Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ORACLE (Part 3): Word Box

Word Box: Cut slips of paper. Ten, twenty... a hundred even. Write one word on each slip of paper. Nouns and verbs work best, but adjectives are also OK. Put the word slips in a container of some sort (I use a small, plastic box shaped like a Chinese takeout container). Here are some exercises you can do with your word box.

Generic: Shake the box to mix the words around. Pull out three-five slips. Write a scene using each of those words.

Fibonacci Story: Pull 6 words. Write a story in 13 sentences according to the following rules.
First word you pull = 1st word of 1st sentence
Next word you pull = 1st word of 2nd sentence
Next word you pull = 2nd word of the 3rd sentence
Next word you pull = 3rd word of the 5th sentence
Next word you pull = 5th word of the 8th sentence
Last word you pull = 8th word of the 13th sentence
[Note: you can also do this exercise with a 13-line poem]

Taboo: Pull one word. Write a short scene in which the main character is unable to say that one word you just picked. Here's the catch: this character is in a situation where it's imperative he/she use this word. Example: The character is a look-out sitting in the ship's eagle's nest who, for some reason, can't say the word "pirate." He has just spotted the mast of a ship on the horizon, and it bears a pirate flag. You cannot use "pirate" anywhere in the scene.

These are just some ideas, but the possibilities with the word box are endless!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ORACLE (Part 2): Acrostic

Since we're talking about character, here's another exercise the ORACLE gives me from time to time. Like most writers, I often assemble character bios at the beginning of a new project. Trouble is, these bios get long and clunky, making it hard for me to keep track of all those little character details. This exercise helps me focus my character bios into a short, portable format. Just follow these two easy steps.

Step 1: Write your character's name on an index card so that each letter appears on its own line.

Step 2: For each letter, write a word or short phrase that captures some essential characteristic of your character. It doesn't have to be a complete sentence or even a complete thought; the idea is that the phrase help you remember important elements about the character.

Example: Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
(Since Lewis Carroll's humorous poetry first inspired me to do acrostics, I thought it appropriate to use one of his characters to illustrate this exercise.)

Cat without a grin / Grin without a cat
Hangs out in Wonderland
Species of the feline variety
His grin stays behind
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Exceedingly mad

Croquet with the Queen
According to him "we're all mad here..."
Talks in riddles

I like to write these acrostics on an index card or slip of paper and keep them in my writing notebook. That way, I can take them with me at all times and if I find myself jotting down notes or sketching a scene, I have these mini-bios along to jog my memory.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

ORACLE (Part 1): Character Compass

As I mentioned yesterday, the ORACLE is where I go when I need writing help. Since it's the season for giving and sharing and all that good stuff, I thought I'd pass along a few tricks from my ORACLE to my fellow writers out there. Enjoy!

Character Compass

I read once that there are four basic ways to show character: Appearance, Dialogue, Action and Thought. While it's possible to depict a character using only one of these elements, most scenes tend to rely on all four elements working in concert to convey the character. That's where the character compass comes in.

This graph lets you track how much of each element you're using to show your character. You put a dot on each line. The closer to the circle's edge you put the dot, the more heavily you're using that element. (Example: the graph on the left indicates a scene where there's a lot of dialogue and action, but not a lot of thought or descriptions of appearance.)

Once you've draw the dots, connect the lines and it gives you a visual picture of how that character is being depicted in that scene. Of course, it is not essential that the graph be perfectly balanced all the time. I prefer to use this compass as a diagnostic tool. I'll choose a character and map him or her over a series of scenes. Over the course of several scenes, these graphs will show me if one (or more) of the aforementioned elements is missing.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Thoughts: ORACLE

Today's Happy Thought is... the ORACLE.

Every so often, I have a day where writing gets downright hard. (OK, usually it's more like a stretch of days or weeks but that's neither here nor there.) These are the days I visit the ORACLE. This might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but in reality the ORACLE is pretty low-tech

The ORACLE (which stands for Outrageous Ridiculous Absurd Crazy Literary Exercises) is a wooden box where I keep my writing tools. When I'm feeling uninspired, I open the box and pull something out at random. Somehow, the ORACLE always knows what exercise or writing toy to give me. Or maybe it's my brain that manages to twist whatever the ORACLE supplies into something useful, not always an easy feat since the ORACLE has some pretty weird tricks up her sleeve. Regardless, after a visit to the ORACLE I always seem to find something worth writing.

Do you have an ORACLE?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing Groups

The other day, I was chatting with a classmate on the subway and the topic of writing groups came up. As writers, people are always telling us "you need to get feedback on your work" but it's not always easy to find the right group. I myself have been working with my group, Quill & Coffee, for over two years and while I may not be an expert on all writer's groups, I can say things that have worked for us.

Rule #1: There are no rules. Our group is much more free-form than a class or workshop, governed solely by our mutual respect for each other as readers and writers. Of course, as things evolved over the years, we have added in some rules (we now have a page limit and a double-space rule) and have established something akin to a schedule. But we started with a clean slate and only one guideline: if something doesn't work for you... speak up. This style may not work for all groups, but it's worked for us.

Rule #2: Embrace your diversity as writers. Often, writers like to band together with other writers in their genre, writers who "get" what they're trying to say. I have found, though, that reading work in different genres and getting feedback from writers who may not be familiar with middle grade or teen fiction can be as valuable as getting critiques from fellow children's writers.

Rule #3: Take initiative. Our group works because different group members take initiative over different aspects of running the group. When we decided we needed to switch locations, one group member scouted out possible new places. Another writer always sends out "reminder" emails, letting the group know when the next meeting is, who's submitting, etc. My job in the group? I'm the resident supplier of writing exercises; I bring one to every meeting, in case we have time left over at the end.

As for finding the right group in the first place... that's the tricky part. Writing classes, conferences, or your local library are all good places to start. In the end, keep an open mind and give yourself a few meetings to get a sense of the group before you decide for sure if it's the right group for you. And, of course, if you can't find a group that suits your style, you can always start your own!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Thoughts: December

Happy thoughts for December:
  1. Everywhere I look, there are sparkly decorations. The glitterier and kitschier the better.
  2. Winter vacation is almost here and with it comes the end to the semester.
  3. December 21st: the longest night of the year. Once I make it past that landmark, I know there will be a little more sunshine every day after that.
  4. It's perfectly justifiable and non-tacky to listen to Xmas music in December.
  5. I can break out my collection of hand-knit scarves/hats/mittens and not be totally overdressed.
  6. Snow is coming any day now.
  7. Skiing, sledding and snowball fights.
  8. Wool socks.
  9. Belgian Hot Chocolate at LPQ.
  10. Last, but certainly not least: spending time with all the awesome people and fantastic felines in my life.