Choose a place that you know well, which you have strong feelings about. Describe that place, first when you are in a happy mood. (10 minutes) Then describe the place when you are in a sad mood. (10 minutes)
What difference did you note?
Writing exercise: (30 minutes)
What is described in a particular setting often depends upon the point of view of the story. Describe a real park you have visited, first in the first person point of view through the eyes of a young man or young woman in love (15 minutes), and then through the eyes of an old widow or widower (15 minutes).
What differences in setting did you notice, even though it was the same park?
The purpose of these exercises is to realize that setting is never neutral. Setting descriptions are subjective. So your setting should always evoke a mood. Think of your setting as another character. The setting should help us feel the mood of the scene you are describing. If there is conflict in the scene, then the setting should be described harshly, in a way that evokes the harshness of the moment. If the scene is a warm scene, with love, then the setting should reveal that warmth.
About Josh Barkan
Josh Barkan is the author of MEXICO. Josh Barkan has won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia. For writing advice from Barkan and other top-notch short story writers, download Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.
You’ve made it! You’ve written stories all month long — whether you’ve written every day, or on and off throughout the month — I congratulate you!
Make sure to come back tomorrow for three things
The June Serious Writers’ Accountability Group — make your commitment to your writing for next month
Details about StoryFest — your chance to get your favorite story featured on the front page of StoryADay.org
The mini-critique group I’m running next week, to help you whip your stories into shape in time for StoryFest.
But before all that: one more story to go:
Write A Story About A Writer
Feel free to take out your aggressions on me! Feature a writer who turns on their teacher/mentor/professor!
Channel Stephen King’s “Misery” and feature a stalker.
Take the reader through all the goys and perils of the writing journey
Or use the conceit of a writer character to do something that couldn’t really happen in real life.
And after you’re done, write a blog post or a journal entry capturing all you’ve learned about yourself as a writer this month. Resolve to build on your strengths. Keep what you write somewhere safe, so that next time you have a big writing push coming up, you can benefit from all these lessons!
If you share your post online, be sure to send me a link (in the comments below or by email) or tag me on social media!
And don’t forget, StoryFest is coming, June 10-11!
Thank you all for playing along this month. Without you, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
A TV critic took issue with the latest episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock, complaining that our hero was more James Bond than Conan Doyle’s Holmes. The episode’s writer wrote a response in verse, then the critic wrote back with his own poem. BUT, in the last couple of lines of the poem, he pointed out that he had embedded a hidden message in his words (the second letter of the first word of every line spelled it out).
I was so tickled that I’m stealing the idea (which he stole from Conan Doyle, so I don’t feel bad).
Write a story with a hidden message
You could make the first letter of every sentence spell out a message.
You could make the first/second/third/last word of every sentence add up to a secret message.
You should probably start by writing out your secret message and then figuring out the rest of the words in your story, so it fits!
This will force you to break all the normal rules of your process of storytelling. Don’t be afraid. Be bold. At the very least you’ll learn something about your process!
In James Blish’s Surface Tension (which I reviewed recently), the author took the idea of space travel and did something a bit different with it: instead of humans arriving on a new planet and terraforming it to suit themselves, they genetically-engineer versions of humanity that would thrive on the planet.
Now that’s what I call ‘subverting reader expectations’. But it’s still a satisfying story that sticks to the rules of an off-planet adventure story (lots of ‘wonder’ and new environments, inter-personal conflict, conflict with the environment, bad guys, a struggle to unite the ‘good’ forces and to survive. Even a little romance.)
Today’s writing prompt is ripped straight from my 6th Grader’s homework folder, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.
I’m steeped in (as well as 6th Grade homework) Lisa Cron’s fabulous latest book Story Genius, in which she makes the compelling point that you cannot begin to tell your character’s story until you know about their past.
It’s a delightfully obvious (and surprisingly overlooked) observation that ought to be front and center in every writing class. So here we go.
In the story, a man visits his elderly parents. A chance remark reminds him of an incident in his childhood where he was clearly in the wrong, and someone else suffered.
Without being heavy handed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie allows her character to reminisce, taking us through a bright moment in a child’s life, before showing the act the man would later regret. There is very little commentary, just lush scene-painting and evocation.
Write a story inspired by one of your regrets
Write this story using a nugget from your own past: an act or words of which you were later ashamed.
Alternatively, combine a story you heard from someone else with the emotions you felt when you did something wrong.
Don’t use this as a vehicle to feel sorry for yourself, now. Rather, use your experiences to conjure up for the reader the feelings, the physical experience of your shame.
Don’t write this autobiographically (unless you really love memoir). Give your feelings to another character.
Consider giving the feelings of shame to a character who is very unlike you, and see how they would react to facing the consequences of their own actions.
Try to not consciously teach the reader a lesson. Instead, explore the experience and let them draw their own conclusions.
Try to evoke the experience of doing something you know to be wrong, getting caught, or getting away with it but regretting it anyway, in ways that a reader might recognize from their own experience (that’s why I suggest focusing on the physical reactions).
If the point of storytelling is to connect with other readers, sometimes its our worst experiences that give us the vivid emotional memories that allow us create a vivid story.
It’s Write On Wednesday Day! (That’s really clumsy. I’m going to have to never do that again!)
The Nov/Dec/Jan holiday season is fast approaching. I know you don’t want to think about it, but if you’re interested in putting out a short story for the holidays, this is actually kind of last minute.
Publications have long lead times for date-specific stories, so if your holiday stories aren’t already written, now’s the time. Magazines and online pubs LOVE themed stories (Christmas stories; New Year issues; Thanksgiving horror stories!).
Or perhaps you’d like to create a story for friends and family to say thanks for all their support (or: na-na-na-na-na-na-you-see-I-wasnt-lying-around-watching-daytime-TV-all-year).
Write a story tied to a Nov/Dec/Jan holiday
You can use this to flesh out characters from a longer work in progress.
You can include characters from your real life.
You can use this as a calling card/thank you note/Christmas letter if you send holiday greetings cards
Don’t feel it has to be a narrative story. One of the delights of the short story form is that it can be much more than that. Consider writing a list of holiday gifts your character has to buy, complete with passive-aggressive commentary; or a series of increasingly frantic tweets from the Thanksgiving dinner table…
Create a compelling character and set them in a ridiculous situation, or a ridiculous character and put them in a banal situation.
Have fun with this. Amuse yourself. Remember, nobody ever has to see this story, so you can be as cruel or as kind as you like!
This month’s theme, here at StoryADay is “Accountability”.
(If you haven’t yet declared your goals for the month, leave a comment in this month’s SWAGr post and tell us what you’re going to do with your writing for the rest of this month)
Today’s writing prompt includes a built-in accountability trigger.
Contact a friend, right now, and tell them that you’re going to write a short story in the next 24 hours. Tell them you’ll send it to them, or at least check in when you’re finished. Then, write 500-750 words about a character you think that friend will love (or love to hate)
Keeping the story super-short gives you a better chance of finishing it
Focusing on your friend (someone you know well) helps you winnow the choices. What will THEY enjoy? (Too much choice is paralyzing. Eliminate every possible character or situation that wouldn’t interest this particular friend. Then start writing)
Remember that a short story revolves around a single moment in which something changes for your character.
The moment can have happened just before the story starts (in which case you’re dealing with the aftermath and the character’s choices about how to deal with it)
The moment can happen at the end, when we know enough about your character to be able to predict how they’ll react (or at least enjoy wondering)
The moment can happen in the middle, in which case you get a chance to show us the before and the after.
With such a short story you don’t have much room for backstory. Write it as bare as you can. You can punch it up with details and dual meanings, as you re-read and re-write it.