May 19 – Limits – Two Voices 

The Prompt

Write a story told only in dialogue

The Prompt

Write a story told only in dialogue

Tips

  • This can be a dramatic scene, designed to be read by two actors or it can be a story with ‘he said’ ‘she said’  dialogue tags.
  • With only two voices it should be possible to avoid using any dialogue tags at all, but you’ll need to work to keep the characters’ voices distinct.
  • Try to reflect, in their language, how they are feeling instead of relying on ‘stage directions’ (she said, nodding encouragingly).
  • Show agitation or excitement by making the language choppier. Like this. Really. I can’t believe … how could you?!
  • Allow characters to ramble when they are prevaricating, but try to avoid excessive use of “um” and “er”. Instead, let them go off on tangents, avoid the point.
  • Allow your characters to speechify (speak in a formal, unnatural style) if you want, but be conscious about it and consistent. Hey, it worked for Shakespeare and Aaron Sorkin!
  • Alternately, try to keep the voice of each character as realistic as possible. Remember that people talk at cross purposes, they interrupt each other, they don’t answer each other’s questions directly, worst of all, they often fail to listen to the other person at all because they’re planning their next riposte.
  • Try to pick two characters who reflect different outlooks or ages or stations in life (imagine the Dowager Countess talking to the cook. It’s more than just accent that sets them apart, it’s word-choice, rhythm, relative confidence, expectation, assumptions about life…)

GO!

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May 18 – Limits: Third Person, Omniscient

The Prompt

Write A Story With An Omniscient Third Person Narrator.

Omniscient voice has fallen out of favor recently, which I think is a shame. Then again, I’m a fan of satire and enjoy a bit of Dickens now and then.

Omniscient voice can distance the reader from the characters a bit, and that’s not what the publishing industry thinks today’s readers want. However, it can be a fun challenge, and we’re taking it on today.

The Prompt

Write  A Story With An Omniscient Third Person Narrator. 

Tips

  • In this voice you are never entirely in one person’s head, but you can jump from head to head. It’s best to keep this consistent thought. Stay with one characters thoughts for a while, shift to another and stay there until the next piece of action ends. Otherwise, you’ll give your readers whiplash.
  • If you are not inside a character’s head, the narrator point out what a character is thinking by noting their actions and expressions.
  • Omniscient voice is great for satire, because the authorial voice can comment on the actions of characters, though you  probably want to use this sparingly.
  • If you’re having trouble finding the omniscient voice, imagine the voice-over at the start of the Winnie The Pooh cartoons, or read some Dickens.
  • See if you can pull off Omniscient without sounding like you wrote this in the nineteenth century. (I’m not sure it’s possible. Let’s find out!)

GO!

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May 17 – Limits: Third Person – Limited

The Prompt

Write A Story In The Third Person, Limited

 

We’re writing in a much more conventional fashion today, good old third person, limited.

The Prompt

Write A Story In The Third Person, Limited 

Tips

  • Let the reader hear the thoughts of one person, and one person only. The narrator and the protagonist can infer information about other people’s thoughts, but the reader can never see inside those other characters’ minds. If this was a movie, the camera would swing around the protagonist, occasionally looking over her shoulder and through her eyes, never getting too far away from her.
  • This is the voice often used in detective stories, and mainstream fiction.
  • You don’t have to say ‘he thought’, to let us know what the character is thinking. In this POV if you make a declarative statement, it’s going to be clear that the ‘thought’ belongs to your POV character. For example: “The wind was picking up. Her hair whipped around her face, defying the extra-hold hairspray she’d used. Bob was going to wonder if she’d forgotten where she kept her hairbrush.” It’s clear the last sentence is the protagonist’s direct thought, right?
  • The advantage of this POV is that it keeps the reader close to the protagonist, emotionally. It also helps you set up suspense, since the reader can only know what the protagonist knows.
  • The disadvantage of this POV is that readers can’t see what’s happening ‘off-stage’ unless you use another device to reveal that information (like the way Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak allows us to eavesdrop on important scenes even when Harry’s not supposed to be there; or the way Isaac Asimov’s excerpts from The Encyclopedia Galactica fill us in on the politics, decisions and passage of time in the Foundation series).
  • Keep readers interested in your protagonist by giving them a desire, and an obstacle to overcome. A flaw and a special talent can help too. (Indiana Jones is a great example here: He always wants to save the priceless artifact for posterity, and he’s usually opposed by someone else who wants the same thing, but who has and Evil Purpose in mind. He’s a talented archaeologist, but he has a soft heart and a problem walking away from bullies, both of which get him into all kinds of trouble.)

GO!

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May 16 – Limits: Second Person

The Prompt

Write A Story In The Second Person

Today we’re taking on the rare point of view: second person. It’s tough to pull this off without sounding like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but we’re going to try.

The Prompt

Write A Story In The Second Person

Tips

  • This is a rare point of view for a reason: it’s hard to make it sound good. However, there have been some examples that work well: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is one.
  • How To Get Filth Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamed, is a more recent example and, interestingly, reads like a self-help book. Consider writing a story in a self-help-y kind of style.
  • Halting State by Charles Stross uses Second Person  in a novel that features a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). Role-playing games tend to feature a lot of Second Person in the scenario set-ups, so this is an interesting choice.
  • You could, of course, write an ironic Choose Your Own adventure story.
  • This story could be a mock-advertising piece — another form that often uses this voice.
  • This will probably feel odd, and read strangely, but if you create compelling characters and and an interesting problem for them to solve, readers will stick with you. You’ll probably end up with a fresh feel, even if your plot is not-altogether-original, simply because of the choice of voice.

GO!

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May 15 Limits: First Person

The Prompt

Write A Story In the First Person

We’re on the cusp of the half-way point through the year. After you’ve written your story today, could you come back to the blog and post about one thing that you have learned/that has surprised you/that you’ve remembered, while attempting the challenge, please? Do this whether you’re still writing, whether you think you’ve quit (but really you know you’re going to come back and write at least one more story this month, don’t you?), or whether you’ve missed a few day, but written a few stories too.

What are you learning about your writing, your routine, your voice, the importance of turning up? Or is there something else you’ve discovered?

This week we’re starting a week of limits: point of view, mostly. Trying out all these different forms will give you an idea of what stories call for which perspective, and which you’re most comfortable with.

Today, first person. This is probably the easiest voice to find, since this is how we tell most of our stories in every day life(“I went to that new restaurant in town and you’ll never guess who I saw there…”)

The Prompt

Write A Story In the First Person

Tips

  • Remember that only the thoughts and observations of your “I” character can be presented as fact. No ‘head-hopping’ allowed!
  • The protagonist can make assumptions and judgements about the things around them. They can comment on how they think another character is feeling, but they cannot say it definitively.
  • This mono-focus is one of the great features of the First Person story: it is highly subjective and immediate. It has a built in “show, don’t tell” factor.
  • If you don’t often write in the first person, pick up almost any middle grade novel (that is, something for kids younger than the Hunger Games crowd, but older than the chapter-book-with-illustrations crowd) and you’ll see how it’s done. The protagonist is talking to the reader. It’s the running commentary inside their head. It’s also a favorite of “chick lit” and noir.
  • I don’t know about you, but in my head I’m much less kind, understanding and tolerant than I try to be when I open my mouth. Allow your character to lose the civilized filter that we apply between brain and mouth. Allow them to be less (or more) than their image would suggest.
  • Don’t forget to give the reader a reason to care. Give your protagonist a flaw and an endearing quality. For example, Amelia Peabody  is no-nonsense feminist archaeologist at the turn of the 20th Century, in the (mostly) first-person mystery series by Elizabeth Peters. Amelia is astoundingly arrogant about her own intellectual prowess and impatient with anyone who considers her femininity before her intelligence. She is, however, saved from being unlikeable by her hopeless, romantic devotion to her brilliant — and very manly — husband, Emerson.  She never admits this as a weakness, but the contrast between her professed opinions and her actions/reactions provides a rich vein of humor in the series. It also illustrates her character much more clearly than her own words ever could.
  • Try writing this story for one person in particular, to help you find the voice. Imagine you’re writing it for your sister, your son, or your best friend.

GO!

Post a comment at the blog to let us know you’ve written today, or join the community and post in the Victory Dance Group.

May 14 – Write What You Don’t Know

The Prompt

Spend 15 minutes Researching Something On Wikipedia Then Write About It

Yeah, I know. The standard advice is to write what you know. It certainly saves on research time, but where’s the fun in writing what you know?

The Prompt

Spend 15 minutes Researching Something On Wikipedia Then Write About It

Tips

  • It could be a hobby: lapidoptery, stamp collecting, knitting, golf, scrapbooking, hill walking, skeet shooting, board games, cosplay… Soak up all you can about one way to practice the hobby, then write a story about somebody (or a group of somebodies) who are deep in the hobby. Maybe they’re meeting, maybe they’re preparing for a gathering, maybe they’ve just made a big, rare find, or conquered a difficult technique. Maybe they’re questioning their calling.
  • It could be a career, a period in history, a historical event, an astronomical phenomenon, a sport, or the story of how something was discovered/invented.
  • Use details from your research to color in the details of your story, but remember, you’re not writing a documentary.
  • Still focus on the universal truths of human existence (which is where the ‘write what you know’ or at least, ‘write what you want to understand’ advice comes in).
  • Since you want to include lots of detail of the hobby in the story, try to keep the main ‘plot points’ of the story simple: a conflict with another hobbyist; a first; a last; an epiphany; an arrival…
  • Don’t spend more than 15 minutes on your research. Read fast. Scan the page. Grab details greedily. Shape your story around one or two of them. But don’t spend too much time on your research!

GO!

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May 13 – Limits: 100 Words or “Drabbles”

Ready for another break? This exercise is ‘easier’ than writing a 5,000 word story, only because it takes a little less time. It does, however, take a lot more time than any average 100 words in the middle of a longer story.

Crafting a complete story in 100 words is not easy. It is, however, quite satisfying.

The Prompt

Write a story in exactly 100 words

Tips

  • Super-short stories have to pack an emotional punch in very few words. Concentrate on one moment, one incident, that holds huge significance for a character: the moment they first made eye contact with their baby; seeing the first crocus of spring after a hideous winter full of drama and despair; standing on stage in the moment of silence before the applause starts…
  • You’ll want to save the majority of your words for the build-up to the climax. Think about how many words you can afford to spend setting the scene (maybe 25?) and how many you want for the resolution (10?). Can you create a resonant story in 65 words?
  • Choose adjectives carefully. You don’t have much room.
  • Make words do double duty. Instead of saying ‘he walked across the room, shaking with rage’, say ‘he stalked away’, saving five words.
  • Don’t feel you have to hit 100 words on the first pass. Write the story, then go back through and intensify things by making your verbs more active and pruning as much dead wood as you can.
  • Imply as much as you can. Leave gaps. Let the reader work a bit.

GO!

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May 12 – Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

The Prompt

Fictionalize an almost-unbelievable real-life story

They say that fiction is harder to write than true-life stories, because fiction has to make sense.

A friend of mine recently told me a true tale of astonishing machinations in the local politics of her small town.

“If you put that in a novel, I wouldn’t believe it,” I said.

Likewise, the Chilean Miners’ story or the Apollo 13 story would have been roundly mocked as unbelievable, idealistic, romantic nonsense if offered up as fiction by careless writer.

The Prompt

Fictionalize an almost-unbelievable real-life story

Tips

  • Think of the most outrageous story anyone ever told you about their family, their vacation, their town. Find a way to write the story and make it believable.
  • You may have to change some of the elements: dial up or back on the drama.
  • You may have to invent reasons for coincidences, where none existed in real life — just as Nature abhors a vaccuum; Story abhors a coincidence!
  • If you’re really stuck, try searching the web for incredible real-life escapes, near-misses, or surprises.

GO!

Post a comment at the blog to let us know you’ve written today, or join the community and post in the Victory Dance Group.

And, once you’ve written, here’s your reward for today: the latest, clinically-researched techniques to strengthen your core muscles and prevent all that lower back pain writers complain about! Click on it AFTER you’ve written your story.

May 11 – Memories

Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t make it a good story. At a writers’ conference I heard agents sigh every time someone said they were writing a memoir. “Why not turn it into a fictional story?” one said, brightly, with barely disguised overtones of desperation.

Today we’re going to try to do that. Instead of trying to capture something exactly as you remember it happening, we’re going to give your experience to a character and mine the universal truths (or funnies, or horror) from it.

The Prompt

Write a story inspired by a memory from your own life

Tips

  • How many different homes have you lived in? What little things do you remember about each? Could they be the spark for a story (think of the connected attics in The Magician’s Nephew or the bricked-up adjoining door in Coraline’s house-turned-apartment-building. Was there anything quirky about a house you lived in? Could it spark a story?
  • Who was your crazy neighbor? What do you remember about that lady on your street who always shouted at you when your ball went into her front garden? What stories did you tell about her as kids?
  • What was that big trauma that happened in your town when you young? An unexpected death? A fire? You know, the thing you reminisced about for years afterwards (“Remember when we were 10 and there was that huge blackout?”). Think of the movie Stand By Me for the ways you could turn a big event in the lives of a group of kids, into a real story that has implications for your characters.
  • What do you remember from when you were five or younger? From 5-10 years old. 10-15? 16-20? 20-30? 30-40? What was life like for someone that age, at that time? What was important to you? Is there a moment when you realized things had changed? When you did something for the first time? The last time?
  • Who were the influential people in your life at each age? What were their stories? Were they they people you imagined? (You know how we were all freaked out the first time we saw a teacher outside school? Everyone is more than the sum of our interactions with them. Revisit someone from your past and give them a more rounded story than just your memories of them.)

GO!

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May 10 – Agony Aunt

You’re a writer, which probably means you’re at thinker, which probably means that a fair percentage of your friends come to you for advice on a regular basis. And you probably give this advice in a thoughtful, reasoned, I-don’t-want-to-hurt-your-feelings kind of way.

Not today.

The Prompt

Write a response from an advice columnist with an attitude

Tips

  • Pick a problem that friends having brought to you in reality (you can promise yourself you’ll never, ever publish this story, if that helps).
  • Or make something up. It can be about relationships, cars, gardening, careers, diet, family, or something weirder.
  • Think about your advice columnist. What kind of attitude will you give him/her? (Maybe your answer will depend on the kind of problem you picked. If it’s something that irritates the snot out of you, let your columnist be as angry or snarky as you never can be. If it’s something you feel great compassion for, allow your columnist to be more empathetic and mushy than you ever could be, in person.
  • If you need an example of a witty-but-caring response to a dating problem, read this answer from novelist Maureen Johnson.
  • If you want weirder examples, you probably already know where to find them…

GO!

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