Writing Homework #9: Every Song a Story

A long time ago, under a different name on an account long deleted, I was an active participant in /r/WritingPrompts, before it became a default sub and exploded into a crazy pit of meme prompts. I didn’t stick around, and to be honest, I have no idea what the community is like these days.

But I do remember one prompt in particular, to take a song that almost tells a story, and write a scene based on it.

My response to that prompt is lost to the sands of time (and the account deletion) but I do remember I chose “Shape of My Heart” because the song so clearly defines a character, but not the story itself.

So this week’s assignment is to seek out a similar song, not one that already lays out a story in great detail, but one that gives insight into the character or situation it describes, and write a drabble/scene/flash fic based on it.

I know, I know, song prompts aren’t exactly a new idea, but I want to present my take on it.

Have fun and keep writing!


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Writing Homework #8: Watch a Movie

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It sounds crazy, right? Watching movies isn’t homework unless you’re a film student.

But here’s my inspiration for this assignment.

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I saw Still Crazy while I was visiting my husband’s family over Christmas–it came from a British movie collection they had, and they’d singled it out as one of the surprise hits from the bunch. I mean, how can you not love Bill Nighy as an aging rock star trying to reclaim his former glory?

And it was quite a good movie, though it was a bit odd to see all these “old” rock stars looking so young–it was released in 1998, so I’m used to Billy Connolly with a lot more gray in his hair than he had here.

But as I was watching, well, serendipity smiled on me. I’m writing a novel about a rock band and my characters spend a lot of time on their tour bus. So do these fine chaps. I wasn’t taking notes, but that’s what I want you to do: find a movie that has a setting or situation in common with the story you’re writing, ideally something you’re having trouble visualizing yourself, like my struggle with the tour bus. Watch, observe, and yes, take notes.

The bus in my novel won’t be the Strange Fruits bus; my band is a modern rock band, not a ’70s band reuniting twenty years later. The space will be different, and the decorations, and the vibe. But seeing the space they had, seeing people actually in it, gave me a new appreciation for just how cramped it can be, and how everyone is living piled on top of each other. In a romance, well, privacy’s a bit of a concern, and my characters are not going to have much of it…


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Writing Homework #7: Character Flaws From Life

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I’ve tried several different methods of character building before, and I always seem to struggle with flaws.

Lists of flaws are invaluable for ideas, but if that’s your only resource, they run the risk of being an a la carte menu that won’t add up to a whole person–the flaws you choose might not complement each other (absent-minded but fanatical?) or illogical given your characters’ strengths.

Writers always steal from life, from the people they know, and now it’s time to flex that muscle on flaws.

So, for the exercise, think of someone you know and an obvious flaw about them–something that annoys you or makes your life difficult in some way. Write up a short summary of how the flaw presents itself to you, then speculate on why they might be that way, if you can. (Yes, you’re playing armchair psychologist. Don’t attach their real names to their flaws, if that’s a concern.)

Finally, extrapolate from there how a character might present the same flaw in other ways.

An example of mine:

Nancy is a perpetual competitor. If I’m not feeling well, she’s sicker than I am, or she’s been sicker longer. If I tell a story about an awful teacher I had in school, she’ll dredge up a story about how one of hers was worse. If I mention I went out to dinner somewhere nice, she’ll counter with a restaurant she thinks is better, or some incredible home-cooked meal her husband made for her.

I can rarely say anything in her presence that she will not try to one-up in some way. She has to have the last word.

Why? Probably insecurity. For whatever reason, she feels she is less than others, and makes everything about herself to feel important. But that’s not the only possibility–it could also be a true case of self-absorption, that she doesn’t actually realize she’s competing with others, only that she thinks we’re all interested in whatever she has to say and it never occurs to her not to share.

One motivation skews in favor of self-knowledge, and the other is more passive. They’d both be interesting, believable flaws for a character, but let’s focus on insecurity.

How might that more basic flaw present itself in other behaviors?

Nancy never lets anyone have the last word, but she doesn’t express any insecurity physically: my character, let’s call her Jenny, might. She might always have to have the latest fashion, or wear the perfect makeup or hairdo, to never be seen at anything less than her best.

Going further down that train of thought, Jenny could have a host of different body-image issues, depending on her size relative to what she considers ideal: she could be too thin or too fat, too short or too tall, or it could be focused on a very specific body part, which she dresses to hide. If she does consider herself beautiful, she may over-value her physical aspect because she feels she has more looks than brains; or she may be the plain-Jane type who disregards her physical appearance because she knows she can get by on her brains, but secretly she wishes she were gorgeous. We’ve all seen that trope, but if you don’t resolve it with the Important Makeover That Changes Everything, then it’s still got plenty of potential.

At work, Jenny might be a perfectionist because she’s terrified any errors in her work will cost her the respect of her peers, or even the job itself. She would be deferential to her superiors, of course, but she might treat her subordinates high-handedly, projecting a confidence in her position she doesn’t truly feel.

In relationships, Jenny might come across as attention-seeking or clingy. She might rely on gifts to show her affection, because money has an assigned value that isn’t dependent on how she feels about herself. Jenny might be the type to bail on her friendships or romances when the going gets tough, because she doesn’t think she’s up for the challenge, or because she doesn’t think she deserves to be happy.

So, now,  you’ve got a whole host of potential character traits stemming from a single basic flaw. Not all of them would work together for a single character, and certainly a character with only one flaw wouldn’t be well-developed. But expressing the same central flaw in multiple ways gives a character more richness, more believability.

I know I’ve just made Jenny sound like a terrible, shallow person, but pair up her insecurity with some strengths (maybe she’s charitable, because she knows what its like to feel worthless, so she wants to help others; maybe she’s hilarious and entertaining, having developed a keen sense of humor as compensation for her fears about being unlikable)–she’ll feel real in no time.


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Writing Homework #6: Picture Prompts, Emotive Description, and Prewriting

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Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.

Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.

Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.

The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.

The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.

Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.

There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.

Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.

Boooooooring.

Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.

Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.

A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.

But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.

He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.

Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.

When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.

Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)

If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.

Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.


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Writing Homework #5: Vocabulary

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More accurately speaking, this is reading homework. Let me explain.

When I was in ninth grade, every Friday in my English class we’d divide into groups of four and play Scrabble. There was only one week the entire year that I didn’t win my table. (Bragging, yes, but also the truth. I’m a Scrabble fiend, I wish I got to play more often.)

Late in the year, I was still undefeated, and one of my opponents complained to our teacher. “Mrs. Norris, why does Elena always win?”

Mrs. Norris answered, “Because she reads more than you.” Without batting an eyelash, of course.

There are vocabulary calendars and vocabulary games and vocabulary websites, and I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from using them–but the simplest way to learn more words is to read…

and to actually look up the words you don’t know.

The simple form of this homework is just that: commit to looking up unfamiliar words in whatever you’re reading, even if you’re relatively certain you’ve figured them out from context. Keep a scrap of paper handy to jot them down, if you don’t want to hop up in the middle of a chapter.

The longer form, for the over-achievers: keep a formal vocabulary journal, with an entry for each word containing the quote from the book you encountered it in, and the definition.

I have been since I started my reading challenges at the beginning of the year. A few of my examples:

  • exegesiscritical explanation or interpretation of text, esp. of Scripture. “Ignoring me, Frank went on with his scholarly exegesis.” Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.
  • campanology — the study of bells, encompassing both the technology and the history, methods, and traditions of bell-ringing as an art. “I assure your lordship that for the first time in my existence I regret that I have made no practical study of campanology.” The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • abstrusehard to understand; esoteric. “There was nothing abstruse about the prose.” In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, James Lee Burke.
  • mansard — a hip roof, each face of which has a steeper lower part and a shallower upper part. “It’s quite graceful, as factories go: swag decorations, each with a rose in the centre, gabled windows, a mansard roof of green-and-purple slate.” The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood. (In this case, since I couldn’t quite picture it from the definition, I also image-searched it, and now I know precisely what it means. I lived in an apartment with a mansard roof once, and didn’t have any idea what to call it!)

Now, it’s unlikely most of these words are going to find their way into my writing immediately; though I do have exegesis in one of my drafts, as the character describes a long-winded sermon she’s listening to. Knowing more words is never a bad thing, for a writer. The more you know, the better the chance you’ll have the ones you need to tell your story properly.


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Writing Homework #4: Drabbles and Self-Editing Practice

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For this assignment, you don’t need to pull any books from your shelves.

You need a drabble prompt, a word-counting app, and about fifteen minutes.

(Feel free to use other sources for either, those are suggestions. I do recommend using an app, though, and not checking word counts in your normal program, because it’s helpful to see the count change in real time.)

I want you to write a drabble–that is, a 100-word scene–based on one of the prompts. Write the first thing that comes to your head, and write fast–don’t overthink it or worry about the exact word count yet. Just aim for a scene that’s short, but still has a clear beginning, end, and purpose.

Then, your goal is to cut it back to 100 words (or less.)

I started with this prompt: Meet me at midnight. Alone.

Without paying attention as I typed, I got 119 words:

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway. Billy had been having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

So here’s the question–can I cut 19 words without giving up any story elements?

My phone buzzed on the nightstand. I wanted to ignore it, but I checked the new text anyway didn’t. Billy had been was having a rough week.

Meet me at midnight. Alone.

I sighed and dropped my book, dragging myself out of bed. I had half an hour thirty minutes to get dressed and find him, because of course Billy hadn’t said where he was. I had a good idea, at least of where to start looking. The last time I’d gotten a cryptic message like this, I’d ended up at the lake, twenty minutes late.

I hoped this time around, I wasn’t going to wouldn’t need my shovel.

I checked my trunk before I left, though. It was still there, just in case.

I cut 26 words and added 5 new ones, when I shortened a phrase instead of cutting it, leaving me at 98 words.

Let’s look at the changes:

  • “checked the new text anyway” — At first I was going to cut “new” because that’s implied, but so is the fact that it’s a text, not a call, because the narrator doesn’t speak or mention Billy’s voice, then later refers to it as a “message.” The whole clause could go.
  • “had been” — It was acceptable as it stood, but changing tenses not only cuts a word, but makes the tone more immediate since Billy is still having a rough week.
  • “half an hour” — This one is debatable, since most people would say “half an hour” naturally, and I ended up two words under my goal. I could have changed it to “twenty minutes” to both cut the extra word and add more immediacy, but that would have changed a detail, which wasn’t the point of the exercise.
  • “wasn’t going to” — It reads fine, if informal, but “wouldn’t” is cleaner. Don’t complicate your verbs more than necessary.

Everything else is a straight cut of filler or redundancy. I could have even cut the final “just in case” as a trite phrase, but I like it, and it does imply something about how the narrator expects the night to unfold.

I’m deep, deep into this sort of editing on What We Need to Decide, but I know not everyone has a full-length manuscript lying around to practice on. Drabbles are quick to write, making them handy mini-editing lessons.

Give it a try, and if you’d like to share your finished drabbles, leave them in the comments–I’d love to read them!

Writing Homework #3: Chapter Breaks

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We talked about first lines last time, so now, let’s talk about last lines. Not last last lines, because ending the whole story is a topic worth covering on its own; today, I want us to study chapter breaks.

Now, I’m not concerning myself here with how long a chapter is–it’s a common question I’ve seen asked writing advice blogs, and the answer is invariably “As long as it needs to be.” I want to take a look at how the chapters end.

Chapter breaks serve two purposes that almost seem conflicting: they divide a story into manageable chunks and give a reader easy places to set down the book for a while, but they also need to keep the reader interested and make them want to turn that page, to keep going.

So, they’re kind of a big deal, and they don’t get talked about much that I’ve seen.

I want you to pick a familiar book off your shelf with distinct breaks, be it chapters or sections or days, as long as one chunk of text can be clearly separated from the next. I don’t recommend an unread book for this exercise, as I have with the other assignments so far, because a) spoilers, and b) the tone of each chapter is important for this, so you won’t know if you haven’t read it.

For as many chapters as you want to look at, write down the chapter number and title, if it has one. Then skim the chapter for the major tone–is it action, tension, flashback, character study-ish, and so forth–and note that down. Then copy out the final line.

Once you’ve got a chunk of chapters done (or the whole book, if you want to be ambitious), take a look at how each line relates to the tone of both its own chapter and the one following it.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this a closed ending, or an open one? A closed ending provides a sense of finality to the content of the chapter, which is helpful for dividing chapters of wildly different tones; but open endings leave a question in the reader’s mind and drive them to keep reading for the answer.
  • Does the tone of the final line match the tone of the chapter, and if it doesn’t, does it match the next one? Matching tones will provide a complete feeling, while different tones can heighten tension–for example, a chapter that is mostly conversation ending with sudden action, to set up for an action chapter.
  • How successful is this line at making me want to turn the page? And if you find any that don’t push you to keep reading, how might you change them? Where else in the chapter would you have ended it?
  • Is there a balance to the tones of each chapter ending, or does one dominate over the others? I’ve got an example here, though it’s not from a book. I recently watched the anime Death Note, and I loved it for its twisted worldview, fascinating characters, and tight mystery writing. What I didn’t love as much was that nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger. Some were bigger cliffhangers than others, so there was a little relief from time to time, but the final half the series, especially, was a long run of ever-escalating tension. And for that particular story, even if I didn’t love it, I can see how it was an effective strategy. On the other hand, if every single chapter in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone ended on a cliffhanger…well, that wouldn’t work, now, would it?