All Lined Up
Last month’s project of creating thirty-one writing prompts was a terrific learning exercise for me. I’m not the fastest writer in the world, but in these days of writers having to do our own marketing and outreach, it’s so useful to be able to quickly turn out a few hundred words on various topics several times per month, if not per week. I’m in awe of anyone who does this well.
In order to write frequently and quickly, a sort of nimbleness is needed to not get in the way of one’s own gift of writerly gab. Posting an average of 350 words daily for a month–while never letting up on writing my novel–forced me to exercise brain muscles that I haven’t used since writing college term papers. That was forty years ago, so maybe I’ve stumbled on a way to stave off brain rot, too.
Perhaps the exercise was made more fun because I was also learning to take photos with my iPod via Instagram, as part of Susannah Conway’s #augustbreak2014 challenge. This also meant using a new social medium, plus thinking about things visually instead of verbally.
I’ve had a visual/verbal dichotomy going on since early childhood, and it’s evident in a lot of my descriptive passages and in my tendency to catalog a scene, describing it in minute and exhaustive detail. That is probably the worst effect of immersing in the likes of Dickens as an impressionable student.
This time I turned the visual/verbal thing on its head and used the pictures I took to think about writing itself. As a result, I’ve become more focused about why I’m including something in my novel’s descriptive passages. The things I want the reader to “see” are best when they are directly relevant to the character or the story, and not just there for general flavor.
Less rambling description is one way in which fiction has changed from the 19th century to the 21st, something which I’ve understood intellectually, yet did not appreciate keenly until creating my Visual Writing Prompts. So there have been two solid benefits from the exercise–faster writing of side pieces on demand and improved control over descriptive elements.
Since I am fond of the flash fiction form, I wonder if these benefits will translate into writing short stories even as I’m writing a novel? Now that would be an incredible bonus! Perhaps it’s time to search online for a month of flash fiction prompts?
A State of Being
The final #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Love,” with the intent of depicting what loves means to you. I have to admit I go wordless when it comes to actual love–and that’s a real dilemma for a writer!
The picture is of a glass paperweight backlit against a window in order to catch its depth and mystery despite its common, iconic shape and color. Then a lot of tweaking with Instagram filters and controls brought out every element while reducing the tree and lawn in the background to a complementary blur. Intensity was my intent.
There are so many different kinds of love, different ways of expressing it, different ways it manifests. I do know it tends to be a constant in me, even when I am feeling cynical or noncommittal about many things. Thus I consider love to be a state of being, a sort of active still point. Some people say that’s God. Might be.
Wordless as I get when actually describing it directly, I do take advantage of being able to describe it indirectly, through the actions and reactions of various characters. The results of love can show in things that are carefully tended, like a garden, but can also show in things that are left in their natural state. Some show love by never letting go, but perhaps the greatest love is being willing to let go for the loved one’s sake. This is what I mean by describing it via action and reaction. If I try to describe it in the normal way, it ends up either as indulgent stream-of-consciousness thoughts or as pontificating.
The thirty-first Visual Writing Prompt: What Love Has to Do With it. Love is a tremendous motivator: what things in your character’s setting or preferences give the reader a hint about their real love? Who or what does your character love, and what does he or she do to show it? Is there awareness of that love–or not? The personal stake that sets the story rolling often has to do with some form of love, whether romantic, platonic, or agape. There’s the love of a calling, too, another driving force to consider when asking what does your character want? Love of succeeding means great frustration when success is thwarted. All of these kinds of love can set the stage for action, reaction, and drama
Then, of course, there’s the love of writing itself in you, the writer. It’s there, I know it is, and yet I can’t quite describe it. It just is.
Silly Soft Socks
“Soft” is the thirtieth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and there were many things to choose from. The most obvious was to be had just by looking down at my cozy house socks. Even in the summer they are nice, keeping the air conditioning off my legs in the evenings.
I’ve always loved soft things, and I think I love them more the older I get. I also recall wanting more soft things during stressful periods of my life. Soft is soothing to skin, muscle, and bone, soft relaxes and calms, make resting and sleeping much easier.
Softness sometimes comes with a price. Those with allergies feel worse around soft things like cats, wool, carpets, pillows, sweaters, upholstered furniture, etc. Softness is associated with lack of toughness, as in someone who’s considered a “softie” or someone who is out of shape mentally or in terms of nerve and has “gone soft.” Softies are vulnerable to being pushovers.
Then there’s softness as a disguise, as in the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, or in speaking softly and carrying a big stick.
The young with healthy teeth can eat hard and chewy food, while the old used to gum their way through porridge and soft crustless bread. Then the other way around, compare the softness of babies with the dry rough skin of the elderly who have seen too much sun and hard work.
Detective stories can be hard-boiled–or soft. Same with eggs, the hard ones stand up to chopping into salad, the soft ones are silky and joined with toast.
The thirtieth Visual Writing Prompt: Hard and Soft Traits. In what ways is your character a softie, and in what ways hard as steel? What in the setting or on his or her person reveals the relevant hardness or softness? Is it a photograph? Is it babies? Puppies? Kittens? Or a lack of any connection to them? Is it implied in, for instance, the type of wallet they use? A slim steel case suits the character who can force him or herself to walk away from someone they love. Cashmere socks might suit the calm and unruffled character who will give his or her all to the one that is loved. Little things like that can play up the extent to which your character is hard or soft.
Next Prompt: What Love Has to Do With It
The twenty-ninth #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Nature,” and for me that present the choice between what’s in my garden and what’s out in the larger world. But since my garden is what I interact with the most these days, I stuck with that.
It had just rained and the sky still had that sunlight glowing immediately behind still-dark clouds which brings out deep blue-greens, making this hosta stand out more than usual, and making its curled yellow leaf part of a composition rather than a flaw.
This is where being a garden designer is different than being a gardener–composing a landscape with plants means being able to make things look good together even when they’re not blooming. This hosta, for instance, is a good candidate for mixing with plants with variegated leaves, small frilly leaves, etc. In my garden it sits between red bricks and a purple-red barberry shrub, and there are daylilies and irises behind it. Color, shape, line, texture, shadow, and light–all are at play in the composition of plants as much as in a photograph.
The sort of nature that is in the setting of a story is part of the story. Weather, seasons, types of trees and flowers, types of birds and common wildlife, all play a role in what makes one place different than other places. I’ve noted that settings with attention to the flora and fauna often seem to have more depth and mystery than those that don’t. The characters and their motivations seem to either belong with the surrounding nature–or are so different, that they seem more pathological than those who are a part of the nature.
For the twenty-ninth Visual Writing Prompt: Nature Good and Bad. Does nature or natural elements play a role in your character’s motivation, frustration, discovery, or problem-solving? Is he or she at one with the natural forces of the setting, or at odds with it? Do storms cause problems or reveal solutions? Wild animals? The traditional fortune-telling of a particular number of crows? The fog lends elements of both terror and suspense in many a mystery, as do blizzards. Think of Holmes in London or the sheriff in Fargo. Or think of natural threats like White Oleander, or convenient patches of quicksand. Which side is your character on, and why?
Next Prompt: Hard and Soft Traits
“Something New” was the twenty-eighth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and in particular something that wasn’t necessarily new, but new to me. So I meandered down to one such shop and happened upon this inexpensive handmade ring that insisted on coming home with me. Like it was magic or something.
It’s a big big for most of my fingers, but sits comfortably on my main index finger, sort of enhancing anything I point at, as if I had the power to make whatever I was pointing at to happen, move, or somehow materialize. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I did?
There’s an awful lot of things in the world that have been around for a while that I have not personally experienced, use, or even thought about, and I’m sure it is the same for most people. Someone could suggest that I try cross-country skiing, and it would be as new to me as wearing a jet pack and shooting up into the air.
Writers go through a lot of new-to-me experiences. Back in college, I wrote poetry, short stories, and plays. Nowadays I write blog posts and novels, with a few short-short stories. Poems are now exceedingly rare, and any urge to write a script gets swallowed up in a novel’s dialogue scenes. I’ve written cookbooks and how-to books, so that’s been covered, too. Writing a prompt every day like this is a new experience, though. I can see writing short stories that spin off of my mysteries in the near future, that will be a new-to-me experience. Then again, so would being rich and famous.
The twenty-eighth Visual Writing Prompt: Unexpected Acquisitions. What suddenly shows up on your character’s doorstep, or in the mail, or on his or her birthday? Something that wasn’t expected or asked for or even thought about–how would your character react, and what does the reaction say about his or her background, temperament, education, finances, desires, and motivations? I could almost fancy myself a wizard with my new ring, or a sorceress. Might suggest that I’d like an easier way to make the things I want to come about! When Charlotte unexpectedly re-acquires her beloved painting, her whole world is set right again, and she feels loved, supported, and appreciated–all the best things about feeling “at home.”
Next Prompt: Nature Good and Bad
“Lines” was the twenty-sixth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and that was a fun one for me, since I’m aware of lines everywhere, from the lines made by the intersection of the walls, windows, and doors in the house to lines of music and writing. Lines of wires between the poles along the street.
The picture is a closeup of the ratty old throw that I keep on the ottoman in front of my armchair in the living room. The color and texture makes me think of landscapes, aerial views in particular. Funny how looking at something so close up can create an association with something seen from far away.
Lines for a fiction writer, however, tend to refer to the story itself, as in plot lines. I’ve written before about the three story lines that need to be braided together in a mystery, but there are lines within those lines, too. These would be the deep back story, such as a character’s heritage, the history of the location, and other such detail.
There are other lines which are less essential to the success of the story but contribute toward a pleasurable experience in reading it, in particular thematic lines.
I’ve read that “theme” is what a story is really all about, and it is often found in repeated details–such as colors, or the presence of certain kinds of cars or animals, in what triggers a character’s line of thoughts and memory, and descriptive elements such as trees, birds, and shadows.
Repeated details take on a symbolic quality, even if not directly intended by the writer. This is when theme itself is derived from symbolism, and books rich in this are the ones that invite myriad interpretations. Theme is not just what a story is really all about, it can also be the real mystery.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that one of my themes is the genius loci, the “spirit of place.” I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of it in the setting of Elm Grove, Indiana. There are also domestic themes in mugs, cats, coffee, tea, windows, light, and art. But the spirit of place is much more intangible. I don’t try to deliberately create it, but to try to imagine it deeply enough to feel it, and then to write from that depth. Whether or not I succeed in conveying it to others remains to be seen, but allowing for it to emerge on its own terms will give it room for interpretation, and that room is what makes the experience of reading a particular book stick.
And lest you think a theme can’t be accidental–I took a closeup of a piece of green fabric in order to fill the prompt of “lines.” My subconscious–or creative muse–still managed to find something that could be described as a landscape, a place. I’m tuned in, just because I’m wired the way I am, to a sense of place, to its genius loci. It comes if I just let it happen.
The twenty-sixth Visual Writing Prompt: Themes from Details. Are there details which appear again and again in your writing? Do they have any significance in your own life? In your character’s life? Or in your overall message, no matter what you’re writing? Experience as a writer might reveal it, but I’m willing to bet it’s been there since your first efforts.
Next Prompt: Unexpected Acquisitions
The New Universal
The twenty-sixth #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Morning,” and since that morning was pitch black from a thunderstorm even at nine a.m., I wasn’t likely to go out and catch a dewy, misty scene. Instead, I took a pic of what my morning usually looks like: at my desk, laptop in front of me, coffee off to the side. It so happened that someone else had the same idea, and her picture is on the computer screen in this shot.
Morning used to be coffee and newspaper–complete with crossword puzzle and the comics. The printed newspaper was getting too expensive, so now I just read it online, along with things like RSS feeds of different blogs I follow and Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally Google+. It’s a habit now, but it isn’t the same. It’s also now a universal habit. Several participants in the Instagram prompts this month had similar pictures for “Morning.”
The nature of morning rituals has changed in my lifetime. Jogging was unheard of. People who walked their dogs just let them do their thing–the idea of carrying plastic bags to pick up their waste was unheard of. Newspaper delivery was done by kids before school–these days parents often don’t dare let their kids out alone like that when there’s few other people about. A cigarette was a common accompaniment to that first cuppa coffee, then a cigarette on the porch, and now there’s not even many smoking on the porches in most neighborhoods.
Of course what I describe is a very middle-American morning, but different parts of the country have different routines, and different countries have still more differences. It’s part and parcel of one’s geography and background.
The twenty-sixth Visual Writing Prompt: Elements of a Morning. Does your character have a morning routine? Is it commonly shared by others in his or her neighborhood or with his her her cultural background? Has that ritual, like mine, changed in his or her lifetime? What are the objects that comprise the ritual–and what objects, in a sense, are missing? In mine it would be the printed newspaper, and a table near a window. The coffee part has pretty much stayed the same. Oh, and I don’t have a cat at this time–my cats in the past have always seemed to have their breakfast the same time I had mine.
Next Prompt: Themes from Details
Little Kid Keepsake
“Little” was the twenty-fifth prompt for #augustbreak2014, and it was a stumper at first, as I’ve a zillion little things to choose from, but none with anything but the most obvious meaning of little. Then I looked down at my desk, and there’s the tile and popsicle stick trivet my son made for me in kindergarten (or possibly nursery school, one or the other). It’s classic little kid craft stuff. And thus I chose it for “little.”
It’s nearly thirty years old, and lost a couple of its tiles long ago, probably not long after it was made. But it’s soulful, and a one of a kind, and has his signature from those days. Since my son is now six-foot-five and a new father himself, I like the reminder of the days when he was little even more.
There was a directness in the mother-and-very-young-son relationship that naturally changed as he grew up, but in that relationship there was a sort of timelessness, an element of infinity. Every once in a while I still get a glimpse of it, and it feels a bit like what one thinks of as “home.”
Those of you who have been single parents might know what I mean, that you and me against the world bond that was the foundation of all your decisions to make a go of things and be all things to a child to the best of your ability. If you’re lucky, the child senses it, too, and you become a team. Maybe not an always perfectly functioning team, but a team nonetheless.
The twenty-fifth Visual Writing Prompt: It’s Us Against the World. Has your character ever experienced this, either as a child or as a parent, as a soldier or a survivor? What objects or places represent this time and feeling for him or her? How important was the experience in making your character what he or she is today?
Next Prompt: Elements of a Morning
From Long Ago
“Memory” was the twenty-fourth #augustbreak2014 prompt, and it took me several hours to narrow down what to take a picture of, since so much of what I have is from the past in one way or another. I think that happens to a lot of people by the time they’re fifty, and I’m well past that point.
One of the objects in my bookcases is this large spiny murex, which reminds me of warm seas and the sounds of the waves. It’s native to the South Pacific, I think, but purchased for me in a shop in Fort Meyers Beach, not far from the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s residence. Very much a different time of my life, one not likely to be recreated.
Thus, a memory it will remain, a sign post that that time was real, if somewhat out of place, just as the shell itself is not a native of the Gulf coast but somehow signifies a layer of the watery magic that ties time and place together with interchangeable meaning.
Plus, I just wanted to fool around with the filters in Instagram, as I’ve never been able to take a satisfactory picture of this shell before.
For the twenty-fourth Visual Writing Prompt: The Malapropian Memory. What objects or what memories does your character have that are not quite true or accurate? It was many years after receiving this shell that I learned it was not a native of the place where it was purchased–yet by that point it had become an inextricable part of the memory of the time and place. It provides me with a lot of additional insight into the time and the people. Does your character have such a memory, and does he or she hang onto it anyway, even after being proven that some key details are wrong? What does that say about the character, and his or her world?
Next Prompt: It’s Us Against the World
The twenty-third #augustbreak2014 prompt was “Adornment,” and for me that is undoubtedly my summer hat. I bought it last summer and it is the best-fitting, most comfortable hat I’ve ever owned. I’m a bit photosensitive, so tend to wear sleeves and keep my face out of direct sunlight. The other thing that qualifies as adornment would be my round glasses, since as face furniture goes, they are a bit assertive.
Jewelry is probably a more common adornment than a hat or glasses these days, unless it’s a pair of sunglasses. I do love jewelry, but if I’m wearing these glasses, a little bit goes a long way, so I only break out the big round hoop earrings or the dangly ones or the chunky necklace when I’m wearing contacts. The need to add reading glasses, however, means I’m prone to getting everything tangled up if I’m not careful. So I usually default to glasses and tiny pearl studs or silver hoops.
In the winter, the straw hat is replaced by a black beret, another iconic hat style. It’s not that I don’t like other kinds of hats–I do. But I wear very powerful hearing aids, and the least bit of hat getting too close to them makes them shriek with feedback. This straw hat has a stretchy inner band that keeps the brim off my hearing aids, and the black beret can also be worn without causing feedback. And both–this is of utmost importance where I live–stay on my head no matter how windy it is!
Does something qualify as adornment when it is selected primarily because it is functional? Or does the functionality simply say something about the wearer, when perhaps in someone else it would be more purely adornment? This is a question that actually came up more often in the past, when canes were both practical and fashionable.
I own a watch, too, a big round thing that I can see even without reading glasses. Why do I have it? Because the clock in my ancient vehicle doesn’t work, and I find it easier to check the time on my wrist rather than fumbling around for the cell phone. Again, practical. But it’s oversized and has a black strap, so it’s adornment, too.
For the twenty-third Visual Writing Prompt: The Mark of Cane. What does your character wear or use that stands out from the usual, yet is as much or more practical than adornment? Veterans and those with MS and other conditions are most likely to use canes or walking sticks these days, and Luddites will likely stick to an old-fashioned watch with a dial than to check a multifunction digital timepiece. Or perhaps the watch has timers, to remind your character to take the next pill, the next injection, or to call the probation officer? Hats help prevent skin cancer, or nasty rashes in the photosensitive, or perhaps have secret fiberglass inserts to protect a skull injury or surgery. Your character might have none, or several–or simply be observant of those who do.
Next Prompt: The Malapropian Memory