[Write On Wednesday] Specific to Universal

The best stories move from the specific to the universal (or vice versa).

Flash fiction is a wonderful venue for practicing the short-story skill of moving from the specific to the universal.

Stories relate a specific event happening to a specific individual and how it affects them. The best stories also contain ideas that apply to the wider world: to you, to me, to society.

The Prompt

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] Specific to Universal”

[Write On Wednesday] Make It Flash

This month at StoryADay we’re all about Flash Fiction!

Flash Fiction image

Flash fiction is loosely defined as being between 250 and 1200  words long, but it is so much more than that.

The best description of Flash Fiction I’ve ever seen goes like this: Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] Make It Flash”

[Write on Wednesday] Through The Keyhole

This month at StoryADay, I’m focusing on Flash Fiction. Be sure to check in  regularly and follow me on Twitter.

A novel invites the reader to explore an entire house, down to snooping in the closets; a short story requires that the reader stand outside of an open window to observe what’s going on in a single room; and a short short requires the reader to kneel outside of a locked room and peer in through the keyhole.

Bruce Holland Rogers
(2013-02-25). The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Let’s take Bruce at his word.

The Prompt

Imagine you’re looking through a big, old-fashioned keyhole, into a room. Write a story of fewer than 1000 words, about what you can see

Tips

  • Think of this as a way of reducing the events of whatever is going on in the room to the moment.
  • Use powerful imagery and strong verbs to narrate the story and make it ‘flash’.
  • In a story this short you probably only have room for one or two characters.
  • A story this short can only focus on one moment/event.
  • Use dialogue to convey information. Hint at backstory with tone and word choice.
  • When you have finished your first draft (and therefore know what the story is about) go back and work on your opening lines

Leave a comment below, letting us know how you got on with this prompt, or what ideas it sparked for you.

[Write On Wednesday] All Writing Is Rewriting

Write Me
Sticking with this month’s theme of Getting You Writing and Breaking Blocks, today’s prompt shares another technique for quieting your inner perfectionist: stealing a story from someone else.

Rewriting a classic story, reworking a story of your own, or just stealing the plot of a folk tale, means there’s one less thing to worry about: plot. Writing this way lets you concentrate on other aspects of your writing:

  • Playing with character
  • Concentrating on your voice
  • Messing with Point of View
  • Trying out unconventional/non-narrative forms of storytelling

The Prompt

Rewrite a story (yours or someone else’s)

Tips

  • Remember that if you’re rewriting a story for publication, you’ll need to be careful you’re not infringing anyone’s rights. Best to stick with classic folk tales, for this. Or, if you’re just writing for your own amusement, infringe away 😉
  • Think about rewriting a story from a secondary character’s point of view. Why do the events of the story matter to them? How do they interfere with this character’s life?
  • Remember that stories don’t need to be told in the right order. In a short story, you don’t even need the beginning, middle and end to all happen within the story. One of them can be implied.
  • In short fiction every word counts. Don’t worry about this too much on a first draft, by try to keep it in mind as you choose how you describe events and scenes. For example, instead of ‘he ate two cheeseburgers, hungrily’ try ‘he inhaled the first cheeseburger, put the second away with workmanlike efficiency’. Notice how ‘making every word count’ doesn’t mean writing fewer words. Don’t you feel you know more about how the scene looked, from the second example?
  • If you need a resource for folk tales to steal, try the University of Pittsburgh’s archive.

[Write on Wednesday] Story Starter

Starting can be the hardest part of writing a story, so this week I’m giving you an opening line, to break through that block.

I’ve written before about opening lines and how important they are to a story, so don’t think that this opening line has to be your story’s opening line forever. In fact, these Wednesday prompts are designed to get you writing and often result in throwaway tales, rather than works of art, but the point is: you’re writing.

Read more about opening lines here (listen to the podcast version, here).

The Prompt

She had never understood why anyone would want a tattoo.

Tips

  • You can change the gender pronouns to suit your preferences
  • You can change the POV and voice of the piece
  • Think about setting a timer and just seeing where the story takes you
  • Or think about a character and their wants/needs before you start writing
  • You might want to think about the climax/midpoint of a story about a character like this, and write towards it
  • Will you character end up getting a tattoo? Understanding why people want them? Being tattooed against her will?

Feel free too share here, in the comments.

[Write On Wednesday] Word Salad

Sometimes lowering the stakes for a story can be the best way to make your writing go well.

So let’s play. Let’s be silly. Let’s write a story that can’t possibly be a masterpiece and just, instead, have some fun.

How? I’m going to give you a list of words and you’re going to write a story using them. I’d love it if you’d post your story in the comments, so we can all compare notes.

(Sometimes it’s surprising how much non-terrible writing comes out of this exercise!)

The Prompt

Use these words in your short-short story: die, ago, seat, time, imagining, even, making, league, sacrifices, rose

(These words were all drawn at random from The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan, which just happened to be lying near my desk.)

Go!

[Writing Prompt] The Cruelest Month

Happy New Year!

Here’s your first writing prompt of the year.

The Prompt

Use the title The Cruelest Month and set your timer for 30 minutes. Write a story with a beginning, middle and an end

Tips

  • Spend five minutes brainstorming a character, a situation, a problem, and then start writing.
  • At the ten minute mark, make sure you’re moving into the meat of the story, complicating your character’s life.
  • At the twenty minute mark, start writing your way to the finale. Even if the story is sketchy, start planning your ending, and race towards it.
  • Spend a few minutes reading over the story, making notes on things you might like to change/add.
  • Revel in your ability to tell a story!

[Writing Prompt] Write A Seasonal Story

Maypole

Today I’m encouraging you to write a seasonal story, just not one for this season.

Of course, you can write a Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/New Year/Festivus story if you want, but if you’re thinking about building your portofolio of stories that you might submit to a market soon, your best best is to write 3-6 months ahead. Publications have reading deadlines, lead times and design concerns to wrestle with, so yes, it is time to start thinking about your Mother’s Day stories now!

The Prompt

Write a seasonal story for a publication you enjoy, for a holiday/event six months from now.

Tips

  • Lots of editors tell me that they are always looking for timely stories for the lesser holidays, like Father’s Day (sorry, Dads) or about people dancing around a Maypole.
  • Pick a holiday or anniversary that hasn’t been done to death. Make sure it is 3-6 months away.
  • Leave more time if you like to submit your work to critique partners before you submit.
  • Go beyond the obvious ideas for a story about that holiday: look for the underlying themes, and write about that. For example, rather than telling a story about a father and son doing something on Father’s day, your story could address expectations, generational issues, frustration, disappointment, joy and other issues that come up on every Hallmark holiday.
  • By all means, write a ChristmaKwanzukkahNewyear story if you like to send it out directly to your readers, family and friends. (That’s probably what I’ll be doing today!)

Come back and leave a comment to tell me what you wrote about.

Go!

 

[Writing Prompt] Don’t Fight With Strangers On Social Media

Fighting creativityA few days ago, I commented on a Twitter post about a hot-button issue. I don’t normally do that, but I thought I was making a neutral, expanding-the-argument kind of comment.

You can tell where this is going can’t you?

Yeah.

Someone read my comment and assumed I was saying something I wasn’t; pigeon-holed me as someone from the completely different end of the ideological spectrum; and proceeded to make snarky, personal comments every time I tried to defuse the situation.

I had that hot-and-sweaty, blood-pounding-in-my-face, pit-in-my-stomach sensation we all remember so well from the injustices of being a misunderstood 12-year-old.  I wasted hours constructing careful answers and psyching myself up to open up my Twitter feed, wondering if I would find an olive branch or a minefield.

It wasn’t fun.

It sucked all the creativity out of my day.

It was such a waste of time.

And the irony of it was, I had, that very morning, reposted Austin Kleon’s advice not to pick fights with strangers on social media!

The Prompt

Find an issue that you COULD have a fight with someone about on social media and instead, write a story.

Tips

  • Make it something you really, really care about.
  • Have a protagonist and an antagonist who feel strongly about either side of the argument.
  • Give the antagonist a legitimate reason to feel that way — don’t make them a cardboard cut-out/cartoon villain.  (This might be hard, but will result in a better story, and a better you!)
  • You don’t have to be sympathetic to the opposing point of view, but you do have to grant some humanity to the person who holds that view. Grace them with some nuance. It’ll make for a better story, and it’ll intrigue the reader.
  • It will make your story and its outcome surprising and  memorable.
  • Consider leaving the story slightly unresolved. Life usually is. Maybe there is a moment when one (or both) characters have a glimmer of understanding (or of seeing the other person as a real human), or maybe they miss that moment entirely.
  • When working with two sides of an issue, you can show how the ‘good’ character could easily become the ‘bad’ character if only they…{insert the line your character will not cross here] and vice versa.
  • Because this is a short story, focus on one angle of an issue, one comment, one moment in the character’s lives.
  • Maybe let the exchange play out on a simulated social media exchange.
  • Maybe have the characters in another time and place, debating face to face, or through some completely different medium.

 

I promise you that, if you write a story instead of picking a fight with a stranger on social media, you’ll have a better day than I did last week 😉

 

[Write On Wednesday] Four-Part Story

I’m currently fascinated by a short story experiment being run by Penguin Random House.

They’re running a series called “The Season of Stories“. You subscribe, and they send you a story every week.

But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that they serialize the story.

Every day, Monday-Thursday, you receive part of a story.

It’s how short stories were read in publications back at the start of the golden age of short story writing, and it’s something we’ve moved away from. Instead of making them bite-sized treats, we sell short stories by weight, packaged into collections. Then we try to sell them to readers who have been trained on novels.

(No wonder short story collections don’t sell well!)

With a novel, you, the reader, carve out some time to plunge yourself into a story world, allow yourself to be pulled along by cliffhangers, spend time getting to know the characters.

Short stories aren’t like that.

Readers, in general, don’t know what to do with a short story collection, but anyone can open their email and read a quarter of a story. Especially one that has been well-crafted.

Today I want you to practice crafting a story that will keep bringing a reader back for more.

Stories naturally break into four parts: inciting incident, rising action, midpoint shift, then climax/conclusion/resolution.  Each part must end with a kicker that leaves the reader wanting more (yes, even the end).

The Prompt

Write a story that can be read in four parts. Focus on creating mini-cliffhangers at each quarter point.

Tips

  • The Seasons of Stories shorts have ranged from 600-1900 words per installment. You can choose a length that works for you.
  • This is a great way to promote your other writing. PRH’s emails come with a ‘if you enjoyed this, read more in this book’ ad at the end. But it never feels ‘salesy’ because they’ve given me a free sample and are simply letting me know where I can find more, if I liked it. Sometimes this link is to a novel by the same author. Sometimes it is to a collection of short stories containing stories by the author. (Now that they’ve trained me to read shorts, they can sell me their collection!)
  • Don’t forget to raise a big story question at the start (remember: you can do this in revisions), that won’t be addressed until the climax/end. Do this in addition to the mini-cliffhangers at the end of each section.
  • If you need some examples, check out The Season of Stories. It’s free.
  • I heard about this from Daniel Pink’s newsletter. If you like this, consider subscribing to that. It’s a short read and he shares interesting stuff like this, every other week.

Now, go and write your story.

Come back and tell me how it went!

 

[Write On Wednesday] The One Thing They’d Notice

Today’s prompt was inspired by an exercise in Donald Maass’s latest book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. You can find the whole exercise on p.22 of that book.

The Prompt

Write a story featuring two characters in the same location. Pick a detail that only your protagonist would notice and weave it into the story. 

Tips

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] The One Thing They’d Notice”

Write on Wednesday – Quick Story Formula

This is an awesome way to quickly launch (and finish) a new story, any time you have time to write but are short on inspiration. Try it!

green chalkboard with mathematical formulae

Use this story formula to to create an interesting character, give them a desire, kick off some intriguing action and plan the kind of resolution you want.

Once you have that skeleton, you can start filling in colorful details…and soon your creative brain will be demanding you start to write!

The Prompt

A _______ (adjective) ________(noun), who _________(verb) ___________(subject), then _________(related verb) __________(resolution)

TIPS

  • Using these kinds of limits short-circuits your inner editor and makes ‘writing a story’ seem much more manageable. Just take it step by step.
  • Make sure you give your character an adjective that implies some desire (e.g. ‘ambitious’ not ‘young’; or ‘contented’ – which implies that their desire is for the status quo to remain unchanged)
  • Use the middle set of blanks to kick off the action (use a verb that implies change: “discovers”, “uncovers”, “decides”, “is forced to”, “commits to”, “resists”, “invents”, “journeys”)
  • Use the final set of blanks to define what kind of ending you want. Will it be a happy ending? Will it be bittersweet? Will your character achieve their desire or lose it? Will they learn something or not?
  • Paint the big picture first (e.g. A “dissatisfied woman”, who “uncovers something about a rival”, then “uses that knowledge to get what she wants”, or “discovers she has everything she needs, all ready”)
  • Now add some details and desires. Think about what would be fun/exciting/engaging for you to write about (e.g. “An ambitious mommy-blogger”, who “finds out her biggest rival has been lying on her blog”, then “uses that knowledge to ruin her rival and make her own blog successful”, or “realizes how shallow her ambitions had been and decides to refocus”)
  • Next, add even more detail, with desires, needs, colorful details. You don’t have to fill in any details of *how* the resolution comes about, just the overall thrust of it.
  • Don’t worry that your story will be formulaic. The originality comes in the details you choose, the characters you create and the situations you dream up for them. You and I could both use my mommy-blogger idea and I guarantee you our stories would be wildly different.
  • Try writing different options for each of the sets of blanks. If you don’t love your first ending option, try something different. If your character’s adjective makes her unappealing to you, try a different one.
  • Going through this exercise helps keep your story on track. If you know, at the start, how you want the story to end (even if you don’t know the details of how you’ll make that happen), it limits your choices, and lets you choose between three or four sets of action for your character. Knowing whether you want it to be a happy ending or a bitter one, makes it much easier to decide on the types of choices you make (N. B. Neither is inherently better. It all depends on what you enjoy reading/writing and what kind of audience you want to attract).
  • Don’t be afraid of this, if you’re a ‘pantser’. This is not a restrictive outline that will constrain your creativity. Rather, it is a set of guideposts that will get you where you want to be (i.e. at the end of a satisfying story).

If you’re intrigued by this, sign up to find out when I release a new mini-course that will take you through this exact process — with examples and resources to help. (Get the StoryADay Creativity Bundle for free, as soon as you sign up.)

 

Write On Wednesday – After The Happily Ever After

How many times have you made a change in your life, only to backslide? Do you ever wonder will happen to a story’s character after the credits have rolled?
Happily Ever After show at Magic Kingdom

The story is over when the character has mastered the challenge. But the story, for your character, is not really over. They live their life, in the shadow of everything that came before.

The Prompt

Write the story of a character’s NEXT struggle, after the ‘happily ever after’

Tips

  • You could take a character from someone else’s stories, or from a folk tale (write a sequel to Cinderella or Gone Girl)
  • You could write the sequel to a story you’ve written in the past
  • Questions to ask yourself: what did the character have to overcome to succeed in the original story? What did they desire? How did they suddenly become sure they could win? What has changed, since then? Are they struggling with the same thing, in a new setting? Are they struggling with new issues, as a results of the original win?
  • For example: Cinderella was struggling against her step-family, who wanted her to fail. What will life be like for her in the castle? Her new husband presumably wants her to succeed at being Queen. Does she have what it takes? Does everyone in the castle want her to succeed? Is there a big event coming up that she must host? What lessons can she take from her first challenge into this new one? Is she battling feelings of insecurity as well as outside forces?
  • In my story The Girl Who Circumnavigated The Globe In An Act Of Her Own Making, my main character’s desire is to communicate; to present herself to the world on her own terms. Within the scope of that one story, she does it. She feels good at the end of the story. She has a plan. But what about when she next goes back to Earth? Will she see her ‘victory’ as something fanciful and worthless? How will she deal with the frustration of being prejudged by everyone all the time, again? I could write that story today.

Go!

Settings – A Writing Prompt from Josh Barkan

Writing exercise: (20 minutes)

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?

 

Tips:

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.