Future one minute at a time. (Yes, such a podcast really exists.) Almost all stories follow the writer’s interests or sensibilities. What are yours? Make a list. Brainstorm. Then pick one and search within it for some object (specific, tangible) to use as your elephant.

Give Your Characters What They Wish For, inspired by “Lazarus Dying” by Owen Egerton

  1. IDENTIFY WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS. This should always be one of the first steps to writing a story. The only thing more boring than a character getting what she wants is a character sitting in a chair, not wanting anything. Most stories revolve around desires for common things: love, vengeance, money, possessions, security, certainty, self-validation (the ability to say, “I told you so”), or the resolution to some unresolved matter. Lazarus and his sisters desire life—and, more broadly, an escape from death and suffering. What does your character want? What keeps your character up at night?

Let a Character Respond to an Expected Scene, inspired by Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

  1. FIGURE OUT YOUR STORY’S EXPECTED SCENE. To do this, think about the premise of your story. If it involves ghosts, there will be an encounter with a ghost, right? If it’s a war story, someone’s going to kill or get killed. In a coming-of-age story, a character will be humiliated or embarrassed. Immigrant stories and American-abroad stories usually involve a moment of cultural difference, ignorance, or miscommunication. What is a scene that is promised by your premise? These scenes are usually the reason people want to read your type of story. Readers want to see encounters with ghosts. What do they want to see happen in your story?

Turn a Premise into Drama, inspired by Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett

  1. IDENTIFY THE SOURCE OF DANGER IN THE PREMISE. For many stories, this should be simple. If there’s a villain, you’ve found your danger. If something can be broken (contract, relationship, trust), there’s got to be a character who acts as the bull in the china shop. If someone doesn’t play by the rules (whatever the rules are), that person is the agent of danger. In Everett’s novel, the risk comes from the drug-dealing neighbor. He and his brother are the ones who will likely do something bad. So, ask yourself, who in your story has the potential to behave badly?

In this first section of the book, we’ll examine some of these skills and how great writers put them to work. They might not seem glamorous at first, but they’re the basic building blocks of the artistic vision. Learn these skills, and you’ll always have them at your fingertips, even when your artistic vision feels lost or dimmed.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

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