Worth 1000 words

Whether it inspires a story or just serves to make your day more interesting, here’s an image to start the morning with:

Painting by Taras Loboda

Writing Prompt Wednesday

If you’re like me, the midweek slump has just kicked in.  You’re regretting all the things you didn’t accomplish in the first part of the week or eying up what’s coming with a weary glance.  Or you’re just feeling uninspired and sure this week is twice as long as the one that came before.  So, as a little kick in the pants, here’s an assignment to help you break the slump and re-energize.

1 short story. 1 day. Plus a prompt to get you going.

The Prompt (drawn at random from my own story elements generator):

  • Plot element:  a wrong turn
  • Character:  a children’s party magician
  • Setting:  a hot air balloon
  • Wildcard:  a photographic memory

The assignment:  using as many of these elements as possible (all is best!), in whatever way you like, sit down and write a short story.  Write it today, start to finish.  Don’t obsess over it, or revise, or stress about it.  Just write it.

It’ll be awesome.  Or not.  But either way you’ll have written something new that you didn’t plan on.  And that’s always a good thing.

Oh, and let me know how it turns out!

Week in review

Greetings from hot and hotter Kansas City, MO!  I flew in yesterday and will be spending a week doing archaeological work with my colleagues and our students.  Provided we don’t all melt into puddly little pools of dissolved human, that is.

As some of you know, usually this time of year we go down to the field in Honduras to excavate.  However, because of the recent drug-related crime, we’re skipping Honduras this season and doing labwork and write up instead.  It’s sad, but life goes on.  And, frankly, it’s almost as hot as Honduras here in KC anyway.  If I close my eyes and imagine farm animals outside my bedroom window at night, it’s practically like I’m there 😉

In anticipation of being away, I spent the last week powering through a story a day.  I did pretty well with this exercise – ending up with 4 1/2 stories (my Friday story never got finished, alas).  I think they all have potential to be submission-worthy once I get a chance to revise and polish them up.  My story elements generator did it’s job, providing me with interesting combinations and helping me stretch my imagination a bit.

Anyway, it was a busy, productive week and I’m hoping for an equally good one coming up (though archaeology focused rather than writing focused).

Since I’m traveling, the blog may be a bit quieter than usual this week, but I’ll put up some story prompt for you and try to post an update later on.

Until then…stay cool!

Writer’s Workspace: 7/19

Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  This week I intended to take time off from my novel projects and write a short story every day.  What’s actually ended up happening is far cooler.  I’ve written a story a day (3 down, 2 to go) AND I’ve continued work on my novel projects in the afternoon.  It’s been crazy productive (though, just writing that phrase has probably jinxed it).  Anyway, here’s a little excerpt from the short story I’m working on this morning:

…A snippet from the screen:  “I met Lenora in the desert, on my way from nowhere to nowhere.  She lived among the sage bushes, in a ruined settler’s cabin, under a sea of stars.  People in town said she was mad, an oddity.  They eyeballed me when they said it, glancing at my graffiti-covered van as if I were an oddity too.  I was curious, so I went to see her.  I found out they were wrong.  Lenora wasn’t mad, she was dead.”

On the iTunes:  All Along the Watchtower, cover by The Bandits

In my mug: Yorkshire Gold, baby.  Seering the sleep out of your brain since 1886.


Keeping me company: No one! Ramses has abandoned me (and his beloved Tower of Terror) to snooze in the laundry basket atop (you guessed it) a pile of clean laundry.  Thanks, buddy!  I’m happy to redo that wash.  Really.

Out the window: Apocalypse. Flood. Hellfire. It’s like a 100 degrees, 120 percent humidity, and stormy.  If I weren’t heading to Kansas this weekend I’d think Brooklyn’s sporting the worst summer on record.  But, I suspect a week in the Burning Plains will change my view on this.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: …especially on a Thursday.  Here’s a really cool image from Jay Lake’s Moment of Zen series.  Reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting.   For anyone who hasn’t read about the GR Bullies stuff, here’s a good post on it from Rachel Aaron’s blog.  This one I found via some links from my friend Ferret, and it struck me as so helpful I thought I’d better share it with you all as well:  a post from Inkpunks about outlining.  Be sure to follow the embedded links to Alexandra Sokoloff’s story elements checklist.

And with that…go forth and be productive!

A story a day, plus a prompt

I’ve always struggled with short stories.  I have a hard time coming up with ideas and a hard time executing them.  But, it’s nice to have short stories in your stable of horses, especially when you work mostly on novels.  The payoff on a novel can sometimes seem so distant it’s as if it’s in another galaxy.  It helps alleviate the endlessness if you have some shorter term projects to work on and send out.  Plus, it’s good writing practice.

So, I have resolved to take a brief break from my novel projects and write a short story every day this week.  That’s a complete rough draft, with a beginning, middle, and end, completed each day, Monday through Friday.

Since the biggest challenge will be coming up with 5 ideas, I’ve given myself a little help by creating my very own story idea generator.  This is a low-tech generator (not one of those fancy online ones), and it’s filled with things I think would be good story elements.  I came up with 5 lists, one each for plots, characters, settings, mood or tone, and a wildcard list.  I printed them out, cut them up (told you it was low-tech), and put them in envelopes.  Then I drew one from each envelope and…boom, 5 elements to work into a story.

Monday’s included a chance meeting, a toll collector, the fjords, and a murder.  The mood?  Adventurous.  I drew the elements Sunday night so I could sleep on this hodgepodge of nonsense.  By morning, I had my idea.  The result?  A 2,600 word story about Irv Bockleman, a 68 year old man who dreams of traveling to the Norwegian fjords but works instead as an intergalactic toll collector…until he has an unexpected encounter with a murderess on the run that changes his life forever.  Not sure it’s the greatest story of all time, but it was fun to write.

Today’s elements are: stolen goods returned improved, a bearded lady, an English garden, and a transformation.  The mood? Dreamy, but not a dream.  Hmmm…

I’m having such fun with this so far that I thought I’d used my “story elements generator” to provide the occasional story prompt for YOU here on the blog.

Soooo….here is your first prompt.  I challenge you to turn it into an awesome story.

  • Plot: Events on the last day of a war
  • Character: a shop girl
  • Setting: future earth
  • Wildcard: saltwater taffy (?!)
  • Mood: magical

If you come up with something, please say a little about it in the comments, if you like.  Also, if you think the idea of story prompts is a good one, please let me know and I’ll keep them coming.

Now, off to write!

Readercon wrap-up: 5 reasons to attend cons

I’m on board the Acela express, speeding south from Boston on my way home from Readercon.  I’m exhausted from a barrage of information, ideas, people, and fun.  It’s overwhelming, but as much as I feel a weary yen for my own bed and a home-cooked meal, I feel even more invigorated.

I blogged the other day about some of the great panels I’d been attending and how inspiring they were.  Today I’d like to reflect more generally on why I think cons (and Readercon in particular) are worth attending.  So, here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

1. They’re social.  We writers can be a solitary lot.  Much of our interaction with fellow writers occurs online, often of necessity as our writer friends are scattered across the country (or even the globe).  Cons are a good way to strengthen and develop relationships face to face and provide a valuable reminder of the actual people behind the critiques, online chats, and so forth.  Cons help keep us connected.

2. They reinforce what we know.  Some people complain that panels rehash the same old stuff year after year, or that they’re only valuable for newbies.  While these are certainly valid comments, I’d argue there’s great value in being reminded of things we already know.  It’s a little kick in the pants, a refresher (particularly about things we may prefer to ignore, such as daily writing practices or making harder choices when it comes to characterization or plotting).  Often we’ve heard a piece of writing advice before but weren’t, perhaps, ready to process or understand it yet.  Hearing it again, at the right time, can make all the difference.

3. They inspire.  Hearing other writers talk about their work casts our writing and ideas in a new light.  I can’t tell you  how many times I’ve left a con or workshop with a new perspective to enliven my writing.  For instance, for my current project, I’m incorporating the notion of communicable diseases.  I’ve read a lot about epidemiology, as well as other novels that incorporate disease.  I’ve pondered the topic till my eyes have rolled back in my head.  But at a one hour panel this morning, I got about 43 million new ideas, just from listening to five writers bounce around ideas about paranormal diseases.  We cannot be one-man (or woman) idea generating machines.  We need collaboration and input from others.  Panels are one way to get that.

4. They’re a space outside the flow of our daily lives.  This is so important.  In everyday life a billion little things pull at our attention.  The dirty dishes.  The cat.  Our families.  Errands.  Television, and so on.  When you go to a writing-focused con like Readercon, or to workshop, you get to set all that aside and just narrow the world down to the part of your life that’s about writing.  Anytime you have an opportunity to do something like that, you should seize it.

5. They push the boundaries of our comfort zone.  This is a tough one for me, and probably my least favorite aspect of con attendance.  It may (or may not) surprise some of you to know that I’m very shy with people I don’t know well.  I try to put on a brave face and be friendly, but I’m deadly afraid of going up to new people, or people I’ve only met once or twice, or online…or even just haven’t seen in a long while.  What if they don’t remember me?  What if I’m suddenly struck dumb, with nothing to say?  What if I’m interrupting?  Ugh.  HATE IT.  Just met me?  I promise, behind that big smile is a great wall of nervous terror.  So…all the more reason to put myself in a situation where I have to meet new people.  If I stay home, I’ll never get any better at it, after all.

So, that’s five reasons to attend cons, which seems like more than enough to make it worth the time, travel, and resultant exhaustion.

Now, excuse me please while I take a nap 🙂

Notes from Readercon: Anthropology, Protagonists, and Horror

Greetings from Readercon!

Since I’ve been traveling so much the last few months, I really debated whether I wanted to attend the Con this year.  After my first day here, however, I can say I’m thrilled I chose to come.  I’ve only attended 3 panels so far, but already I feel stimulated and inspired.  In fact, this is my primary reason for attending this particular Con year after year.  The panels are (typically) thought-provoking and often help me step outside the little insular writing box I’ve been in, providing outside stimulus and new perspectives.

So, here’s a sneak peek at what’s been going on.

I attended two panels on Friday.  The first was “Anthropology for Writers”, which you might guess I’d be pretty interested in.  I went in suspecting the panel wouldn’t offer me anything new (but hoping it would).  What I got instead was a lot of key ideas that were so much a part of my way of seeing the world that I hadn’t even consciously realized how valuable they could be for writing.  I think this tends to happen to anyone who specializes in a particular topic; we internalize the most critical, basic observations of that field and can’t get out of our own heads and really appreciate them.

A few things brought up:

When it comes to culture, people say they do one thing (and may even believe it to be true) but actually do something else entirely.  This is a basic assumption in Anthropology and one I take for granted as true…so much so that I never even considered it a tool for fiction writing.  But, of course, it is — especially when it comes to worldbuilding and character action as a means of revealing that worldbuilding.

We internalize our culture — it’s not something we tend to reflect on or discuss in daily life.  Many of us never even consciously consider our “cultural” beliefs until they are challenged.  This is important to keep in mind when working worldbuilding into fiction.  Characters aren’t going to walk around saying “that’s not how we do this” or “as you know, we believe that”.  We internalize the rules and act accordingly; if we want our characters to be believable, they must too.

and, a final gem:

The way we remember the past is very different from what actually happened in the past.  This as true of the way we construct our own histories (how we remember events from our childhood, for instance) as it is of the way we remember and make meaning of our cultural histories.  The example given, which I think is a great one, is that of King Gilgamesh.  What we know historically about Gilgamesh (a real Mesopotamian king) is pretty short on detail, but the historical myths we’ve created and passed down over the centuries about his adventures (from the Epic of Gilgamesh, most of which likely never occurred) are something else entirely – richer, more interesting, and more revealing of ourselves than of Gilgamesh.  Our novels can benefit immensely from keeping this way of cultural “remembering” in mind.

The second panel I attended yesterday was Reimagining Protagonist Agency and it focused on what it means for a protagonist to be “active” versus “passive”.  Questions raised included:

how important is it for a protagonist to have agency?  Can a passive protagonist truly have a story? and, what middle ground is there between these two extremes?

More interesting for me, though, was a comment made by John Clute about why we cling to active protagonists.  He suggested that protagonists who really “protag” (meaning they go out and ACT in the world, making things happen) appeal to us in part because they make reading easy for us.  We immediately have someone to identify with.  The protagonist serves as our guide through the landscape of the story, translating for us, leading us, and making decisions for us.  The protagonist is someone to root for and shows us what to want in terms of story outcome (since we identify with the protagonist, we want whatever it is they want).  All of this makes for easier reading, in which we (as readers) have no real need to make decisions or interpret what’s happening in a meaningful way.  Does this make us lazy readers?  Does it make having a strong, active protagonist out to save the world a writer’s trick for snaring their readers?  I don’t know, but I sure found the idea interesting.

The final panel I’d like to mention in what is rapidly become a long post (sorry!) is the one I attended this morning, called Horror and the Social Compact.  The basic premise under discussion here was the idea that horror emerges when the social compact is violated.  The social compact can be described as an agreement we make with each other in which we give up certain freedoms and commit to abide by shared rules in exchange for protection and a sense of security.  When that compact is broken in some way, we not only feel betrayed — we also feel the terrifying potential for the horrific to happen.

I don’t read or write a lot of horror (though, my first published story was horror), so these ideas were new to me, and very interesting.  The panel explored the various ways social compacts could break down (on a wide scale, which some suggested would result not in horror but in dystopia) or on an individual level, and on how often stories that focused in on this were set in isolated places (a boarding school, a space station adrift in the black, a building cut off from the world in a catastrophe, etc.).  Also posed for discussion was the horror to be found when individuals realize the extent to which the web of the social compact constrains their individual freedom – that social rules make it impossible for us to escape from a horrific situation.

So, as you can see, there’s quite a diversity of compelling discussions going on.  I’m finding it extremely stimulating (last night I skipped out on the parties and went back to my room, wrote about 1K and really interrogated the outline for my current novel).  All synapses are firing.  I suspect Con fatigue will set in any time now, but for now I’m riding the wave!

More to follow…but for now I’m off to a panel titled Un/Orthodox Genre.  Which could mean anything!

Readercon, here I come!

Tomorrow I’m hopping the Amtrak up to Boston to spend the weekend at Readercon!

Readercon is the first Con I ever attended, and one I’ve gone back to year after year.  I like it (obviously).  It’s small.  The writing track is emphasized.  Lots of cool people usually attend, and it’s not too far from New York so it doesn’t feel like a massive production to go.

This year there are a number of panels I’m really excited about, including one about incorporating Anthropology and fiction, one on re-imagining protagonist agency, another on writing cities (a topic I can never seem to get enough of), and one on unexamined assumptions in Science Fiction.

There also look to be a few panels that might provide inspiration for my current writing projects, including one on time travel and another on paranormal diseases.

Plus, lots of good friends from VP and Paradise Lost will be there.  So, should be fun!

I may post some musings and updates while on the road, so check back soon!

Worth 1000 words

Whether it inspires a story or serves to make your day more interesting, here’s an image to start the morning with:

Photo by Eric Croskey