Tuesday, January 29, 2019

More Five-Minute Jobs for Writers — Memory, Language, and Links

Making every minute count was central to my last post. This is work that must be nurtured intentionally. In the old days, writers at least got some reading done while waiting or making the most of “found” time (such as when meetings or tasks finished early). Now, the phones come out, and email or stocks or social media are checked lest a chance for digital connection be wasted.

It is connections with people, our environments, and our inner lives that make the most difference for writers developing their craft. So, before I leave the subject, I’ll offer a few more suggestions on small jobs you can do anywhere in short bursts of time.


Five minutes:
  • Conjure up the image of someone you knew long ago. This may be the first person who kissed you or a teacher who encouraged you as a writer or someone who snitched on you. It helps, when doing this, to think of the person doing something. Activity may be more accessible than still pictures.
  • If a family member made a treat you haven’t had for a while, see if you can recreate the smell, the taste, the appearance. As an alternative, identify a smell in your environment and see if you can recall the last time you smelled that odor. The more distinctive, the better.
  • Who’s your favorite singer? See if you can remember all the lyrics to one of his/her songs. As an alternative, dredge up a song you had to memorize for grade school.
Ten minutes:
  • Put yourself into a natural moment that you experienced. Waiting for a bus on a frigid, snowy day. Sitting on the beach with sand between your toes. Watching a bird feed its young.
  • Bring back a moment of acceptance, one that involves dialogue. Making a date with an attractive person who seemed beyond reach. Getting hired for a job. Making a deal for a job or a house.
  • Articulate as well as you can what your image of death or heaven or damnation was when you were seven or eight years old.
Fifteen minutes:
  • Bring back a wonderful moment of your life—of honor or connection or self-discovery (maybe all three). First, thing of the space and time of day. Then think of who was present. Then ground the memory with specific tangible elements—the fabric of your coat, the scent of nearby flowers, the scuffs on the floor. Finally, fall into the emotions. If necessary, play out the sequence of events, but try to do it without internal narration. Just go through your senses. When the emotion is strong, note how it affects your body.
  • Do the same thing for something you witnessed that was pivotal in someone else’s life. Tragedy is likely to come to mind, but something positive may deliver more as an exercise.
  • Recall a time when a happy moment became horrible or the reverse. Even more challenging, see if you can re-experience a moment that was both deeply troubling and joyful and put it into words.

Five minutes:
  • Describe a beautiful person without using cliches.
  • Find a way to say I love you in a new way.
  • How would you tell someone who had never experienced a thunderstorm what it was like?
Ten minutes:
  • Rephrase an aphorism or motto so that it is more compelling, memorable, and current.
  • Describe someone who has just lost a loved one or is reunited with someone who changed his/her life.
  • Compose a haiku about washing your hands.
Fifteen minutes:
  • Take a well-known folk tale and tell it in a different way, say as rap lyrics.
  • Turn a song you love into prose for a children’s book.
  • Create a Hallmark sympathy card for the surviving spouse of a person who died tragically, like Mary Todd Lincoln.

Five minutes:
  • Compare and contrast a brick and a feather.
  • Which famous person do you or someone you know well most resemble? (It doesn’t need to be a physical resemblance.)
  • Which color do you believe evokes the most emotion? Which emotion? Why?
Ten minutes:
  • How would you, with your skillset, help someone prepare for a marathon?
  • How would you repair a memory of harm with a new experience?
  • Think of someone you knew as a child. Imagine he/she is now a star. How would you argue with the bodyguard to get to see this person face-to-face.
Fifteen minutes:
  • Imagine your favorite person from a story or movie. Then another from a different story. Then have one convince the other one to skydive or publicly declare love.
  • Compose five questions to ask a childhood enemy or bully that might change your view of your traumatic experience.
  • What would you put into a letter of commitment to someone you care for as a friend or lover?
I hope between the two posts, there are some that will help you to take advantage of time available to become a better writer. The suggestions in these posts are not essential, and they may not be you. But I hope they inspire you to create your own tiny exercises, including some that will advance your craft and your stories.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Five-Minute Jobs for Writers — Observation, Description, Imagination, and Research

Got a minute? Or fifteen? Writers never seem to have enough time, so I’ve often recommended making good use of “interstitial time,” those moments when you’re waiting or a meeting ends early or you’ve shut off a disappointing program. While taking a break and just being present to the moment is important, wasting time is detrimental — especially when it creates anxiety.

So, below I offer some suggestions on taking advantage of these free moments to grow as a writer. These are not the same as adding to your work in progress, but they can build your craft or help you to deepen your stories. Chances are, you’ll find times like these almost every day. If you make a habit of using these opportunities, they can help you grow as a writer.


Five minutes:
  • Notice at least one thing (or a characteristic of one thing) in your environment you’ve never explicitly been aware of. If you have time, create a sentence that articulates your observation. — This will help you to pay attention to your world and create authentic details in your stories. (Note, what you notice does not have to be visual, it can be a smell, a taste, a felt texture, or anything else you experience.
  • Pick the most apt characteristic of whatever you notice first and come up with a simile or metaphor that would convey it to others. — This will build your ability to add succinct, evocative descriptions to your prose.
  • Determine how, in just a few words, immerse your reader in your locale. (In her wonderful course, Visual Writing, Max Adams recommends describing space, light, and texture of a location.)
Ten minutes:
  • Eavesdrop — Catch a snatch of conversation. Own it by imagining one of the speakers describing a fire or a birthday party. Or used the point of the conversation as a prompt for something one of your characters might say. (For instance, a complaint about wifi coverage, as communicated by Rain Man or Blanche DuBois might be a bit different from what you overheard. The same, presumably, would be true for your story’s characters.)
  • Your feelings — How would you tell people about your feelings of the moment (say, as you wait in line at the bank). If “bored out of my mind” seems to fit, see if you can present that feeling in a fresh way that will touch others. If your emotions have changed since you entered the locale or began waiting or the time opened up, describe that experience clearly.
  • Action — Find something or someone in motion. A rattling radiator. A customer blowing his nose. A butterfly sampling flowers. If nothing else, check out your own breathing. Describe the action. If emotions can be interlaced with the facts, that’s great.
Fifteen minutes:
  • Compose a poem. — A haiku to withdrawal slips. A sonnet on the boy eating an avocado.
  • Opportunity — If you had to sell something (or a task you could perform) to someone present (even if it’s only your cat) or on the phone, how would you make your case?
  • With these longer exercises, you are actively transforming experiences into words, building muscles you use every day as a writer. In some cases, you may find the words you created fit right into the stories you’re writing.

Five minutes:
  • If a threat came through one of the doors, how would you make yourself safer?
  • If you had to change the most inaccessible light bulb, how would you do it?
Ten minutes:
  • How would you apply your talents to making the next minutes better for you or others?
  •  If gravity disappeared where you are, how would everything be transformed?
  • Who in the room is most likely to have a dark secret and what might it be? (Or what thing in the room has the most interesting story attached to it and what’s that story?
Fifteen minutes:
  • Billy Joel the place. — In Piano Man Joel catalogues that people in the bar and their longings. Try to do that for the people where you are.
  • If you could ask ten questions about your experience of the moment (locale, people, situation, actions), what would they be? What would those questions be if zombies were banging at the door?
Even small forays into the less pedestrian world of imagination and fantasy helps a writer to be open to ideas and to shape concepts. Society tends to shut the door to creativity on a regular basis, so the more your allow yourself to crack it open, the easier passing into your story worlds will be.


Five minutes:
  • If you have your phone with you and it includes your Work in Progress, check spelling and grammar. Verify a fact. Clear bagels.
Ten minutes:
  • What around you is worth celebrating? A bit of technology? A service? A work of art? What don’t you know about it?
  • What around you do you think you could make with a little knowledge? Find out something you’d need to understand/master? (I did this once and ended up learning the basics of binding a book. Which has given me a deeper appreciation of that craft.)
Fifteen minutes:
  • Follow your curiosity. This might mean striking up a conversation with the person who has an unfamiliar design on his hat (that’s how I found out about a U.S. Army division and its history). Or something that’s been rattling around in your mind. (What causes a green flash in the ocean?) Or if they still sell tooth powder (yes) and why.
Dig into search engines to find the answers or use your imagination.

The first step to using interstitial time is recognizing it when it presents itself. It’s so easy to zone out or check your email. If it doesn’t come naturally, do what Stephen King recommends. Have a book at hand and read. Reach for a novel or a poem or a script instead of your smart phone. Once you see your small opportunities, pick a few exercises from above and have them ready to go. These are more likely to become habitual uses of your time if you do a little prep work and get some value out of stolen moments.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why Writing Humor Is Hard - You’re funny, but…

I’ve always been able to get people to laugh (or at least groan). I think most people can do this, even people who can’t tell a joke. Some people can be funny without even knowing they are, like Teddy in Stand by Me (and delivering the joke as if you don’t know it’s funny often adds to the laughter).

Some people have humor as part of their identity. Class clowns are obvious, but most of us, sitting down with a few friends, know who reliably will provide the comedy. Or you know a pair that tend to compete with jokes, even if it’s no more than a pun competition.

I could fend off bullies by getting them laugh, which is a fairly good test of having the DNA for comedy. But sitting down to write humor — something people often suggested to me — was difficult for me for years. When it happened, it was almost by accident. I think a lot of writers who could be making us laugh hit the obstacles I did, so I’ll list a few. My hope is this will help you release your inner Mark Twain or Mel Brooks or Erma Bombeck.

Permission. - Claiming the mantle of humorist is difficult. You’re funny? Okay, make me laugh. So being funny on demand (which is part of sitting down to write humor) immediately introduces conflict and guilt. You feel vulnerable. And you never hear laughter when you write a joke (except maybe from yourself — how arrogant does that sound?). Other than a few short stories (tested by reading aloud to a writers’ group), my first paid humor writing was a series of radio PSAs I’d been asked to create. I had explicit permission. Someone believed I could do it and was backing it up with an investment (salaried hours). I was saved by three things.
  • It sounded like fun, so I approached it as play.
  • It wasn’t my real job, so I wasn’t under any real pressure.
  • I knew exactly who had to laugh (my boss).
I wrote about a hundred thirty-second spots, pitch twenty to my boss, and produced ten. The PSAs were a success. (Collaborating to get the bits on tape with actors, a director, someone doing sound effects, etc. provided different lessons in comedy I won’t go into here.)

Audience. — Note that I had a definite audience for my humor in the above example. When you sit down to write a novel or a short story or a script, that isn’t naturally the case. Who is on the other side of your page laughing? Often, it’s just you, but that limits your readers to those who share your tastes, sensibilities, knowledge, culture (including class), interests, etc. One answer is to choose someone you know well as your target audience. For instance, Vonnegut wrote for his sister. That is a highly effective approach, but I learned something writing speeches that I rely on — let the characters talk.

My first speechwriting gig was for two executives with very different sensibilities who often had to talk one after the other, providing different perspectives on a  similar subject. Oh, and I usually had to open each speech with a joke. Imagine having to write for both Stephen Wright and Will Ferrell.  There was a lot of pressure to get this right. I’d moved my family two hundred miles to take the job. And I’d never written a speech before. And I didn’t know I’d have to write jokes. So I listened to each man until I had their voices in my head and I let a lot of jokes come out for each and I chose those that worked. The jokes came from who they were, so they were able to appreciate them and deliver them. (I never pulled a joke from one and gave it to the other, no matter how funny. It wouldn’t have worked.)

This gets applied to my stories today by my taking the time to interview my characters until I know them as well as I did the executives. When my characters say funny things they aren’t what Danny Simon called “joke jokes.” They come from the character.

Half-life. — Another problem is jokes are less funny every time you read them. It is very easy to cut funny bits because they’ve become dull to you. I heard that sitcom writers often mark the parts that make them laugh out loud at the first reading so they don’t get cut. That’s what I do, too. Still have doubts? Test with other people.

Cut. Cut Cut. — I mentioned the hundred PSAs above. Like nothing else I know of, comedy writing benefits from creating a lot of material. Write long. Write alternative versions. Allow yourself to create work you’d never use (or never dare to show anyone). Then ruthlessly delete. And, as with all humor, look to see if you need every word to create something clear and funny. Brevity is the soul of wit, according to Shakespeare.

Timing. — Humor often needs to be set up. The surprise must come at the right time. I think spoken humor develops timing through feedback (laugh/no laugh). Written humor is a little like written poetry. It only really comes alive when read aloud. (Not just heard vividly in your head. Actually spoken.) So read to friend, a cat, a dog, or the wallpaper if necessary. Get the wording right. Delay for effect. Build toward bigger jokes. One surprising benefit I’ve found when I read humorous pieces aloud is I naturally tend to add something that tops or gets another laugh. So I recommend making this part of your routine.

Fallbacks. — How often have you done this (or seen it done)? The wit is missing, the jokes are dying, and the funny person snorts or makes a face or adds an incongruous quip. Performance humor can access go-to, sure laughs to recover the audience. It’s difficult to diagnose failed jokes in print and a lot of the fallbacks of performance can’t be used in prose. Danny Simon (speaking of sitcoms) recommended regularly throwing lines to the laugh-getters. Think Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Jim "Iggy" Ignatowski in Taxi. Or Shakespeare’s clowns. Including weird or foolish characters in your stories can pay off, especially when exposition is needed. (In work that is more dramatic, these characters can be used for comic relief.)

Human experience. — The absurd and the silly have their place in comedy. But the stories that really pay off are those that have familiar touchstones and fresh insights. Often humor is processed anger and despair, which I’d wish on no one. Since a surprising point of view is vital to much of experienced-based humor, neuroses often play a part (maybe use neurotic characters rather than amplify your own neuroses). The sure (and healthy) bets for including this kind of humor are observation and curiosity. Pay attention to what is going on around you (especially to the stories of people around you and whatever touches you personally). Explore your world, digging deeply into what catches your attention.

If you think you have the knack, I hope you take a chance at writing humor. I think we need more fun in this world, and I hope a lot of it, rather than bitter truths with a twist, will be giving, loving. gentle, insightful, and connecting. The things that divide us seem less horrible and terrifying when we laugh together. Sharing moments we find funny and amusing and expressing our joy, surprise, and understanding with a good laugh can revive us and help us to recognize the humanity in each other.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Warm-Up Exercises for Writers - It’s a trap!

Ted Sturgeon, a fabulous SF writer (and the inspiration for Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout) rushed to his typewriter each day, loaded in a page, and filled it with gibberish. It was his way of fighting writer’s block. Eventually, it didn’t work. He added other warm-ups, extending the time between typing and actually having to work on a story. Damon Knight told me with sadness about the thousands of hours Sturgeon lost (in his view) to these rituals.

Musicians tune up. Singers hum and go through other vocal exercises. Actors stretch their bodies and recite tongue twisters. As a writer, it makes sense for you to find your own ways to warm up, ease yourself into the task, and enter the magical space of creation.

I believe in writer warmups, but a part of me shouts, “It’s a trap!”

Warmup need to be don’t thoughtfully and with awareness of the danger, so I’ll offer a few:

Ritual - Some of these are benign (more or less). Having a special place, a sharpened pencil, and a fresh cup of coffee don’t absorb a lot of time and energy (unless you need to fetch fresh coffee from Starbucks or find you’ve run out of grounds or have a 12-step brewing process.

Other rituals (lucky hats, spinning your chair, playing music) may make sense to cue your body. I use a timer as a starting gun. Once it’s set, I’m working. Not elaborate? Not time-consuming? Not likely to be frustrated and send you away from your work? No problem. But watch for problems. Allegedly, one writer used to be unable to write if his pencil sat askew on his desk. Those days were lost.

Pacing and muttering - Okay, this is not planned for me. I just do it. Especially if I have been avoiding a scene in a story, am starting a new work, am struck with inspiration, or feel the urge to put in extra time on a story. If I find myself pacing and muttering, I let it go on until I can’t resist the keyboard. I let it run its course like a fever. Then I sit down and let the words pour out. My main mistake (for years) was diverting this process, usually because I had something on my to-do list or I (foolishly) answered the phone. My muse pushes me around. If yours does, too, let her (him, it). This is a golden kind of warm-up. The side effects may be a stiff neck or a loved one left standing in the rain, but the story is served. (And suffering comes with art, right?)

Getting prepared - This could be making the coffee, but I’m thinking more of looking at your outline, reading the last page you wrote, or making a few notes about what you intend to write next. For me, it’s looking at the prep sentence I wrote the day before. Or, when I am in the deadly middle of a long work like a novel, reading my list of why this story MUST be finished.

Rewriting - I mention this with red flags flying. In my experience, the biggest danger to writer productivity is looping — continually revising work before the draft is complete. But sometimes, for some people, rewriting the last paragraph from the day before or even the last page can recapture tone and voice and propel the work forward. Forward - that’s the key word. Go backward, and abandon all hope.

This is not a comprehensive list. You can write a page of gibberish or interview a character or dance to a disco tune and that may be just what you need. Don’t get lost. Don’t get distracted. Don’t, in any case, cultivate an addiction, even if your favorite writer was a drunk or hooked on heroin.

I’d also avoid reading fiction, especially fiction you love, right before you draft a scene. It’s likely to force discouraging comparisons. Or to influence your style (as Stephen King has written about   regarding Harlan Ellison’s work). TV or other media may also give you problems. About the only thing I can get away with is pulling up a short poem on YouTube. But even that may be risky.

The good news is that, once you’ve found ways to get you writing at your best, you can use them when you need them. Until they stop working. Then use a different method. Don’t just keep adding warm-ups.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

50 Rude Questions to Ask Your Characters

One of the best ways to engage your readers is to discover deep, unexpected dimensions in your characters. For me, these tend to emerge organically as the story develops, but some of the characters that intrigue me most hide their true selves.

A few years ago, I came up with tricks to get to know my characters better. I also have had some success finding aspects of character by referring to Susan Shapiro’s Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.

In a current work, a key character is unusually taciturn, and I’ve had to move to a tough approach — interrogation. I came up with 50 questions even I would be reluctant to answer because they are rude, invasive, and suggestive of negative characteristics. In other words, they probe the areas that most interest readers.

It’s a brutal “getting to know you” exercise, made more excruciating by my tendency to ask follow-up questions. (My poor characters.) I would not recommend methodically working through all of these questions. Instead, print out the list and check off ten to which you respond viscerally. For me, that means either I would never want to answer the question or I’d really like to hear my character’s answer.

Once you have a solid ten questions, interview your character. I’ve done this both by typing questions and answers and by using dictation. It depends on the character I’m interrogating.

I tend to press for specific answers. Also, I often convert the questions to “Tell me about…” For instance, instead of “What’s the sneakiest thing you’ve ever done?” I’m apt to say, “Tell me about the sneakiest thing you’ve ever done.” Occasionally, when the answer seems superficial, I’ll dig by saying, “Tell me about the three (or ten) sneakiest things you’ve ever done.” Or I’ll just say, “Tell me more.”

On a scale of one to ten in intensity and story value, see if you can get five answers that are eight or higher, even if it means choosing more questions to ask. Feeling generous? Try to turn some questions to the positive. Instead of “When did you first have contempt for an adult?” try “When were you first inspired by someone a lot younger than you?”

If you want to practice before you interview your character, you can take on someone else’s (perhaps from a favorite book or movie). I had some success interrogating a mentor of mine that I know well (in my imagination since he is deceased). Not only did I come out of the exercise with a better sense of the questions, but I had great answers that are likely to be applied to a character some day. If you are really eager, try the questions on yourself.

Ready? Here are the questions I came up with:

    1.    What’s the sneakiest thing you’ve ever done?
    2.    What did you think you’d get away with, but didn’t?
    3.    Why are you so mean?
    4.    What was you most embarrassing moment?
    5.    How did you escape someone who wanted to tag along with you or loved you?
    6.    How were you humiliated?
    7.    What’s the ugliest thing you ever wore?
    8.    What’s the most disgusting job you ever had?
    9.    What’s your guilty pleasure?
    10.    What’s your worst trauma?
    11.    What should no one ever ask you to do?
    12.    What caused you to laugh at someone?
    13.    What did you do as part of a group that you never would have done by yourself?
    14.    What’s your biggest secret?
    15.    What’s your biggest fear?
    16.    What did you witness that was most discouraging?
    17.    What did you witness that most upset you?
    18.    When were you most shaken by the possibility of death?
    19.    When did you first have contempt for an adult?
    20.    What’s the most horrendous secret you know about someone?
    21.    Which lie caused you the most anxiety?
    22.    What do you wish you could forget?
    23.    How did you hurt someone you loved in an unforgivable way?
    24.    What’s the most reckless thing you ever did?
    25.    How did you endanger an innocent person?
    26.    Where have you visited hoping you wouldn’t meet anyone you know?
    27.    What compliment or honor did you receive you didn’t deserve?
    28.    Who thinks well of you who shouldn’t?
    29.    Who would you cross the street to avoid talking to?
    30.    What’s the worst thing you did accidentally?
    31.    What did you break and never tell anyone about?
    32.    What’s the worst thing you did where the victim never found out it was you?
    33.    What did you see that you want to unsee?
    34.    What did you ask for one too many times?
    35.    What did you wrongly assume that caused the worst consequences?
    36.    Who did you treat like crap?
    37.    What’s the most significant promise you’ve broken?
    38.    Who do you owe an apology who’ll never get one?
    39.    Where are you most vulnerable?
    40.    What task would you avoid at all cost?
    41.    What’s the dearest thing you’ve lost and will never recover?
    42.    Which temptation would be irresistible to you?
    43.    What’s the most extreme thing you’ve ever done?
    44.    What belief did you hold onto for years that turned out to be false?
    45.    What torture would make you betray everything?
    46.    What’s your most loathsome desire?
    47.    How would you NOT want to be remembered?
    48.    What do you find most disgusting or perverse that is generally considered acceptable?
    49.    What was your most unsettling experience?
    50.    What’s your biggest regret?