Wednesday, June 29, 2011

8 Writing Prompts

If you’re feeling particularly stuck lately, try some writing prompts to help jog your brain over to Storyville.

Here are a few prompts that I’ve used as a warm-up before a writing session:

Write a 15-word sentence about the most vivid dream you’ve had lately.

You’ve struggled financially for most of your life. Your wealthy aunt has passed away and left you with six figures. In order to get the money, you must fulfill an obligation in your aunt’s will. What is it and will you do it?

Think of your favorite song and write the lyrics that usually stick to your head. Write a short story (about two paragraphs) using most of the words in the song and its main theme.

Write your favorite childhood memory, describing the setting, characters, and emotions in the memory.

You wake up in a wooded area with garden gnomes and animals standing over you, each planning a different way to kill you. Write this scene.

Write a letter apologizing to someone you bullied in your past. Include specific names you called that person and the most humiliating moment you put them through.

In the middle of the night, you receive a mysterious phone call telling you that something awful has happened to one of your friends. What is it and what are you going to do?

Choose a fictional character and pretend you have to “walk a day in this person’s shoes.” Write about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What To Look For In A Critique Partner

You’ve finished the first draft of your screenplay, novel, television script, or picture book. You know that it’s not “done”. Ernest Hemingway’s quote, “the first draft of anything is shit” keeps rolling around in your head. You know you need a fresh pair of eyes to go over your writing and give you feedback that will improve the first draft. I have a couple people I usually turn to when I need help with my revisions.

There were some readers in the past who didn’t quite offer much insight, but there are a couple (that I still go to) who always take their time and send me excellent notes. If you’re considering sending your manuscript to a reader, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

1. Is this person an avid reader? Those who read voraciously will have a better sense of story and structure, which will enable them to give you more substantial notes.

2. Is this person reliable? Sure, you might have a blast hanging out with them, but will they deliver what they promised? Does this person have a history of flaking out? If so, find someone else.

3. Is this person constructive and respectful? Even though this is your first draft, it’s still your baby. You spent a lot of time with this project and your characters, developing their world, and deepening your connection to it. I have found that those who understand and appreciate this connection are able to give more constructive feedback, remaining respectful of you as the writer.

4. Is this person insightful? It would be ideal to find a reader who understands narrative structure, and is also a naturally creative thinker. There have been several times when my readers would open up a new way of approaching a scene or character that got me out of a funk or helped me liven up something that felt too flat.

It may take a while to find a critique partner that suits your personality and professional needs, but hopefully, these questions will get you started on finding your story soulmate. And remember, you don’t have to take all their notes into account…it’s still your story after all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It All Starts With One Word

Sometimes, ending a novel or story is the easy part, while the hard part is starting. You essentially have an opportunity to grab the reader’s attention and make her want to continue reading with the first sentence. That’s a lot of pressure.

I read all kinds of books—memoirs, thrillers, fantasy, middle grade, young adult, graphic novels, non-fiction, etc. I love almost every genre and truly believe that opening yourself to different kinds of storytelling will help you as a writer. In reading various genres, I have come to appreciate the way the writers hook you in with their opening line. The first sentence sets the mood, giving you an organizational cue as to what genre you’re reading.

A great beginning may not guarantee a bestseller, but it increases the chances of a reader purchasing your book. How do we hook our readers? We are not just writers—we are readers too! Think about the kinds of beginnings that draw you in.

Here are three ways that other books spark my interest:

Invoking Mystery

Some writers begin with a pronoun (“He heard a woman’s scream”) or placing the character in a bizarre setting (“Alice woke up in a white, windowless room”). Immediately, you have an uneasy feeling when you read both opening lines. Who is this man that heard a woman’s scream? Did anyone else hear it? Is he a killer? Has he been captured? You know nothing about this man, other than the fact that he heard something dreadful…what is it and will we learn more?

The second opening line makes you wonder who Alice is, where she is, and how she got there. Will she ever get out of this room? Who put her there and why?

Some examples of opening lines that invoked a sense of mystery for me:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“I am an invisible man.” - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

“It was a woman’s bedroom, actually a boudoir, and no man belonged in it except by invitation.” - Kathleen Winsor, Star Money

“We have been lost to each other for so long.” – Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

Springing Into Action

An effective way to start a story is to begin in the middle of the action. That way, you cut out too much of the “introduction” and get to the good stuff. In fact, I’ve had a few editors tell me that after writing your first draft, it would spice up your story to actually cut out the first chapter and start with your second. Another way to start with action is to begin with dialogue so that your reader is thrown right into the middle of a conversation.

Here are a couple opening lines that grabbed my attention because of the beginning action or dialogue:

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned towards her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

Looking Back

I’ve been drawn to stories that begin with a teasing hook that tell me an amazing story is about to be revealed. These are generally written as a memory, something in the past that still plagues the character enough to unfold their story.

I really like how Stephen King does this in

“The terror, which would not end for another 28 years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writing With A Partner

Writing is almost always challenging, especially if you’re writing something a bit foreign to you…whether it’s a feature drama, a children’s picture book, or a short film. That’s why writing with a partner attracted me to write two things I had never done before: a feature comedy screenplay and an animated web series.

I’m not a strong joke writer and I knew I needed someone who had punchier lines to help me with a feature comedy. When I approached Jessica a good friend of mine who’s naturally funny with an idea for a feature, I was a bit nervous. Would this affect our friendship? I had never written with anyone before, but I really felt like we could do this together, and that we could do it well.

Jess said yes and seemed very excited about it. We met up at a local coffee shop to talk about our characters and write descriptions for them. The next few sessions were devoted to our outline and eventually, our beat sheet. We met up once or twice a week to start writing the screenplay. I typed it out while we literally talked through each scene. There were several times when I wasn’t sure if an idea or a joke was funny, so just running it by my partner and getting feedback was good progress.

Although we finished writing the screenplay months ago, I wanted to get Jess’s opinion on what it was like working with a partner. Whenever the subject of writing with someone else comes up, I share my experiences so I thought I’d get some insight from the two talented people I worked with.

Here’s what Jessica had to say:

“For the most part, I am someone who prefers to work alone. So when I decided to write a screenplay with a close friend of mine, I was uneasy about how the process would work. How would we be productive? What if we didn't agree on things? What if we hated each other's ideas? I really didn't know how it would work, but we had an idea worth writing, so I decided to give it a try.

“I was amazed at how well we worked together. We spent a few sessions just going over characters and a general outline. Then we came back and broke that down into a beat sheet. Before we knew it, we had a full screenplay sitting in front of us, just waiting to be written.

“It really was a flawless system. Sometimes we would get stuck on a joke and then would bounce ideas back and forth, drawing on each other's creativity, until eventually our mediocre joke transformed into something really funny.

“After writing an entire screenplay with a partner, I would happily do it again. I do think that the types of personalities are important though, and perhaps with someone else I may not have meshed as well. So, if you can find the right hard-working, dedicated, open-minded individual to write with, I say go with it! “

I also wanted to get some feedback from Molly, who is someone I often develop lots of film and television concepts with but we had never actually written something together. Since learning more about transmedia and seeing how popular web series had gotten, we decided to write an animated web series for women. We figured six webisodes would be a good start for the first season. Starting off with character profiles and springboards, we later split the writing in half: I would write three webisodes and Molly would write the other three. This process was a lot different than writing everything single thing together like I did with Jess.

After we had written everything, we sent each other our work for story editing. At first, we had different visions for a couple of the characters, but after a few meetings, we found ourselves on the same page again…

Once we shared the same vision, we met up and went through each webisode together, tightening dialogue, punching up the jokes, and making sure every scene flowed well and all the characters were true to form.

Here’s what Molly thought about writing our animated web series with me!

“Writing with a partner is a great way to meet deadlines and stay motivated. For me, this has always been a problem. However, since working with Lorna, I get things done when I say I will (most of the time!). Finding the right partner is really important. Try to find someone who complements your weaknesses and has a similar style of writing.

“For me, procrastination and motivation can be a problem. I talk myself out of problems instead of working through them. Lorna doesn't let me give up when we hit a roadblock. On the flip side, I find that one of my strengths is writing dialogue, so once we have the beat sheet (which I don't enjoy doing!) we are ready to go!

“Be honest, but objective. If you don't like something, figure out why. If you just try to be "nice" to each other all the time, you really aren't doing each other any favors. Before you start writing, make sure you have the same vision in mind. Use references to other shows, movies, plays, etc. to make sure you are headed the same direction stylistically.

“Also, sometimes you have to let the little things go. Unless you are adamant about a particular element in the script that perhaps your partner hasn't captured or gotten exactly the way you imagine, let it go. As in life, when writing with a partner, you must choose your battles wisely.”

And, for the record, I would absolutely write with both Jess and Molly again. Both experiences were fantastic…I learned a lot about what my strengths and weaknesses are and was encouraged to think about things in different ways. Writing with a partner can really open you up to other possibilities, which only enriches your own writing.