Food for Thought

If you have read “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel, or “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,” by Julie Powell, or “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, or…I could just keep going…you know how important food can be to a story.  We have it around us every day, we all have our partiuclar favorite dish, idiosyncratic flavor combinations, and favorite (or least favorite) family recipes.  If your house is anything like my house, the food I make is what makes it smell like “my” house.

Since taste and smell are two of the five senses, including a food description in a scene can help bring it alive and place your reader into your story.  This is a good way to “show, don’t tell” that will make most scenes more relatable.  You can also set mood and tone with cooking smells and flavors.  You can explain a whole culture by its food.  And you can use it in negative or positive ways.  Too much, too little, too rich, too salty, or…just perfect.

For an exercise, put food in a scene.  It can be prominent or mere background.  It can be the focus of a character’s emotion, or a way that two characters relate to one another.  It can be life or death.

  • If you have trouble finding your way into this one, try thinking about a favorite food from your childhood and how that food made the moment perfect–how do you react now when you have, or even just smell, that same food today?
  • Or, think about your favorite food now.  Do you go the distance to make it perfect for yourself?  Or do you make a special trip to that restaurant to get it once a week?  What would happen if you introduce this deliciousness to someone else?  Would they think you are crazy for liking it?  Would they share your enthusiasm and demand the recipe?  Would you share it?
  • Or, think about a trip you took and how the food made it an even exceptional experience, or how the food ruined everything for you.  What did it smell like?  Where where you?  Why was it so amazingly good or bad?  What did you find yourself “homesick” for?

Bon appetit!

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Gone Missing

Your character has been kidnapped!

What is his/her first reaction?  Is it a scary situation or just confusing?  Maybe it was a pleasant aside that turned sinister, or maybe your character knows the kidnapper and doesn’t even realize what is happening?

Try to create a beginning, middle, and end to the situation…if it ends.  Does the character lose his/her identity or sense of what is real?  Does s/he dream about her “real” life?  Does your character try to escape?  How? 

Or…switch it…

Your character has kidnapped someone!  Who? Why?  What happens?

Even if you don’t use this writing exercise in a story, thinking about your character’s reactions and choices can really help shape them into a more “real” entity with a better-defined personality.  And, if you can really take yourself into such a scenario, you might just have a new story on your hands! Good luck!

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Writing on the Wall

Once, when I was traveling through Arkansas, I stopped at a rest stop for a bathroom break.  Graffiti in such a place can always be entertaining in some fashion, although sometimes it is just childish and/or repulsive.  I happened to find a note, however, written with what looked to be a yellow highlighter on a mustard yellow door.  It went something like this:

“PLEASE HELP! My name is Brandee Johnson and I am 9.  My mom’s boyfriend has kidnapped me.  I can’t get away, but I want to go home.  My mom is Carla Johnson and live in St. Louis.” 

It was written in a child’s big scrawl and very hard to read.  I was terrified for her.  There were no bathroom attendants or anyone else to ask about the date of this message appearing.  I didn’t know what else to do, so I called the state police and told them about the message.  I also called 1-800-THE-LOST in case the missing girl had been reported as lost.  I also wondered if it was just a childish prank and I was a fool to think it was real.  Or perhaps it had been there for months and Brandee was long gone. 

Fifteen years later, I still sometimes think about what might have happened to her, and if it was a real cry for help, or a prank. 

Write a scene that includes graffiti and what it might or might not be trying to say.

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Go Through Any Door

On “making it” into the world of comedy.

Sage advice from a comedienne who started her career writing bits for a puppet (Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan Show).  You cannot afford to wait around for the perfect situation.  Get your foot in the door and then your elbow and then, like the hokey pokey, your whole self.  I’ve been waiting for a very long time for the stars to align, my writing room to be completed, my favorite pencils to be on sale…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Once you have decided that you aren’t going to wait around anymore, be vigiliant for those cracked doors just waiting for you to insert yourself.  You are the only one who puts limitations on you.  And, likewise,  you are the only one who can strip them away.

Get to stripping, do the hokey pokey, and get in the door!

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Show Me Your Muscles!

I think imagination is like a muscle we all have…one we are born with and utilize as children all the time, but some of us neglect to use that muscle, and therefore it withers away, leaving our minds dependent upon other people’s imagination to “show us something good.” Some of us are addicted to working out that muscle, like gym rats trying to perfect our quads. And some of us seemingly have no other muscles than that of the “imagination” type.

I think a lot of people under-estimate the breadth and depth of their own imaginative powers, but if you have ANY kind of creative outlet, such as cooking , quilting, or woodworking, or if your job is to build something…from houses to websites…you are relying on that power.   You can see something in your mind, you can be inspired by raw materials, and turn those things into something amazing. The more you use this creative power, the more ideas you will have.

And that is where this “power of imagination” can become a problem, though, for some writers.

1. You may see something ever so vividly in your mind, but you have a problem translating those images onto paper in such a way as to do them justice or before they float away into just a distant dream you vaguely remember.
2. You may feel the need to block out each character’s every step, identify each piece of clothing they are wearing, what they had for breakfast lunch and dinner each day of the week and otherwise get bogged down in the details.
3. You may have too many different ideas that:
a. keep you from focusing on the project at hand and you wind up with 17 half-written stories, or
b. tempt you to shove them all into a single project, taking your story down endlessly branching (and implausible) rabbitholes that you may never be able to conclude (or tie together believably).

I will admit to commiting all of the above offenses from time to time, but my primary problem is #3.  There is just too much stuff flying around in my head, and not nearly enough hours in the day to capture them all.

So, the question at hand is how to make this strength work for us?  I want to flex this muscle, not have my muscle flex me.

My solution…and this might not work for everyone, but it is the only one that even comes close to capturing all those ideas in my head…is to keep a giant running list in a spreadsheet.  I KNOW!  The epitome of nerdiness!

But this is what I do:  I have a master spreadsheet for all of these ideas.  I have named it “Work You Must Do Someday.”  When I think of a new story, I create a tab in the spreadsheet just for that story, and I start listing as many details as I can for a character or setting or plot or whatever.  Sometimes I just think of writing prompts, so I have a tab just for those.  Sometimes, when I have a big idea, I start using all of those neat little cells to block out chapters or I start color-coding to depict the progression of a plot.  Sometimes I do some real “writing” if there is some “perfect opening line” that just occured to me.  I think I have a tab called “Amazing Titles” where I squirrel away just titles that have occurred to me.

By doing this, I feel like I get to exercise that imaginative muscle in something of a controlled way.  I get the swirl out of my head and I don’t lose my thoughts.  Also, I don’t get so involved that I can’t keep working on whatever my “current project” might be, and I can always come back later and add things…as much or as little as I want.  And when I am ready to come back to it, for some stories, I already have a rough outline and the backbones of some characters developed.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier!

Of course, I am not always near a computer when inspiration strikes, so I still have notebooks and scraps of paper stuck in my purse, but when I clean out my purse, I put those scribbly, scrappy ideas in the spreadsheet.  If I write a significant portion of some story in a notebook, I make a note in the spreadsheet which notebook I was writing in (I have probably six or seven different notebooks I write in, depending on where I am and what is in my purse at the moment).  This can save a lot of time when I am ready to write some more…less searching around in every notebook.

It’s basic organization, right?  It’s not that hard.  And maybe this won’t work for you…maybe you could use a notebook instead of a spreadsheet.  If I had every wall of my house as a chalkboard, I’d probably have a wall for each story.  Now that I am thinking about it, it seems like I might have done this in my college days with index cards and a coupon organizer.  You know…whatever works.

Just make sure you can find your notes again!  Try to email any documents/spreadsheets to yourself so you always have it a backup…or save it in multiple places…just in case something crashes or gets lost.  If you do a lot of writing by hand…do your best to get it captured “electronically” so you won’t fall prey to lost work if someone in your household helpfully throws it away, thinking it was trash, or heaven forbid, some weather event sweeps it away from it’s nice, dry bookshelf/desk drawer/backpack.

Of course, people say, when you lose something, you can just create it again since you’ve done it once before.  These people are obviously not writers, and very well might be idiots.  But, let’s not hold that against them.  Your imagination can conjure new ideas and thoughts and words, but very rarely in the same way you had done last week/month/year.  As someone who has lost three chapters of a book due to laptop death, a final paper for a graduate class due to power failure and mysteriously faulty aut0-save, most of my poetry and various other writings when I absent-mindedly left a pin drive at a Kinkos, and two hand-written chapters of a different book when someone stole my purse…you have to not only use your muscles to get the ideas out of your head, you also have to use them to keep them safe and within your grasp.

I mourn for everyone who was affected by Hurricane Sandy, and surely there are more important things in life than writing, but I hope that most of you writers were able to save your work, that it will be there when the power comes back on, and that if you have lost some things, that your imagination muscles can be pumped up to create something even better than before.  God bless, and…

Go exercise!

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Everything Great

From one of my favorite authors, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren

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Desire Defines Us

Advice from a master

It keeps me up at night…trying to figure out what a character wants.  They are born and living only in my brain until I relinquish them to the world at large.  I think this snippet of advice from Mr. Vonnegut is true.  And as simple as it sounds, actual human beings are pretty complex and often times have no idea what they really want.  Our friends may be better at knowing what we want than we do ourselves.  I say I want a different job, but what do I *really* want?  More money? More security? To be my own boss?  To not have anyone to tell me what to do? Freedom?

Consider what your character(s) want/s.  If it isn’t clear to you, workshop that character until they have it:  desire.  For something…anything.  If they do already “want” something and it is something simple (like a glass of water), why is this simple thing so important?  Does your character get what they want or not?  Do they even understand this about themselves, or are they, like most of us, oblivious to this driving force?  If they DO get it, is it everything they hoped it would be?

After pondering these questions…write for 15 minutes and see where you, and your character, end up.  Good luck!

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“Write What You Know”

From Astrophel and Stella, 1591

I cross-stitched this in fancy script once upon a time.  Framed and matted, it hung over my bedside table so I would see it when I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night.  What a sappy romantic, right?

It reminds me that I have something important to write, and where to look to find my source.  And I don’t mean that in a lovey-dovey way, of course.  One of the things you will hear from other authors and teachers is to “write what you know.”  When I was younger, I had a real problem with that advice because I was at least self-aware enough to understand that I didn’t know much.  And how do sci-fi, fantasy, crime thriller, etc. writers write what they know when what they want to write about requires time-travel or alternate universes or to BE a murderous phychopath?  And if I’ve had a pretty crappy life, that is quite frankly, the LAST thing I want to be writing about. 

For me, it means, “write your truth.”  And when you strip your life’s experiences down to the nuts and bolts, whatever this life has taught you is what you should be writing about.  Of course, you can apply it literally, which will add the richness of first-hand experience to your craft, but again, that is because it is true. 

For me, these truths are stored in my heart, and that is where I should look when I am wondering, “what do I write next?”

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A simple quote…

From a dream I had.

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NaNoWriMo and A Word of Advice

Imagine:  Fanfare, trumpets, and a snazzy drumroll!

I registered for NaNoWriMo!  Huzzah!

Yesterday was the official NaNoWriMo “prep day.” I have already recently stocked myself with fresh ballpoints and pencils and five or six new notebooks (overkill, I know). The only thing left to do is set up some folders on the old laptop and I am ready to rumble! I *have* also informed my family that I will be writing from 10-11 (or longer) every night in November, so they are all aware and, not so surprisingly, on board with my plan. Huzzah, again for supportive family-members (although the dogs are probably not going to be so understanding when they are ushered into their crates about 30 minutes earlier than usual)!  Oh well!

And I have been trying to glean from other writers what they do for time management, in pursuing the writing life…the first kernel of advice:  from a  Writer’s Digest article by Carolyn Marsden, “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far.”

“4. Write anywhere and everywhere. In working on my first books, I found myself faced with revising the plot from the foundation up a couple of weeks before copyediting. I learned to be extremely flexible about where, when, and how I worked. I have written on cruise ships, while having an operation on my toe, in lines at banks and at the DMV, and even at red lights. If you want to be a writer, don’t wait for the muse to strike. Don’t be too particular about working conditions.”

On one hand, it is a relief to hear that I am not the only one who writes at red lights (only as necessary to not lose ideas), but on the other hand, it also reminds me to stop daydreaming of the “perfect writer’s office”…which, right now, is dominated by image searches of “treehouses.” This one, in all of its rustic seclusion, keeps catching my eye, though there are far more luxurious ones…

So, now…only thing left to do is…write.

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