Terrytown's Library

Terrytown's Library
Raised in Terrytown, Louisiana

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Characters Have To Want Something

In order for your story to work, characters have to want something badly and you have to make it nearly impossible for that character to get it or to achieve her or his goal. You can start with the goal your character is trying to achieve or you can start with the first sentence method. Another good way is to start with a character.

I like to call this writing exercise, whose story do I want to write.
  • She likes to swim, but something has kept her out of the water or
  • She likes to swim and you can figure out this swimmer's story as you write it
My favorite writing exercise comes from Raymond Carver and it's a form of starting with the first sentence, I simply like the way Raymond put it in a publication called Fires. Natalie Goldberg talks about this in her Wild Mind book, a great book for aspiring fiction writers and non fiction writers to read. It's got great essays on writing and try this exercises.

Raymond Carver said in Fires that once he had the first sentence of a short story, he made the rest of the story as he made a poem, one line and then the next line, and the next. Now find a sentence that comes from you. It can be a simple line: "I fell in love with my life one Tuesday in August." Don't think further ahead than the next line. Don't think back. Just build that story. Let the structure of the story unfold, one sentence after another.

That's what I try to do, but sometimes the story needs something in order for you to see the end in sight, a goal for the character to achieve or not achieve. I call the first writing my initial piece or fragmented draft. It's what I write to meet my characters and to step my foot in their world. I only know the sentences I've written. I may or may not have an idea of the subject I'm writing about but I know that I can reread and write it over and over until I find something that makes the story work, something that allows me to move forward towards that final draft that I can finally submit to literary magazines or enter literary contests. Here are a few more problems for your character to solve.
  • Trying to get out of a particular situation
  • Wishing her friend could see that she's dating a jerk
  • Feeling like it's time to move
  • Wanting to change for your niece or nephew
And of course first sentences, which can be as simple as "I fell in love with my life one Tuesday in August."
  • The pool was closed again.
  • What she loved about summer was more than the freedom of not having to go to school everyday, it was visiting her dad.
  • She stared at the noisy children, wishing she'd taken the time to come up with a plan to settle these children down.
There are so many questions these first sentences provoke that "you can spend an entire story answering." A quote taken from Judy Budnitz from the book, You Must Be This Tall To Ride. It's a great book of short stories and writing advice. After each story, the writer talks about the story you just read and then offers a writing exercise.

Find a sentence that comes from you, or a sentence you feel connected to (something you heard or read somewhere and make it yours) and write the next sentence.

Next blog: music and fiction; art and fiction; etc. and writing. Using other art forms and your interests to write fiction stories.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Short Fiction


This is a link to my second blog. It's going to feature my fiction: scenes and sometimes whole stories. It'll be a companion to my blog about writing short fiction. Enjoy reading both blogs.

There Are Significant Moments in Everyone's Day...

Raymond Carver said, "There are significant moments in everyone's day that can make literature. That's what you ought to write." My question is always how. Begin with a first sentence or a title summing up that significant moment you want to base a story on.

The three year old was smiling just then, right after scowling just to ugly her beautiful face and make her look scary to her almost five month old niece.

This is a story I've been meaning to write but didn't know how. That first sentence made the moment come alive and the story felt real and reachable, like something I could write. There are the publicly known events that I want to base stories on.

She didn't want to watch him pack his bags again, didn't want to kiss him good-bye again, and then stare at the ring-less finger on her left hand.

This sentence asks the question, what about those left behind while their loved ones fight in a war, any war. Here's another one.

"Well, we went through Katrina and Rita; now God's testing us with this oil spill."

I love first sentences because I believe there are ideas in first sentences that can be explored in stories. Or, Judy Budnitz said, "A single sentence can set off a cascade of questions that you can spend an entire story answering." It's true. Read the questions that these first sentence provoke and then write a story to answer them.

Therapeutic shopping, she thought as she picked up a random blouse to go with the jeans she held, is expensive, but probably no more than a shrink.

The dog kept barking, like a tornado warning through her neighborhood, but that wasn't what was keeping her awake.

My boyfriend cheated on me again.

Sometimes I like to begin with a prompt like a word or phrase. Other times the prompt is, whose story do I want to write and what do I want to base a fiction story on. I try to keep going for as long as I can and then I rewrite and begin writing the first draft because the initial writing is a type of outline or what I call an outline. It gives me an idea or a glimpse of the story that I'm trying to write. And then, I keep going.

My boyfriend cheated on me again. He will ask for forgiveness like he always does. It's permission to cheat again, not a question of how do we try again to make what we're doing work. I called it a relationship but you wouldn't be treated like this in any kind of relationship you were in. You would ask me, "Is it now time to leave him." But, if you hadn't had left me, I wouldn't be stuck in sucky relationships like this. And, I do know it wasn't your fault, but in a way, it was. You kept going after bigger and better and I was right there with you, knowing that bigger and better meant more crimes. And all of a sudden I'm old. I'm not aged, just old in emotional experience, in love.

Take a significant moment in your day (either personal, public, or imagined) and write a story or scene based on it.

Happy writing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Imagine a character, a woman or man shopping at a baby store, and ask her or him questions.
  • Are you shopping for yourself or your wife?
  • Is it for your sibling or sibling's wife or girlfriend?
  • The wife or girlfriend you can't get along with you?
  • Are you jealous that you can't get pregnant or your wife or girlfriend can't get pregnant?
  • Do you want to be where you are?
Each question can be made into a short story.

It was a long day and she still needed to make it to the baby store before it closed tonight.

She looked at the baby register and tried to smile.

When writing a short story, you're answering a question, and, when writing a novel, you're answering several questions. You begin by exploring the possible answers.

Are there any questions you want answers to, those questions that don't seem to have answers? Questions about your personal life, about a public event you witnessed, some philosophical question you have.
  • Why did I survive?
  • Is he going to kill again before he gets caught?
  • Who is the couple living next door to me?
  • Will I finally heal?
Any question you ask can be answered in a short story. It's okay if you find your story answering an entirely different question than the one you used to inspire your story.

You can also use a TV show to inspire your fiction but make the story yours rather than write fan fiction. I've always wondered about Chandler's and Monica's life in the suburbs with newly adopted infant twins, who they watched being born. I'd create my own characters and ask:
  • Are you trying to get back to the city?
  • How are your friendships different?
  • What is it like being parents?
or cooking shows.
  • Why are you watching cooking shows?
  • Do you want to learn how to cook?
What are you curious about? The question doesn't have to be answerable.
  • Why is he killing his pregnant girlfriend or wife?
  • When am I going to get away?
I love writing stories but I hate feeling like I don't have anything to write about. My assignment is going to be to ask myself a question and answer it in a short story. This technique also works for writing memoirs and personal essays.
  • Why am I still working in retail with a college degree?
  • When and how can I get a better job?
  • What is more important, ending my single woman status or getting a better job?
I use a short story, personal essay or memoir to answer the questions I've come up with. I think that each story can answer one question just like each novel can answer several questions. Before you write a story ask yourself what you'd like to know. Any question, unless proven wrong, can be answered in a short story. If you've always had an idea for a story or a first draft or scene or some other fragment that you couldn't turn into a short story, you can ask a question.
  • Why did his French ex-girlfriend stop putting letters in his mailbox?
  • Why is she longing for a boy who doesn't seem to notice her?
  • Why is she becoming a hoarder?
  • Will he find his hanged son?
  • What happens to her and around her in her high school?
  • What is a model? (I'm addicted to America's Next Top Model)
Ask a question and use a story (fiction, memoir or personal essay) to answer the question.
  • What are the things I've seen my niece do so far?
  • What happened at my retail job when I wasn't there?
Writing Assignment: Ask a question and use a story to answer the question.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Begin With A First Sentence Part 2

It's important to get beyond the first sentence and the first scene, especially since I'd like to have a career as a fiction writer. When I get to the end of the first scene, I need to ask what happens next or what should happen next so I can get the first draft written and begin writing the second draft.

I recently read an article about writing outside of your genre. For me that would be essays and novels since I do write poetry. I've tried to write non fiction, though I never got beyond the first draft of an essay. I do understand that writing in different genres will help me get the writing career that I want. I asked myself if all experiences can be told as fiction or if some don't have plots and have to be told as nonfiction.

I read a few sentences of essays in a book called Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. What I liked about what I read was that the essays sounded like stories with characters. I like narratives, stories. I'm not a big fan of essays. I have to be drawn in for some reason and each of the essays I read drew me in. Essays don't always do that, but I am intrigued, especially with my niece turning four months this Thursday. I watch her change and grow and try to talk and turn over on her back from her stomach. I feel like I should be recording these moments, along with our moments for her to read. And perhaps you can only do that with nonfiction. And, in 2010, I feel like I'm the only one who hasn't written her Hurricane Katrina story. So, what am I so afraid of. I ask myself this every time I can't get passed the first scene or the first draft. What am I afraid of?

After the first scene I have to remember that I'm simply writing the first sentence of the second draft and I have to remind myself to keep going because I can always rewrite. In fact, I should rewrite. Continuing is what I'll do.

My assignment is to write a first sentence and keep going.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Begin With A First Sentence

"Can I have your number." I stared at the numbers my fingers were poised over, ready to start typing. A coworker told me customers spouted out their phone numbers easier when you didn't look directly at them.

"Only if I can have yours." The man smiled a leering smile and then laughed a little. I looked up at him, a white man with dark brown hair graying at the temples. A shopping cart was slightly behind him and a boy of about two or three was in the cart, his legs dangling beneath the handle bar. H leaned forward and said, "I do have my kid with me." He raised his left hand and showed me his wedding band. He laughed again.

I felt my mouth open wide as I wondered how I was supposed to deal with these men without losing customers, not that that was my problem if these men decided to find another store that sold infant and toddler products.

:Uh," I said, "it's if you ever need to return the tub and you lose your receipt.

"Nah, let's skip that," he said, waving his hand dismissively. I quickly typed in a bogus number using one of Atlanta's area codes and then quoted the total.

"He's cute," I said, as I waited for the receipts to finish printing. I was grabbing the square booklet of coupons when he said, "yeah, but what about my son."

He grabbed the bags I set on the counter and said, after putting them in the cart behind his son, "Maybe I'll come back. My wife always thinks our son needs more than he really does." He was grinning and shaking his head as he walked away.

I looked around for a supervisor to ask how to handle the situation if it should happen again, though that was the first time it happened in this particular retail store. The parents were usually preoccupied with finding things that their infant or toddler needed.

Right now this is just a scene based on a combination of customers I've had to deal with in the store I cashier in, but maybe I can expand the scene into a short story by focusing on the goals the characters are trying to accomplish. I have to separate the character from me, the author, separate the actually events and dialogue from the imagined actions, events and dialogue. I have to ask, what can happen, what are these characters trying to accomplish. And maybe the story should be told in third person rather than first person. Maybe even second person, like a poem, like the main character is addressing a particular customer or set of customers.

You come in my store with gross jokes that I try to ignore, glad that there aren't many of you.

That sounds accusing. I do believe that you can't be afraid of trying different ways of writing fiction stories.

Happy Writing

Monday, July 5, 2010

Writing A first Draft

What is needed to write a first draft. Since I've been struggling a little to write any kind of fiction, I'm going to look at each stage of writing a first draft as critically as possible.

I believe in reading the fiction you want to write. But, you need to be studying while you're reading. Pay attention to how the story began and why the writer chose to begin the story this way. Does it work and why does it or doesn't it work for you. Why did the author come up with the title she or he chose. Pay attention to each part of the story; the scenes and characters. But while you're reading, don't forget to write.

What will your inspiration for writing your fiction story be? You should have more than one way to get into a story.
I want to write a story about...is a good method to use because you have the premise of your fiction story. For instance, I want to write a story based on my relationship with a mother. And though short stories are my passion, I would love to write it as a novel. And perhaps each scene and or chapter should use the I want to write a method except substitute story for scene or chapter since each scene is a mini story. I think it will help you keep the story flowing.

Another method that I like to use is simply writing first sentences, especially when you're unsure of the story you want to write or of how to begin. You want a first sentence that makes you want to continue so you can answer the suggested question and find out what the sentence means.

My grandmother said...is a first sentence I thought of but I can only guess what it means until I begin to write the first draft.

I like any method that really gets you writing. Another method comes from a Raymond Carver quote, which is, "There are significant moments in everyone's day that can make literature. That's what you ought to write about." His stories are about simple things such as having dinner at a friend's house that the wife doesn't want to be a part of, but the story is full, making you want to read more of his stories. I love it when a good story can be told simply and interesting at the same time. What did you do or witness or dream about, etc. the previous day that can make literature? I had a great time at Stone Mountain for the Fourth of July and my aunt's birthday. I'm probably going to use the what if method. What if this happened instead or what if this was said instead of what actually was said? What if is a great way to start writing fiction stories.

And the next step finally is to write fiction. My other favorite method is to use writing prompts. Here are a few.
  • Choose a holiday, but don't write a stereotypical holiday story
  • Finish the statement My grandmother said...
  • I want to write a story about...
Good writing

At the moment I'm trying or struggling to write my personal essays for MFA programs and I don't know why I'm having a difficult time.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Regular Writing Routine

It's the first of the month, the time I always give myself to evaluate what I've done so far and how far I've come and what more I can do. I'm starting to realize the importance of having a routine writing schedule. You can easily evaluate yourself on a daily basis by quickly seeing what you've done. You're not always trying to write on the fly. You're taking it as seriously as you would a job. You go to work at a certain time, for a certain amount of time, not on a whim or when you want to.

I read an article about a woman who wanted to be comedian. She actually was already funny, but what she did in order to earn a living at doing what she loved was to treat it like a job instead of a dream. She's already dreamed it and now she needed to make it work. If writing is job and not simply a dream, what are the things that I need to do in order to get paid in both exposure, experience and money.

1)We all go to work at a certain time for a certain amount of time. I can't go to work and claim retail block so I shouldn't claim writer's block. I should work through it as best I can. I think for me my writing time will be to get up when I wake up and I wake up early, no matter what time I go to bed. I did it when I lived in Connecticut, so I should be able to do it here in Decatur. 2) At work, there's always something to do; ring up a customer's purchases, straighten up shelves, return items to their proper sections and shelves; it should be the same for writing. I should always have something to work on, always have a project going; whether it's from the beginning, somewhere in the middle, I'm just ending it or I'm starting all over; I always need to be working on a fiction story. 3) The other thing the woman in the article did was to invest in learning her craft, which for her including getting an education. I need to research this and find my best way to learn my craft. What will my education be?

I've been looking into Masters of Fine Arts programs, but I do know that there are other ways. I've taken fiction writing classes and workshops; but I would like to take it further, really immerse myself in my writing. And this means working hard by studying hard for that GRE, getting stories written, as well as the essay and searching for people who are willing to write positive recommendation letters for me. I've asked former teachers already and have only gotten one response and she said no. I've even tried classes. I don't really have another method, but I need to find one so that I can make it happen. First I need to figure out what is important when it comes to applying to an MFA program.

I like the programs that don't require GRE scores, but I also like funding and some schools will provide funding for everyone they accept and that's what I need, although a few people told me don't worry about that. I've had instructors tell me to only go to schools that provide full funding. You are there to be completely immersed in writing so you shouldn't really have to worry about paying for it. Once I figure out what's truly important, I can begin applying by September. I've actually already started applying to one school. I just need the proper documents.

Go forth. Don't just recognize your dream, apply yourself and make it happen.